This past weekend twenty-eight meditators from in or around Houston, Austin, and San Antonio gathered at “MAC,” the Margaret Austin Center, near Chappell Hill, Texas. Some of us have been practicing for decades, and four were attending their first retreat. The landscape itself seemed to welcome and support us with gently rolling hills and meadows of undulating long grasses. A succession of cloud formations, sunrises, sunsets, rain squalls, and bright stars filled the big sky above us as we benefited from Lila Wheeler and Katy Wiss leading a four-day retreat on the theme of “Illness and Freedom.”
We began by taking the three refuges—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha– and the five precepts, which focus on non-harming. Above the entrance door of my sleeping quarters hung a web where a benign spider was guarding a full egg case. Respecting all life meant cohabitating with the spider and with a snake that curled up by the women’s dormitory.
In the meditation hall, Lila and Katy reminded us of the Buddha’s first Noble Truth about suffering as an integral characteristic of life and his teachings that the messengers of aging, illness and death visit every one of us. Pain is part of the human process. We can’t change the fact that human beings get ill. Even so, we tend to take sickness personally and to resist unpleasant symptoms, adding extra suffering to what is already uncomfortable.
Much of the retreat centered on bringing kindness and tenderness to our vulnerabilities. Instead of judging or identifying with moments of reactivity, we practiced bringing compassion to resistance, recognizing how hard it is to change conditioned habits. As a group, we set an intention to rest in the awareness of our experiences and to incline the mind towards relaxing. Some of our meditations were in the posture of lying down. The sangha acted as a caring community of mutual support.
As I entered Noble Silence and slowed down my usual speedy tempo, I could focus on the present moment instead of anticipating the future. During walking meditation periods, the mantra, “Be here now” accompanied the movements of my feet. I felt the relief of pausing the habit of pushing my body with my mind.
Katy gave a Dharma talk about her own experiences with Rheumatoid arthritis, including two knee replacements. She mentioned that chronic illness makes her very aware of the second Noble Truth—that the cause of suffering is clinging and wanting reality to be different than it is.
She questions cultural attitudes that illness is bad and common metaphors about fighting or battling against symptoms. Katy says that it is unhelpful to view being ill as being wrong or to ask, “Why me?” or “What did I do to cause this sickness?” She tries not to be attached to seeking new remedies. Instead she wonders, “How can we surrender to the experience of being alive?”
The brain anticipates what will happen next and tends to become overly active during the uncertainty of illness. Because sickness can unbalance us and make us feel homeless, Katy suggests creating a sense of home in the body, caring for it and maintaining it. Barbara Gates wrote when cancer visited her that she was “already home.”
Writing about Buddhism and chronic fatigue, Tony Bernard says that we need to learn how to be sick—accepting our current state of health—not comparing ourselves to others nor to how we used to be.
For chronic illness, Katy recommends letting the pain be there as part of awareness of the whole body, allowing the pain to manifest, change, and ebb and flow. When she feels out of control, she acknowledges emotions of fear and impotence as they arise. Then, while physically stroking her own arm in a comforting way, she sends herself compassion. She finds it helpful to remember the impermanence of symptoms that are especially intense.
Katy listed some of the gifts of illness: contemplation, reflection, inner investigation, tolerance, patience with not knowing, embodied mindfulness instead of intellectual analysis, and letting go of addiction to comfort. Consciousness of these gifts can lead to transforming illness into compassion for others’ suffering.
Katy guided us through a meditation in which we scanned the body for a spot that felt pleasant or neutral. We visualized golden light energizing that part and spreading throughout the body and beyond to share the energy with others.
Lila’s Dharma talk was about “Being Human.”
Human comes from the word “humus” or the dirt from burial customs— community care for vulnerability.
Lila showed us a diagram that related feeling tones (of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral) to attitudes that lead to attachment. Actions that stem from attachment can become patterns of habit. She related the diagram to how she is adapting to her husband developing a chronic illness. Their relationship is shifting, and there are new restrictions because of his greater vulnerability and dependence and his frequent doctors’ appointments.
Lila cited a Buddhist text about the responsibilities of a patient and a nurse. The Buddha taught that a patient should discern when to eat, drink, and take medications. Patients should actively engage in treatment without too much grief or irritability, showing gratitude for help, and reporting clearly about their health condition.
Nurses should be altruistic, giving timely medicine, coping with their own disgust, and enjoying conversing with patients. A nurse should not be negligent, lazy, careless or irritable.
As she takes on a caregiver role, Lila observes her inner process honestly. Some routines that used to be shared are now her responsibility. Each morning when she fetches the newspaper, she notices her attitude. Sometimes she is graceful and other times resentful. The paper seems lighter or heavier depending on her attitude. She tries to remember, “His burdens are greater than mine.” What is in the foreground changes-sometimes she sees her husband; other times his illness predominates.
Lila finds liberation as a caregiver by caring for her own needs—taking a 10-day trip to India, and releasing feelings with trusted friends. She seeks positive experiences to balance what is challenging. She is learning to bring kindness to her own limitations and difficulties in caregiving, realizing that she has no control over how her husband eats or acts—letting him do it in his own way. What works for Lila is presence with an attitude of care and attention, bringing diligent tenderness to herself and to her partner, and expressing gratitude. She is learning to find comfort in being unbalanced, without rushing and multitasking.
Lila’s advice is for us to be honest and straightforward about our own humanity. She asks, “How can we lean into the difficulties of our lives and find what brings us to a sense of the sacred?” She reminds us that transcendence is available in any moment.
I had such a moment, waiting to strike the outdoor gong. The evening light was “just so”—unrepeatable—as it lit up tree limbs, tall grasses and wings of birds. All was still, peaceful, and felt eternal.