No one wants to be sick or to suffer but when we know how to work skilfully with our experiences they can be a source of deepened compassion, inspiration, and appreciation for the life we have. Here you'll find information about biotoxin illness caused by exposure to mold, an illness sometimes misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue. I am a patient doing patient education. The information offered here is not medical advice. May this be of benefit.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Practice kindness

I awoke from my nap this afternoon feeling so weak it took a good 10 minutes before I could push myself up and swing my feet to the floor.

Frankly I found that depressing.

As I lay in bed feeling sorry for myself and feeling that there is almost no point to my life – since owing to increasing illness and infirmity there is little I can actually do – I suddenly thought: “ah, but I can still practice kindness.”

To a culture addicted to materialism I think that kindness may seem at best irrelevant or at worst a form of weakness.

But we all need kindness. To some extent we are actually starved for it, which is one reason there’s so much aggression in our culture. Our environment is certainly starved for a little kindness.

Generating the capacity for kindness – giving rise to an increasing capacity for kindness – and extending kindness to ourselves and to all beings may be one of the most important and significant things we can possibly do.

At this critical time our very survival may depend upon our capacity for kindness.

So lets be kind to each other. It’s one of the first things we all learned as kids. And it actually feels good.

It feels good because kindness flows naturally from a kind heart.

Perhaps we cannot be kind all of the time. I certainly don’t feel kind all of the time. But we can practice. And that’s worth getting out of bed for.

If you'd care to indulge an immediate expression of kindness please consider signing the Sandy Hook Promise: http://www.sandyhookpromise.org/

Note: If you’d like a little gentle encouragement and guidance or perhaps feel the need to reconnect with your own kind heart I recommend listening to the audio recording of a talk given by the western Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön entitled: From Fear to Fearlessness. I found the talk at my local library and was able to borrow and download it onto my computer for absolutely free and from the comfort of home. Now that’s kindness! Yes. Our public library system is an expression of kindness that we all share in because we all support it. J

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A super great thing about being really sick

One great thing about being chronically sick and disabled is that I have less energy for my own bullshit.

I have less energy for all the mental trips and games I normally play with myself and with other people. Of course these things are old habits but it’s much easier to drop a pointless and bad habit when you see immediately how sick it makes you.

So it’s hard to feel sorry for myself when I see that being sick is helping me to get real. I see how little time I have left and I don’t want to waste it.

We should all see how little time we have left. When we truly know how short our life is we have a chance to sober up and quit wasting this precious opportunity.

And what is this rare and precious opportunity?

It’s our chance to cut through all our habits and games to the very core of the reason why we’re here which is to love. Love what? Love whom? Love how?

Just love.

This isn’t a self-improvement project.

Be who you truly are which is utterly naked like the wind and the rain and the earth, not pretending to be something or someone else.

Do it now. It can only happen in the space of now. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Let yourself be

Note: as I’ve gotten sicker writing has become more difficult. In order to continue this blog I’m trying a new format: short and pithy.

Today in a brief email to a friend I wrote: “To say that my health is poor is an understatement. But I’m still alive to joyful walk my spiritual path.”

If you don’t have a spiritual path that’s okay because what I really mean is that so long as we’re alive we have the chance to experience a moment of gentle peace, a quiet space of dignity that is the true nature of who we are. 

Take one moment. Sit silently. Be still.

Beyond worry and fear is peace. Beyond hope is a vast space of fearless freedom. Don’t think about it. Let go and taste it.

Being is not the same as doing. For a few moments each day quit doing.

Let go. Let go of everything. Just be. It’s easy. For just a few moments every day be who you truly are. It will slowly become a habit.

All of life is lived in one moment. We are alive now.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Coping with illness and other stresses – a Buddhist perspective

In order to maintain a basic sense of sanity while coping with constant illness I spend a lot of time working with my mind. Happiness is nothing other than a state of mind and therefore it’s something we actually have control over – it’s up to us.[i] If we pinned happiness to external circumstance then it would be no more stable than a house of cards in the wind. By learning how to work skillfully with our minds we can experience genuine happiness and have more resilience for handling stress.

Habitual tendencies

We use concepts and language often without realizing it to fuel our emotional states, as if we have to keep reminding ourselves why it is that we’re anxious, frustrated or afraid. We tell ourselves the same old stories over and over again and rarely give our mind a rest. Like a child poking a stick into a hornet’s nest we’re continually stirring up our mind, making ourselves unnecessarily miserable.

