I admit it. I’m excited about my new book, especially because people from such different backgrounds have endorsed it. Lynn Royster, founder of the Chronic Illness Initiative at DePaul University, said this: “Before I was half-finished with this book, I wanted to give it to everyone I know.” And the insightful and compassionate Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, began her endorsement with this: “Toni Bernhard has done it again. I love this book!”
I couldn’t ask for more, especially because after How to Be Sick was published three years ago, I had no plans to write a second book. Then I began to get emails from readers around the world who were asking me, not just about illness, but about all of life’s difficulties—stress in relationships, anxiety over children or parents, sadness over losses…and sometimes just the challenge of getting through the day.
So that I could respond skillfully (and, to be honest, find some answers for myself), I began asking myself: “Why are we dissatisfied and unhappy so much of the time?” “Is there a way to find a measure of peace in a life that’s uncertain, unpredictable and often so difficult?”
This led me to return to the Buddha’s core insights to see what light he could shed on these questions. I re-discovered just how grounded in everyday life his teachings were, and how our own behavior holds the clue, both to why we’re unhappy so much of the time and what we might be able to do about it.
Out of this came How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. The phrase, waking up, refers to my understanding of the Buddha’s awakening. I don’t believe there was anything supernatural about it. As the story goes, one day, he sat down under a tree and began to carefully observe his experience. After sitting like this for seven days and nights, he woke up to what it means to be human—both its stark realities and the potential it holds for us to find peace and contentment.
Those realities can be boiled down into two experiences that all of us share: impermanence and the inevitability of some tough times.
Impermanence, of course, refers to the ever-changing nature of experience. One of my first Buddhist teachers, Joseph Goldstein described impermanence this way: “Anything can happen at any time.” I like his characterization because it points to two corollaries of impermanence that I focus on in the book: uncertainty and unpredictability. We sure seem to spend a lot of time working to attain their opposites—certainty and predictability. They’re appealing because they’d provide a sense of security and safety. The truth is, though, we control much less of our lives than we’d like.
The Buddha went so far as to say that the only thing we truly control is our own actions. We may think, “Well, that’s enough certainty and predictability for me!” But consider this. In 2001, I controlled my own actions when I got on a plane headed for Paris, but I didn’t control picking up a virus that, a dozen years later, keeps me mostly housebound. And last April, my husband controlled his own actions when he decided what to order at a restaurant for my birthday dinner, but he didn’t control whatever went on in the kitchen that landed him in the ER in anaphylactic shock.
Yes, much of what happens to us is beyond our ability to control—whether we’re in a third-world country or living in the most advanced scientific and technological environment. Denying—or even resisting—that life is uncertain and unpredictable can be a great source of stress and unhappiness for us.
The other experience common to all humans is that, although life has its share of joys (thank goodness!), it’s also tough and stressful at times. Bodies get sick and injured and old. Sadness arises when we’re separated from those we love: my daughter and her family live only six hours away by car, but that’s too far for me to travel, so I rarely see them because their work keeps them from coming to visit. Grief arises over losses, big and small—from the loss of a treasured memento, to the loss of the honeymoon period in a new relationship, to the loss of a loved one in death.
Do not despair, however! Remember, the Buddha also woke up to our potential to find peace in this very life. When we’re no longer deluded or confused about what to expect from life, the possibility for peace arises—the peace and sense of well-being that come from freeing ourselves from the intense desire to make what’s uncertain certain, to make pleasant and joyful experiences permanent, and to never feel sadness or sorrow again. These desires cannot be fulfilled because they’re not in accord with the human condition. Once we truly see and accept this, we’re free to be fully present for each moment, however it unfolds, without the painful futility of needing it to be different.
In June, a close friend of mine died and it hit me hard, even though I’d been expecting it for months. One night, so as not to wake my husband, I got out of bed and went into the living room and sobbed for an hour. I felt it physically as an emptiness in my gut—as if she’d been there and had been yanked away.
How do you wake up when you’re feeling such sorrow? You wake up by being wholly present for it. For me, this means not pushing the sorrow away in aversion, but instead, acknowledging how painful the loss is and opening my heart to it. It means treating myself kindly and with compassion. And it means finding my way to equanimity—the evenness of temper and peacefulness of heart that come from genuinely understanding and accepting that, along with life’s joys, come sorrows, and that I cannot control the length of anyone’s life.
I deeply appreciate that the Buddha didn’t sugarcoat the experience of being human. Speaking personally, I want to understand and learn to be at ease with the reality of my life. This doesn’t mean we can’t work to improve things. After all, everything is impermanent—even, perhaps, a so-called “chronic” illness! And so, I’m always looking for ways to improve my health. When I do try a new treatment, though, I remind myself that the outcome is uncertain and not something I control.
I find my measure of peace by assessing how I feel each morning, treating that as the starting point for my day, and then living the best I can within those limitations. The alternative is to spend the day trapped in the desire to change and control what I cannot change or control, and that’s a set up for misery. I know, because I lived that way for many years after becoming ill.
Learning to be at peace with our lives takes practice. I counted the number of exercises and practices in the book. It came to 58, all of them illustrated with stories from my life or the lives of others. The practices are simple but, I hope, life-changing. They focus on learning to live skillfully with impermanence, uncertainty, and unpredictability; sharpening mindfulness skills; and cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The book also includes a five-step approach I devised for working with stressful and painful emotions, such as anger, worry, and fear.
How to Wake Up is not just for people who think of themselves as Buddhist. We’re in the same boat as the Buddha was because we’re all human beings. This is why I start the book with this quotation from the Vietnamese Zen monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:
It is exactly because the Buddha was a human being that countless buddhas are possible.
The word “Buddha” means “awakened one.” As a fellow human being, the Buddha saw the potential for all of us to become buddhas—to wake up to the wonder and uniqueness of each moment of our lives. As neuroscientists are confirming, our brains are constantly rewiring and reconditioning themselves based on our thoughts, speech, and actions. This means we have the ability to change ourselves no matter how ingrained our painful mental habits have become.
I don’t see “awakening” as a one-time deal. I understand it to be a potential that arises over and over again, every moment that we’re willing to engage our life as it is, instead of being lost in desires and fantasies about how we wish it would be. And when we do get lost in those fantasies or in other painful mental habits, such as anger or worry, how encouraging to know that we can start again in the very next moment!
© 2013 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.
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