Toni Bernhard, J.D. enjoyed an active life as a wife, mother, mentor and lawyer—with almost twenty years on the faculty of the School of Law at the University of California, Davis. That was until, in 2001, while on vacation with her husband, she developed an illness that has rendered her mostly housebound and nearly completely bedridden.
From her bed, and using Buddhist-inspired techniques that she’s practiced for over twenty years, Bernhard wrote her first book, How To be Sick, which gives sage advice about how to handle chronic illness. That book won her the “Best Spiritual Books of 2010,” two Nautilus Awards and a throng of fans clamoring for more.
How To Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow is Toni Bernhard’s new book, and she doesn’t disappoint. It has already received rave reviews, as it advises all of us on how to successfully ride the wave of this sometimes turbulent ride called life.
As fellow bloggers at Psychology Today, and two professional women who’ve had some degree of infirmity or injury (my car was totaled when I was hit by a wayward SUV in 2009), Toni and I have become pen pals over the past two years. I am happy to share her words with you as she discusses her new book, How To Wake Up (HTWU). Enjoy.
In HTWU, you address many human emotions and conditions: pain, anguish, frustration, broken dreams, unfulfilled wishes for one’s life. It can be very difficult to let go of dreams that never came to be and to adjust to major changes in how one envisioned their life would be in the future. You say the key to being able to acknowledge and accept one’s situation is to “let it be.” But this can take practice and re-training of the mind’s processes. Does this skill, “let it be,” develop like a muscle and get stronger with repeated use and exercise?
TB: You raise so many good issues here. Let me answer in two parts.
“Let it be.” This is the last step in a four-step approach I devised for working with stressful thoughts and emotions, such as worry, anger, and fear. (The first three steps are: recognize it; label it; investigate it.) Let it be refers to the ability to be truly present for whatever you’re feeling without turning away in aversion if it’s unpleasant. These are moments of “waking up” from which the book gets its title. It’s definitely a skill that gets stronger with practice—with repeated use and exercise, as you put it!
Of course, as is true with any skill that takes practice, sometimes practice doesn’t go so well. For example, you may be overcome with worry. You’ve gone through the first three steps, and when you get to that last one, find that you’re fighting against letting it be.
When this happens, it helps to have developed mindfulness skills so that you can recognize what’s going on: “I can’t let it be because I don’t want feel worry anymore.” That recognition alone can help ease your stress and anxiety because at least you’re acknowledging how you feel. Then evoke compassion for yourself over whatever suffering you’re experiencing. Craft some phrases that speak directly to your struggle: “It’s painful to worry so much”; “I’m trying the best I can, but it’s hard to accept that I’m worrying.”
When you get “stuck” in a stressful emotion such as worry, the best thing you can do is treat yourself kindly and with compassionate. That will loosen the emotion’s grip on you. The more you practice like this, the easier it becomes to let it be and take refuge in the universal law of impermanence, which assures that no emotion or circumstance will stay the same for long.
Broken dreams and unfulfilled wishes for our lives. Coming to terms with this is perhaps our biggest challenge—it has been in my own life. The belief that all our dreams can come true if we just work hard enough, or that all our wishes can be fulfilled simply isn’t in accord with the reality of the human condition. We don’t control as much of our lives as we think we do. The two corollaries of the universal law of impermanence—uncertainty and unpredictability—assure that this will be the case! I work every day on making peace with the fact that much of what happens to me in life is not within my control.
I have a lot of broken dreams, from not having two parents see me through my teenaged years (my father died when I was ten), to losing my career when I became chronically ill in 2001. Learning how to live gracefully, and even joyfully, with the life we have rather than the life we dreamed of is one of the major themes of the book. It’s full of exercises and practices to help us with this task.
Of the Buddhist tools you provide, is there one that you have personally found the most difficult to sustain? If so, how do you “get back on the horse”?
TB: The one that’s the most difficult to sustain is the one that brings the most peace of mind—equanimity. I say this about it in the book:
A mind that is equanimous responds to life with an evenness of temper and a peaceful heart, even when the circumstances at hand may be one of those ten thousand sorrows—tension in a relationship, anxiety over children or parents, stress at work or at school, health difficulties, loss of a loved one. Every moment of equanimity is a moment of waking up from the delusion that things should be as we want them to be.
In those moments when I’m able to let go of the desire for the world to conform to my liking, I can feel the peace and well-being of equanimity arise. It’s a challenge to sustain because it requires accepting that life won’t always go the way I want it to. As for “getting back on the horse” when I’m thrown, I do that by evoking compassion for myself over my inability to be equanimous.
In fact, whenever I feel stuck or confused, the first thing I do is to try and remember to be kind and compassionate to myself. Why shouldn’t we treat ourselves well? It’s not easy to navigate life’s ups and downs with equanimity! Being understanding about how hard it can be softens my heart enough to take a deep breath and then…try again.
Do you have to be a Buddhist to benefit from the book?
TB: No. In fact, I like to joke that it’s a Buddhist book for non-Buddhists. I write my books for people of any religious persuasion—or of no religious persuasion. You and I are in the same boat as was the Buddha: we’re human beings. This is why I start the book with this quotation from Vietnamese Zen monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:
It is exactly because the Buddha was a human being that countless buddhas are possible.
The word “Buddha” means “awakened one.” As a fellow human being—albeit an extraordinary one—the Buddha saw the potential for all of us to become buddhas—to wake up to the simple joy of being alive. I don’t look upon awakening as a transcendent and otherworldly one-time deal. I see it as a potential that arises over and over again, every moment.
With How To Be Sick, you developed a large following of faithfuls. That must feel good.
TB: I had no idea that the book would have the impact it’s had. I hear from people all over the world about how the book has changed their lives. They tell me that it was the first book that didn’t tell them to just “think positively” and their health would be restored. I love that the Buddha “tells it like it is.” He said, in effect, that we’re in bodies and bodies get sick and injured and old. It’s not our fault. So many people blame themselves when they develop health problems. How to Be Sick seems to have become the antidote to the barrage of cultural messages that tell us that if we just eat right or exercise right, we’ll never have health problems—and even more unrealistic, we’ll never grow old.
With this worldwide following has come a feeling of responsibility to try and help anyone who reaches out to me with their problems. I admit that this has occasionally resulted in burnout. I’ve heard it called “compassion fatigue.” People feel they know me personally as a result of reading How to Be Sick and so they send me emails containing long stories about their lives, often seeking help for a range of difficulties they’re facing. I do my best when responding and, in fact, these emails became the driving force behind the writing of How to Wake Up.
How To Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (Wisdom Publications) is available at Amazon.com.
For more, see Bernhard’s blog, Turning Straw Into Gold, or www.ToniBernhard.com.
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