Dancing in the dark fields: the
teachings of illness
by Zenshin Florence Caplow
When death comes, we give up all our
responsibilities, no matter how deep. Illness,
too, can make it no longer possible to be
“the responsible one.” Illness reminds us that
we don’t have forever to take care of what most matters
to us. I didn’t want to find myself on my deathbed still
longing for those dark woods.
First is knowing
an illness to be an admonition to virtuous action.
Second is knowing an impediment to be the divine chosen
Third is the patient’s awareness of intrinsic awareness.
-Ko-brag-pa Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan (from The Hermit of Go Cliffs, Cyrus Stearns, trans.)
I have a chronic, painful illness,. Actually, to call the
illness an “it” is a bit off the mark. It’s an event in
the body, an event of the body. It’s my dancing partner,
my teacher, my enemy, my friend, my curse, my blessing.
It constantly surprises me, sometimes shocks me, and
continues to shape my like life a river shapes the land.
Until I was thirty-five, I was strong and capable. I
walked the sagebrush hills of eastern Washington as a
field botanist, I kayaked in the green waters of Puget
Sound, I sat in meditation all night listening to the
frogs. I loved Dharma practice and long silent retreats.
I was a hard worker and proud of my contributions to the
natural world and my community. I was also, I see now,
strikingly oblivious to my body – I didn’t need to pay
attention: it was always reliable. Then I contracted
mononucleosis, a debilitating viral disease with a long
recovery period. Illness, pain and weakness were
suddenly the stuff of my life. As the months passed,
there were days or weeks when I thought I was
recovering, but then the symptoms would return, fierce
as ever. I never knew when the illness would hit or how
long it would last. I say “knew,” but really it’s
“know.” Gradually it began to dawn on me that this thing
had moved in and taken up residence in the household.
Every time I had a period of weeks without symptoms I
would think, “All right, it’s gone. Hallelujah!” Then,
when it struck again, I would be devastated.
Nine years later it’s still with me, coming and going in
much the same form. After a few years, I discovered that
what I had was actually several autoimmune diseases,
perhaps triggered by the virus that caused the
mononucleosis. At times I’m completely free of symptoms;
at other times I lie in bed curled in a ball around the
pain and feel nausea so persistent that food – and life-
loses all savour and joy. Every plan is subject to the
body’s unpredictability; tea with a friend, a hike in
the mountains, a retreat with a favourite teacher – all
may seem reasonable when first imagined, impossible when
the time arrives. When the symptoms return, life becomes
very small and narrow – the width of a bed, the space
between one aching limb and another. And I feel grief.
It’s hard to hurt, again; it’s hard to have to put one’s
life on hold, again; it’s hard to be back in the place
This is the territory of the dark fields.
I’ve cried a lot of tears of self-pity in the last few
years, and I wonder why self-pity is such a pejorative
term. To feel pity for the person in pain – me – has
been the first step toward really understanding that
this is the human condition. I’m getting a taste of it a
little sooner than most, a little later than some. I
know a sweet little girl who developed a rare autoimmune
illness just before her sixth birthday, and I watched
her parents suffer as she struggled for breath. My
friend Michael lies in his bed with Parkinson’s, not
able to speak, his eyes locked on mine. Our tears mingle
together, a big invisible river circling around the
world, and through my tears of self-pity I join everyone
The most difficult teaching of illness has been
unlearning my old deep habit of obliviousness to the
body. If I’m feeling well and then begin to experience
subtle signals – a little tiredness, a little weakness,
a little pain – I may be able to stop the descent into
illness. Ignoring those signals is a recipe for trouble.
But oh. I’m such a slow student. Even though I know that
the road of ignoring the body leads to pain, I forget,
over and over again.
I find this just a little bit humiliating. I’ve been
practising mindfulness for more than twenty years. This
is illness in its guise as fierce Rinzai Zen master: The
student forgets her bowls. The teacher, out of
compassion for her stupidity, whacks the student over
the head. The student bows deeply, fails again the next
day, gets whacked again. Maybe one day the student
remembers her bowls. The next day, she forgets, and once
again: whack! The word that comes to mind here is
restraint. I’ve had to learn both to pay attention to
the body and to allow its dictates to take precedence
over my will, my pride or my excitement.
Ironically, in my early years of mediation practice,
before I was ill, I learned with gratitude that I didn’t
need to be subject to every whim of the body and mind.
