The sacred path of the common cold

The sneezing began suddenly, staccato, gunfire spasms that didn’t let up much for the next 24 hours. While I was distracted by that assault, the body aches crept over me, pressing insistently on my upper back and arms like a demon child sitting on my shoulders. Today is my third day of awakening with this rude, uninvited guest, the sneezing now more sporadic as the gluey miasma has slithered down into my chest. This periodically generates fits of coughing so brutal, that, by tomorrow, I’ll feel like I’ve been kicked in the ribs.

I know, of course, that this is nothing. It is not cancer, or a car accident, or Covid. It is not MS, or an earthquake, or even the flu. It is, I am quite confident, a common cold, an experience so unremarkable and insignificant that it only warrants four tiny letters: c-o-l-d. It is so much of a very huge nothing that it does not even bear thinking about, let alone being dignified by even a very humble essay. Still, this inconsequential mote of animal discomfort is mine and it has all but consumed me for the past several days. It has swallowed up most of my attention, left me groping for tissues, and had me almost entirely transfixed by my own feelings and petty desires.

What most astonishes me is how quickly I went from my comfortable existence as a more or less calm, focused, and purposeful person to being a miserable, flailing organism, wanting nothing more than to slip into a forgetful sleep. Until the sneezing began a few days ago, I was feeling pretty confident about my growing level of self-mastery, my ability to face the normal adversities of life, those categories of suffering described by the Buddha, including illness and death. After all, I’ve encountered a fair bit of death in recent years, including of the unexpected and “unfair” variety. Haven’t I handled it “well”?

I wonder now if I have not become so distracted by the bigger, dramatic experiences of suffering and death — and some of this, to be clear, merely vicarious or hypothetical — that I have gotten lazy in my relationship to mundane suffering. I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I am largely committed to my delusion that I am the lord and master of my environment, adjusting the temperature the moment I feel cold, reaching for food at the first sign of hunger, plunking down to rest in safety when I am tired. The incredible privileges of my life — based on socio-economic status, race, and physical ability, just to name a few factors — have permitted me to take for granted that I can often give myself almost whatever relief and comfort I desire in any given moment.

Still, for all of my power, privilege, and entitlement, I do also know that I am not really in charge. I cannot protect the graceful limbs of the evergreen tree in my backyard from the heavy snows. And, while I can discourage the mice from taking up permanent residence in my basement, I cannot keep them out entirely. I exercise, “eat right,” and use sunscreen on my face, but I cannot stop the gradual disintegration of this physical conglomeration that is me. I’ve accepted all of this, haven’t I? Or have I secretly been making spiritual bargains all along, hoping that, if I only I could become enlightened enough, I might attain some miraculous means of mastering my reality and ultimate fate?

As my head throbs and my chest rattles, I cannot pretend to be happy about this undistinguished viral visitor. I suppose, though, that I might as well try to identify the messages that it brings. For one thing, this cold tells me that, whatever my spiritual aspirations or pretensions, it does not take anything more than basic animal discomfort to throw me for a loop. It is an insignificant blip of an illness confirming that, whatever the road to greater insight may look like, its path will run smack dab through the middle of the body. Not above, below, or around it. And this cold, MY cold, reminds me, to paraphrase one of my teachers, that unless and until I can love my runny nose, I cannot really know love at all.

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