How to Wake Up: Book Review

41TrCuW0wiL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_Reading How to Wake Up is like sharing a cup of tea and talking at a kitchen table with a warm, wise friend. Toni takes you step-by-step through the process of learning to do what is skillful (what works) and letting go of what is not skillful.

She doesn’t make false promises that it will always be easy, but paradoxically, her truthfulness engenders a sense of hope.

She explains concepts of Buddhism in a way that finally make sense to me–but you certainly don’t have to be a Buddhist to benefit from this book. She tells stories, uses examples, and offers “Practice Notes” sections to trouble-shoot common obstacles. You’ll learn tools for increasing self-compassion, dealing with jealousy and anger, decreasing worry and anxiety, and being more fully present with others, plus a lot more.

What I most feel when I read this book (and her previous book, How to Be Sick) is that Toni cares about her readers. She isn’t an author, preaching to us from above. She is one of us. She sees us. That is a powerful gift, indeed.

50 is the new 60

30-40-50-60-thirties-forties-fifties-old-birthday-ecardI don’t mean to sound negative, but I’m tired of hearing that 40 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 40.

I’m 51 and I feel like 60.

I exercise. I eat fairly well. I take my Centrum Silver one-a-day vitamin. But anyone with chronic health problems will tell you,  the everyday struggles can age you.

I wanted to write a whole post about this, but I lost steam. So instead, I’m rereading some of my own blog. Here are a few posts on taking care of yourself when you’re in pain, or just not feeling well for whatever reason.

Tiny Dreams A reminder to those of us struggling with chronic pain or illness of the need to adjust our expectations (dreams) to fit our current reality. Very short post, with some really nice comments.

People tell you to dream big

but maybe it’s the tiny dreams that matter.

Sometimes my dream

is just to make it through the day.

Coping with Chronic Illness…Compassionately My interview with author of How to Be Sick, Toni Bernhard (be sure and read the whole interview; Toni is awesome):

I always tell people that the single most important thing they can do is to be kind to themselves. I look at it this way. We control so little in our lives, but the one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. I see no reason for us not to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be. It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain. Many people have said they didn’t even realize they hadn’t forgiven themselves until they read How to Be Sick. Those emails always touch me so much — just to know I’ve been of help to them.

Leaving Judgment Behind A post about a story I told to my husband, who then told it to someone at work, and how it made a difference.

My influence may be less direct, but no less meaningful. And maybe it’s not about producing a quantity of work…maybe its about being as compassionate as I can be, to myself and others, and seeing where that leads me.

A Horse with No Name A quirky little post where I lament that there’s no colored ribbon or bracelet for people without a firm diagnosis.

I’m thinking about all the people who aren’t sure what’s wrong with them. They’ve been to specialists, had all the tests, and carried their MRIs down many a hallway.  I  wish there was a ribbon for people like us. I even went to a paint store to look at paint chips, in hopes of finding the perfect color name for our ribbon. The best one I found was “Mysterious Mauve.” It’s a subtle mix between gray and purple. Beautiful.

Today, know that I believe you. I know you’re not crazy. Doctors do the best they can, but they’re human, too. They make mistakes. They don’t have all the answers. They don’t always have a name for what we have, but that doesn’t make it not real. As Toni said in her interview, “The single most important thing we can do is to be kind to ourselves.”

And maybe 60 isn’t so bad; with age comes wisdom.

I “hang out” the most on Facebook. I’d love it if you join me! You can click here or over on the side (no one ever sees it over there).

 

New Thoughts for the New Year

There is so much good writing out there, and it seems like everyone was inspired to write at the end of the year. Here are some excerpts from some of the favorite posts I read.

Life Isn’t a Calendar, by Jenna McGuiggan, a writer, editor, and creativity coach. You can find her over at The Word Cellar.

