When we are so ill that being sick seems like our whole world, how can the Buddhist notion of “exertion” help us? Exertion doesn’t mean hard work (though being sick is hard work.) Instead, it’s about showing up even when we don’t want to and, more than that, showing up with a sense of enthusiasm.

Traditionally, exertion is applied to meditation practice. The opposite of exertion is laziness. Rather than showing up, we are becoming couch potatoes, are losing heart, or are making everything but meditation practice are priority.

Not showing up for a life filled with illness doesn’t usually look like laziness. It appears as denial. When my disease flares, my first response is to pretend isn’t happening. I try to continue with life as usual to see if the symptoms go away. “Maybe if I don’t admit how awful I feel,” I think, “the feelings will disappear.”

Being gravely ill is scary and sometimes all-consuming. In times like that, “laziness” is really overwhelm. My emotions are cycling quickly between fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, sadness, and so on. There are appointments to make, arrangements to manage, and details to pin down. I can’t process it all. The old “fight or flight” lizard brain wants to be in charge. It’s easier to freeze in place while I wait for things to get better.

No surprise, then, that I feel discouraged. I am probably feeling physical pain or discomfort as well, which saps my energy for dealing with change. The whole thing is exhausting. Discouragement and exhaustion keep me from showing up.

If exertion is hanging in there, how do we do it?

  • Stay present with the sensations, avoiding labeling. The pain and discomfort of this moment is stripped of some of its power when we label it as judgment-free sensations and let go of the fear that it will last forever or get worse in the future. Right now, I am feeling a twinging hot pressure in my hand. I don’t need to call it pain (a loaded word)., A moment later, I find that the sensation has shifted. It’s now a background buzz. The sensation is malleable, less frightening.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Often, when I get sick, I feel guilty. I’m disturbing other folks’ plans. Not only that, maybe it’s something I’ve done (or haven’t done) that’s resulted in my illness getting worse. I’m angry that I can’t do what I meant to do when I assumed I would be well. It helps if we greet the maelstrom of emotions that surround illness with compassion and. Take three deep breaths. Imagine you are your own dear friend. Chances are, you would be moved to tenderness and support, not disgust or judgment. Treat yourself kindly.
  • Listen to your body. When our bodies are ill, we need REST and NOURISHMENT. Almost everything else is “small stuff” that can wait until we feel better.
  • Listen to your healthcare providers. You are in charge, but these folks bring their expertise to the situation. If you have the energy, ask lots of questions. (If you don’t, try to recruit a friend to serve in that role.)
  • Remember your intention to be well. Wellness is about wholeness. There is nothing “wrong” with you. Your body is beautiful and strong just as it is. You are already whole. What will support you as you live into this truth?

Considering “exertion” and chronic illness together can bring us to a more resourceful place when we are feeling ill. We can consider our situations with more compassion, understanding that what may appear to be laziness or stuckness may be an overwhelmed, exhausted body yearning for respite. Looking at traditional advice for strengthening exertion can lead us to some helpful principles to follow when we don’t feel well. Thinking about it when we have the time and energy, these ideas can filter into our bones and strengthen us during times of weakness.