How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard
Book Review by Jennie Spotila
Don’t let the title of How to Be Sick fool you. This book is not about sickness behavior or secondary gain. Author Toni Bernhard describes the spiritual practice of “how to live a life of equanimity and joy despite my physical and energetic limitations.” It might sound impossible. Who can live a joyful life when confined to bed? But Bernhard shows the way with compassion and mastery.
Bernhard understands the suffering and challenges of living with chronic illness, as she has been severely ill with CFS since 2001. Her career as a professor at a prestigious law school ended, along with her ability to participate in almost every other aspect of normal life. Bernhard is housebound – frequently bed-bound – and this suffering set her on the path to find joy within her harsh limitations.
Each chapter of this book addresses an emotional or spiritual challenge of being ill. Bernhard offers simple and practical ways to manage our sorrow, cultivate compassion, communicate clearly with doctors and family, and cope with isolation. While Bernhard’s approach is grounded in her spirituality and is a “Buddhist-Inspired Guide,” one does not need to be a Buddhist or follower of any religion to apply the practices described in this book.
Many of these practices are designed to ameliorate emotional suffering caused by illness. One example is what Bernhard calls “Weather Practice.” She was inspired by a line from the film The Weather Man, in which a meteorologist explains why predicting the weather is a guess: “It’s wind, man. It blows all over the place.” Bernhard experimented with applying that image to her thoughts and moods. Fear, anxiety and sadness are inevitable, but like the weather, they blow on through. Reminding oneself of the impermanence of emotional states, Bernhard says, can lessen the negative impact of grief, frustration and other common responses to illness.
Compassion, especially directed towards oneself, is a cornerstone of How to Be Sick. Bernhard recounts the anger and blame she directed at herself when she relapsed during a family holiday. She berated herself for ruining the day for others, for being a burden, for being ill. But when Bernhard allowed herself to feel compassion for her situation, she felt transformed and took steps to alleviate her physical and emotional suffering. Equanimity, she says, “is accepting life as it comes to us without blaming anything or anyone – including ourselves.”
How to Be Sick offers a practical approach to coping with chronic illness. Bernhard writes openly about her own struggles and how she approaches suffering. The book includes a suggested list of practices for different situations, such as missing a family celebration or receiving dismissive treatment from a doctor. These tools and the encouragement to experiment give the reader an opportunity to ride the waves of chronic illness with more calm and stability. The simplicity and adaptability of the practices, combined with Bernhard’s gentle honesty, make this book truly inspirational. You can contact Ms. Bernhard through her website at http://www.howtobesick.com
Jennifer M. Spotila, J.D., is a member of the Associationís Board of Directors.
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