Saturday, 26 October 2013

Waking Up to the End of Suffering

Having read Toni Bernhard’s first book, ‘How to Be Sick’, I was already acquainted with her beautiful and unique writing style. 'How to Wake Up', her second book, is no exception. The writing is clear, easy to read, almost conversational – and the content is wise, practical and helpful. Several friends of mine have noted that it feels as if Toni is speaking to them personally, and my own experience is just the same. As someone who has suffered from chronic pain for nearly ten years now, this is exactly the kind of book I need when I’m struggling with pain or anxiety. I’m used to keeping ‘How to Be Sick’ near me whenever I’m alone or in a flare-up, and it feels like having a supportive friend at my side just when I need one the most.

Partly this must be because Toni has herself suffered from an ME/CFS type of illness since 2001. I’d found the earlier chapters of ‘How to Be Sick’ almost heartrending to read, because in them she described powerfully (but without a trace of self-pity) the early stages of her illness, which began with severe flu-like symptoms during a trip of Paris. ‘How to Wake Up’ feels less personal, because she has already told that story. But she remains unafraid to illustrate the wise, Buddhist-inspired practices she describes, with stories from her own experience and those of her friends. This makes the book both touching and, in the end, more ‘real’, because you know the practices as well as the feelings she describes (common to so many of us in life’s difficulties, not just pain or illness) arise from real, personal experience. In both books, we feel we know not only her but also her husband and her hound dog, through so many of their ‘ten thousand joys and sorrows’ (to quote a Buddhist phrase). We know that we’re not alone in our own difficulties.

On a personal note, I also like the version of Buddhism that comes across in this book especially. If I’m a Buddhist at all then I’m a secular one, and whilst this book is in a broad sense spiritual, it doesn’t come across as at all religious. Toni doesn’t believe the Buddha’s enlightenment, or ‘awakening’, as she calls it, had anything supernatural about it, and she doesn’t allude to rebirth in a literal or religious sense either. So anyone who, like me, feels uncomfortable with ideas of ‘faith’ and the supernatural, need not worry here. These are practices that can be followed by anyone, whatever faith or lack of faith they happen to have.

Kim Stanley Robinson (the science fiction writer, no less!) endorsed this book by describing it as ‘something to cherish and practice’. I’d go even further and say that if anyone wanted a book that explains what the core practices and ethics of Buddhism are (without any of the religious accretions), they couldn’t do better than to read this book. The Buddha’s life’s work was about ‘suffering and the end of suffering’ (no matter what pain or difficulties we may experience), and in beautiful, practical ways, ‘the end of suffering’ is what this lovely book teaches so well.


  1. What a wonderful review! Thanks for sharing, Michael. Hugs!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comment, Jane. I'm so happy you like the review. Are you reading the book, or have you done so already? I hope you are healing now, too. Love and hugs!