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Finding Freedom in Illness: A Guide to Suffering Less When Sick (Interview & Giveaway)

Sick

UPDATE: The winners for this giveaway include:

  • Naomi
  • KC
  • Lisa Pellegrino
  • Caroline Létourneau
  • Viktor Dmitriv
  • Kristin Kollinger
  • Heather S
  • Erica Lombard
  • Christine
  • Bridget Howe

If you’ve ever been sick for a prolonged period of time, you understand how physically, mentally, and emotionally draining it can be.

Maybe you don’t know what’s causing your illness, or how to treat it, and you’re tired of searching for answers.

Maybe you blame yourself for repressing emotions, not exercising, or otherwise potentially causing your condition; or maybe you don’t hold yourself responsible, but fear that others do.

Maybe you can no longer do the things you love; or maybe you can do them, but it’s much harder, and therefore, far less satisfying.

While I’ve never struggled with a long-term physical illness, I’ve watched loved ones grapple with serious challenges; I’ve sympathized with their feelings, fears, and frustrations; and I’ve wished I could do something to help.

Going forward, I will point them to Tiny Buddha contributor Peter Fernando’s new book, Finding Freedom in Illness: A Guide to Cultivating Deep Well-Being through Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. 

Having struggled with various chronic illnesses through the years, Peter knows what it’s like to live a life that’s full of challenges and losses. He’s experienced prolonged periods of darkness, despair, desperation, and discomfort—and yet he still believes he’s lived a wonderful life.

Why? Because he chooses to see his illnesses as spiritual teachers. And though he admits he would not have chosen them, he’s learned, through them, to free himself from the mental suffering that comes from judging the present.

Profoundly insightful, Finding Freedom in Illness explores how anyone can free themselves from their suffering and access the liberating power of here-and-now awareness. Though the book is clearly intended for others dealing with physical conditions, anyone can benefit from the teachings related to mindfulness and self-compassion. I know I certainly have.

I’m grateful that Peter took the time to answer some questions about his book, and that he’s offered ten free copies to Tiny Buddha readers.

Finding freedom in illnessTHE GIVEAWAY

To enter to win one of ten free copies of Finding Freedom in Illness:

  • Leave a comment below
  • For an extra entry, share this interview on Twitter or Facebook, and post a second comment with the link

You can enter until midnight PST on Monday, May 9th.

*Winners in the US will receive a print copy. Winners outside the US will receive a gift card to order a free digital copy.

THE INTERVIEW

 1. Tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to write this book.

I’m a guy in his late thirties who was a Buddhist monk in his twenties. I’ve been living with various health conditions for most of my life, and bodily challenges have been a huge part of the path for me. I teach meditation in Wellington, NZ with Original Nature Meditation Centre, and run an online course, A Month of Mindfulness.

The book arose of out conversations I had been having with other folks on the spiritual path, people who also have been living with illness—and a sense of the disorientation, distress, and confusion that can ensue when faced with such challenges and limitations. So, the main inspiration was wanting so share some love!

On another level, my own situation has highlighted the difficulty in attending retreats or groups on a regular basis, and a need for a home-based practice that is tailored to the specific issues, emotions, and challenges that accompany the experience of being physically unwell.

For example: When you can’t sit up for long periods of time, how do you meditate?

When you are exhausted, how do you open your heart and find a real sense of kindness for yourself and others?

When you are in pain, how do you find a place in yourself that is still okay?

So I wanted to share some of the practices and perspectives I have developed through trial and error since my twenties, with the hope that they will be useful for folks in similar situations.

2. I really appreciated your opening chapter, as I think a lot of spiritual people blame themselves for their physical ailments. Can you talk a little bit about the mind/body connection and the difference between taking responsibility for our part in healing and blaming ourselves for being sick?

This subtle difference has and (continues to be) a central piece of living with illness, for me personally. The bottom line, I think, is don’t beat yourself up for being ill.

