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How to Be Sick Book Review

January 3rd, 2011 · No Comments

This book is spectacular! The author Toni Bernhard developed a post-viral illness in 2001, later diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Although she was a serious student of Buddhist meditation already, this experience challenged her body, mind and spirit to its core. What she shares in How to Be Sick is how Buddhist-inspired practices have helped her cope with her illness and its consequences, as well as continue on her spiritual journey.

This is a book for people who will not be their old self again and for all those for whom, at least now, getting better isn’t possible. This is a book that most reassuringly says even to those people, “You, too, are going to be okay – even if you never recover your health!”

Some of the challenges she faced include:

  • coping with symptoms that just won’t go away
  • coming to terms with a more isolated life
  • weathering fear about the future
  • facing the misunderstanding of others
  • adapting to so many unexpected and sometimes sudden life changes

The author reviews core beliefs in Buddhism as they pertain to her illness in a simple and helpful way, such as that suffering is a part of life, and that our wish for things to be different from the way they are creates suffering.

Buddhism also offered the author ways to move away from her suffering. She explains her coping techniques:

  • finding joy in the life you can no longer lead
  • how to soothe your body, mind and heart
  • using compassion to alleviate your suffering
  • facing ups and down with calmness and acceptance

For example, here are suggestions for when you’re sad and angry that you can’t do the social things you used to do. They are not glib “just see the positive” suggestions, but grow from a deep understanding of what a Buddhist approach can offer to heal your suffering.

  1. Cultivate joy for those who can enjoy activities
  2. Question how truthful the thoughts you may have are. Are you thinking, “I’m always going to be lonely,” or “I”ll never get out of the house again.” Are these accurate? Such catastrophyzing may be making you more upset.
  3. Stay in the present, rather than feeling sad about the past or worried about the future
  4. Move your attention to loving-kindness, compassion or calmness instead of focusing on unpleasant thoughts or pain
  5. Recognize the truth in the fact that we all will eventually experience a lessening of our ability to do things. Your time has simply come now. Then remember what you can still do.

These coping skills will come more naturally to someone familiar with Buddhist philosophy and practice. However, if you’re open to them, I believe they have much to offer regardless of your spirituality. I found the exercises very practical and clearly explained. They would benefit not just those with illness, but everyone in facing life’s challenges, and of any spirituality. I found this to be a beautiful book, full of wisdom. Toni opened her heart to show her own struggle and share what saved her. This book presents not just an approach to illness but a “life approach,” a philosophy of greeting life. It is a book – and way of life – well worth exploring.


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