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Moving Past Fear into Tenderness
All the passages below are taken from the book, “Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death” by Joan Halifax. It was published in 2008.
WORLD RELIGIONS SCHOLAR Huston Smith once told the story of a well-known psychologist, an ornery old man close to death. One morning as he was struggling to get to the toilet, a nurse tried to help him. He snapped back at her, “I can do it myself!” Then he dropped to the floor dead.
Smith used this story to illustrate just how defensive about needing help we often are. He called this reaction “the porcupine effect.” Some of us have dependency issues, and a hard time receiving support from others, thus we may repress our fundamental tenderness toward each other.
All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet—strong back and soft front—is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply when we begin the process of being with dying.
How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly—and letting the world see into us.
Zen priest Issan Dorsey gave me a great lesson in how transparency works. Issan founded the Hartford Street Zen Center and the Maitri AIDS Hospice in the gay district of San Francisco. He had not been diagnosed as HIV-positive himself, but believed it was crucial to offer help to his brothers dying all around him. Although the building was physically very small, anything and anybody could fit under its roof. Issan was a big-roof Buddhist.
From time to time Issan and I led retreats together, and he eventually invited me to be on the board of the hospice. Through Issan’s work, I saw how Buddhism could function in a practical way for a community in crisis. At the hospice you didn’t feel piety. You just took refuge alongside others, and that refuge was as big as the sky. The practice there had been energized by the dross of suffering—not consumed by it.
One day, Issan was diagnosed with AIDS. We hoped he would live a long time, but as it turned out, he had only a few short years left inside him. Shortly before his death, Issan received dharma transmission from his teacher, Richard Baker Roshi. Dharma transmission in Zen Buddhism is the confirmation of a student’s awakening. Issan was so frail he could barely walk to the altar for the ceremony. Wearing a bathrobe, he rose shakily from his chair and took a few feeble steps toward his teacher. Baker met him halfway, and a big lotus flower bloomed at that moment.
I believe Issan had received dharma transmission many times before that day. He was transparent to himself and to those around him. He wasn’t impeded by opinions, identities, or concepts. After one of Issan’s talks, a friend said to me, “How wonderful—not a single idea!”
Issan’s health continued to decline. One day I came up from Southern California to visit him in the hospital. Although I have been at the bedside of many dying people, watching Issan die was hard for me. He had been there for so many. He was a good friend, a role model, and also lots of fun. His life taught us all what it meant to be a true human being, present for another in such a way that any sense of “other” disappeared. Sometimes that disappearing was in laughter; sometimes it was in silence. Sometimes he looked with his brown eyes right into the heart of the matter. Like so many others, I wanted my friend to continue to live.
Thin and fragile, wrapped in a hospital gown, Issan was sitting up in bed in the late afternoon when I went to visit him, maybe a month before he died. I sat on the side of his bed, and suddenly my face was wet with tears. Issan reached over to touch my hand. He looked at me and said, “It is not necessary.” Then he smiled.
In that gesture of kindness, something I had not seen before became clear to me. I thought that I had come there to care for Issan, but in fact Issan was caring for me. Like a true Buddha of pure, unmediated compassion, he had held up a mirror allowing me to see through my unnecessary pity, which was extra, and to see into the truth of our friendship. Something subtle—beyond pity, beyond language—connected the two of us and made us transparent to each other. We cannot realize this kind of liberation without the presence of relatedness. This is where spirit appears—not in an individual but between individuals. When this happens, the distinction between self and other simply vanishes, as the spines of fear disappear from around the heart. In that moment of transparent communion, Issan and I seemed to have opened the treasure box of love and death.
How can we develop this transparency? I think about it sometimes in terms of a lotus flower. The roots of the pure white lotus are buried deep in the pond’s dark mud. But it’s that very mud that nurtures and feeds the lotus, making it possible for the flower to open in splendor to the sun.
The lotus flower is really our awakened mind, nourished by suffering. Maybe some of us have been hiding in the cast-off and rotting selves of our past that lie at the bottom of the heart. Now we are asked to use our suffering as food and fuel, to make our lives and the life of the world more visible. It’s time to consume the wet, dank stuff of suffering that has made our life so heavy and hard to deal with. In our practice, we become bottom-feeders, eating lotus-food so that we have the strength to open up our hearts and minds to the world, the way Issan did.
Often it takes an accident, a catastrophic diagnosis, or a disaster for us to break open and be able to accept our own suffering in a bigger, more patient way. But suffering also makes us tender. When we are very sensitive, we may want to protect ourselves through withdrawing. Suffering is a sword that can cut both ways—it can free us or send us into hiding.
To meet suffering and bear witness to it without collapsing or withdrawing into alienation, first we must stabilize the mind and make friends with it. Next, we open the mind to life—the whole of life, within and around us, seeing it clearly and unconditionally from that stable inner base. And then we fearlessly open our hearts to the world, welcoming it inside no matter how wretched or full of pain it might be. I’ve come to call this the “threefold transparency”—us being transparent to ourselves, the world’s being transparent to us, and us being transparent to the world.