Shame and guilt are so destructive and painful, and yet can easily follow theories of being absolutely responsible for being ill or healthy. Whatever makes you feel ashamed or guilty isn’t going to lead to well-being in the long run.

From the perspective of the mind that wants to understand our illness (and of course, be as well as we can, on all levels), there is another key piece, for me: any belief is just a belief. It’s not experience.

So the belief “I’m creating this illness—it’s my fault” is just an idea, right now. The belief “My mind has no bearing on the state of my body” is also just an idea.

If there are certain mind-body connections that are contributing to our illness, they can only be known by us. Not through a theory, a doctrine, or even trying to mimic someone else’s healing journey. Of course, they are all useful as hypotheses, but not as fixed beliefs about what is going on.

Awareness practice, on the other hand, takes us right into our own experience, where we begin to know directly what effects certain mind states have on the body, and what effects they don’t have.

We become curious, and even innocent in our exploration. We don’t have to have a fixed belief in anything, which allows the tendency toward shame or self-blame to relax, and is also where the feeling of freedom begins to emerge. Curiosity and genuine interest in our mind, body, and heart, in this moment, is where the power lies.

What the process of paying attention reveals about the mind/body connection is different for everyone. There may be one, and there may not be—that’s just how it is.

Many enlightened teachers have died following long illnesses, such as the teacher of my teachers, Ajahn Chah. Many uptight and stressed out people live physically healthy, outwardly successful lives.

So the only touchstone for what is real is our own experience, our own body-mind, in the intimacy of awareness. No shoulds, no guilt-trips, and no identity of being a failure. To me, that is what taking responsibility is about.

3. How does mindfulness help us cope with physical illness, and what’s a simple mindfulness practice anyone can do daily?

Mindful awareness helps us cope in every way possible! Without being aware of our reactions to pain, loss, social isolation, or fatigue, those reactions will take over.

When we are aware of what is happening in the present moment, with an embodied awareness, there is a natural inclination to abide in states of being that feel good, and to relax those that don’t.

If we don’t see them, they take on a life of their own and can become our entire identity, rather than the momentary arising of emotion or perception that they actually were.

A simple practice I do daily is to stop, close my eyes, and take stock of what’s going on in the mind and heart, for five minutes. No agenda or desire for a specific outcome—just a real curiosity.

I ask, “What am I doing, right now, in my heart?” And then, “Is this kindness to myself, or is it something else?”

This is the gateway to authentic mindfulness, in my opinion. To me, an open, kind heart is an essential part of mindful awareness. Attending to its presence or absence goes a long way in tracking the quality of the mind throughout the course of a day.

4. In chapter 3, you talk about the stories our minds tell us about the present, the past, and the future. Can you elaborate a little on these stories, how they keep us stuck, and how we can start letting them go?

The word “stories” is a kind of shorthand to refer to the psychological narratives that arise in the mind’s eye, with regard to “Who I am, what others think of me, what I will be, what I was,” and so on.

They are the first indicator of underlying heart-drives or emotions that are stirring in us. It’s important to say here that the word doesn’t refer to functional stories, which we need to survive. These are useful, when imbued with creativity and wellness of heart.

Our psychological narratives, on the other hand, are habitual and don’t come from a sense of choice—they are knee-jerk reactions, often with deep historical roots, that take us into some form of stress, suffering, or emotional stuck-ness.

The habitual, seemingly out-of-control nature of these is their defining characteristic. Starting to let these go is a process that requires sensitivity and patience, in my experience. It’s easy to say, “Just be present,” but to actually do it requires a journey into our own heart. Otherwise, it can become dissociation or avoidance, which doesn’t lead to well-being.

For me, there are always three stages to the process. The first is mindfulness: seeing what is happening, with objectivity, rather then being caught in it. It’s a kind of stepping back. We realize we can see the mind, not just be caught in it. This is the miracle of mindful awareness, really.

But seeing a story is one thing. Freeing attention from its grip is another. So the second part of the process is a receptive awareness, feeling how the energy feels in the body.

