Using the Dharma to manage an unpredictable illness

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About seven months ago, Cheri wrote a short article, Transforming adversity, about working with vestibular illness. She came to visit us at the Abbey a few weeks ago and wrote this letter to Venerable Chodron shortly thereafter.

Dear Venerable Thubten Chodron,

Please accept my deepest gratitude. The vestibular sickness I have suffered these past few years has really been an incredible gift. It has been the most powerful roller coaster ride I could ever have wished for. And I hate roller coaster rides. I avoid them. With this sickness when you feel sick it can be very scary. Your whole body tenses. You have to stay mindful and aware if you want to put it to any good use and not have it become an overwhelming nightmare.

Cheri smiling while sitting at a table with Venerable Jigme.
Cheri with Venerable Jigme at Sravasti Abbey (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

It doesn’t just happen once a week. Once a month. It can go on for days, many days, and it can come on any time. It can also last for two days, or one. I just never know. It seems to last for longer time periods, but sometimes I have clear days.

I have found that those clear days are the most dangerous for me. I have to be so very mindful. Because those days are the days that hope can set me up for a big emotional fall. It feels so good to be normal, 100 percent normal, you can’t imagine it could ever return. One good day flows into the next one and you get more and more attached to feeling well. And then suddenly it is back. And if you were not realistic, not paying attention to any grasping and attachment, it will be devastating. I will just want to cry. Then I have to label quickly, check up, check up, not believe what I am thinking, stop the reaction quickly.

When my legs suddenly go weak, so weak I have to make a concerted effort to move them, or when my heart starts beating hard and fast, and my blood pressure rises, and I grow hot all over my body, or when I lose eyesight, or feel nasty pain in my head and neck, when anxiety begins to rise, along with dizziness and vertigo, I have to be there, aware, aware of my reaction.

I can’t control what is happening in my body; no medication has helped. It is unexpected, it even happens during my sleep. Even in sleep I have to be aware. Aware of my rising reaction. Or I am toast and will be on a roller coaster ride of reactions. Fear will grow, confusion and anxiety will take over, I can’t remember a single mantra I have repeated hundreds of times, tears will come, maybe they are anger, they don’t feel angry. More like hopeless. But really born perhaps of expectation. Wherever it all comes from, in that moment I have to stop. Stop. Focus on my breath. Breathe. Relax. Identify. Label. First I just label it for what it is: a mental affliction. That alone stops it from growing. Then I can start to work with it.

I have to recognize and label correctly exactly what is arising. See it clearly. Openly. Kindly. No indulgence, just curiosity. No judging at all. Kindness. Then the mantras are back, I remember them all, and I practice. And all is good.

If I had not experienced this, my practice would have been so, so much poorer. I would have missed so much because I can very easily and habitually slide off into dream world. I am lazy. I like things to be pretty and nice and quiet and safe. I like to think I am in control. Make a plan. I have had my world ripped out from under me before, but not physically. Being physically unwell like this really puts you in a whole different place. It’s not a C-section or a broken bone. This messes with your mind too; it’s incredible how powerfully disabling vestibular problems can be. Suddenly I can’t spell. I can’t stay on the computer anymore. Suddenly I can’t remember something that I really shouldn’t have forgotten. I go from “Am I losing my mind?” to “Okay, if I lose it who does it belong to?” Thankfully, having a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd often save me from myself. But nothing saves me from my nonsense, my reactions to this sickness, like the Dharma. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. If my reactions were allowed to run free I would have created so much future suffering for myself, and others. This karma would not have just had space to burn out, it would have become a cause for more. So if I get a bit emotional, or am so inspired that I want to run up to the top of Sravasti Abbey and do a little twirl, which would land me on my head, that’s okay too.

I have deeply appreciated all the teachings and especially at this time the teachings on His Holiness’s and your book, Samsara, Nirvana and Buddha Nature. Very, very helpful.

Thank you so much. Much love,
Cheri

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