The gift of presence

As a hospice volunteer, it is common to hear from others, “what difficult work, how do you manage?” Or “how sad it must be”. Patient’s families, say “thank you, it takes a special person to do this kind of work”. What’s amazing is that it’s really not so extraordinary and, rather than saddening, there’s something uplifting about it. There’s beauty in sharing gratitude, generosity, love and compassion with others at any stage of life. Really, it just takes being present for another person, being present for sadness, for whatever is being experienced.

I think this is also one of the reasons there’s such enormous value in sitting together in community, in silence. As we sit together confronting the complex network of feelings, emotions, and thoughts, all sorts of difficult emotions emerge; and to be together in that process of life unfolding is extremely powerful.

This week I sat with an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen in 12 years, in a Japanese garden that had deep significance for each of us in different ways.  After some dialogue, a pregnant silence emerged. The heat was oppressive, sweat dripped down my chest. The body was uncomfortable. There was an awkwardness and then a settling in to being together in that new way. Yesterday I spent my last hours with a patient, knowing I would not see him again. His wife, full of nervous energy, not yet opening to her grief, felt it too difficult to stay – so unused to being with him without words.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty.) via The Atlantic | The Daily Dish

Being in silence together is one of the greatest gifts we can give another human being.

I offer this story, I do not know who to attribute it to other than a hospice volunteer.

“If You Do Not Understand My Silence, You Will Not Understand My Words”

Alice opened the door and led me into her comfortable living room. She did not turn on a lamp to scatter the dusk, nor did she offer coffee. We sat down in opposite chairs. I was already thinking of comforting phrases, but I began by asking what I could do to help. She told me, “I’d just like you to quietly sit here. Be with me, not talking or anything, just be here.” I was a little deflated, having marshaled a string of uplifting phrases to help her through her sadness. “What? Sit here? Anyone could do that.”

Alice closed her eyes and rocked gently in her chair. I watcher her for a few minutes. Then, embarrassed by staring into a face that seemed so private, I began looking around the room at the paintings, the polished furniture, the ornate rug. I felt tense and uncomfortable in the heavy silence.

Alice continued to rock gently, her head against the back of the chair, her eyes closed. I gazed out the window where the brightly colored flowers paled, subdued by soft twilight. I shifted in my chair, feeling increasingly awkward in the enveloping silence. I wanted to reassure her that I understood her pain; I wanted to reaffirm her courage and strength; I wanted to dissipate this silence with a shower of words.

Still she rocked, eyes closed. And then, in the soft shadows, I began to let go of my own anxiety, surrendering to the silence which settled over us like a benign mist. My proud preoccupation with my own eagerness to talk ebbed as I slowly began to connect with Alice’s needs. As I relaxed, began to feel at one with her, began to understand the immensity of what I’d been asked to give her: MY PRESENCE. No lecture, no pep talk, no insightful platitudes, no recital of understanding. Just my presence.

Calmness filled the darkening room as we sat together in silence. It was an hour, although it did not seem that long, before Alice operned her eyes and said simply, “Thank you for coming, I’m all right now.”

I smiled, rose, took her hands into mine and said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” It was only later that I realized the powerful communication in that silence and the closeness that I’d felt to her sorrow. I reflected on how often I had rushed in with words, fearful that if I did not fill the empty air with them I would not give proper comfort. I don’t know what Alice was thinking in that hour we sat together, nor is it important that I know. Whatever her thoughts or prayers or memories, I did not interrupt or violate them, or cut them short with my own imposition of talk. For I realized that unless I could understand her silence, I would never understand her words.

Chop, carry

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. – Zen saying

Several days ago, a tornado stormed through my little town and in about 10 minutes or so dumped torrential rains and brought down countless trees. Among them was a yellowwood which was unwisely planted just below our telephone and electric line 10 years ago. A few weeks ago we had woken up to a large branch from said tree leaning against the house, so it wasn’t surprising that the rest of it had had it when the storm came.

This morning we chopped up the tree and hauled it into the woods, where it can happily disintegrate. For some reason I didn’t grow up helping out with these kind of chores – nor did I remotely have any interest in the domestic ones – but nowadays I find it some of the best daily practice. Unlike work activities that require language to get done, physical labor naturally tends toward concentration and tranquility (though this mind certainly doesn’t!). Being a problem-solver by nature, I don’t even have to think about it but, intuitively know how to attack a fallen tree in the most efficient way. Awareness is impenetrable: cutting, dragging, piling, sweating, back tightening… It’s so different when the thing needing to be organized is people or information or events. I’m likely to be caught in a cascade of planning, worrying, and vengeful thoughts. The mental anguish that can ensue. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t consider a less intellectual line of work all together. However, for the time being, just this.

I don’t know anything about poetry but when I was on retreat at my home sangha last week, these words suddenly emerged. It wasn’t a creative process; like hauling the tree, it was just pure being.

Morning mist / after storm

Smell of dog shit / heron soars above

This just this.