This is more than seeing—it’s sensing, which requires a kind of awareness we may not be used to. So we can begin experimenting with it.

When we feel what’s going on, we can then pan out to recognize that a story is just the branches of a core root feeling.

For example, the story “I’m going to have a terrible time seeing my friends tomorrow” could just be the root energy of fear. Knowing it as such makes the story seem less personal, and we recognize that these are forces at work in the present, not realities that will happen in the future. It’s all happening now.

The third stage in the process is relaxation. When we feel the root of a story we can consciously incline toward relaxing around it. Relaxation is another word for letting go. When we relax around an emotion or an energy, it begins to calm. It also has less power to solidify into a full-blown story. We find we can be with instead of be in. Life frees up as a result.

5. In chapter 4, you wrote, “openness is courage.” Can you expand on this?

Being open to what is here is perhaps what is most scary for us as humans, I think. Our lives are geared toward distraction, intellect, and ideas—so much so that sitting somewhere without checking our phone, for example, can feel disorienting and uncomfortable.

It feels uncomfortable and scary because it means being open to what is actually here—including the body and mind and emotions, just as they are. So cultivating that ability is a courageous act.

When it comes to illness, the stakes are even higher. We’re not just cultivating an openness to “boring life as it is,” but very often to unpleasant sensations, depleted energy, and physical pain.

Trusting that our own compassionate awareness can meet that, too, is always an act of courage. Sometimes we just can’t, which is okay. And sometimes it’s just not the right thing to do—especially if it heightens the discomfort in the body or the stress in the mind.

But when we feel resourced enough to rest in awareness, and be with the pure experience of this moment, we gain vistas into new worlds of possibility. If we remain there for a period of time, we may be surprised by a quiet sense of peace and ease that begins to emerge.

6. In the section on meeting our dark emotions, you wrote that we need to stop judging anger, fear, and despair as “bad.” What do you think is the key to embracing these feelings without getting lost in them?

Oh, good question! It’s a fine line isn’t it? For me it always comes back to the Buddhist maxim of the “Middle Way”: that poise in the middle of indulging in destructive emotions on the one hand and repressing them on the other.

My tendency has been more toward the latter, so learning how to actually feel and un-shame them has been a big part of my own journey. However, if one’s tendency is to feed them, get lost in them, and rail against illness, some discernment and wise discrimination can be really useful.

But most of us have a default setting that judges dark emotions and tries to push them away, to some extent. We believe this is what being “strong” means.

From the meditative perspective, we are looking for strength in presence, not just strength of will, however. When presence, grounded in the body, meets a force like anger or fear, there is a transformation that can happen. Through not indulging the story, and not trying to push the energy down, we feel what is here, as just so.

In Buddhist teachings, this is the essence of the third foundation of mindfulness—mindfulness of the heart. Through this poise, the primal energies of dark emotion begin to dissolve, and transfer their energy back to our core presence. They relax and calm without being pushed away. It’s an alchemy of sorts.

Of course, sometimes we need to push them away temporarily, just to function. The above isn’t an absolute statement about what we should always do.

But when we gradually train ourselves in the skill of meeting dark emotions as just so, and feel them in the body, we discover a new place in ourselves that can handle their intensity without resorting to self-judgment. This makes living with illness much easier in the long run, in my experience.

7. Why do you think so many of us deny ourselves rest when we’re drained or unwell, and what mental shift do we need to make to start taking care of ourselves in this way?

I think it’s something to do with the way we are conditioned to value ourselves. Modern society puts most value on doing, achieving, and “being somebody,” it seems, and very little on “just being.” So we get hooked into it.

Rest means relaxing an identity of being useful or productive, which can be scary. If our identity is entirely dependent on value-through-doing, then it can feel intolerable to really rest and take care of ourselves. We believe it’s lazy, or self-indulgent, or that we are a failure and there are other people somewhere out there judging us.

From the perspective of inner well-being and harmonizing with the limitations of our physical condition, however, we can find a different way of viewing conscious rest.