And yet, and yet: there is a fine line between non
gratification of the body’s desires and suppressing the
body’s needs. I’ve had to learn to respond with
compassion to the requests of the body, to treat the
body as a partner in the dance. This is most true when
the lights go dark and we are once again whirling into
the territory of pain and weakness. It’s easy to fight
and resist, but I’ve learned the hard way how resistance
increases the suffering. Instead there has to be a kind
of surrender. The body is firmly in the lead, and my job
is to follow it. That’s what this dancing partner has
I wouldn’t have said this about myself a few years ago,
but I now recognize that pride is a big part of my
personality. There’s nothing like a good illness to help
you release a little excess pride. Proud of your
dependability? Illness makes you undependable. Proud of
your self-sufficiency? Illness forces you to ask for
help. Proud of your career? Illness may very well
undermine whatever career you have. We’re taught in
Buddhism that the degree of suffering is directly
related to the degree of holding on. Despite this
teaching, most of us don’t let go of anything very
easily. Illness, like a new puppy who chews anything and
everything in sight, helps us get rid of things we
thought we needed but really didn’t.
Another side of pride is shame. After becoming sick, I
thought I couldn’t do meditation retreats because I was
ashamed to ask for an easier schedule. When I could
finally ask, and sit retreats again, it was like coming
home after years of unnecessary exile.
Somehow, miraculously, every time I lose some part of my
self-image, something fresh and beautiful comes my way.
Because of this illness, I’ve gone from being a
well-respected conservation botanist to a wanderer,
retreat junkie and sometime house and animal caretaker.
I’m way less impressive, but there’s more room for
grace. I have time for everything: for a friend in pain,
for the light on the river, for my own wild mind shyly
peering from the undergrowth.
A subtle part of the dance is knowing and remembering
that although the body may be hurting, the heart and
mind have a different kind of freedom. The most
important thing I’ve learned in the last nine years is
that even in the midst of physical suffering, there can
be happiness, even joy.
In the last week I’ve been very sick, but I’ve been
caring for a house (and a cat and two dogs) on the banks
of the Chama River in northern New Mexico.
When the early evening light illuminates the bare trunks
of the cottonwoods across the river and catches the
first faint spring blush of green in the branches, my
heart soars with the beauty of it. I’ve found that
happiness is often just right nearly, half-hidden, and
part of the practice of illness is learning to recognize
and rejoice in it: the forsythia in the window, the
taste of persimmons, the joy of a good conversation.
I’ve learned from long retreats that happiness is truly
less about external circumstances as it is an inherent
quality of the mind.
Happiness is a sort of resonance that I can tune into if
I quiet down and listen. If I’m blocked from that
natural connection, I can consciously call up times of
past happiness – my first Zen practice period at
Tassajara, deep in the winter mountains, or the way it
felt to gallop a white pony over the wast open moors of
western Ireland. Mysteriously, the feeling of happiness
in the body, sometimes from many years ago, arises
again. It doesn’t have to be transcendent joy; simple,
humble pleasure is an enormous gift when the body hurts,
as Zen teacher Darlene Cohen teaches in her book on
practising with pain, turning Suffering Inside Out.
Gift of illness
Now I get to the tricky part: illness as blessing, as
gift. It’s taken me a long time to see this face. I can
remember snarling at someone, years ago, when they
suggested that my illness might be a gift. Folks, a word
of advice here: however much you may want to, refrain
from making this suggestion to a sick person. They won’t
thank you. Finding the gift of illness can only come
from some genuine place far within. From without it
feels like a way of minimizing the tremendous suffering
of the person who is sick.
I couldn’t call it a gift, not for years. It felt like a
curse, actually, something entirely undeserved,
unwarranted and unnecessary. I have to say that it still
feels like a curse some days, but there are gifts there
too. And the greatest and hardest gift? The visceral,
direct knowledge that life is not limitless, that
tomorrow is completely unknown, and that, literally,
there is no time to waste.
As long as I can remember I’ve felt a call to deep
spiritual practice, even before I know such a thing was
possible. But for most of my adult life, there was
always something that seemed more important, and that
called to me for care – a husband and partner, animals,
work, activism, household, land. I did my best to
integrate times of retreat with an ordinary life, but I
was like a tamed wild animal, always looking longingly
toward the dark woods.
When death comes, we give up all our responsibilities,
no matter how deep. Illness, too, can make it no longer
possible to be “the responsible one.” Illness reminds us
that we don’t have forever to take care of what most
matters to us. I didn’t want to find myself on my
deathbed still longing for those dark woods. Even my
dreams began to tell me that it was time to let the
spirit go where it needed to go. And so, years after
first becoming ill, I turned the corner and asked for
the impossible: a year’s leave from my work to do what I
loved and was called to while I still could. I wandered,
I did long retreats, I spent time with beloved friends,
I lay on my back in the desert and watched the endless
blue sky, and I stumbled into happiness that I would not
have believed possible. I chose not to return to my
work, and in these years of simplicity and wandering, my
life has opened up like a flower and grace has come in a
thousand ways like a cloud of butterflies on a summer’s
So, illness is a dance, an admonition, a curse, a
blessing, the divine chosen deity. I would not wish it
on anyone:it’s a rough, cruel road. Nonetheless, here I
am. How can I not bow down to it? It has humbled me and
stripped me bare; it has given me my true life.