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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

How to Be Sick: A Mindful Guide

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 17th 2010

butterflyNinety million people in the United States alone suffer from some form of chronic illness. These statistics only speak to physical illnesses and not to emotional ones. The number leaps from there. When Toni Berhnard fell ill in Paris on a trip in 2001, doctors told her she had an acute viral infection, but Toni never recovered. Since that day her illness has become her greatest teacher.

Toni Bernhard recently released the book How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers where she explores her personal experience with dealing with chronic illness and how her experience with Buddhism has lead her through a journey from trauma to transformation. 

One of the core aspects of chronic illness is the instant snap judgments that occur within our minds labeling the emotional or physical pain as “bad” and a cycle of avoidance begins often beneath our awareness. While we can't “fix” our physical pain, we can begin working with our mental states to live with greater ease, purpose and meaning.

In a past interview I did with her she said:

“The book contains many practices that help loosen the grip of painful emotions. We can bring them into awareness (sometimes called mindfulness). This allows us to see them for what they are – impermanent for one thing (thank goodness!). We can also loosen their grip by learning to cultivate calm and gentle mind states such as kindness, compassion (for ourselves first), and equanimity. (And, since emotions manifest in the body, this can even lessen our physical symptoms.)”

The truth is we all have chronic discomfort in life as stress and pain will always come and go and so for those of us who haven’t been diagnosed with a chronic illness, we have a lot to learn from those who have been and are finding ways to live with a calmness and evenness of temper in the face of difficult situations.

One of Toni’s favorite poems in her book is:

One, seven, three, five –

Nothing to rely on in this or any world;

Nighttime falls and the water is flooded with moonlight.

Here in the Dragon’s jaws:

Many exquisite jewels.

—Setcho Juken

Chew on that one for a bit and see what arises.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. 


Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

being calm and serene with 24/7 pain of 17 years. - Vickie - Oct 14th 2012

Interesting to see pain under the mental health label. When i first ended up in pain 24/7 we (doctors and me) thought it might be chronic pancreatitis so I joined an on line group for several years. Some people posted  everytime they were in immense pain and others didn't but the ones that spoke about it more assumed they were worst off particuarly if they went into hospital--this wasn't true of course. We had one guy who was sucidal and wouldn't move from his house even to get the mail and only ate sandwiches. At the time because the pain clinic were saying you had to keep going no matter what I would do exactly that and even got brought home trying to walk my dogs in obvious pain. I had various responses from people , some didn't want to be with me if I was in a lot of pain even though I said nothing. Some people think that if you explain that your in 24/7 pain that means your complaining and not being strong. others think if you keep going you can't be that bad! Unfortuately people who deal with severe pain learn to not let it show as much as possible. Lots of people will tell me I am tired when in fact I am in pain.

I won't go out no matter what anymore and realise i was doing it for other people rather than for myself. I have less pain by sitting each day on my couch, drinking only liquid food, doing my writing and watching tv , reading a book and sometimes painting.

It has taken 17 years and three operations ( the wrong ops) and writing to a liver surgeon who operated on a narrowed hebatic duct to finally get a diagnose. I have bacterial over growth of the roux en y loop which replaced my main bile duct when I was 29. This should have been diagnosed within two to three years and has ruined my life. Part of the reason I was treated so badly by the medical people is due to New Zealand adopting community health care in 2001. Apparantly we along with most 1st world countries can't afford chronic health care due to the aging popualtion. It is yet another idea imported from America in their quest to keep down costs in medicare. It can work well with for example diabetics, heart disease etc but not in an unusal rare condition and I have suffered unnecessarily.

By coincidence I had the loop of bowel lengthened two years ago which is the usual way of dealing with this condition but it didn't work as I suspect the bacteria have become entrenched. the last two ops my bowel has stopped and I ended up on TPN. They could not control my pain and I ended up on the same drug Michael Jackson died of. By the third day on it at level 10 plus using the push button machine for oxycodone, my blood pressure kept dropping, I had a dreadful nightmare and my legs were swollen, my temperature was 39C.

I wasn't allowed in to hospital when I lived in NZ before, I went to Britain for 4 years where I was encouraged to go in to hospital with severe pain. Now I am allowed in because I need to be on the second to last antibiotic available which needs to be given by TPN. I am meant to have Kidimin for pain.

I have been told to complain to the medical complaints board but don't know if it is a waste of time , it wasn't entirely the doctors fault but rather the system they were working under. I think our future is not good with the aging population problem combined with global warming.

I have found that in Britain I had a small group of friends i made who were very supportive where as in NZ unless I can get out and visit people , I rarely see anyone. I spend a lot of time feeding birds and watching the various breeds on my veranda I was writing a book on the events of this year but i'm unsure now what to do with the project. I'm hoping to bring my painting skills up to a standard where I can earn a living from wildlife art as once I am well again I will need to work and have no skills to offer after 17 years. I know I sound less positive now , I used to be very very positive but it's been replaced by realism and is less hard on my body. They plan to join my liver straight to the duodenum and take the loop of bowel out, I can't find the surgery on the internet so I guess it's done rarely if it has been done at all.

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