Monday, October 4, 2010

Guest Blogger: Toni Bernhard

Several days ago, I finished reading the book, “How to be Sick” by Toni Bernhard. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and am excited today to have Toni as a guest blogger on Getting Closer to Myself, as part of her virtual book tour. How did you get sick?

TB: I fell ill on a trip to Paris in 2001 with what the doctors initially thought was an acute viral infection, but I never recovered. After six months, I was given the diagnosis of ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephomyalitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), although since that time, several other acronyms have been used to describe my illness, such as VICD (Viral Induced Central Nervous System Dysfunction) – a working theory of an Infectious Disease doctor from Stanford.

How did you come to write the book?

TB: I was completely unprepared for such a drastic change in my life. I was a law professor. I liked to travel to see my family. I liked to go on meditation retreats. I was active in the life of a young boy as his CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate). Suddenly, I couldn’t do any of those things. Despite years of Buddhist practice before I got sick, I fell into alternating states of denial, anger, self-blame, and even despair. We live in a culture that worships at the altar of wellness. It’s okay to get sick, but then you’re supposed to get better. Everyone expected that of me and I expected that of myself. Every night I went to bed expecting to wake up feeling like my old self even though for months and then years it had not been the case. So, in addition to my physical suffering, I was suffering a lot in the mind. It took 5-6 years to find my way back to the Buddha’s teachings on suffering and to the many practices that can help alleviate these painful thoughts and emotions. Once I began to change my relationship to chronic illness, I wanted to share it with others, so I wrote the book. The book is not about my particular illness. It’s intended for anyone suffering from a chronic illness or condition.

How has Buddhism helped you cope with chronic illness?

TB: First, it’s helped me understand my suffering. Second, it’s helped me to work with the stressful thoughts and painful emotions that accompany chronic illness and chronic pain. I think of the Buddha the way the Dalai Lama does – as a great psychologist. He had a keen understanding of how the mind works. Everyone’s life has its unique mixture of joy and suffering. The Buddha focused on suffering because it’s a truth about life that we tend to ignore or turn away from. It comes from the Pali word, dukkha which really means dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our life. In the first noble truth, the Buddha simply stated that, despite our best efforts to avoid it, everyone has their share of dukkha – both physical and mental – meaning we’re all dissatisfied in some way with our life. For one thing, we’re in bodies and bodies get injured and sick and old. Dukkha for me has included this illness. For others it could be frustration on the job, tension in a relationship, a bad living situation, even frustration over not being able to find your car keys!

It may sound counterintuitive, but when I started to really take in this first noble truth, I felt a great sense of relief. Finally, someone was describing life in a way that fit a good portion of my experience. What a relief to know it wasn’t just me or just my life!

So, we’re all dissatisfied with some of the circumstances of our life – unless we’re enlightened, of course! In fact, that’s my own personal definition of enlightenment: not being dissatisfied with the circumstances of my life. Just imagine for a moment not being dissatisfied in any way with how your life is going – opening your heart and mind to the unpleasant stuff too; just giving up all longing for your life to be other than it is. Just for a moment, drop all that craving, all that desire. It’s a relief, isn’t it? Those “wants/don’t wants” (as I like to refer to longing or craving) will almost immediately pop back into your mind, but it’s a taste of freedom, a taste that lingers.

The bottom line is: We have the life we’ve got – with its unique configuration of joy and suffering. We can’t always get rid of bodily suffering – the Buddha experienced great bodily pain at times. But we need not add mental suffering to that bodily suffering. We can do something about painful emotions, such as worry, fear, anger, resentment. We can do something about this constant craving for things to be other than they are in our lives. We can do something about stressful thoughts that, when left unquestioned, can lead us to spin elaborate stories we tell ourselves about our life and our future – stories that have little basis in reality.

How does the book address this mental suffering?

TB: That’s the heart of the book – specific practices that help loosen the tight-fisted grip that painful mental states have on us. One way to do this is to bring them to awareness (sometimes called mindfulness), to expose them to the light where we can see them for what they really are – impermanent for one thing (thank goodness), and also not inherently a fixed part of our identity. We are not just our pain. We are not just our illness.

