A friend recently told me that Pema Chodron, the renowned Buddhist nun, writer and meditation teacher, has CFS. As soon as I heard this I ran to the computer. \”This,\” I told myself, \”is too good to be true. I\’ve been waiting all these years for someone with a real understanding of the illness to shed some light on the spiritual aspects of life with CFS, and it turns out that this deeply wise woman is struggling with it herself. If anybody can show me how to deal with CFS, Pema can.\”
Google did not disappoint. It gave me a number of sources–interviews and biographical articles–that confirmed that Pema Chodron does indeed have CFS. Furthermore, she was diagnosed the same year as I, 1994, and like me her symptoms had begun to appear gradually several years earlier (the more typical pattern for the illness is the sudden onset of symptoms).
From Pema herself, however, regarding CFS there were only some quotes from a letter that she wrote to a fellow sufferer. This is what she says:
The key to working with what is so deeply unwanted, is to let go of the ideas…about how we shouldn\’t be sick and what will happen to us if we remain sick. Somehow we have to respect the illness, welcome it, enter into it…we surrender and say, okay, what have you to teach me…about letting go of control, about slowing down…about tasting the full experience of a moment…the light, the sound, the quality of our mood, of our pain, the sight of dust or birds or nothing special…respecting all that. It\’s a kind of death, this illness, the best kind of death if we\’ll let it be. It\’s the death of old stuck patterns and opinions and habits and it makes way for something new to be born in us.
I must confess that I was disappointed. Her words struck me as generic Buddhist advice on how to deal with life and its inevitable contretemps.
But then, as if on cue, I went into another relapse, a quite severe one that kept me essentially bed-ridden for three days. In my thick mental fog, I tried to remember Pema\’s words, but all I could recall was, \”it\’s a kind of death, this illness….\”
Gradually, however, something else came back to me–the part about \”tasting the full experience of the moment.\” In my case, the full experience of the moment had to do with a long list of things that I dearly wanted to do (pick peas, walk the dogs, redesign this blog, start a new clay piece, have lunch with a friend) but couldn\’t, and heavy feelings of the futility of undertaking any project, since I never know when I will be grounded by a relapse.
In the past, my strategy has been to try my best not to think about all the things that I need/want to be doing, and especially not to contemplate the feelings of futility and hopelesness about ever accomplishing anything of even the smallest significance. This time, instead, I let myself feel it all, particularly the despairing part. \”I am feeling that it\’s no use starting another clay piece,\” I said to myself, \”since I\’ve been having such frequent relapses that it will probably take me forever to finish it.\” And, when the next feeling arrived: \”Now I\’m laughing bitterly at myself for even thinking of redesigning my blog, since I can\’t even manage to post regularly on it.\” And then: \”Now I\’m having that familiar dread of committing to anything, since I to have to beg off so often.\”
Well, it was a long three days, and I can\’t say that they were easy to live through. But with Pema\’s words swirling through my brain, this time the bad feelings, instead of appearing as accurate perceptions of reality, seemed discrete and detached from reality–as if they had quotation marks around them–and didn\’t overwhelm me so completely.
The relapse eventually faded, as I knew it would. Sooner or later it will return, as it always does. Better not attach to feeling better. Better learn to respect the illness, as Pema advises. Better let it become \”the best kind of death,\” if there is such a thing.
All this has an oddly Catholic ring to me: the value of resignation, the idea that pain is an aid to salvation. Maybe those first twenty years of my life, spent in an atsmophere of beeswax and incense, are going to come in handy now, after all. How the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the Sisters of Mercy, and the Benedictines who taught me from first grade through high school would chortle if they knew that it took a Buddhist nun to get me thinking this way again.