This article was first published Nov 18, 2012 by Toni Bernhard, J.D.* in her Psychology Today blog - "Turning Straw into Gold: Illness through a Buddhist lens." Toni is the author of the Nautilus Gold Medal winning book How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.
When Poor Health and the Holidays Collide
Four ways to ease the pain of limited participation in holiday activities
Toni Bernhard, J.D.
As people around the world look ahead to the holiday season, it’s a ‘happy/sad’ time of year for many of us (to use an expression coined by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield). I want so badly to spend time with my loved ones, but I also know that I won’t be able to participate fully in the festivities and that even my limited participation will result in ‘pay back’ later on.
To make matters more difficult, I find it hard to muster the discipline to limit that participation, even when my body is sending me strong signals that it's time to stop.
Traditionally at our house, our son and his family and a couple of close friends come for a Thanksgiving dinner that my husband cooks. When everyone arrives, invariably, I start out with a burst of energetic socializing - a reaction to the fact that I spend so much time alone.
I might be able to last longer if I paced myself, but I’m rarely successful at it: I’m just too excited to see everyone. As I say in my book, How to Be Sick, one of the bitterest pills for me to swallow when I became chronically ill was that suddenly the very activities that brought me the greatest joy were also the activities that exacerbated my symptoms. Prolonged socializing is one of those activities.
The most difficult challenge for me has been learning to cope with the isolation I feel when I have to leave the gathering and retire to the bedroom.
It’s particularly difficult because it always seems to coincide with the time when socializing has become easygoing and mellow. It’s not unusual for conversation to be polite and stilted when people first gather. But after a while, everyone relaxes. By the time I’ve mustered the self-discipline to excuse myself, I retire to the sounds of warm conversation, spiced with peals of laughter. It’s the very time I want to be with everyone.
When I get to the bedroom, I always think, “If only the party had started right at this moment, I could there for the best part!” At first, it’s very painful to hear the sounds of socializing coming from the front of the house. But over the years, I’ve developed some practices to help alleviate the sadness of being isolated from others. Here are four of them.
I used to compound the emotional pain of having to leave a gathering by blaming myself for not being able to stay.
It’s not uncommon for those of us who suffer from chronic pain and illness to think that it’s our fault for some reason. People write to me all the time, convinced that some kind of moral failing on their part brought about their health problems. Let me set the record straight right here: it’s not our fault that we are sick or in pain. We’re in bodies, and bodies get sick and injured. It could happen to anyone.
It took me many years to stop blaming myself for being sick. But when I did, the feeling of relief was tremendous. It was like laying down a heavy burden. And the reward was that it enabled me to begin to treat myself with compassion.
Self-blame and self-compassion are incompatible. I hope you'll work on replacing the former with the latter.
As I settle onto my bed, I don’t try to deny that I’m sad. Pretending that I don’t feel sad or frustrated or any other painful emotion just strengthens it. So, the first thing I do is to gently acknowledge how I’m feeling. Then I speak to myself compassionately about those painful emotions.
If you’d like to try this, I suggest you pick phrases that fit your particular circumstance and repeat them silently or softly to yourself:
“It’s so hard to leave the Thanksgiving gathering just when the conversation is getting good”;
“I’m sad to be alone in the bedroom.”
Repeat your phrases, maybe stroking one arm with the hand of the other. Stroking my arm or my cheek with my hand never fails to ease my emotional pain.
If speaking to yourself in this way brings tears to your eyes, that’s okay. They’re tears of compassion. To quote Lord Byron, “The dew of compassion is a tear.”
Joy for Others
I also practice what’s called mudita in Buddhism - joy in the joy of others. I think about the good time everyone is having and try to feel joy for them. If I feel envy instead, I don’t blame myself. I just acknowledge with compassion that this is what I’m feeling and then I try mudita again.
I imagine their smiling faces and the sound of their laughter. After a time, I can’t help but feel happy for them, even if I’m still sad. And sometimes, I even start to feel joy myself, as if everyone is having a good time for me.
My most reliable practice for easing emotional pain during the holidays is tonglen. Tonglen is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s counter-intuitive, which is why Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says that tonglen reverses ego’s logic.
Here’s why it’s counterintuitive. We’re usually told to breathe in peaceful and healing thoughts and images, and to breathe out our pain and suffering. In tonglen practice, however, we do just the opposite.
On the in-breath, we breathe in the suffering of others. Then, on the out-breath, we breathe out whatever measure of kindness, compassion, and peace of mind we have to offer them, even if it’s just a little bit.
Here’s how I use tonglen when I’m overcome with the pain of isolation at holiday time. I breathe in the sadness and pain of all those who are unable to be with family and close friends. Then I breathe out whatever kindness, compassion, and peace of mind I have to give them. As I do this, I’m aware that I’m breathing in my own sadness and pain, and that when I breathe out kindness, compassion, and peace of mind for them, I’m also sending those sentiments to myself.
I like to call tonglen a two-for-one compassion practice - we’re not only cultivating kindness, compassion, and peace for others who are alone, we’re cultivating them for ourselves.
When I practice tonglen, I feel less alone because I experience a deep connection to others who, like me, can’t fully participate in holiday festivities. Sometimes my eyes fill with tears as I breathe in other people’s pain and sadness surrounding the holidays, but I know these tears are “the dew of compassion” - for both them and for me.
If you find it difficult to breathe in other people’s suffering, then modify the practice. Rather than taking in their suffering on the in-breath, just breathe normally and call to mind others who share your circumstances. Then, in whatever way feels natural to you, send them thoughts of kindness, compassion, and peace.
You need not breathe in others’ suffering in order to feel connected to them or in order to enfold both them and yourself in your heartfelt wish to ease the suffering of being isolated during the holidays.
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You might also enjoy the follow up post, "Educating Loved Ones about Your Health During the Holidays," (Dec 13, 2012).
Happy holidays to my online friends all over the world... I hope both pieces will help people as the holidays get closer and closer.
- Toni Bernhard
* This article is reproduced with Toni Bernhard's kind permission. ©2012 Toni Bernhard. All rights reserved. Toni is the author of the very popular Nautilus Gold Medal winning book, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. Until she had to retire due to 'chronic fatigue syndrome' (ME/CFS/FM), she was a law professor at the University of California-Davis, serving six years as the dean of students. She can be found online at HowToBeSick.com. Toni also writes regularly for Psychology Today at www.PsychologyToday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold. Her new book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, will be published in Fall 2013.