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Zen and the Art of Being Ill

Earlier this year, the Queen went into hospital for a day or two with gastro-enteritis. The rather dour royal correspondent on the news programme I saw assured us that Her Majesty would be frustrated at not being able to fulfil her numerous regal functions, although she was reported to be in ‘good spirits’. Personally, without wishing to underestimate the unpleasantness of gastro-enteritis, I can’t help wondering if the Queen was not secretly relieved to be able to forget about her various obligations for a day or two and just lie back and let the hospital staff look after her. (I presume she had a better experience than some of the patients from the Mid Staffordshire scandal).

But maybe the dour correspondent was right; maybe she really was frustrated and impatient to get back to work. An impatient patient, royal or otherwise, is of course a contradiction in terms, which might make us reflect for a minute on just why people who are having some form of treatment are called patients. It suggests that illness requires us to be patient. But what is patience?

Perhaps it is a bit under-valued these days, the ability to endure, not with gritted teeth and frustration, but with a degree of composure, of acceptance that some things cannot be hurried. True patience involves a degree of wisdom, to know when we should be active and when we are better served by a quiet waiting. Patience involves not grasping for the future; the ability to let things take their course when that is the best option.

Patience is clearly often required during illness. This means that illness is sometimes an opportunity to discover a new way of being, a patient way. For example, if like the Queen we are used to being always on the go, always doing things, always pushing into the future, always on a tight schedule, it can be a bit of a shock not to be able to keep going. We can then choose to fight against that fact, perhaps not really admitting we are poorly, or we can choose a different way. Sometimes we may need to let go of all that active pushing. Sometimes we may need to admit we are not in as much control as we thought. We may need to lie back for a while, perhaps remembering that we are not quite as indispensable as we like to think, that the world will continue, more or less, without us (and even if it won’t, there is nothing we can do about it!) We may need to allow ourselves to be looked after, if we are lucky enough to have someone who will look after us (although on occasion we might find that we need more patience with the people looking after us than with the illness itself!)

I don’t want to underestimate how difficult illness can sometimes be, but I want to suggest that sometimes it can allow us to experience life in a different way, and that this different way – a patient way – is a very valuable and even beautiful thing. It can enable us to let go into what might be called egolessness; that part of us that is always doing, planning, hurrying, worrying and grasping is suspended and, despite our illness, a quiet, patient peacefulness may take its place.

Perhaps this quality is most likely to be experienced as we begin to get better. If you listen to the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor op 132, the movement entitled ‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Deity’ you will get a sense, perhaps, of what I mean. It is a piece of music extraordinarily evocative of the sense of new life that begins to come as we recuperate, especially if, as was the case with Beethoven, we have been seriously ill. Illness makes us realise that there are a whole lot of things which we normally take for granted but which may, easily, be taken from us, ranging from the ability to put our socks on to life itself. As we recuperate, the fact that these things are gradually restored to us can seem almost miraculous. Indeed life itself can seem miraculous. At this time there can be a freshness of perception, an ability to appreciate the wonder and beauty of the simplest things – a bird singing outside our window, a friendly smile, a cup of soup – and with this, maybe a sense of gratitude. We may or may not be like Beethoven in feeling grateful to a heavenly deity; we may just feel grateful, grateful to be alive, today, this instant, now.

The title of this blog is of course a little tongue in cheek, but in fact the experience which I am talking about is perhaps not a million miles from the experience which comes from Zen meditation. In Zen, this experience may only come after many years of discipline and effort – a Zen monastery or nunnery is a demanding place – and the experience of patience that we can learn sometimes from illness is of course also no easy thing. No one is suggesting that being ill is easy – sometimes it is overwhelming. No one is suggesting being ill is a good thing. But as all Zen Buddhists know, adversity is also opportunity. If we can learn to let go, learn to be a patient patient, we can emerge from illness just a little bit more human, a little more aware, even a bit wiser – a bit more patient.

Written by Vimalaprabha

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