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Life on The Path: Living With Chronic Illness

Living with a chronic illness or condition can be an incredibly challenging journey, marked by pain, uncertainty, and disruption to everyday life. Whether it's a physical condition like fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis, or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, the everyday reality of chronic illness can weigh heavily on one’s spirit. However, amidst the frustration and discomfort, if we can pivot our views just a bit, there lie growth opportunities, and deepening our Zen practice. 

Zen Buddhism has an emphasis on abiding with what is in the present moment (mindfulness), and the interconnectedness of all things. If we can work with some key Zen principles such as impermanence, non-attachment (letting go), and compassion, we may find more moments of peace and resilience in the face of our everyday challenges.

Embracing Impermanence

One of the foundational teachings of Zen Buddhism is the concept of impermanence. This is a scary truth to realize. For many of us, it never comes up until we are diagnosed with a chronic illness or condition. Impermanence is the understanding that everything, including our bodies and health, is transient and subject to change. For those experiencing chronic illness, this can be a tough reality to accept. Wanting things to be different, and yearning for some kind of stability and certainty, when faced with the ever-shifting nature of a chronic condition, can exacerbate feelings of frustration and resentment.

Rather than resisting this reality, Zen invites us to embrace impermanence as a natural part of life. By recognizing the impermanent nature of our health, we cultivate a greater sense of peace and acceptance. We can say, “Just for now.”  or “Just for today.” Instead of clinging to the idea of how things should be, or living in the past when things were “better”, we can learn to flow with the stream of change, switching our effort to adapting to whatever circumstances arise, “Just for now.”

Cultivating Non-Attachment - The Art of Letting Go

Another of Zen Buddhism’s foundational teachings is practicing non-attachment or letting go. This is the idea that suffering arises from our attachment to desires and expectations; wanting things to be different than the way they are. When it comes to chronic illness, this attachment can manifest in many ways. We may become attached to the idea of a "cure," clinging to the hope that one day we will be free from our suffering. Alternatively, we may become attached to our identity as a "sick" person, allowing our illness to define who we are.

By cultivating non-attachment, we loosen the grip on yearning and wanting. We can find freedom within our circumstances. Instead of fixating on an idealized version of health, we can learn to abide in the present moment; however it may look. Rather than identifying solely with our illness, we can recognize the whole range of our being beyond the confines of sickness. 

To be clear, it’s okay to hope. I’ve been watching the advances in medical science around my condition for years. I have hope, but I live in the present with the way things are. I try to stay positive but also practice with how things are in the moment. 

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness - the practice of being present in the moment, is at the heart of Zen Buddhist practice. Practicing mindfulness offers a tool for growing in awareness and be-ing in each moment. In the context of chronic illness, mindfulness can serve as a beacon of light when experiencing  dark moments. By bringing our attention to the sensations we experience in our body, and the emotions that arise, we can develop a deeper understanding, compassion, and hopefully some peace.

What happens with mindfulness is that we learn to observe ourselves with compassion and curiosity, rather than judgment or resistance. We may notice the ways in which our illness impacts us holistically: physically, mentally, and spiritually.  We may also start to notice the narratives we create around our suffering. By shining the light of awareness on these patterns, we can begin to unravel their hold on us, finding greater freedom and spaciousness within.

Cultivating Compassion

In addition to self-awareness, Zen Buddhism highlights the importance of compassion, both for ourselves and others. When living with a chronic illness, it can be easy to fall into self-criticism, shame, or blame, harboring resentment towards our bodies for their perceived limitations; all chipping away at our self-esteem, along with guilt. True healing, as we know, comes not from condemnation, but from a place of kindness and understanding.

By cultivating self-compassion, we offer ourselves the same care and compassion that we would extend to our best friend. If we can begin to do this, we can acknowledge the challenges we face with gentleness and tenderness, recognizing our inherent worthiness regardless of our health status. Similarly, we can cultivate compassion towards others who may be struggling with their own health challenges, recognizing the shared humanity that unites us all.

Finding Refuge in the Present Moment

Ultimately, the practice of living with a chronic illness, from a Zen perspective is about finding refuge in the present moment. It's about letting go of regrets about the past and worries about the future, and fully embracing the richness of life as it unfolds moment by moment. While our circumstances may be challenging, there is always beauty to be found in the here and now. We may just need help opening our eyes to see it.

In the words of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, "The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments." By opening ourselves to the fullness of the present moment, with all its joys and sorrows, we can discover a profound sense of peace and wholeness that transcends our physical condition.

I wrote this because I live with a chronic condition. Living with a chronic illness or condition is a difficult path to walk. Within it though, we can find a path of great depth and joy, even for just moments at a time. Through our Zen practice, we can learn to face and navigate the challenges of our lives with grace, resilience, and even humor, finding solace in the impermanence of all things. By cultivating the openness of letting go when our wanting things to be different arises, we have the open-minded space to practice mindfulness to deepen our awareness of the present moment. In these moments, we embrace compassion as the guiding force in our lives.

In the end, the journey of living with a chronic illness is not about overcoming the condition or transcending our suffering. It’s about learning to live as fully and authentically as we can in the midst of it all. It’s about finding beauty amid adversity and discovering the capacity of the human spirit to find peace and meaning even in the most difficult circumstances. 

This path is best not taken alone. When we reach out to and become a part of a sangha (community) we find refuge and the support of others who may be living a life more similar to ours than we expected.

Many of us at Rising Lotus Sangha are living with some kind of chronic condition. We aim to meet people where they are and make the sangha a safe and welcoming space for all. We all find some days easier than others, but every day there are people to reach out to, talk to, and receive compassion and understanding from. I have found this tremendously helpful on my journey and I think the sangha would agree. It helps to be around people who live with chronic conditions and strive to practice with them. In this practice of impermanence, letting go, mindfulness, and compassion we find the courage and grace, to embrace life with an open heart and mind.



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