Who is ill?



When I tell people that I’ve had a cold for over 5 weeks, I often hear: ‘Oh – there is lot of that going round , I know several people who have been coughing for weeks.’ Being reminded of the fact that I am not alone in my plight is reassuring. We are all part of the family of humans whose bodies are vehicles for the propagation of the most successful breed on earth: micro organisms such as viruses and bacteria.

But we can’t rely on others alone for compassion and reassurance. How can we be our own best counsel and friend? Here is an example of an inner dialogue, where I try to meet my need for empathy…

Inner friend (F): ‘Ratnadevi, how are you?’

Rd: ‘As you know , I’ve had this rotten cold for over 5 weeks: sore throat, blocked sinuses, constant coughing. Now I am developing a huge cold sore.’

F: ‘That’s a long time being unwell. What’s the worst part of it?’

Rd: ‘Actually it’s the worry about how it might affect my forthcoming intensive teaching assignments. I wonder whether I should take antibiotics now, but unsure whether it would have any effect or may even make things worse. My GP seemed uncertain about whether it’s a viral or bacterial infection. ’

F: ‘ I imagine you would love to be able to put your mind at rest and enjoy some ease and relaxation?’

Rd: ‘Yes, and that would probably help the healing process.’

F: ‘ Yes, healing would be good, wouldn’t it? You want to be able to give your best next weekend, have access to lots of energy, clarity and creativity?’

Rd: ‘Yes, exactly! And also be in touch with compassion. ’

F: ‘Mmmh – like, wanting to be real soft and gentle with yourself with your blocked sinuses and sore throat, knowing that this allowing attitude will spill over into how you are with your students ?’

Rd: ‘Yes, and also being open about how hard it can be, sometimes, to accept being unwell – sharing that too. We don’t have to put ourselves under the stress of trying to be mindful superheroes , on top of everything else!’

F: ‘I am guessing you are talking about authenticity here?’

RD: ‘Yeah, something like that. It’s the relief and confidence that that comes from knowing that whatever arises in the body and the mind can be embraced as it is. And, interestingly, I am already starting to feel a lot more relaxed. A sense that it will be ok, however long this cold takes. The anxious self is softening and there is more inner spaciousness.’

F: ‘Ratnadevi, I am aware that you were doing quite a bit of deleting and re-writing with that last sentence. I am curious: what is going on?’

RD: ‘Ah – you noticed. I was unsure whether to and how to communicate a more spiritual perspective, given that people on my mailing list are probably mainly into ‘secular’ mindfulness. I don’t want to put them off. ’

F: ‘You want to write in a way that supports connection?’

Rd: ‘Yes, absolutely. As I am typing that word ‘connection’ I do feel a warm glow in my heart.’

F: ‘So what inspires you to share a spiritual perspective?’

Rd: ‘Well, what I was wanting to say is this: suffering is resolved in a fundamental way when you see through the illusion of a fixed Self. When you realise that what we commonly call our ‘Self’ comes into being afresh moment to moment, in response to ever-changing conditions in and around you. The result of this seeing is a sense of inner peace, joy and spaciousness. It’s a great relief to intuit that there is no fixed entity that is endangered and needs protecting or upholding. I want to share this liberating insight with others, so they can similarly enjoy this freedom.’

F: ‘Mmmh – something to mull over. ‘

And so it goes on. In whatever way we comprehend the nature of the Self, there is usually some internal dialogue going on.   When you stop to listen, it sometimes sounds like a damaged Cd – the same words over and over. Even when the messages we hear from ourselves carry an unpleasantly worrying, judgemental or disparaging tone, we kind of like the predictability of it. We crave the semi-soothing effect of the familiar. Meditation can get us out of the rut, and truly empathetic communication can do the same. By setting an intention of empathy and listening for the needs that lie behind what is being felt and expressed (which I did in the above dialogue) allows a shift to a more open, creative and caring way of being with ourselves. When we feel deeply heard something relaxes (the self?) and there is more peace. From there, fresh insights may arise; like for me just then, bringing my query regarding the spiritual in the mindfulness world out into the open.

There are others in the ‘mindfulness world’ who are curious and outspoken about the relationship between more scientific and spiritual perspectives. Ron Siegel, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School writes: ‘If we engage in this simple practice long enough, we discover that our sense of being a separate, coherent, enduring self is actually a delusion maintained by our constant inner chatter, which generally features me at its center. From mundane decisions (I think Ill get the salmon with wilted spinach tonight) to existential fears (Whatll I do if the lump is malignant?), this chatter fills our waking hours. Listening to it all day long, we come to believe that the hero of this drama must exist. But if we practice mindfulness long and often enough, this conventional sense of self can start to unravel.’

With an unravelling sense of self we feel more connected to the world, less separate. That sense of interconnectedness is something people can perhaps more easily relate to than notions of ‘No-Self’. It has a big presence in poetry, as in the final lines in the poem Listening to Bach’s B Minor Mass in the  kitchen, by Elizabeth Burns (it won the BBC poetry competition).

… and Bach himself
who is like a mountain covered in wildflowers,
and the singers in the Albert Hall who, the conductor says,
get close to godliness through this performance;
and I’m wondering, as all those voices fill my kitchen
with the Mass, if this is what he means: the sense
of time and place dissolving, so what divides us
from the past and elsewhere, and from each other,
falls away, and everything’s connected and we are all
drops of water in this enormous breaking wave.

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