Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Toni Bernhard offers a practice for life


I've had the great fortune to be introduced to Toni Bernhard, author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, scheduled for publication in September (Wisdom Publications). In this lovely, informative volume, Bernhard tells of how she suddenly fell ill in the spring of 2001 while vacationing in Paris with her husband. What at first felt like a tenacious, energy-sapping flu was, in fact, a far more serious viral infection that would make it impossible for her to resume life as she'd known it. The university law professor with a treasured marriage and family soon found herself unable to work, shop, travel, meditate or even enjoy the visits of loved ones without a flare-up of debilitating symptoms.

Bernhard remains ill today, usually confined to her bed. Her book describes how she came to apply her longstanding Buddhist practice to this new reality and to the feelings of frustration, grief and envy of other people's freedom that often arose. Would it surprise you, though, to learn that her difficulties have inspired a lively, enjoyable book? With endearing candor and lucidity, this fine writer and teacher explores principles and practices that should help anyone who suffers, whether physically sick or well, and whether or not that person identifies as a Buddhist.

I have always respected Buddhism but felt distanced from its philosophical ideas and approaches to life and spirituality. In fact, there was much about it that I could not fully grasp. But Bernhard leads readers through easy-to-follow discussions and illustrations of practices such as mudita—taking joy in the joy of others—that not only offer liberation from resentment, loneliness and suffering but, in and of themselves, are just delicious. I suddenly realized that I've been practicing mudita and metta most of my adult life: It has always felt wonderful to enjoy the happiness of others and to sincerely wish them well. The trick is to extend this to all sentient beings and, trickiest of all, to remember to offer this loving gift to oneself. Bernhard shares what has worked for her.

Bernhard's experience reminds us of the preciousness of vulnerability, the impermanence of all that is, the value of the present moment, and the importance of releasing one's anxious tendency to grasp and desperately quest for answers that may never come. She admits that her life with chronic illness is a work in progress. Well, every life is a work in progress, and it is a fine thing to have allies and guides along the path. I am happy to have met Toni Bernhard through her generous teachings in this book and, in gratitude, I wish her peace and freedom.

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard

Paperback, 185 pages
Coming September, 2010 from Wisdom Publications 

Also see What are you reading this summer?, posted on
InfiniteBody blog on June 29, 2010.

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