As a Zen practitioner diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and facing a lifetime of chronic illness, I well know that nobody in his or her right mind would volunteer to be chronically ill in order to realize that there is no alternative but to practice and realize the First Noble Truth of dukkha: suffering, unsatisfactoriness and impermanence. However, sometimes this is exactly what happens. Toni Bernhard, coming from her own experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, paints a very realistic picture of the life of the chronically ill, forced into a present where the future is too grim to offer relief and the past can only be a comfort in daydreams.
Bernhard shows by example how understanding the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths can turn the suffering of chronic illness from a death sentence into a life of liberation, lived moment to moment. She cites many ways of making this change, one of which I found particularly useful: “broken glass practice.” She sees in a broken glass the impermanence of existence: “I find comfort in contemplating that my ability to participate in (the usual) activities was already broken, in the sense that this change in my life will befall everyone at some point and possibly by surprise. This is simply how and when it happened to me.” In the course of our lives, we will all experience illness, chronic or temporary, surprising or predictable. Dukkha is, as Bernhard says it, “an equal opportunity employer.”