Thanks for bearing with me the last couple of days—I know the blogs were very late posting. Right in the middle of a very busy time with work, and right when I have something super important to do for my Mom, I found myself sicker than I think I have ever been. It came on quickly and had me in some seriously painful throes. But I’m happy to say that it only lasted a day and a half and I stayed conscious throughout most of it. So today I’ll tell you about that in the hopes that the lessons will come in handy if you find yourself in a similarly intense situation that seems to be dictating thought choices to you.
Okay, first off, it really was horrible. Start off with a full meal with a lot of heavy stuff. Add to it a very hot day where the temperature was over 32 degrees (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Then suddenly I’m seized with what felt like the desire to wring every molecule of moisture from my body. I was only a few hours in and I knew I needed electrolytes so I was fantasizing about Gatorade while I tried not to cramp up on the crazy hot, super smelly, no air movement at all bathroom floor. Hot, violent, incessant and thoroughly all-consuming. I had zero interest in anything other than my desire to feel better. I didn’t think about my phone—I didn’t even focus much on wanting the windows open because I knew the air outside was stifling anyway. I just wanted the violence in my gut to stop.
Now I should be clear—I’m a fortunate guy. I don’t get sick much. Writers are usually home and away from the phones and keyboards and pens that assist transmission in office spaces, and I don’t have kids so I don’t live with a disease incubator. But over the last several years I spend much, much more time out in public and meet with the public regularly. So after going almost 20 years without vomiting, I’ve been pretty sick from bugs five times in three years. And two of those were two of the worst bouts of illness I’ve had. I run a very long, busy schedule so I’ve been aware I’ve been a bit run down, so this experience was set up to easily beat the previous one that for a short time held my personal record for all-consuming illness.
Fortunately I did have one advantage in my desire to maintain some semblance of internal spiritual peace. Two of us got sick and we both knew that we and our food had been in contact with someone who had been sick a while ago, so fortunately I was quickly able to make some sense of it. It’s much harder to deal with moving past something when you can’t make sense of it—where it just seems wholly tragic. This wasn’t tragic, the story behind this made sense. It was just sweaty and intense and long. And because I knew how long our donor had been sick, I knew I was in there for a full day of the very same intensity. So I decided right then to actively employ my abilities to the task of keeping me sane.
Seeing the world from an enlightened perspective is something everyone does, but most people do it by accident and they don’t really notice it because enlightenment is about being aware without there being a point of view. If there’s no point of view there’s no you so there’s no reason to record the memory in your mind as you being enlightened. But when you’re doing this consciously, it’s all about quieting the ego so that you can be open and aware. What I was dealing with was so violent and all-consuming I decided I had to choose to focus my attention on something at least related to what was happening. I’m a bit of a science guy, so I decided to focus on the physical event my body was experiencing. You might say it was a bit like going into the pain. And it worked surprisingly well.
I started studying what I was feeling in a non-personal scientific way. So rather than Oh my God I hate this I have never been sick like this please let this end please let this end, I was going through a no-words awareness focus. If it was in words might have sounded something like, so is that just my stomach or is my intestine contracting too? And what is that motion exactly anyway? I was still yelping in pain and my throat was burning badly but I would just skip over those thoughts like stones skipping across a lake. I just didn’t dwell on those things, I focused on the science part. I wondered if I would feel it when my electrolyte balance would go off due to dehydration. You can feel when your white blood cells release when you have a cold, so I felt it was entirely possible to feel a chemical shift in your blood. I just had to fine tune and focus on it.
Of course I wasn’t doing much fine tuning in the state I was in. I was mostly just lurching from other thought to other thought. And I did hit periods of sheer begging, where I demanded that some chess-playing personal God rescue me. And a few times I had to bounce out to my father’s and uncles war experiences. Some 18 year old in a frozen trench with dead bodies and rats and no hope—that was worse than where I was and an awareness of that did help. So it’s not like I didn’t try to rope my ego and its narratives made of words into working for me, but when I was doing my best I was quiet-minded and simply focused on understanding the physical sensations I was experiencing. There were no words.
Keep in mind that I could have gone for easy thoughts. My muscles painfully contracted as I dehydrated, the bathroom was too small for me to stretch out in, the heat and smell were terrible and I was beyond exhausted. I felt like I’d done two million sit-ups in an oven. There were easy agonizing things to think about. And I won’t say I never entertained them. But entertained them is exactly what I did when I did it. Because I chose to let them into my consciousness. In a subtle way I approved those thoughts to be thunk. Fortunately they hurt, which motivated me to switch to the thoughts I was finding less painful.
Of course these mindful approaches work with physical pain or discomfort, agonizing waits, painful memories, and tragic histories. You are not your history or your memories, you are what you do in this moment and if you’re choosing the healthiest focus you can, then you’re on the path to feeling better.
Even in extreme situations you still have choices about what you choose to think about. Don’t let the scale of the experience lead you to surrender your ability to make your own choices using your own consciousness. That’s all you are—the ability to make those choices. If you make them wisely, you can make it through anything.
Have a safe, happy and healthy day!
PS And big thanks to my Mom for looking after me while I recovered. Feeling terrible in that heat, all I wanted was to be with the person who I most associate with me feeling better. It reminded me of being a kid with her looking after me. Mom you’re awesome. I love you.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.