It’s been some time since I’ve had the flu. In fact, the last time I was really down for the count was three years ago, when our whole family got the swine flu. My daughter was still in preschool at that time and it seemed I would catch every exotic new virus she managed to find.
I thought we had made it through this school year without any sick days when at the very last of April, my daughter woke in the middle of the night with a fever and a stomach ache. Oh great. I knew we were in for a couple of days at home, but figured she’d be back at it by mid-week. Only she continued to have stomach pain, and then Wednesday evening, I started to feel weak and ill. She and I were home the entire week together – by the following Monday, she was back in stride, and I still sat at home, coughing and feeling quite lousy.
Usually, I take being sick pretty well. I just hole myself up in my room and stick it out, and reflect on the spiritual lessons showing up in the fever and aches. But this time, I just couldn’t feel inspired. I felt disconnected and about as un-spiritual as I have in years. It was hard to feel gratitude, receive insights, or generally sense there was a positive purpose to it all. I just coughed, ached, wheezed, and moped, and nothing seemed to bring me out of it.
While my daughter returned to school, I decided to sit outside in the garden. The weather was quite warm and sunny, which normally would have lifted my mood. But I managed to feel grumpy about the heat and the sun hurt my eyes. So I settled myself on a chair, protected by the shade of the oak tree, and took in the expanse of the yard.
I had a bag of frozen blueberries and a tall glass of water, which I forced myself to drink despite it making me feel slightly queasy. The frozen blueberries were the only somewhat appealing thing I found to eat. The cold numbed my tongue and the texture somehow was comforting, and they were just sweet enough but not too much so.
As I downed the blueberries by the fistful, I observed what was going on in the garden. More than any other spring, I had been spending quite a bit of time just walking around it recently, noting the daily changes in certain blooms and vegetables that we planted. Each day, I’d count and recount the number of flowers that the pink hydrangea bush offered this year, always hoping for one more to appear.
May Night vs. Rhododendrons
But I was particularly struck by the May Night and Rhododendrons, for different reasons. The May Night is a perennial plant that emerges every mid-spring, close to May, with tall, deep purple blossoms that the bees adore. I was worried when it bloomed late last month and the bees didn’t seem to show up, but now they were busily flitting from stalk to stalk. What surprised me the last two years about this plant was how it just died completely back, and I’d worry that it was a goner, and then emerge triumphantly again by May. It was particularly full this year and quite striking. How could I ever doubt it?
The Rhododendrons, however, were another story altogether. There were about 5 of them, over 6 feet tall, with big, green leaves. They looked pretty robust year round. But they just didn’t bloom. We’ve been in this house for 8 years now, and only two years did they get flowers – the most was only about four or five blossoms between all 5 big plants. It’s been at least three years since the last time I saw a bloom. Terribly disappointing. And every year they get what look like blossoms, only to watch as they open up – into more leaves.
This year, there was a large number of what looked like flower buds. But I figured, nah, just more leaves. I was just about done with these plants. They held so much promise and then disappointed, and I would love to have something else in that part of the yard that fulfilled what was intended – beauty and inspiration (or at least something functional, like a storage shed!). But my gardener looked hopeful; he thought these were blooms coming out. I looked over the plants, and saw twenty, thirty, maybe more of the potential fuschia-colored flowers. Wow – could it really be? Yes, maybe this will be the year, and they will finally burst forth with color! I could just imagine the article I’d write about it, how waiting with patience pays off and to trust that there is something ready to bloom under the surface.
But as I sat, feeling sick as a dog, on the chair under the oak tree’s shade, I saw the first few “blossoms” were opening – yet again into little green leaves. Yeesh. Where was the hidden inspiration, the pay-off for waiting, trusting? It didn’t exactly help to lift me out of my foul mood.
Just sit and let go
Another handful of cool frozen fruit popped into my mouth, and I chewed with relish as I reflected on the situation. The May Night, which I would fear was dead, revives itself effortlessly, like it was all part of the plan. The Rhodos, on the other hand, have the appearance of being hearty year round, yet they don’t produce what nature intended. I kept holding on to the hope that they would, and holding on to them.
Something about this spoke to feeling sick, to my life. I really did not want to feel sick. I wanted to be healthy, to be back at the gym, to be inspired and having abundant energy to inspire others. But that was not what I was experiencing. Far from it, I just felt like sitting all day. And maybe that is what I’m supposed to do.
The May Night completely surrenders. It lets go in the winter. It lets itself die, at least to the untrained eye. It goes deep into its roots, and waits there. It waits until something within itself awakens, in its own time. It lets go, and by doing so, rests, and then is renewed when May rolls around – into bigger and brighter flowers than the year before.
Something was calling me to just surrender to being sick. To let go, be with it, let myself lie on the couch or sit in the garden for hours. To let my outer self, the image I hold in the world and the image I hold in myself die off, and pull into my roots. But was I doing that? No. I was clinging onto what I thought I should be – like the Rhododendrons. I wanted to be blooming, to be bright pink, and showy. By holding onto what I thought I should be, which clearly wasn’t happening, I was actually preventing myself from becoming what I would naturally bloom into.
I finished off the bag of frozen blueberries. I knew in that moment that I had to surrender. I had to let myself just be sick, for as long as it took. No resistance, no clinging to what I thought I should do. Clear my schedule, sit down or lie down, and wait. I am changing. I can’t deny it. And I really don’t know what it is going to look like. I have to be willing to let go and know that something better than what I was clinging to will emerge, but it will only do so if I let go and allow the process to happen. Which means I need to sit still and be with feeling yucky. No more resistance. Just sit and be. It was the only way, because resisting it only made me more miserable.
And what I recognize is that this isn’t just a process for this short period of time that I’m sick. It’s a practice of a lifetime. As I was driving up to a class in Berkeley the other day, still coughing, I listened to a recording of Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She was talking about letting go of resistance and being with what is. She had thought a friend was angry with her and hated her, and wouldn’t talk with her about it. It stressed her out for days. Finally, she decided one sleepless night to go down to the meditation hall and welcome in this anxiety – this feeling she was trying desperately to avoid. The fear of other people disliking her and being angry with her. And as she sat with it, she realized it was the story of her life. She had spent her whole life – the way she talked to people, her mannerisms, everything – trying to avoid anyone disliking her. It was exhausting and stressful. And something in her shifted that day. She sat with the feeling and followed it through to its conclusion. Nothing was left but the one watching it.
I knew I had to keep sitting with feeling lousy. But not by ruminating over it, trying to make it better, or wishing I were feeling some other way. Just to open and embrace what is. Otherwise, I am still a slave to my mind, clinging to one way of being and avoiding another. In yogic philosophy, we call this Raga (desire, or clinging to what we want) and Dvesha (aversion, or trying to avoid what we don’t want). This isn’t freedom. But being able to embrace whatever is, knowing that it doesn’t touch the True Self, that is free. That is awakening. That is what I truly want, even more than getting well.
This illness teaches me to embrace everything that arises in life. It doesn’t mean that I just sit back and let life happen – I consciously engage with my responsibilities, and follow my inner guidance. Instead, I’m less driven by the sense of “me” needing to have things a certain way in order to be peaceful. Like the May Night, I surrender to the winter, allowing spring to awaken me at the right time, and I release the expectation for something to be other than it is, like the Rhododendrons. At last, a glimmer of new possibility: let myself be and my Self emerges, effortlessly expressing through these words.
Copyright © 2012 by Constance L. Habash