When we look straight at our experience without the weighty baggage of our usual narrative we can start to see that things aren’t as claustrophobic, solid or substantial as they seem. A sense of space opens up within the very experience of worry, anger, or fear. When we drop the labels and mental chitchat, even if only for a few seconds, we’re free to watch our mind and to let the energy of our mind settle on its own. When our mind is calm we are able to be relaxed and to experience a basic sense of well-being.

Calm abiding

Because we’re so used to our habitual ways of relating to people and situations we don’t notice when our minds are spinning out of control. By the time we do notice we’re in the midst of a full-blown drama: frustration has flared into anger; worry has turned into paralyzing fear and suddenly we’re completely off balance, unable to control our whirling thoughts and feelings.

When our minds are overwhelmed by negative emotions even the simplest things are difficult and cause additional suffering. When we have a calm and peaceful mind everything is more workable and even difficult challenges are manageable.

The best way to cultivate a calm mind is through the practice of mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness we know what our minds are doing: we can see when our mind is agitated or aggressive, excited or overwhelmed, sad or happy. By cultivating mindfulness we get to know our mind in all of its states. When we know our mind well and are able to maintain some degree of mindfulness then we aren't so easily ambushed by negative emotional state or carried away by positive ones. 

As a means to develop mindful awareness Buddhism teaches the meditation practice of shamatha, a Sanskrit word translated as “calm abiding”. In shamatha practice the breath is used as a focal object to give the mind something to focus on. We simply follow the breath in and out as we breath. Each time we notice that we've lost our mindfulness and that our minds have been chasing after thoughts we let those thoughts go and return to watching the breath. We simply drop the thoughts without any judgment about “good thoughts” or “bad thoughts” and return our attention to the breath. By practicing this technique we develop concentration and the ability to maintain a calm mind even in the midst of extreme situations and emotional states.


Mindfulness is a powerful and profound practice and can help us deal with both stress and physical pain but according to Buddhism it isn't enough to truly free us from suffering. To experience genuine freedom from suffering we need to develop prajna, or wisdom – the wisdom that sees how things really are. We’re constantly bamboozled by our belief in external appearances; we believe in our dualistic perceptions of subject and object, perceiver and perceived. But that apparent dualism is more like a habit of mind and not how things truly are.

One of the simplest examples used in Buddhism to describe the true nature of phenomena is the reflection of the moon on water. On a clear night with a full moon we can see a bright, vivid, luminous and convincingly real image of the moon shining on a still lake. The reflected moon does not exist in any substantial way but is the mere appearance of a moon that arises from causes and conditions that have come together: a clear night, a full moon; a still lake.

Likewise, everything we think, feel or perceive with our senses – taste, touch, sound, sight, smell – arises from the coming together of various causes and conditions. Although this is obvious we rarely think about the implications, which are utterly profound: our entire phenomenal world including the “I” or “self” has no permanent, unchanging, or independent identity.

Because all phenomena are dependently arisen they are no more substantial than a reflection of the moon on water. When we can actually see how it is the all phenomena are vividly appearing yet empty in essence that is the birth of wisdom in our minds. When we truly understand interdependence we have the chance to free ourselves from suffering because we realize that whatever appears is just like a reflection. Whatever we experience is illusion-like. At that point we quit grasping or clinging to dualistic appearances of sadness and happiness, friend and enemy, illness and health, etc. and we experience a profound equanimity.

Note: The way we develop the prajna that understands and sees interdependence is through the practice of Vipashyana or analytical meditation. Shamatha and Vipashyana are best learned at a meditation center where one can receive instruction from a teacher with experience in these profound methods of working with the mind.

[i] Certain physical conditions, like depression caused by chemical imbalances, can make it more challenging to experience happy states of mind. But knowing how to work with the mind in a skillful way can still be beneficial and help alleviate suffering.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cultivating peace and happiness within the experience of loss

Chronic illness is among other things an experience of profound loss. The loss of one’s health necessarily means a host of other losses that can include one’s friends, family, job, home, security, independence, mobility, strength, and stamina – the list can be almost endless. But it doesn't have to include happiness and peace of mind.

In fact we can use the opportunity of illness and suffering to generate something that Buddhists refer to as boundless joy - sometimes called sympathetic joy.

How do we develop such a quality of joy? By rejoicing whenever we see or hear of someone else’s good fortune. We have lots of opportunities to practice sympathetic joy because when we’re sick we often see or hear about other people enjoying life in ways we no longer can.

Of course it isn't always easy to feel joyful especially if we have habits of jealousy or resentment, which most of us do to some degree. This is our chance to become familiar with some of our negative habits and develop positive ones instead. At first it takes practice. In the beginning we have to make some effort but eventually feeling genuinely happy for other people becomes a new habit.