Nomad by nature, perhaps

I wonder if the right partner, or the right community, or the right something came into my life would that make me want to stay put or am I just by my very nature meant to roam. The longest I have stayed anywhere since leaving my parent’s home in 1990 (boarding school!) was the four years I spent in university. It actually astounds me that I was so totally content at Carleton. But in some ways it’s reassuring, that perhaps I’m not just always looking for something outside myself to provide happiness. Since those Northfield, MN days, I’ve maxed out at about two and a half years in New Haven, CT; the first location post-college.

The past few weeks were spent packing up what I decided it was worth storing for an indefinite period, selling and giving away the things that weren’t, and arranging things such as providing my parents easy access to my assets in the event of an emergency. I still have quite a few things to get in order but things are pretty well organized for this totally life-changing move.

This morning my father said he was pretty sure that I was going to spend the rest of my life traveling, and that he wouldn’t be all that surprised if I don’t return from Asia. I wonder if this statement comes from fear or if it’s something else all together…This was after I told him about how wonderfully coincidental it was that a young Mongolian woman came to buy my camping stove the other day, and how seeing and speaking with her conjured up all this nostalgia and fondness for the country and the experiences I had there. I left just over 11 weeks ago and it seems nearly an eternity. I think I will definitely have to find a way to go back before I leave the continent. First stop Burma/Myanmar, next on the list will probably also be tropical (Cambodia, Laos, India, Sri Lanka?), then either as a stand-alone trip or en route back to the US perhaps I will go to Korea to see my friend and also to Mongolia if I can. Any time I am traveling I will welcome visitors to do a leg with me. Maybe I’ll even see my wildly dispersed friends more often now. The ones I know I will be missing are my nieces and nephews. But if my father is right and I’m in this for the long haul, hopefully when they’re big enough they can come visit me too…

Although I seem to have made a career of moving both in terms of job and place, I don’t think that I’ve ever been running away or trying to find something in particular. I don’t think it’s ennui either, but more a sense of reveling in change and the shift in perspective that different people, places and professions can provide. There is no denying that I am a renaissance person. For money so far I’ve built websites, balanced budgets, pulled weeds, nude modeled, written reports, procured environmental products, washed dishes, and taught Spanish, among other things. I’ve learned something from both myself and those I’ve worked with in each and every one of these situations. For me, the accumulation of knowledge – particularly intellectual – is not so important as is practical experience and living itself.

The theme throughout this blog is meeting life exactly where you are, and this seems perhaps an inherent contradiction with my constant wanderings. I think the motivation for changing one’s environment is what matters here, and so I am going to venture to say that as of now there is no real contradiction. Perhaps I’m not the settling type, but it’s not because I believe that I will be happier if only. The travel, the variety, the challenge of it all is a means in and of itself. Honestly, I hope even if the day comes that I buy a house, grow a garden, and hunker down, that I will continue to have an inquisitive mind and that each moment can be approached as if brand new. Perhaps that is the real meaning of rebirth (just look at the root of the word Renaissance) and reincarnation.

So what is happiness?

lightI just finished reading a book called The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, soul, and the spiritual life. It’s a bit of a departure since its author, John Tarrant, draws heavily from western traditions and incorporates their symbolism and psychology with Eastern traditions of self inquiry. I have always kept the West a bit at bay, but given the fact that the unconscious is deeply ingrained by these belief systems, mores, and mythologies, it is silly for me to discard all together.

In the book, Tarrant quotes a Buddhist teacher, though not by name, as saying:

I began to realize that my happiness did not depend on being happy. I am always at a particular stage on the stair and my happiness consists of greeting my stage, even when it is painful, along with the knowledge that time turns all wheels and the next stage is always approaching.

That sounds crazy: happiness independent of being happy? How could that be? It’s been interesting to see how people respond to the decision I’ve made to drop everything and go monastic for a little while. There’s this one sentiment that I find kind of funny, and that’s “well I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for”. I don’t even really know how to respond to that. First, what if I’m not looking for anything in particular? And second, is there really anything other than happiness which each and everyone of us seeks in our lives?

But how can happiness be something external or future-oriented? Anything other than exactly that which is? Is happiness anything different from being aware of just this? Isn’t happiness totally elusive if not? Won’t it become its opposite?

When I returned from my very life-altering trip to Mongolia, I got a lot of, “she’s not the same as she was before” and “she’s so quiet”, “she’s not herself”, “she has no passion, no energy, she doesn’t care anymore”. Far from it – I had been cracked open and couldn’t turn back – but certainly I was grieving. I felt that I had truly lost something great: real love. I felt that I had lost a dream of a future in partnership. But I accepted that sadness and felt gratitude for what it made clear to me. The understanding it provided. The spiritual path is one we ultimately travel alone. And I harnessed the love energy I had previously engendered the relationship with and put it in the faith of the unknown.

Today I listened to a talk from Rodney Smith, Actions from Now, and in it he said, “movement without certainty is faith”. He argues that if we watch and have the patience to understand whatever it is that initiates movement, the kind of honest action that is free of time and conditioning will arise naturally. And if this is what moves us forward on the trajectory of life, how can we not be happy in the is-ness of this very moment?

Life is change! Why not jump in?

See also The Paradox of Happiness from John Tarrant, published in Shambala Sun, January 2004.

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