Impermanence and Complaint

“Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.” (Suzuki Roshi)

I’ve been pretty sick with a cold–for almost four weeks now. Tests identified rhinovirus on July 17 and again (still!) on August 8. In the last couple of days I had a low-grade fever which was just enough to make me feel crappy.

I’m hopeful this morning. The Tylenol and Ibuprofen are keeping the temp down. I’ve started taking Augmentin (penicillin), which is usually not recommended without signs of a bacterial infection, but doctors are extra-careful with stem cell transplant patients, especially with fever. I’m starting to feel better.

This cold has been even more annoying because 2017 has so far been the year of viruses–rhinovirus, influenza, parainfluenza. I think the immunosuppressant I was taking for graft-versus-host disease (now resolved) increased my vulnerability to these things (no great leap of logic), so I stopped taking it.

When I feel good, I forget to appreciate how nice it is to feel good. When I’m very sick, I’m in the hospital–surrounded by experts, and usually I have a strong feeling (and motivation) that there’s a treatment that will make me better. In both those situations, feeling very good or very bad, I can forget or ignore the fact of impermanence.

When I have “just” a cold, but feel too crappy to do anything, I discover a sense of guilt if I don’t recover quickly. (That’s helpful, right? If you don’t feel well, there’s a mental trick to make you feel even worse.)

Feeling good doesn’t last long before it shifts. But who thinks like that?

Buddhists try to. It’s challenging to think about impermanence when everything in your life is going swimmingly. But that’s when we should be taming and training our minds, because we know things will change. It’s easier to train your mind when your body isn’t overwhelmed, to prepare for when it is.

Feeling bad is a clear message, a lesson, that feeling good doesn’t last. The medical rush to make it better can be a way to avoid awareness of impermanence. We’d rather not think about it.

My practice, I remind myself, is to simplify my inner commentary, calm my personal curmudgeon. (Seriously? Another virus?!) Stop complaining.

As I start feeling better, I challenge myself not to forget how sick I was, and to remember the countless others who are more sick than I. I challenge myself not to forget (or complain about) impermanence.

Impermanence is a profound teaching because it is a universal fact. It should become as familiar as our own name. We should never become complacent about it, or treat it as merely an idea or a philosophy.

The coffee that’s gone cold, our moods that can shift unexpectedly, last night’s elegant dinner that’s become a fading memory. People, too–friends, enemies, family, celebrities–we arise, dwell for a while, and move on. That’s how things are. It can be horribly painful when someone wonderful dies. Or a profound relief when an illness ends. Bad things fade away as well as good things.

We should experience impermanence, acknowledge it, feel it, open our hearts to it. Live in the full catastrophe. Be motivated by impermanence, inspired toward compassion and the path of awakening.

As we train our minds in this way, we realize that all we have is nowness.

P.S. Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I don’t advocate stopping medical or mental health treatment. Some people get the funny idea that meditation or Buddhism will heal everything and solve every problem. It won’t. 

Take loving care of your body and mind, as you would your own child. Maintain awareness of the preciousness of existence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s