Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
—Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”
It’s early morning and the sky, colorless, reflects my mood. Not too long ago I wrote confidently about the moment’s perfection, about the fundamental rightness of life as it is, but today that perfection eludes me. Today I skirt along the moment’s edges, feeling the friction of this body and mind as they plod from one moment to the next, every task a burden.
I’ve felt this tired before, I’m sure of it. But never so relentlessly or for so long. A battery of tests tells me there’s nothing medically wrong with me. Friends think I’m depressed. I can list all the reasons why I think neither of these is true, but after months spent coaxing my boulder up the hill like Sisyphus without even the respite of watching it roll down, I’ve come to the conclusion that the what is less important than the then.
Suppose this is just the way it is from now on, I’ve told myself, not once or twice but often. After all, there’s always a shred of hope that things will change for the better. Impermanence has other plans, it seems, but this doesn’t keep me from hoping, even though in my mind I can hear my first teacher, John Daido Loori Roshi, say in his booming voice, “The whole thing is hopeless! Zen has nothing to do with hope.” Hope is the other face of fear, he’d say, and in a moment of total presence there’s no room for either. All right then, no hope, no fear. So if this is how it is, I tell myself again, then how will you live? This, after all, is the relevant question and always has been, whether the bed I’m lying on is made of daisies or nails.
“All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens,” Woolf says in her magnificent essay “On Being Ill.” All day, every day, the dis-eased body intervenes in a way it doesn’t do in health. And depending on how we choose to respond, we’ll experience this intervention either as yet another source of suffering or as fuel for tremendous spiritual change.
Reading one morning Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, I find in his words a neuroscientist’s confirmation of Woolf’s insight into the transformational power of illness. Our feelings about pleasure and pain, illness and well-being, Damasio says, are the very catalysts for the kind of questioning, reflection, and understanding that distinguish humans from other species. It’s because we feel uncomfortable that we inquire into the nature of pain or illness, looking for ways to work with them more skillfully in our lives.
This is something the Buddha was doing from the beginning. In the Sallatha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 36.6, The Dart), he said that a person who grieves and laments over a painful physical feeling follows the dart of pain with the dart of suffering. But one who’s able to remain present with the sensation without resistance or complaint will only feel the pain of one dart. In other words, pain and illness are not the problem. It’s our reaction to them that causes us distress. Remember that famous quote “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional”? Echoing the Buddha, Damasio would probably say that the only thing separating inevitable pain from discretionary suffering is the way we feel about what we feel.
Anyone who has practiced with pain or discomfort knows this, of course. Anyone who has read the Buddhist teachings knows that acceptance is key. But as all of us also know, the gap between wish and reality can be wide and steep, especially when the landscape is so much more appealing on the side of what we wish for. So I can’t claim I haven’t tried to bargain with the universe, especially on days like today, when a bit more energy would be just the thing.
I long for those mornings when I could jump out of bed as soon as my eyes opened, days when I’d move seamlessly from one task to the next. Now I seem perpetually stuck in a slow-motion setting, my body blunt and feeling much heavier than it really is. My thoughts, on the other hand, are sharp and spiny. They snag on the most insignificant things, accumulating like burrs on a hiker’s pant cuffs. The overall effect is not unlike a cartoon someone sent me recently: a little blobby creature, weighed down by several burdens labeled “stress” and “past karma” and “pandemic fatigue,” trips on a tiny step called “minor inconvenience” and falls to its knees sobbing, while another creature looking on says, “I think you’re overreacting.”
I know this kind of fatigue is difficult to explain to someone who has never felt it, especially when it’s the only thing that ails you, because, well, maybe it’s all in your mind. Of course it’s all in my mind! I want to say. As a Buddhist, I know it is. I also know better than to draw a distinct line between it and my body. But I still have to live with this body, this mind, so there it is again, the insistent then how?
Once, the 10th-century Zen master Fayan Wenyi asked his dharma brother, Xiushan, “A hair’s breadth of difference is like the distance between heaven and earth. How do you understand this?” Xiushan said, “A hair’s breadth of difference is like the distance between heaven and earth.” Not satisfied with this answer, Fayan pressed him:
“How can you understand it this way?”
Xiushan said, “I am just thus—what about you?”
Fayan said, “A hairsbreadth’s difference is as the distance between heaven and earth.”
Xiushan thereupon bowed.
