“I see you.”
These three little words have remarkable power to change how you think, feel, and live.
Author Toni Bernhard visited Paris back in 2001 one and came down with a viral illness that has left her chronically ill and at times confined in her home on bed rest. She had been a law professor and dean of students in California. She was also a wife and mother and had her life planned out for decades, with a strong sense of identity bound up in career and as a very active family member.
The illness took that identity. She lost her career, and traveling with her family became impossible. But Bernhard was a long practicing Buddhist, and her ability to cope with the illness and the changes it brought, she writes, came from that practice.
In her last book, How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, she wrote about that ability to cope.
Now, in How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, she continues the journey and explores “how our difficulties and struggles can be the very seeds of awakening to what the Buddha discovered,” and how to alleviate suffering so that “we can find the peace and well-being that we all hope for.” Bernhard does a good job of taking us along on her journey, in a clear, understandable way, without alienating readers of different backgrounds.
Bernhard draws on her decades of practice and pulls from the many workshops she has attended and texts she has read, interspersing excerpts from these with her own story. She does this in a way such that anyone, regardless of their religious or philosophical beliefs, can fully listen and learn. She does not extol that one must believe in and follow the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path. She does not even mention them by name. What she does do is provide a framework for dealing with the joys and sorrows of everyday life in a step-by-step practice.
That does not mean that your beliefs will not be challenged by her book. The first challenge is that there is no permanent self. Indeed, nothing is permanent. Everything changes, and that can be tough to deal with. At times we may embrace that — as in, “This trouble can’t last forever, soon it will be over.” Other times, it may bring us sorrow in the midst of a beautiful moment. We gaze upon a beautiful sunset and lose the moment because we begin to think of its passing. Some of our sorrow can come from clinging to the belief that we have a “permanent self.”
Bernhard does use some Buddhist terminology, such as dukkha (suffering and sorrow), tanha (“thirst” or a “self-focused desire that is often experienced or felt as a need over which we have no control”), and gathas (“short verses from the Zen tradition that direct our attention to what we’re doing in the present moment”). But when she uses the words, it is to give structure, context, and continuity to the writing. She uses them not simply to throw around jargon, but because they have a richness and breadth with no literal equivalent in English.
There is a four-step approach to dealing with dukkha: Become aware that desire has arisen, label it, investigate it, and then let it be. The approach sounds simple enough, but for many of us, we get stuck, mired in the stories we tell ourselves. Bernhard takes us through the process of changing our stories in ways we can follow.
The beginning can be as simple as saying, “I see you.” When you feel a sense of dread or anger or envy arising inside, you may be so lost in the feeling that you are overcome by it. When you recognize it, you may try to fight that feeling to make it go away, but it just gets stronger the more you struggle against it. Bernhard says that to just recognize those feelings and then make their acquaintance can take much if not all of their power away. You say, “I see you, anxiety.” Then you look at where that anxiety is coming from, what the purpose of it might be (perhaps it is trying to alert you to protect yourself. Is that valid? Do you need to act?), and then try to let it be.
Often we are told to let things go, but that can be hard. I think the idea of “let it be” can work much better. You are not trying to push something away, but simply acknowledge it. It is far more than a semantic difference.
How to Wake Up is a comprehensive approach to living life well, even when the circumstances are difficult — and we all have difficult circumstances. Bernhard teaches us ways to practice mindfulness, including with guided exercises. There are exercises for enhancing loving kindness and compassion. These work not just for those times when anger, fear, and envy arise or when we become lost in judging ourselves and/or others, but for everyday experiences. They can help us deal with pain, whether emotional or physical. One particularly powerful practice Bernhard talks about is “death awareness practice,” one that can give more meaning and purpose to our lives. It is a practice I use in my own life and one that I share with clients when we work on mindfulness.
Bernhard says that in this book she has tried to give us what the Buddha taught — to abandon what is unskillful and to cultivate what is skillful. When you do that, you awaken to this life. It all begins with accepting the impermanence of the world and the self, listening to the stories we tell, and cultivating skill in those stories. Bernhard’s book and her stories of how to achieve this are skillful indeed.
How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow
Wisdom Publications, September, 2013
Paperback, 240 pages