In the second instalment of this series, Zen teacher Lewis Richmond considers the common fear of becoming and being ill.
The second of the five great fears in Buddhism is fear of illness. In the time of the Buddha, and for most of human history until quite recently, this was a formidable fear indeed. Disease was everywhere. Infants and small children, as well as adults, were regularly taken away by cholera, diphtheria, influenza, smallpox, and other infectious diseases that today are curable or controllable. How quickly we forget that penicillin — and all subsequent antibiotics — was only discovered a little over a hundred years ago. In America and other industrialized countries where people have access to modern medical care, we live in a bubble of seeming safety.
I say seeming because the fear of illness is deep, and never far from the surface. In dharmic terms, fear of illness, like fear of death, is rooted in our ego identification with the body, and the constant low-level vigilance about threats to it which is hardwired into our nervous system. Some traditional Buddhist monastic training — so punishing to the physical body, with its poor diet, exposure to heat and cold, and little sleep — is designed in part to cut through this identification with the body, so that we can see a deeper reality than ego. Such training is possible for the young and hardy, but these days people of all ages and physical conditions — including those with chronic illnesses — want to practice the Dharma. We need to find other ways.
I have been ill a lot in my life. I count ten years out of my life when I was either fighting a life-threatening illness, or weak and in recovery from one. Illness has been central to my practice life. I have had to deal with it; I had no choice. During any of my illnesses — cancer, neck injury, encephalitis — I would think, “I’d give anything not to be this way.” But I was that way, and there was no choice. Illness was a harsh teacher, but now that I look back, I know that illness also brought me gifts, not the least of which is some freedom from fear about it. When you have gone through the worst, nothing is worse by comparison. The ego is a little liberated from its anxieties.
In a passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, prisoners of war are marching in the dead of winter. Everyone is frost-bitten, shivering and miserable. Occasionally someone keels over, dead, but the German guards of course force the rest to keep going. One prisoner kept trying to cheer everyone up with this litany: “Cold, this ain’t cold. Troy, New York, winter of ’36 — now that’s cold!”
He keeps saying this in a cheery voice, trying to distract the other men from their suffering — right until the moment he himself keels over, dead. His litany, I’ve often thought, was a kind of mantra against fear. He knew about Troy, New York, winter of ’36. He had had some training.
Read Lewis Richmond’s Five Part series on Fear here:
- Fear of Life, Fear of Death
- Fear of Death
- Fear of Dementia
- Fear of Loss of Livelihood
- Fear of Public Speaking