How to be sick

Caitilin Punshon
Toni Bernhard has written a book called How To Be Sick. It sounds like it might be full of rules and instructions but it is not. Instead it is about Buddhist ideas and practices. Toni uses these to manage her chronic illness. She explains various practices in the book, including compassion and accepting things as they are. Toni is honest about how hard it can be do. The book lists different practices to use for specific problems with chronic illness. It is not only for people who are ill. It has good advice for anyone wanting to live well.
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Caitilin Punshon on 30/01/2013
Woman in pain lying curled up on a bed

How To Be Sick is about using Buddhist techniques to manage chronic pain.

It's a strange title. A book called How To Be Sick sounds like it would be full of instructions. It might contain rules concerning the right way to be sick. There could even be diagrams. But the subtitle of Toni Bernhard's book is A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers. And although it contains lots of information, there are no rules or diagrams in sight. Instead, How To Be Sick is about using Buddhist ideas and practices to manage life with chronic illness.

Learning to be sick

The book begins with the story of how Toni Bernhard got sick in 2001 and never got better. She was eventually diagnosed with a range of illnesses including chronic fatigue syndrome. Symptoms of this condition include overwhelming exhaustion, weakness, crushing headaches, and severe muscle and joint pain.

As she faced the limitations of her new life, Toni turned to Buddhism to learn how to be sick. Most of the book describes the principles and practices she uses to manage her illness. Toni has been practicing Buddhism since the 1990s. She also has experience as a teacher at university. This combination enables her to explain complex concepts in a clear and accessible way.

Buddhist beliefs

According to Toni, a central belief of Buddhism is that all living things experience pain, sadness, disappointment and dissatisfaction. What causes us to suffer is not the pain or disappointment itself. Rather, our suffering comes from our wish for things to be other than they are. We naturally want to be free of pain – in all its forms. But pain is a condition of our lives. By following Buddhist teachings, we can learn to accept this. That does not make the pain go away, but if we can stop longing for things to be different and accept them as they are, our suffering will be less.

Practicing acceptance

Toni suggests various ways we can practice accepting the presence of pain, illness and anguish in our lives. To cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability of chronic illness, Toni tries to view her experiences as being like the weather. Thoughts and moods blow in and out like clouds. None of them stay the same for long and none are permanent, no matter how bad they seem.

Other practices Toni describes include compassion and loving kindness. These involve thinking and acting in gentle and caring ways, towards both ourselves and others. Equanimity is also important. Toni defines this as accepting life as it comes to us without blaming anything or anyone – including ourselves. She writes of the importance of practicing equanimity whenever she tries a new treatment for her illness. This helps her balance both the hope that it will work and the disappointment when it does not.

Learning to live well

Many useful practices are detailed in the book. A guide at the back lists different ones to use with specific challenges of chronic illness. Toni always acknowledges difficulties facing caregivers too. Her advice applies equally to them. Throughout the book, her tone is humble and often humorous. Toni is honest about her own struggles to put the practices she recommends into action. Her words are like those of a friend sharing her experience rather than an expert issuing instructions.

Readers do not need to become Buddhists to benefit from the practices Toni describes. They do not even need to have experience of chronic illness. How To Be Sick isn't just about dealing with being ill. It is, in fact, a helpful guide to living well in any circumstances.

How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers was published in 2010 by Wisdom.

Readers comments (2)

Thank you for this excellent review. I have severe fibromyalgia and read this book because it was praised very highly. I am not Buddhist, but the book has become a real guide to living for me. The book helped me to put simple, but not easy, teachings into practice. These were so helpful. One of the things I needed to work on most was self-compassion. I had been a very active professional with 3 jobs. Also, I am a wife, mother of 4, and grandmother of 8. I valued myself by my productive life. When I could no longer even get out of bed, I blamed myself somehow. Toni's book helped me get past this. I wasn't alone anymore. I am now also part of a closed online support group called "How to be Sick Together.". So grateful for the book and for the group.

Thank you for your comments, Judy. It is difficult to avoid self-blame when living with illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. I am glad to hear that Toni's book has helped you overcome this feeling and that you have found connection and understanding with others in a similar situation. I wish you all the best in your efforts to live well and to keep practicing the "simple, but not easy, teachings" in How To Be Sick.

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