–The Book of Serenity, case 17, trans. Thomas Cleary
In this koan, Fayan is quoting from the poem “Faith in Mind,” attributed to the Third Zen Ancestor, Master Jianzhi Sengcan. Four hundred years after Sengcan’s death, Fayan very simply and elegantly uses this teaching to show Xiushan how a crack becomes a chasm through no other means but the way we use our minds.
Zen constantly insists that we get close to our experience, because the moment we start evaluating, judging, rejecting, or grasping, a crack appears. Given enough time and energy, this hairline fracture becomes a gap, then a gorge, then an abyss—an ever-widening space between what I want and what is. But the irony is that this distance doesn’t actually exist. It’s an illusion conjured up by the dissatisfied mind, the confused mind, the discriminating mind. So even though this gap is the place where suffering takes root, it’s also the space where practice becomes possible and real. When we’re able to see the crack for what it is, wish and reality merge, and we realize that what we saw as a problem is actually no problem at all.
I wish I could say in my case that this insight came after long and diligent practice, but in reality it was more a matter of giving up. Or giving in. Whenever my thoughts began to spiral down a hole, whenever they bounced around madly looking for something to grab onto, my body stepped up. I’d be getting ready to jump on Google to search for diagnoses and treatments, or I’d start to worry about how long this flare-up would last, or I’d feel the first blooming of frustration and self-pity, and my body would assert itself gently but firmly. “Oh no, you don’t,” it would say to my mind. “You don’t have the energy to worry about this, so clear your mind of all this debris.” Then the same fatigue acted like a thick layer of mud on a dirt road. Just as my thoughts started to rev up, my own tiredness caused them to spin in place without gaining purchase. Without anywhere to go, they settled and stopped, robbed of the energy that usually keeps them going.
That’s why, when it comes down to it, even I can’t deny the advantage of this tiredness. Whereas before I’d muscle my way through any problem I came across, now my body isn’t willing to even stumble along. It’s clear that I go at its pace or not at all, and thankfully, I don’t have the energy to argue anymore. So the light comment I made to a friend, “This fatigue may be the only thing that will stop me from overworking,” may turn out to be not so light after all. I have no choice but to slow down and watch, intrigued, as my body works hard to protect itself and my mind with a wisdom that’s far beyond the knowledge I turn to for refuge when I’m under stress. Damasio would say it’s the wisdom of a body finely tuned to homeostasis—a body that knows perfectly well how to maintain a balanced state without the meddling mind. So maybe it’s a sign of my stubbornness that I still need to be reminded of this after all my years of practice. Yet I also recognize that at least some of my willfulness I’ve dutifully learned over just as many years.
I’m deeply embedded in a culture that routinely sacrifices the body to work, and early on I learned that in order to get anywhere, to do anything meaningful, I was going to have to work hard. That in itself isn’t a problem. It’s the closed system that equates work with self-worth that has so many of us trapped. And even though in my twenties I went off to live in a Zen monastery, I brought all my habits with me, and these were both implicitly and explicitly reinforced by many of Zen’s forms.
Now my body isn’t willing to even stumble along. I go at its pace or not at all, and thankfully, I don’t have the energy to argue anymore.
For many years, I believed that practicing Zen meant I had to tame my unruly body and quiet my fickle mind—and the way to do both was through rigorous effort and discipline. Zen isn’t known for its gentleness (though I believe that’s slowly changing) and the classical literature doesn’t always encourage awareness of the body and its many needs. Bodhidharma, our revered First Ancestor, ripped off his eyelids to stay awake during meditation. His disciple Huike cut off his arm to show his zeal. The nun and artist Ryonen Genso disfigured herself to enter a temple (she previously had been denied entry because a priest deemed her too beautiful and said she would distract the monks). In the koans, monk after monk routinely gets slapped, kicked, punched, and beaten up. Some of the stories are most likely apocryphal, yet their message is clear: you must be ready to do whatever it takes to realize yourself, even if it means ignoring, harming, or giving up your body.
As a young practitioner full of drive and love for the dharma, I too routinely ignored my body for the sake of waking up. I’d regularly forgo food and sleep in order to sit longer hours, and when I got sick—which happened often—I simply waited to recover so I could do it all over again. Now, with a bit of time and perspective, I can see that the way I practiced was based on a false dichotomy that pitted body against mind. For a long time, I couldn’t read the wisdom my cells are programmed with. I didn’t know how to trust the unknowing mind. And I didn’t have the stories of practitioners grappling with sick bodies (Hakuin’s description of Zen sickness and his “melting butter” visualization is an exception), ailing bodies, or just run-of-the-mill bodies doing the messy things that bodies do.
