Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Learning from illness

Learning from illness

Young man lying in hospital bed.
I had to work with my fears and frustration especially when the body wasn’t responding to the treatment at first. (Photo © Vibe Images /

Ron, a Singaporean studying in Hong Kong, writes about his experience being hospitalized with an unexpected infection. Venerable Chodron asked him what he learned from the experience.

What started out as simple bronchitis has escalated to pneumonia and I have fluid in my lungs now. When the doctor  told me that I have to be mentally prepared to stay in hospital for another 1-3 weeks, I was so frustrated. The past week was very uncomfortable—countless needles and drugs injected into my body. I took so many medicines…it was hell. Just as I thought I was getting better, the test results showed otherwise and my condition has actually worsened.

[A week later] Two days ago I got out of the hospital in Hong Kong and then took a flight back to Singapore to continue my treatment at the Singapore hospital. I’m finally out of the woods now.

When I was sick, I remembered your story of getting Hepatitis A in Nepal, which you told in the book Good Karma, in the first chapter, “Sick as a Dog.” I tried to see it as karma ripening—the wheel of sharp weapons—returning on me for the destructive karma I’d created in the past, but it was really hard to accept! Like why me? Why must it be at this time of the year? Why must it be pneumonia? blah blah blah.

I had to work with my fears and frustration especially when the body wasn’t responding to the treatment at first. During the 11-day hospital stay, I learned the importance of patience (of not rushing my body to heal at the speed I wanted it to), as well as appreciating the kindness of others, especially the doctors, nurses, family and friends who were checking up on me daily to ensure that I was on the mend.

When I was in the hospital tuning in to the news I saw a mother who talked about how she coped with grief one year on after her son was shot nine times in Orlando due to a gay hate crime. She said that grief has become a friend, allowing her to understand and empathize with all mothers who are experiencing grief. She realized grief is a universal pain and suffering. Then she talked about how much suffering the gunman must have been experiencing to fire nine shots at her son, and she forgave him because he must have been so tormented to carry out such a heinous act.

Listening to her experience made my “suffering” feel really small, and I realized how small-minded we can become when we are sick. When we are physically ill, if the mind is not stable it can really create a pity-party or escalate into the anger and frustration that I experienced. So in a sense how I reacted to being sick was a reflection of my own practice during peacetime. I definitely have a lot more work to do on my mind. I am definitely not ready to cope with sickness now.

Thank you for asking the question. It has helped me contemplate my sickness and my Dharma practice.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

More on this topic