If we notice we’re feeling resentful or jealous that can be a reminder: “oh, yeah, instead of feeling resentment I can use this chance to practice feeling joyful.” Then we flip the negative habit – we drop it – and give rise to  happiness for the person towards whom we were feeling jealous. We smile and feel genuine happiness in our heart that the other person is happy and that good things are happening for them.

Notice that the happiness is in our own mind and heart. It actually feels good! With a little practice we start to automatically feel happy for other people when good things happen for them. We start to develop a happier and more peaceful mind.

This is part of a Buddhist practice called the Four Immeasurables: boundless equanimity, boundless compassion, boundless loving-kindness and boundless joy. They are called “immeasurable” or “boundless” because we cultivate these qualities towards all sentient beings. Since the number of sentient beings is considered to be infinite these qualities are also infinite as we develop the ability to extend them to all beings.

In brief, equanimity is considering all beings including friends and enemies as equal and having no partiality towards those we think of as friends or enmity towards those we consider enemies. Compassion is the desire to free all sentient beings from suffering and loving-kindness is the wish that all sentient beings have happiness.

We can use the opportunity of chronic illness to develop all of these qualities. When we suffer we can think that we don’t want anyone, not even someone we might think of as an enemy, to have such pain. Then we can extend our compassion and think how we would like all beings to be free from suffering. We think how wonderful it would be if all sentient beings were happy; we make the wish that everyone would have everything they need in order to be happy. Then we can practice sympathetic joy by rejoicing when we actually see that other people are happy.

When doing these kinds of practices it’s best to start with those we care about and have some feeling of affection for, otherwise it’s too difficult. Gradually we can extend these practices towards those for whom we have neutral feelings. Eventually we can include people we have difficult relationships with or whom we think of as enemies or have some feelings of revulsion or aggression towards.

In the Buddhist tradition when we do such practices at the end we always dedicate the merit so that all sentient beings have happiness and are free from suffering. These profound practices enable us to generate vast loving-kindness and compassion as well as a happy and peaceful mind.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Illness and the Buddha’s begging bowel

In Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic retelling of the Buddha’s life, the Buddha explained why he and his disciples begged for their daily meal: begging was a spiritual discipline that enabled the monks to develop patience and humility and because it freed them from having to prepare their own meals they had more time for spiritual practice. Moreover the monks learned not to be overly attached to food and to accept whatever was offered with gratitude – even a small yam or bit of rice was better than an empty bowl.

Because the monks were in daily contact with the lay community they established meaningful relationships with the townsfolk and could share the Buddha’s teachings with anyone who expressed interested. The concept of karma is deeply rooted in India and the villagers, whether Hindu or Buddhist, understood that they accumulated merit and good karma by offering food to the monks. By relying upon the generosity of villagers for their food the monks were reminded everyday of the truth of interdependence – that we are all interconnected and dependent upon each other.

We generally think of dependency as a bad thing. The truth however is that we are dependent upon each other all of the time. The problem is that we don’t usually see let alone acknowledge our interdependence. That’s partly because our culture over-values independence. We have an entire national mythology, a sort of cultural fantasy, of rugged individualism that might be great for our egos but that’s devastating for our development of kindness and community.  Of course we are all unique individuals each with our own talents and gifts. But at the same time we depend upon each other for our very existence.

Illness reminds me daily of my dependency and the truth of interdependence. I have to ask for help cooking my meals, doing laundry, getting to medical appointments, picking up prescriptions, shopping for food. Even the most basic things are often beyond what I can manage. Everyday I rely upon family, friends and even strangers for assistance. Most people are happy to help – it feels good to help another person.

Whenever I do ask for help, perhaps for something as simple as reaching for an object off a grocery shelf, there is a small but profound moment of contact with another human being. In that way illness provides me with opportunities to develop meaningful connections with other people and my community. In turn, my dependency creates opportunities for other people to practice generosity, kindness, compassion and even patience. And that’s a good thing. How else can we develop these qualities?

When we can’t take care of our own needs we can either become bitter and resentful or we can learn to accept our situation. I have to be patient with my situation and with those who are trying to help me. I have to be willing to ask for and accept help even though it's not always easy to do. Illness is my chance to practice and develop qualities of patience, kindness, gratitude, and humility. It's extremely humbling to be dependent which may be one reason, culturally speaking, that we prefer to forget our interdependence.