The calendar days are tidy squares lined up in orderly rows, everything numbered to provide a false sense of linearity. It tricks us into thinking life is this way. Choose a word, set an intention, make a goal. Move forward, declare DSC_0044accomplishment. Make another list and tick it off step-by-step. But life is not a calendar or a list or a ladder you can climb rung-by-rung. Life is the ebb and flow of ocean tides, the sunlight and dappled shadow of forest paths, the contrast of white snow on evergreen boughs. Life is the overcast sky of winter that blurs the line between day and night, and the long June days when golden light seeps well into the night. Life is now. It’s the driveway that needs shoveling, the dishes that need washing. It’s the candles you light, the books you read, the tea you drink, the people you kiss. It’s the lists you make and the ones you forget. One step forward, two steps back, and three to the side for good measure.

In three days I’ll turn the page to another year, but I’ll know that this is just one way of keeping time. There are other ways to make sense of things, to pay attention to what matters.

The Art of Letting Go, by Lisa Lorden Myers, an author and fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue sufferer who works passionately to help others cope with chronic illness.

It’s funny how determination and will power can be so difficult to apply to the goal of doing less, instead of doing more.  We may know how to commit ourselves to goals and work to achieve them, but can we have similar determination to rest and to heal?  Can our will power be devoted to “letting go”?  Perhaps the New Year is a time to re-focus ourselves less on doing, and more onbeing.

Healing requires no resolutions—it requires only that we live each day the best way we know how, listening to our bodies, and nurturing our souls.

The Top Ten Resolutions Nobody Will Keep from Toni Bernard, author of How to Be Sick and Psychology Today blogger.

Every year I torture myself by making New Year’s Resolutions that I don’t keep. So, as a public service, in order to save you the trouble of letting yourself down yet again, I offer the Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions that Nobody Will Keep:

(she lists 10, so be sure and read the whole article, but my personal favorite is #9)

Number 9: I will maintain a positive attitude.

I learned from another Psychology Today writer that this is known in the therapeutic trade (of which I’m not a member) as “the tyranny of positive thinking.” Hurray! It’s okay not to always be positive. I think I’ll toss this resolution out straight away.

I had the privilege of interviewing Toni last year. You can read it here.

Rilke Always Says It Best, posted on Barbara Storey’s blog, Storeylines: One Person, Many Lives

And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done, full of tasks, claims, and demands; and let us see that we learn to take it without letting fall too much of what it has to bestow upon those who demand of it necessary, serious and great things.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

I hope the first week of 2013 treated you well!

Coping with Chronic Illness…Compassionately

Although Toni Bernhard’s book is called How to be Sick, I found it a lovely and poignant read on how to live, regardless of one’s health status.

Toni was a law professor at the University of California–Davis when she became ill on a trip to Paris in 2001. At the time, she was diagnosed with an acute viral infection–“the Parisian flu” they called it. Unfortunately, she never got better. Amazingly, she wrote How to be Sick from her bed using a laptop. The book won the 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award in Self-Help/Psychology and was named one of the best books of 2010 by Spirituality and Practice.

Toni has not recovered her health, but her spirit remains strong. She writes regularly for Psychology Today and generously donates her time and wisdom. I was so excited when she graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

When do you accept your pain or health condition as is, and when do you keep trying new approaches?

In my opinion, we have to do both. Acceptance is not the same as indifference or resignation, which carry aversion with them. Acceptance to me is an opening of the heart to the difficulties we face and being able to say, “This is how things are right now” even if “how things are” is difficult. I try to accept how I am AND continue to pursue new treatments. But I’ve learned a lot in the past eleven years about having to pick and choose skillfully among those treatments.

First, of course is the cost. I’ve spent so much money on failed treatments that it’s been a strain on our budget. At the point when the strain outweighs any benefit I can foresee, I stop (I did this recently with the third Chinese herbalist, even though he’s one of the most respected herbalists in the world).

Second, I’ve had to learn to not just jump at every treatment option, but think about it carefully and see if it’s at all reasonable. I used to try everything. Now, I’m very careful.

So, you have to find a middle way — but to me, acceptance of how you are now AND continuing to pursue treatments are not in conflict with each other.

I have also gone through periods where I’m just too exhausted to keep an eye out for treatments. I just retreat, as if I’m in hibernation, and that seems to be good for me sometimes too.

