“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
A lot of people I know who have had chronic illness, including myself, have had a hard time letting go of the feeling of “wrongness” that arises with it, in the mind.
I sometimes wonder where this comes from. When I look at our culture I get a feeling for where we get these messages. It doesn’t, generally, seem to emmanate non-judgmental compassion!
In our age of consumerism, photoshopped bodies, and a million-ways-to-look-young-and-feel-great-forever, the body’s propensity to get ill is generally seen as some kind of mistake. This may not be the spoken message, but it’s there in the subtext.
We are encouraged to believe that we can (and should) control our material universe, including our bodies, to be exactly the way we want.
When attached to, these beliefs and ideals can lead to misery.
If you’re sick, for example.
Because when it is taken as an absolute truth, we start to feel an uncomfortable stirring in the heart. A quake in the depths of ego. It usually goes something like this:
“I’m creating these conditions. It’s my fault. I must be wrong because of this.”
And if feeling like crap physically wasn’t enough, the ego-mind and the energy body join in on the party. Cue depression, self-hate, and often, a worsening of symptoms.
With a bit of perspective, it’s easy to see that this is not wisdom. This is self-harm. From the inside though, it can feel absolutely real, especially when we’ve got some teaching or another to back it up. The voice of some guru in our head whispering, “It’s your fault. You just don’t want to be healthy enough.”
Luckily, in deep teachings, and in the presence of beautiful people, you never find this sort of thing.
What do you find?
You find real compassion.
You find a connection to a feeling tone of, “Oh wow, that must feel awful. What’s it like to create some space, some softness in the heart around that?”
When I was going through a terrible time, bedridden with an assortment of debilitating illnesses, this (and not judgment) was what saved my life—and my mind, which was at the mercy of its own inner tyrant! I didn’t need someone else to put some more oomph into the inner-hate.
I have one very vivid recollection of the power of compassion, from that time, when I was a monk living in a forest monastery.
One overcast October afternoon, I heard someone yelling outside the drawn curtains of my hut, as I lay there in my misery.
“Oh no, who’s that?” I thought, wanting to be left alone.
Peering outside I was surprised to see none other than the abbot of the monastery, my teacher.
“Hey Brother,” he said, with a gentle smile.
Let me give you a little context, here: Thai forest monasteries have a lot of formality, so for my teacher to call me “Brother,” and make a personal visit to my little hut cut through all that, and really went straight to the heart. For me, a sick dude in my early 20s, this meant a lot.
He came in and sat down. Asking how I was, he listened, patiently and compassionately. I tentatively began to express the despair I was feeling, not being able to get better. My heart was heavy, like a rock.
Yet I gradually got a sense that I was really being listened to, and started to become vulnerable in the safe space of his presence. To be encouraged to let down my defenses in this way was, curiously, healing in itself.
Wouldn’t it have been different if he had come in and said, “Come on, snap out of it. You need to get well. Why aren’t you trying harder?”
Ouch. That would have had the opposite effect.
So, at the end of my shpeel, he looked at me in silence, and then said, “You know, I feel like that sometimes. I felt like that yesterday, when I woke up!”
I felt my heart break open. There was a shift in my consciousness. I suddenly remembered what I had forgotten: everything is okay. This is just the mind. It will pass.
And we ended up having a good laugh about it. About the mind. About how normal it is to get hooked on suffering. And about how our bodies are ultimately out of our personal control.
Not once did he judge the state of my body. Not once did he imply that it was “my fault.”
I count this experience, and others like it, as being instrumental in beginning to get better. There is an enormous power in being held with compassion, completely free of judgment, fix-it methods, or explanations.
Just open, vulnerable compassion. I am deeply thankful for having been shown this, through the presence of someone much wiser and kinder than me. And it has provided me with an example of how to relate to myself.
Compassion is naturally judgment free; and awakened compassion has with it a quality of “I don’t know” that creates a space that says, “Nothing is wrong in this moment. With me, you, or anyone.”
Curiously, it turns out that that’s a very healing space.
When we offer this same quality to ourselves, it invites us to feel into our minds and hearts slowly, with great love and great trust. This heartfelt awareness is not a theory, a position, a view, or an aphorism. It is the openness of wisdom and compassion.
And we may need to surrender our desire to know why our bodies are the way they are at all.
In giving up needing to know for sure, a great sense of relief opens up within us. We know that the play of conditions doesn’t define our value in this world.
And we can open to our lives, just as they are, without comparing ourselves to anyone, or anything.
This, in my opinion, is the real beginning of healing.
Photo by lecates