A Plea from Little Sister in the Body

In response to Peg O’Connor’s excellent essay “The Light at the End of Suffering” in the Opinionator blog of the New York Times, 4/7/13, I’d like to offer a somewhat different view than I’ve seen among the many interesting comments.

O’Connor writes about people with serious addictions like alcoholism, and the question of how much suffering people can take before they break down, hit bottom, kill themselves, or seek help in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.  I wrote in my 4/9/13 comment on O’Connor’s piece in the Opinionator that some forms of suffering can be perceived as pleas from one’s ‘higher self’ – perhaps the ‘higher power’ that both believers and non-believers can accept – for a more nurturing quality of attention to be given to our whole self.

That self, we often forget, is constantly and faithfully served by “little sister/brother in the body” (a Native American expression).  My mother taught me this tender, respectful term in childhood.  It came back to me a few weeks ago when I found myself incapacitated by an almost insurmountable flu.  I was reminded that neglecting this loyal, physical being’s needs would cause her to send signals like fatigue, indigestion, headaches, and the like.  And if the neglect persists, as mine did, the next to last recourse is succumbing to illness.  (We all know the last recourse.)

For too long, in my case, I’d pushed the limits of a natural tendency toward insomnia  —staying up much later than sleepiness told me to rest.  This bad habit—which a holistic healer explained to me is actually an addiction to one’s own adrenaline—weakened my immune system, and I came down with a very nasty flu bug.  It was so agonizing and difficult to recover from that I had to accept the possibility that I could succumb permanently if something not much worse hit me.  – That, as they say, got my attention.

Little sister in the body was too sick to help me distract myself from suffering by immersing my mind in reading, writing, and listening to informative programs on NPR.  When I could not sleep I found my mental self alone with my physical self, enduring with her all the torments of weakness, dizziness, acute pain, and difficulty breathing. The only solace was a small green shoot of awareness that I had not been attuned kindly to “little sister” for some time.  She’d been fed with a moderate concern for nutrition, while I rode roughshod over her need for a restorative sleep cycle.

It was a state of de facto meditation, a more elemental consciousness than I’d allowed myself to experience in some time, all the more ironic because it resulted from illness rather than good sense.

For many years I used to have the good sense to be a regular practitioner of meditation.  I knew it to be of lasting benefit, but let the practice lapse.  Too many things to do, including many of no lasting benefit that I could have replaced by meditating!  Little sister expressed it elementally:  if I’d kept up the practice of meditation I could never have fooled myself into giving up so much sleep at the cost of my health!

Fr. Lawrence Freeman, who travels the world teaching meditation and its spiritual connections, recently gave a talk in New York which he began by saying that prayer begins with attention, as does meditation.  As I’ve written in the introduction to this website, my own interest in attention began by learning that healthy babies deprived of attention die, and therefore attention is necessary for life.  In Fr. Freeman’s talk, he referred to ‘the quality of attention’ in several contexts, all concerned with the quality of one’s consciousness.  Depending on one’s quality of attention, one could feel isolated from others, on guard or inimical, or in friendship with them–the feeling of community or shared being engendered by meditation.

If attention is the basis of prayer, it can also be that of healing, in particular a friendly and grateful sense of being shared with one’s little brother or sister in the body.  Attention may not be able to cure all forms of suffering (but it might if given more of a chance), yet it surely paves the way for us to deal with suffering as best we can.  And sometimes the only cure for our lack of attention is illness.

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