Humility is not valued in our culture and yet it's extremely important. We tend to think of humility as a kind of weakness but actually it’s a great strength. When we've tamed our ego to the extent that we care as much for and about other people as we do ourselves that is freedom. It's freedom because we've freed our minds, if even just a little bit, from poisonous emotions like jealousy and resentment, pride, arrogance, anger, spite and all the negative states of mind that cause us so much suffering – sometimes far worse than any physical illness. Gentleness, humility, kindness and compassion are true strengths that reflect genuine and unshakable fearlessness. I aspire to such fearlessness.

When I was still healthy I was stubbornly independent and wouldn’t ask for help even when I needed it. That’s not a good way to be in the world because it closes off opportunities to deepen our connectedness to each other and community. Living with chronic illness is not easy but it can be a rich spiritual journey. I can either waste the time I have left feeling sorry for myself or grab this chance to tame my own mind and develop all of the openhearted qualities that are so important. As I see it, illness is an utterly profound reminder of what is truly important and of the truth and blessing of interdependence. I’m reminded of these things everyday as if I too were walking from home to home with a begging bowl.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Suffering and the path of wisdom

It’s something of a joke among Buddhists – and among those who know something about Buddhism – that we spend a lot of time studying, contemplating and meditating upon suffering. It sounds depressing but actually it’s a very pragmatic thing to do because it acknowledges the reality of our situation. We can’t work with suffering effectively unless we have the courage to look at our experience exactly as it is without any sugarcoating. By doing that we get to know our situation in great detail so that we can relate to it with a sense of open-mindedness and sanity instead of the usual close-minded neurotic way we relate to things.

The first teaching the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment is known as The Four Noble Truths. Of those, the first is the truth of suffering. Why did the Buddha begin 40 years of teaching talking about suffering? Why didn’t the Buddha talk about enlightenment first?

The reason the Buddha talked about suffering first is because we can’t attain enlightenment by ignoring and skipping over the reality of our experience. It isn’t possible to skip straight to enlightenment. We have to begin the journey to enlightenment based upon the truth without glossing over how things are. “This life,” the Buddha told his disciples over and over again, “is suffering.” The Buddha didn’t say that to depress the monks, he said that to encourage them to get real and see things the way they are.

Of course no one wants to hear, let alone acknowledged, that this life is suffering. We want to think that suffering is only a small part of our experience. We want to think that if we just do the right thing, if we exercise everyday, if we eat our vegetables, if we wear a seatbelt, if we say “please” and “thank you” then we can avoid suffering. But that’s not realistic. If we look honestly at things we can see that suffering pervades all of our experiences in obvious and subtle ways. There are obvious forms of suffering associated with sickness, accidents, aging and death. Even those things that make us happy have the seeds of suffering in them.

For example: every spring when fresh strawberries finally arrive (imagine your favorite fruit for this example) the first berry is absolutely heavenly – plump, juicy and luscious – so is the second, third and fourth berry. But at some point we become jaded and the strawberries don’t taste quite as sweet. There’s a subtle dissatisfaction right in the midst of our pleasure. Added to that is the fact that they don’t last, which causes an additional feeling of disappointment. Maybe we eat too many and feel uncomfortable and a little sick of the berries. If we look closely at all of our experiences in this way we will find an undercurrent of dissatisfaction or discontent even in the most pleasant situations. That’s because things are impermanent and changing. Nothing lasts forever. Moreover, things never go exactly as we want no matter how much we try and control them.

It’s said that when we experience suffering so deeply that we want to be free of it, that very desire to be free is the first step on the path to enlightenment. If our life is nice and cushy then there’s no motivation to want to wake up. But when we’re completely sick and tired of suffering we have a lot of incentive to do something about it. When we’re sitting in the nightmare of our situation we want to wake up out of our dream of suffering. That dissatisfaction is a powerful motivation to start to question our experience and begin our journey towards wisdom. Without such motivation we’d never question our life, we’d never want to wake up. Who wants to wake up from a nice dream?

So that’s the good news about suffering. The moment we take a closer look at it we’ve started our journey on the path of wisdom. And what is that path of wisdom? It’s the journey of discovering the true nature of suffering, which is ultimately about realizing the true nature of our own mind. And what is the true nature of mind? According to all the Buddhist masters who have actually realized that nature, the fundamental nature of our own mind is peace, or nirvana. That fundamental nature is freedom from suffering.

It’s said that when we have some realization of the nature of mind then we experience peace right in the midst of whatever is happening. One doesn’t have to be a fully enlightened Buddha to develop some genuine experience of peace or to experience a taste of freedom from suffering. One does, however, need to know something about the true nature of mind and to learn about that we first have to develop a firm understanding of the truth of suffering. Through investigating our own experience we generate a sense of conviction about the truth of suffering and that starts us on the path of wisdom. Otherwise, without such conviction, we’ll never take that first step towards freedom.