Practicing With Sickness Barry Magid October 4th 2008

It's been a week in which one person after another seems to be coming down with some version of flu, and now I'm starting to get a sore throat myself, so I figured it might be an appropriate time to say a few words about how we practice with sickness. In traditional Zen terms, one might simply say, when your sick, just be sick; some days we sit feeling well, other days we sit feeling sick, and that's all there is to it. But it turns out not to be so simple if when we look at how we actually feel about being sick. The danger inherent in the traditional way of looking at it is that we simply train ourselves in toughness or endurance, and then we're doing no more or less than athletes do when they "play hurt." Endurance is a good quality to have, of course, but it can be very lopsided if it just feeds into a macho self-image. My experience is that many Zen students and athletes get good at enduring pain, but are not so good at enduring their own weakness, vulnerability, or dependency. So in the guise of not avoiding pain, they really are avoiding something that is psychologically much more painful. If we're going to practice intelligently with illness or with pain, what we most need to do is cultivate a psychological awareness and honesty about how we handle ourselves in the face of it. Do we try to always tough it out, and never admit anything is too much for us? Or do we easily feel overwhelmed and and always think things are too much for us to handle? Real practice should equally expose and challenge both of these positions. If we're sick, we might approach sitting the way a parent does when they're feeling sick, but still has to get up to take care of a child - most of the time they will just get up and do their best, regardless of how they feel. But they should also be able to recognize that there can come a point where if they're really too sick, they may be doing more harm than good, both to themselves and to their child if their only mode of operating is to just tough it out. Our practice should always be about watching our selves as honestly as possible - and keeping that honesty intact and functioning is the real goal - not logging the most possible hours sitting on our cushions no matter what.

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