The whole first section of Being Bodies, "Body as Suffering," took my breath away, it spoke so powerfully to my own practice with my illness. The first two chapters, in particular, were full of eerie echoes of my experience as both Joan Iten Sutherland and Darlene Cohen talk about practicing with chronic pain and bad health. Both these essays address the need to balance acceptance with effort receptivity to all of what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls "the whole catastrophe." Sutherland, however talks about discovering "active acceptance" and "the powerful act of naming what you want."
Cohen starts with acknowledging the necessity for effort, by describing how the fine levels of awareness developed by meditation are useful for self-healing. (I have experienced this, too but the depth of the work she has done on it inspires me that there's much more I can do.)
Then she goes on to say "But if you practice mainly to get rid of your suffering or restore an ailing body to function rather than to express your life and your nature, it is a very narrow and vulnerable achievement. ...We must penetrate our anguish and pain so thoroughly that illness and health lose their distinction, allowing us to just live our lives. Our relief from pain and our healing have to be given up again and again to set us free of the desire to be well. Otherwise, getting well is just another hindrance to us, just another robber of the time we have to life, just another idea that enslaves us, like enlightenment. Fortunately for our way-seeking mind, recurring illness is like a villain stomping on our fingertips as we cling desperately to our healthy, functioning bodies" (pp. 12-13).
Instead of preoccupation with the illusion of progress (Am I better?), she recommends a "spacious and bountiful spirit of letting everything be" (p. 14). "Healing yourself is just like living your life. It is not a preparation for anything else, nor a journey to another situation called wellness." (p. 13) Just something you do, because a body is to be honored. Again, this is something I've had glimpses of, but reading the stories about her experience takes me much farther.
Cohen suggests that "our intelligence and dignity themselves are developed by our being alive for the mundane chaos of our lives. If we cultivate awareness of our actual experience, without reference to any preconceived idea, then we don't prefer any particular state of mind. Intimacy with our activity and the objects around us connects us deeply to our lives. This connection to the earth, our bodies, our sense impressions, our creative energies, our feelings, other people is the only way I know of to alleviate suffering."
This includes attention even perhaps especially to the ugly parts. "When you include the shadow in your perceptions, your conscious life begins to be shaded and textured by your anguish and your petty little snits. ... My healing comes from my bitterness itself, my despair, my terror. ... I dip down into that muck again and again and am flooded with its healing energy. Despite the renewal and vitality it gives me to face my deepest fears, I don't go willingly when they call. ... I must resist until it overwhelms me. But I've come to trust it deeply. It's enriched my life, informed my work, and taught me not to fear the dark" (p. 17).
I understand what she's saying here, I've experienced the value of compassion toward my shadow. But I don't resist going down the way she does; I get fascinated by it, identify with the shadow, and get stuck in depression. So for me, honoring the dark means more emphasis on observing it mindfully, not dramatizing it.
Cohen concludes that being ill makes more clear the opportunity our bodies give us: to realize that wisdom comes embodied. "Your body is the only way that you can experience the transparency of all things and their interrelationships" (p. 14).
[That word, "transparency," by the way, is one translation of "sunyata" which so often is rendered "emptiness."]