Saturday afternoon, I woke from a long nap – the first time in a week I’d been able to sleep horizontal in bed. The last 10 days have been a humbling and enlightening education for me.
My master took the form of violent coughing spasms – wracking me from head to toe, leaving my throat raw and my voice raspy.
My first reaction was to minimize. I’ve always been able to head off oncoming sickness with extra QiGong and vitamin C. Perhaps overconfident, I went light on the QiGong this time.
Despite the cough’s steady advance, I did not retreat. Instead, I made every effort to attend to business as usual – skiing in the morning, going to work, staying in busy mind during the day focusing on all that needed to be done. To relax in the evening, I tried streaming Netflix shows, sci-fi movies and a couple travelogues – all accompanied by heavy doses of Robitussin DM and a stubby, wide-brimmed glass turned spittoon. Coughing grew ever more violent. For most of the week, I averaged 2 – 3 hours of fitful, upright-sitting sleep per night.
It became clear that all my activity simply made things worse and that the way I was “relaxing” wasn’t relaxing at all. Busy-mind problem solving or viewing any kind of screen – even with me sitting in a relaxed posture – activated a subtle agitation that led to more coughing. I’d fight the cough by holding my breath and tightening down. Fighting, of course, only increased cough’s intensity.
Eventually, I realized that my recovery depended on just being in the moment, doing nothing. I also realized just how hard doing nothing is – especially when the master is wracking my chest, reminiscent of the old Zen master whacking a student meditator on the back with a stick.
I sat for hours gazing at my fireplace, with Tibetan bowls singing quietly in the background. I spent more hours during sleepless nights breathing deep in the diaphragm, opening my throat in non-resistance to the master’s wracking spasms. I tried sipping warm water through a straw as slowly as I possibly could without interrupting the flow of liquid - a soothing meditation that calmed cough. I accepted healing touch without immediately trying to pay it back.
I cancelled Wednesday night group, took a couple days off work (my first in years), got help from western medicine (an antibiotic to treat pneumonia) and dropped various essential oils into my diffuser.
As recovery began taking hold, the master’s feedback became more immediate and precise. When I sat quietly, cough alerted me to the intrusion of busy mind, like the Zen master with the stick. Once in conversation, I made a self-derogatory remark, which cough immediately called to my attention. Taking an unneeded second helping a couple nights ago brought on a lengthy spasm. The feedback was amazing.
I’m feeling much better now. Breathing freely and sleeping horizontally are gifts I do not take for granted. The cough master has been teaching me to listen up and listen in, to pay attention to what heals and what harms, and to enjoy the quiet peace of non-doing.