How do you have self-compassion when you’re feeling sick and tired?

I always tell people that the single most important thing they can do is to be kind to themselves. I look at it this way. We control so little in our lives, but the one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. I see no reason for us not to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be. It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain. Many people have said they didn’t even realize they hadn’t forgiven themselves until they read How to Be Sick. Those emails always touch me so much — just to know I’ve been of help to them.

I really think it helps to speak to yourself with words of self-compassion — to find just the right words for the moment: “It so hard to be sick yet another day.” I said to my husband yesterday, “I’m sick of being sick.” But, instead of “feeding” that thought with stories I spin: “I’ll never get well.” “I’ve been cheated of eleven years of my life,” I’ve learned to just let myself feel “sick of being sick” and speak to myself kindly about it. It’s natural for that emotion to arise so I try not to make it stronger by feeling it with worse-case-scenario stories. Instead, I’m just gentle with myself until the emotion passes — as it will.

How do you deal with uncertainty and unpredictability that goes along with chronic illness?

I use what I call “weather practice,” which I describe in my book. It was inspired by the movie, The Weather Man, which takes us inside the meteorologist’s craft where we see that the weather is unpredictable and ever changing. I use this as a metaphor for life. It helps me hold painful physical symptoms and blue moods more lightly. I can’t predict when they’ll arise but I know for sure that they’re just blowing through, like the wind. It makes it easier to wait them out. It applies to what happened yesterday when I suddenly got that “sick of being sick” feeling. I wasn’t expecting it to descend on me but it did. So I let it be there, knowing that it was an arising and passing mood. Sometimes, I do something particularly nice for myself — put on a movie — until the mood passes.

I also like to remind myself that uncertainty and unpredictability can work in my favor. We assume they’ll be a source of stress, but they could also mean that something unanticipated but wonderful is just around the corner. So, I like to remember that these two can be our friends.

How do you pace yourself (not doing too much on good days, then paying for it later)?

Now you’re asking about something I’m not very good at doing. I get off the hook a bit because my symptoms are pretty consistent from day to day — relentless you could call them. So for me, it’s not a question of overdoing it on a good day v. a bad day, but of overdoing it when something I enjoy is going on — like my son and his family coming up for the day from Berkeley. I try to pace myself but usually overdo it anyway. Then what do I do? Self-compassion again! There are some limits to which I can’t stretch myself, but visiting in the living room for longer than I should is one of them. And so I do it, and accept that paying the consequence was worth it.

How do you deal with anger?

I’ve been angry about my inability to be with my family more than I can. Sometimes, I do have to leave the living room and it’s hard to listen from the bedroom to all the laughter and good times I’m missing. But I’ve learned that getting angry doesn’t get me anywhere. It certainly doesn’t allow me to visit longer. All it does is increase our suffering.

Anger will arise. Don’t be upset with yourself for getting angry. It’s a natural response to your situation. The question is, how can you respond skillfully to it so as to minimize the suffering it causes. Here’s what I do. I note that it’s there, often by labeling it, “Feeling angry” or “This is what anger feels like.” I don’t get angry at myself for being angry — that’s just a judgment that makes the anger worse. In fact, I try to treat it like a guest I know well — an uninvited one perhaps, but still a guest. I find if I do this, it doesn’t fester and grow stronger. Then I look for what’s behind the anger. Almost always it’s some form of desire — I’m not getting what I want or I’m getting what I don’t want. It’s that “want/don’t want” I refer to in the book.

Just finding the desire that’s the source of the anger often loosens its grip on me, because I know, deep down, that we simply can’t fulfill all our desires and that if I continue to be angry about it, it will only make me more miserable and, in the end, won’t get me what I want. So, with this awareness that anger is present and that it’s because of a desire I can’t fulfill, I just let it be. Just sit with it. Just let it be until it gradually changes, weakens, and passes out of my mind. This is one of the ways in which the law of impermanence can be our friend!

Again, I’m so thankful to Toni for sharing her wisdom.  

To soak up more of Toni’s inspiration, click here.