When my wife has a cold, she hardly acknowledges it, carrying on with a resolute stoicism befitting a Hemingway character. I do the opposite when I’m under the weather. If anyone so much as glances in my direction, I launch into a 10-minute soliloquy about my symptoms, condition, and emotional well-being. Due to my tendency to overshare, I started keeping a “cold journal” last year as a repository for all the thoughts that strike me when stricken. During a particularly bad November full of clogged sinuses and an upper respiratory infection, amidst all the whining and general complaining, I arrived at what appeared to be . . . wisdom?
“It could be worse,” I wrote. “Colds provide a glimpse of illness and suffering, of which there are far, far worse varieties. But the least of all evils is evil nonetheless.”
This “wisdom” made me wonder if being sick could actually be an opportunity for deeper understanding. To find out, I spoke to two Buddhist teachers: Lama Willa Miller, the founder and spiritual director of the Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston, and Randall Ryotan Eiger, sensei at the Village Zendo in New York City. In the midst of a “moderately severe” flu season, I wanted advice for how to practice with illness and to find out if the common cold can provide an uncommon opportunity for insight.
Let’s start with the practical. Having a cold can sometimes feel inimical to meditation. When your breathing is obstructed and your head feels inflated, this can really stoke the fires of self-referential, woe-is-me thoughts! Do you have any strategies for working with both the physical symptoms of a cold and the mental distress it can cause?
Miller: There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice called “natural meditation” in which the instruction is to do absolutely nothing. When you do absolutely nothing, the richness of the present moment—just as it is—can unfold. When you are sick, because you are impaired, it can feel almost impossible to get things done. When I find myself struggling with my inability to get things done, I remember those meditation instructions. You have permission to surrender to what is, right here and right now. It is more than OK to surrender to the body’s true condition and its needs: the need for rest, sleep, and self-care. It is a practice.
Eiger: For the purposes of meditation, “woe-is-me thoughts” are like any other thoughts. Notice them, let them go, and return to the breath. As for working with the physical symptoms, eat well, drink plenty of fluids, and get some rest!
The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, famously saw the realities of old age, sickness, and death when he left the palace grounds. Though the sickness he witnessed was implied to be of the mortal variety, most of us will be dealing with colds and flus. Can this kind of minor suffering give us a glimpse into the reality of deeper suffering?
Miller: When we have a cold, we can remember that all of our symptoms—the runny nose, sore throat, fever—are not our symptoms alone. I like to use the phrase, “So this is how so many others feel!” This is not a fiction—we really are feeling what other human beings feel. With that thought comes a natural, unforced compassion for all the many others who also have had, do have, and will have colds. We don’t have to try to understand how they feel. We know how they feel because our body is teaching us. When we have a minor illness, like a cold, it cues us into how our body is the doorway to compassion for both our self and others.
Eiger: Old age, sickness, and death are unavoidable facts. When you’re dead, you’re dead, when you’re old, you’re old, and when you’re sick, you’re sick. All escape routes are cut off, and you have no choice but to explore the state you’re in, hopefully with some patience, gentleness, and curiosity. If you do this, you may notice a subtle shift in your consciousness. Or you may not. The exploration itself is compassion.
Whenever I have a cold, at some point I often neurotically ponder whether it could be fatal. Though this doesn’t seem productive, it is not often that something really causes us to reflect on our own mortality. Can colds be an opportunity to recognize impermanence, or is that kind of contemplation better saved for when we aren’t so feverish and hopped up on NyQuil?
Miller: There is a difference between the body’s pain and the mind’s augmentation of our illness. The body’s pain is inevitable, but we have a choice about the rest. The mind suffers when we are ill because of our unrealistic expectations that things will continue as they are. What really causes us to suffer is not the illness itself but the illusion of permanence and our resistance to change. When we understand that, we can use the experience of illness to lean into the truth of impermanence, that nothing stays as we wish it to. That acceptance of impermanence can help a great deal with our mental anguish when we are ill.
When I get sick in a minor way, I often feel as if the veil of my hubris—the kind that believes my health will continue to be robust from day to day—is perforated. I’m compelled to face the truth of things, that my body’s health and well-being is an impermanent situation. Even if I am mostly healthy throughout life, I will eventually have to face death. When I do, will I be ready? What if this illness did turn fatal? Have I accomplished what I wanted in this lifetime? I think it is better to ponder those questions now rather than on my deathbed. After I recover from a minor illness, I often find myself more focused and motivated, because the illness has reminded me of how little time I have left.
Eiger: If you want to reflect on impermanence, any experience will do. No need to wait until you get a cold. Our noses are rubbed in impermanence a thousand times a day.