The book contains several practices, some Buddhist some not, that help us question the validity of our stressful thoughts – those stories we spin about our lives – that have little basis in fact (“I’ve ruined my partner’s life,” “My friends don’t care about me.”). I’ve been helped tremendously here by Byron Katie’s technique for questioning the validity of our thoughts (there’s a chapter in the book devoted to her work) and also by a couple of Zen practices that keep me questioning my assumptions. “Am I Sure?” I’m always asking (thanks to Thich Naht Hanh). Am I sure the doctor I saw doesn’t care about me? Maybe he’s terribly overbooked today. Am I sure my friend has lost interest in me? Maybe she has problems of her own.

And the book contains many practices to help loosen the grip of painful emotions. Since emotions manifest in the body, this can even help alleviate our physical symptoms. One way to loosen their grip is to consciously cultivate calm and gentle mind states such as loving-kindness, compassion (both of these for ourselves first), and equanimity.

Some Buddhist scholars even equate equanimity with enlightenment, saying that if we can be calmly present with both our pleasant and unpleasant experiences, riding the waves of life’s ups and downs without the constant craving for things to be other than they are, we’ll know complete peace. And then, as the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah liked to say: “Our troubles with the world will have come to an end.” (On this score, I’m a work in progress!)

What challenges do you specifically address in the book?

TB: Whether chronically ill or otherwise disabled, we face so many sudden and unexpected challenges. Here are some I talk about in the book: coping with the relentlessness of symptoms and with the disappointment of failed treatments; learning not to blame ourselves for being sick; overcoming fear about the future; coming to terms with a life of relative isolation; handling being misunderstood or ignored by family or friends; dealing with cursory or dismissive treatment from doctors or other medical people; and, for a spouse, partner, or other caregiver, adapting to so many unexpected life changes.

Do you have to be a Buddhist to benefit from the book? (I’m not, and know very little about Buddhism, but still found the book to be quite helpful – especially as a young person trying to make sense of illness)

TB: No. The book is non-parochial. Many people, and I’m one of them, don’t consider Buddhism to be a religion in the traditional sense. It’s a practical path; it’s about how to live life day-to-day. The practices in the book will work for anyone, even for (as some reviewers have pointed out) people who are in good health!

In 1982, Toni received a J.D. from the School of Law at the University of California, Davis, and immediately joined the faculty where she stayed until chronic illness forced her to retire. During her 22 years on the faculty, she served for six years as dean of students. In 1992, she began to study and practice Buddhism. Before becoming ill, she attended many meditation retreats and led a meditation group in Davis with her husband. She lives in Davis with her husband, Tony, and their dog, Rusty.

Thanks, Toni, for sharing your story and book with us! And thanks for letting Getting Closer to Myself be a part of your virtual book tour. I’ve enjoyed having you here today!  And by the way, I love the butterfly on the book cover!

Toni can be found online at And feel free to leave comments for Toni here, at Getting Closer to Myself; she promises to check back often!


  1. I discovered Buddhism while in college, after taking a religion class. I had already explored the wonderful effects of yoga on my RA and was also very comforted by the first noble truth. It seems like a lot of people don't understand - they think this is a pessimistic view of life. But for those of us with chronic pain, it's one of the most comforting things that we could ever know.

    I have not read Toni's book yet, but it's definitely on my list now.

  2. Hi KirBir,

    I talk about this in the book -- how people misunderstand the first noble truth to mean that life is just suffering. It's not just suffering but we all have our share of it at one time or another. So, the first noble truth is just a realistic assessment of things as they are. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to alleviate the mental suffering in our lives. Those practices are the heart of the book.

    Like you, I find the first noble truth to be comforting. In fact, the first time I read the Buddha's teachings on it, I felt a big sense of relief: Finally someone was describing this life in a way that matched a good part of my experience. It wasn't just me who struggled with dissatisfaction!

    I'm so glad that you understand that the truth of suffering is not a pessimistic view of life.

    Thanks for taking the time to read the interview.

    Warm wishes to you,

  3. Thanks Leslie and Toni for a great post! I've shared it to my facebook page, and will also share to a group I belong to on facebook.

  4. This is so thoughtful of you to do, phylor. I really appreciate it!

  5. Thanks Leslie for sharing your blog with Toni and her book!

    Toni, Love the thoughts!


  6. Hi Tonja,

    I'm so glad you liked the interview. By the way, I'm a Toni and my husband is Tony!

    Blessings to you too,