Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. Her new book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Until forced to retire due to illness, Toni was a law professor and served as dean of students at the University of California—Davis. Her popular blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. She can be found online at www.tonibernhard.com.
Lindsay and Toni talk about the role of compassion in personal growth.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself
I was a law professor at the University of California, Davis until I became chronically ill in 2001 and was forced to retire after I got sick on a trip to Paris with what the doctors originally diagnosed as an acute viral infection. I never recovered. I tried going back to work part-time but eventually had to trade the classroom for the bedroom.
Q: Tell us about your path to becoming an author:
Being mostly bedbound, I had to build a new life for myself. I’d been a practicing Buddhist for 10 years before getting sick, but had put all that aside as I frantically tried to figure out why I wasn’t recovering. After 3-4 years, I realized that, although I wanted to continue to search for treatments, I also had to learn to accept my life as it was. I turned back to the Buddha’s teachings and began to use them to learn “how to be sick.” I started to write about it and those writings eventually came together as my first book: “How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.”
Q: What is your philosophy on healing or overcoming health challenges:
My philosophy is that we have to do everything we can not to add mental suffering to the physical suffering of illness or chronic pain. This means starting where we are with the life we have. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured and old. It happens differently for everyone, but it happens to everyone. Fighting against this reality of the human condition only makes us unhappy. Learning to accept it with grace opens our minds to the world around us and what we might be able to do within the limitations imposed by our health challenges. And it opens our hearts to ourselves and others with compassion for any suffering we might be experiencing.
Q: How have you used adversity in your life to fuel your commitment to balance and wellness?
It was only through the adversity of illness that I came to understand the realities of life as it is for everyone—full of uncertainty, a combination of joys and sorrows. Then I was able to find a place of peace, despite the challenges and difficulties in my own life.
Q: What are your core routines for wellness?
I practice compassion for myself and others and I practice equanimity. The latter refers to a mind that is balanced and steady in the face of life’s ups and downs. By accepting that life will be a mixture of joys and sorrows, successes and disappointments, I’m much better able to “ride” those ups and downs with grace. It’s an ongoing practice but one that, for me, is well worth the effort because it brings peace of mind with it.
Q: What tips do you recommend for those dealing with / healing from illness?
Well, of course, I think my book, “How to Be Sick” can be tremendously helpful to people here. Every day I hear from people who say that the book has changed their lives—taught them how to live well despite their health challenges. I mention my book because it contains all the tips I have and they’re too long to list here!
Q: If there was only one thing a person could find the energy and resources to make a priority what would it be?
To treat themselves with compassion. Many people blame themselves when they develop health problems, as if it’s a sign of some defect in their character or a personal failing on their part. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I said, all people face health challenges at one time or another in their lives. The least we can do is treat ourselves with kindness and compassion when that happens. Both of my books have many kindness and compassion practices so that readers can learn to make it a habit to treat themselves well. Many of us were conditioned from childhood to be our own harshest critics. But that conditioning can be reversed with practice.
Q: What is your favorite inspirational quote for healing?
“Make good medicine from the suffering of illness.” —Kyong Ho