“Why don’t nuns ever write about their periods?” A fellow monastic said to me many years ago. We were talking about the demands of Zen practice and the ways in which it failed to take into account the female body and experience. She was hungry, she said, to read accounts of women’s real-life experience, no matter how mundane. She wanted to hear about the body intervening, because it inevitably does.
“People write always of the doings of the mind,” says Woolf in “On Being Ill,”
the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philosopher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery.
The story of Huike standing knee-deep in snow, sword in hand and hacked stump bleeding, may make for better reading than a nun’s struggles with premenstrual brain fog, but it doesn’t make the latter any less relevant. When it comes down to it, none of us can jettison the body or turn a deaf ear to its wishes for long.
Fortunately, more and more teachers are recognizing the need to make explicit what Buddhism has known all along: body and mind aren’t separate from one another, and we disregard either—whether in formal practice or in any other aspect of our lives—at great cost. The body isn’t just a vehicle for realization, or for getting things done. It’s the root of wisdom—its very source. Sometimes we need to be nudged to remember this. Sometimes the reminder is a bit more blunt. But at the end of the day, the body will have the last word. Mindful of this, I decided it was time to pay closer attention, and to create the conditions that would allow me to better hear what it had to say.
“Inside is made of outside,” says Thich Nhat Hanh in Understanding Our Mind, a commentary on Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and Thirty Verses. Thinking of this, I resolved to change the outside so I could better understand the inside. Last summer I packed all my belongings, put them in storage, and with nothing but a couple of suitcases moved back to Mexico, where I was born. I chose a place I’d never been to, a fast-growing city called Playa del Carmen about an hour south of Cancún, on the Caribbean coast. I came here drawn by my love of water and hot weather, as well as by the promise of a simpler, slower life.
A few months into the trip, I can already feel the effects of this displacement—or rather, re-placement, since I’m deliberately placing myself back at the center of my own life.
Most days the thermometer edges close to 90, but far from being oppressive, the heat is like a balm. It softens and blurs all the edges, so I have a hard time discerning where I end and the rest of the world begins. I move through the still, damp air slowly and without friction, allowing my body to move at the speed it needs to heal itself. Long walks and long swims now break up my work hours, and as much as possible I’ve tilted the balance to spend more time outdoors than in. Ideally I’d have been able to slow down just as easily in New York City, but there’s no question that the body responds to the healing properties of wind and sun much more readily than it does to those of brick and cement blocks.
None of us can jettison the body or turn a deaf ear to its wishes for long. The body will have the last word.
The other morning I went for a swim as the sun was rising, the Caribbean at low tide streaked with bands of turquoise and cerulean blue. That day the water was free of the sargassum that has covered these beaches in the last couple of years, and in shallow waters I could clearly see all the way down to the white sand.
I dove in and swam steadily for a while, the gentle splash of my hands and feet the only sound. Suddenly, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped mid-stroke and submerged myself so that I could see what I was facing. And there, swimming about two feet from me, was a hawksbill turtle, its mottled amber and brown shell dazzling even underwater. It swam very slowly toward me with what I took to be curiosity and, after taking a good look, just as slowly swam away.
In that moment I understood why I was there. The last couple of years had widened the gap between my body and my mind—not just for me, but for everyone. Too much time spent indoors. Too many hours staring at a screen. And even though I myself was doing work I loved, it wasn’t enough. The animal body needs more of its own kind of nourishment.
I turned and swam toward shore, letting my senses drench me in their song. The taste of salt water in my mouth. The sun seeping through my foggy goggles. The muffled cry of a seagull overhead.
It works perfectly, this body, I thought as I turned my head to breathe, my legs kicking effortlessly behind me. It works harmoniously, seamlessly, and largely without complaint. It’s only my mind that finds fault, constantly sweeping the territory for mines, falling into potholes, focusing on what it thinks it lacks rather than what it’s always had.
A few minutes later I walked out of the ocean, and as my feet touched the sand I saw clearly what I’d only glimpsed before and hadn’t wanted to accept. I can no longer shape reality in my own image. I’m no longer able to force things into being. They’ll happen as they will and in their own time, and it’s completely my choice whether to resist or accept, to live in I want or This is.
So that’s what I’m doing now—gentling myself back into the soft center of each moment, the spaciousness at the heart of everything. Here, there’s neither fatigue nor vitality, neither illness nor health, neither work nor rest. Here, what I have is what I want, and there’s simply and always my life as it is: perfect and whole.
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