Mindfulness and Cough Drops
I’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks fighting a nasty chest cold. It’s insidious — the type that attacks in waves. The first wave started in the back of my throat and then migrated into my chest, the way most of my colds normally do. I spent a few days coughing up god-knows-what. For a few days I sounded like a frog choking on a kazoo, but eventually the hoarseness resolved, and I relaxed because it was over.
Except it wasn’t.
The second wave started deep inside my chest. I thought it was just a lingering scratch but after several days it blossomed into petals of dry, whooping pain throughout my lungs and throat. It also lodged in my nerves, muscles and joints — a marrow-deep ache laced through my hips, spine, and the small bones of my neck.
The worst part, though, was the belt of agony around my abs and chest. My diaphragm fatigued with each cough until every new fit felt like trying to do crunches with a torso full of pulled muscles.
My friends and family tell me I’m not alone, and that the bug has been circulating. If you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you’ve gone through it too. Stick with me here; we’ll be talking about mindfulness but I’m going to try not to cough sunshine and rainbows in your direction. Instead I want to ask a question.
Normally when I talk about mindfulness with friends we discuss the beauty of being in the moment. However, not all moments are beautiful; many are miserable affairs, racked with things like pain, cold, illness, or loss. Where does mindfulness fit in those moments, when your world consists mainly of cough drops and the feeling of a thousand needles embedded in your lungs?
Mindfulness enthusiasts often focus on the positive aspects of being in the moment. For an entire generation of professionals overdosing on chaos, mindfulness is the gateway to less stress, more productivity, more happiness, better relationships, and greater well-being. In true western style, we use mindfulness to accentuate (and achieve) the positive.
It’s easy to forget that many of the earliest and most powerful mindfulness traditions are deeply rooted in human suffering. They were proposed, not as a way of making normal life slightly better, but as a source of hope and comfort for ordinary people grappling with the deepest human agonies.
The first of Buddhism’s four noble truths, dukkha, is simply that life is suffering. According to tradition, the Buddha himself started pursuing enlightenment after encountering the reality of human misery, including aging, death, and illness. Surely, then, we’d do well to remember that mindfulness is for those moments too.
An Experiment in Mindful Illness
Courtesy of the chest cold, I have some recent experience with small miseries. A few nights ago I lay in bed alternating between shivering and sweating. My hips ached like someone had driven a cold metal spike through them. I tossed and turned violently and couldn’t sleep for more than a half hour at a time.
Since sleep was fleeting, I decided early on to try an experiment. Instead of fighting against it, I chose to stay mindful and keep a list of what was beautiful about my experience. Here’s what I came up with. This is not ironic.
1. Early in the night I was racked with chills. I angled the column fan away from me and huddled under an old blanket that was too thin, wearing socks and sweats and a t-shirt. After a few minutes the heat from my body and breath warmed the space under the blanket. First my chest, then my back, then my legs. Suddenly I was warm, and my body relaxed. I realized that I have never once in my life paid attention to what it feels like to stop shivering.
2. I woke up seven times during the night. However, you know that feeling where you curl up with your pillow and the world slows down as you doze off peacefully? I got to do that eight times.
3. Twice I had to stretch to get rid of the pain and tension in my hips. Each time I stretched I winced, which in turn caused a coughing fit that made the pain from my hips, throat, and diaphragm worse, all at once. However, the feeling of relief when I crawled back into bed after it was over, and my back had relaxed? Bliss.
4. Early in the morning time took on a magical, lethargic quality. I could turn, readjust, doze and wake for what felt like an entire evening and then emerge from my room for a glass of water to find that less than an hour had passed. In the middle of a very rough illness I got to experience my time fully for the first time in months, instead of feeling that it was being stolen from me.
Warmth, peace, bliss, magic. I would not use these words to describe being sick. It’s not a joy to cough and feel something solid flake off from the lining of your throat with all the sharp pain of a scab being torn off a burn wound. I wouldn’t recommend illness to anyone. It’s not a blessing. Work yourself into the right mindset, however, and there are a few small sources of pleasure in the middle of it.
First, many of the things we do as a result of illness, like sleep, tea, chicken soup, or cozy isolation, are the kind of creature comforts that bring pleasure.
Second, and perhaps more important, is that sickness is an experience that offers a hundred small opportunities for feeling relief.
Some forms of happiness are less about feeling good and more about the slow, steady escape from feeling bad. These are the feelings of elation, joy, and peace that come with solving a difficult problem, or getting out of a boring job for the day, or kissing a lover for the first time after a long time spent lonely. These same emotions are present as we recover from sickness; each day we wake feeling slightly better than the day before, there is a small, accompanying feeling of satisfaction.
The feeling of relief is not only present as sickness leaves; it’s also right there in the middle of it. Sickness presents a multitude of small problems that we can solve, such as the inability to breathe too deep without coughing, or painful tension in the hips and neck, or the chills.
Each small victory over these problems comes with a small amount of pleasure as the problem stops plaguing us. Viewed this way, sickness is a dance between the misery of illness and the small flashes of relief we steal from it.
Where Does Mindfulness Fit?
There are many types of hurt that are so intense that to suggest that there may be some joy in the mix degrades the person who is suffering. I can’t address those types of suffering here and won’t presume to. I do have some recent experience with chest colds, though.
So, where does mindfulness fit when you have a chest cold?
The second of Buddhism’s four noble truths, samudaya, states roughly that the source of suffering is our attachment. In modern psychology we might say this is roughly the same as the goal-setting part of our brain. It’s the part that envisions a future we desire and then commits to getting it, “attaching” ourselves to an outcome that has not yet happened.
Used correctly, this goal-setting ability is a human superpower; it allows us to imagine phantom futures and then pour energy into them until they become real. But of course, some of the phantoms we imagine are impossible phantoms, and this is where we begin to have trouble.
While there is a great deal of natural suffering that comes with illness, the suffering is compounded when the goal-setting part of our brain kicks in and sets an impossible goal; I want this to not be happening. Suddenly we’re stuck with two sources of misery. The agony from the illness is doubled when we pair it with the desire to not be experiencing it, because every new flash of discomfort kicks off a round of miserable internal battle against the reality of what we’re feeling.
Mindfulness helps us detach from this second source of misery. Instead of trying to fight against what is happening we disavow the impossible goal. Suddenly, instead of expending huge amounts of energy trying to deny what’s happening, we are free to stop and see the moment for what it is. Once we’ve done that a dozen small opportunities for mild joy present themselves.
This isn’t always the case, of course; there are many illnesses that are far worse than colds, and even inside of a mild illness there are probably many moments that are so miserable that it’s not possible to find anything redemptive in them. However, for those who are willing to stay mindful and keep a flexible soul, it’s possible that minor illness offers chances to experience ‘micro-doses’ of pleasure that help stave off some of the misery — at least enough so that we can say to ourselves “I can handle this, too.” The trick is simply to keep your mind open in the middle of the unpleasantness.
And if not, there’s always more cough drops.