[comment] ...what I am seeing in facilitating of the [Sunday School] classes on Buddhism, as well as the ongoing study of Ephesians, is that they are both saying the same thing: life here hurts, but it is possible to some extent to transcend the pain (dukkha) of this life and find enlightenment and freedom, even while enduring the pain. From what I see from the Buddha, the pain is intensified as we focus on ourselves (tanha), but it dissipates as we—to use Christ’s term—deny ourselves (anatta), a concept that is not easy to explain; I’m not sure what “no self” (the usual translation of anatta) means.
We talked in the Ephesians class yesterday about the martyrs, who were burned at the stake, and sang hymns until they could no longer breathe. Sure, they were in severe pain, but there was something else going on for these mystic martyrs.
Well, I did not mean to preach [about your ongoing chronic illness], and I don’t intend that you say, “Aha, that’s what it’s all about!” These thoughts are nothing new to you; you undoubtedly know more about them than I do. I relate them simply because I was reminded of the tie-in.
Illness pulls one’s focus inward. Anyone with a sick child, or the stereotypical sick husband, knows that there is nothing like illness to make a person self-centered, completely uncaring about anything other than the miserable experience in his own body. One of the first signs of recovery in acute disease is when the patient’s attention turns again outward. A minor illness makes people cranky, a more serious one takes them right past cranky into sullen and distant, turned so inward that all interventions are mere nuisance. As healing happens and the patient returns to an outward enough consciousness to be a grouch, the nursing staff breathes a sigh of relief (at least initially). And as recuperation continues, the child once again clamors out of bed to run and play, the husband heads back to work—both a return to the outer world.
We are at ease when our Selves are able to expand into community. Dis-ease occurs when we are contracted too far into our individual existence. Religions of all kinds tell us that spiritual health is when we can expand our self so far outward that we merge with the community—when we lose the self to gain Christ, or attain the No Self. We all live on this continuum of individual ego, moving from points of solidified ego consciousness, selfishness, complete inward focus, to points of community, spiritual unity, dissolution of ego consciousness, and back. It is a dynamic continuum and we are always shifting our position.
Like all continua, the endpoints are not opposites but meet up as in a circle. One can lose ego boundaries in pathology, just as one can look inward beyond the Self to find a Higher Consciousness. In an unexpected turn of the wheel, this hysterical illness of mine has served to bring me from a place of ignorant spiritual disease to a place of greater spiritual health. Although I thought I was psychologically healthy, spiritual aware, before the onset of this illness, actually I was lost. Lost in externals, my boundaries defined not by a healthy ego but by demands from society, ideology, family, I participated in the rat race of parenting, homeschooling, career planning, never realizing that my actions were dictated by influences outside my Self. I lost myself in trying to be the best crunchy granola mom in the homeschool group. I defined myself by how well I followed all the rules—eating the most organic, local foods, buying only natural hand-made toys, making my own medicines and condiments and cheese (okay, I really failed at cheese)—rather than by internal standards of compassion and grace. Everything I did, no matter how well intentioned I had thought it, happened because I sacrificed myself to my family’s perfection. My own boundaries were much too porous; I didn’t know where the external demands of family and culture stopped and I began. I identified myself by my ability to exist for others. It was a pathological lack of ego structure.
And I burnt out. My adrenals quit supporting all the demands I put on myself. For two years, I was crazy, neurotic, more than a little psychotic at times. I lost even the illusion that I had a Self. In moments of lucidity, I found a name for this physiology—hypoadrenia, probably Addison’s disease if I’d found a doctor who took me seriously enough to test it back then—and worked very hard at recovery.
I was pretty successful. I got healthy enough to think about employment, or maybe taking up my education again. But I had only addressed the physiology of my disease. I was still identifying myself by what I could do—become a doctor, homeschool my kids, cook a damn fine meal—rather than what I was. My Self was still lost, dissolved in the expectations from family and culture.
Regaining a healthy Self required me to pull inward, define myself by internal standards, even develop those standards by which to define myself. Illness demanded that I look inward. Particularly illness that didn’t go away. I couldn’t simply grit my way to the end, wait out the fever or the cough—though I tried to “just hang on”. As month after month became year after year, and I could do less and less of the work that I took such enjoyment (and pride and identity) from, I have been forced to reconsider my boundaries. As I have to tell my kids, myself, “no” again and again for even the most commonplace of demands—grocery shopping, staying functional through a whole play or swim meet, snuggling on the couch—I learned that my Self is not defined by these things. My Self, I, am stronger and steadier, more secure, now in this chronic debilitation than I ever was in my “healthy” before-illness state. Even in my bitchy, bitter, weariness.
Is this the grace? The transformation of the mud into the flesh that holds Life? The breath that gives life, that sings through death?