On the level of the body, it just feels good, so that’s one thing. On the heart level, we realize that it actually reminds us of our real value rather than takes us away from it.

Our deepest value is just in being us. When we feel that in our hearts, and relax the need to prove ourselves, be approved of, or the opposite sides to that coin, then paradoxically, a new kind of value emerges. It’s one that feels peaceful and meaningful through just being here.

When we get a sense of that, it becomes much easier to feel confident about consciously resting.

There’s always a bit of friction involved in changing gears, particularly if our lives are very busy, but it lessens the more we can tune in to the deeper kind of value that comes through letting go of the need to always be someone doing something useful. And weirdly, when we do that, energy to do useful things, within our capacity, often comes back quite naturally.

8. Can you tell us a little about the difference between pain and suffering, and how we can suffer less?

Well, that’s a huge topic, with a lot of subtlety involved, I think. For myself, the Buddhist teaching around the difference between painful or unpleasant sensation in itself, on a sensory level, and the existential dis-ease that usually accompanies it, has been very potent.

Basically, the teaching says that they are two different things. We tend to think they are one in the same, but when we attend carefully and with sensitivity, we begin to notice that while physical pain or discomfort very often conditions suffering in the heart, it doesn’t ultimately have to. So, it’s a freeing teaching.

It doesn’t mean liking pain, though, or trying to be fit into some kind of equanimous ideal where we never suffer in the face of it. As an ideal, that doesn’t go very far.

The journey to suffering less around pain involves meeting exactly what is here, including our reactions to it. But by being curious about them, we discover how to relax the heart-contraction around pain.

Very often, relaxing the contraction (and the stories, judgments, self-images, or predictions that come with it) can lead to more space opening up in our awareness. In this space, physical pain doesn’t have the same hold over the mind. We suffer less.

9. It’s easy to get down on ourselves when we feel we’re not at our best. What has helped you stay out of this trap?

Well, it’s a trap I am very familiar with, and definitely not free of! But it’s something I have gradually learned to relate to rather than be completely identified with.

For myself, self-compassion has been the guiding light in this regard. I first used it as a concept, which, in itself, was very powerful. It’s a radical shift from the default position of inner-tyranny many of us live within. On the conceptual level, it takes a bit of reflection to come alive.

I remember feeling like it was indulgent or selfish to be compassionate with myself, in the beginning. But it slowly started to make good sense, particularly when I saw directly that it actually increased my ability to relate to others in the same way.

Then on the heart level, it’s been a cultivation—creating space around the identity of the me who is “wrong” in some way, and really holding that sense with a sense of great warmth and kindness.

In this space, I began to feel what tyrannical mind actually does in the present moment: it generates pain. Compassion began to arise when I started being aware of this pain in a very direct but tender and patient way.

It started to teach me. It was like, “Oh, okay. When I hold on to these self-images, this is the result. Wow—that’s really painful. Maybe I could start to relax that?”

So the heart began to learn, naturally, when I took the time to bring awareness to bear upon what often seemed so real and true that I never questioned it.

10. What’s the main message you hope readers take from this book?

I think the main message I would like to communicate is that being physically ill doesn’t mean we can’t have a rich inner life. There are ways of living with the limitations of illness that can open us right into the magic of this existence.

We don’t need to feel like we’ve failed, we are wrong, or there is no hope. The real treasures are right here underneath the surface—for all of us, healthy or not.

FTC Disclosure: I receive complimentary books for reviews and interviews on tinybuddha.com, but I am not compensated for writing or obligated to write anything specific. I am an Amazon affiliate, meaning I earn a percentage of all books purchased through the links I provide on this site. 

You can learn more about Finding Freedom in Illness on Amazon here.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and co-producer of the newly launched podcast Next Creator Up, which helps people overcome their blocks and create what they want to create. She’s also the author of Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal and other books and co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. For daily wisdom, join the Tiny Buddha list here.

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