It helps to approach each person, each situation, with a sense of openness, a mind of not-knowing. Often this is difficult; we mistakenly think that our practical caregiving skills are all we have to give. Yet our presence born of openness is really the greatest offering we can make. Even as we are doing for another, our being supports that doing. It is how we can best bear witness. An older man who worked with hospice once told me, “I try to leave everything I know in the car before I go into the house of someone who is dying.” Pretending we “know” just covers up our fear.
No matter how busy we are, we can bring simple contemplative elements into our caregiving practice that will help us to follow the dying person’s lead and to give no fear. Sharing practice or prayer, silence and presence, with a dying person also serves the caregiver’s well-being. When you find yourself caught up in the events around you or in your own hope and fear, slow down. Even stop. Cultivate the habit of attending to the breath continually; use the breath to stabilize and concentrate the mind.
We can also use words to generate a state of presence and self-compassion. For example, the following reminders can be helpful. I use them in my own practice, and share them with other caregivers and dying people. On the inhalation, say to yourself, “Breathing in, I calm body and mind.” On the exhalation: “Breathing out, I let go.” Inhalation: “Dwelling in the present moment.” Exhalation: “This is the only moment.” I learned a version of this from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh many years ago. It has been a good friend since.
Another way to connect to the moment is to use the sense fields. Look out the window at the sky for a moment. Listen attentively to the sounds in the room. Touch the dying person mindfully. Take a few sips of cool water. Be fully with a detail in the present moment. Then breathe deeply and relax the tension in your body as you exhale. Remember why you are doing this work.
Tibetan Buddhists say that we have all been one another’s mother in a previous lifetime. Imagining every being as your mother, practice offering love equally to all whom you encounter, including strangers, creatures, and even those who have hurt you. This practice isn’t always easy for some of us Westerners, who may have conflicted relationships with our mothers. But I can imagine a being who has given me and others life, protection, nourishment, and kindness. When I’m giving care to a dying person, I try both to give and receive kindness as if I were the dying one’s mother and to see the dying one as my mother, saying silently to myself, “Now it is time for me to repay the great kindness of all motherly beings.” Thinking of all beings with motherly love is a good reference point when I have fallen into automatic behavior, am feeling alienated, or am having trouble opening my heart.
Years ago, I visited a Buddhist nunnery located in the thick, wet jungle north of Bangkok, Thailand. Huge columnar limestone formations poked out of the forest’s crown. When I drove up to the main area of the center, I was a little surprised that the kutis, or meditation huts, were caged in. And tied to the cages were large, bright red, stuffed toy crocodiles. It was a pretty bizarre sight.
Even more interesting were the hundreds of monkeys turning somersaults all around the place. It was a veritable zoo, but the nuns were caged in, not the monkeys.
I left my car with just a little bit of trepidation, as there were so many overly friendly monkeys. As I made my way to the main area of the nunnery, with monkeys dancing all around me, the old abbess invited me to sit down in their midst and talk about practice with her. I thought to myself, “Another interesting Buddhist experience.”
Amid the chatter of hundreds of monkeys, I was assailed by a terrible odor. Not to seem impolite, I kept my eyes on my hostess as our conversation about meditation continued. Finally, I had to look around to see what was the source of this rotten smell. My eyes fell on a monkey whose eyes were filled with terrible distress. In her arms was a baby monkey who had been dead for some time. Its little body was bloated, the eyes filled with insects.
I was stunned. I could not believe what I was seeing. She reminded me of Kisagotami, who would not give up the dead body of her son. In the case of Kisagotami, the Buddha and her village helped her recognize the truth that all beings share mortality. For this mother monkey, there was no Buddha to help her see the truth of impermanence and the futility of clinging.
In the midst of the roil of monkeys all around, my eyes met the eyes of this mother monkey, and we rested in mutual sorrow for some minutes. In my heart, I begged her to let her baby go. It was time. And in that instant, some kind of intelligent look took hold of her face, she turned, and slowly walked off into the dark jungle with her baby clutched in one arm. Somehow she had been trusting enough to stop, and I had been trusting enough to meet her as well.
Our true essence is that of a buddha, a word meaning simply “awake.” And really, the aim of all contemplative practice is realizing this inherent availability, this experience of being simply unselfish. The awakened state is what lies underneath our personality, history, culture, expectations, and even beyond our species. If conditions are right, anyone can awaken to the basic reality that the mind-stream is pure and the heart is good. This is why we meditate; this is why we contemplate; this is why we pray: to bring us home to who we really are. See what happens when we hold this thought in every moment: “I will free myself from entanglement, from despair, from misery, and realize one heart, one mind.” Remember, awakening occurs through intimacy and transparency—look closely and see that all of us are tied to one another through bonds of suffering and also through bonds of freedom.
Please discover that transparency is the very foundation of fearlessness, and realize transparency in all three dimensions. First, become transparent to yourself through personal inquiry. Your meditation and sense of deep interiority reveal your mind, and all that it holds. Then, make the world transparent to you. See into the nature of reality, into the hearts of others, into the heart of the world. And finally, become transparent to others. Learn to be open, vulnerable, and undefended in your relationships. Realizing these three transparencies requires all of us to plunge into the unknown and unknowable of our own heart and mind and to open our heart to the world. This is the love that Issan showed me as he touched my hand and gave me no fear; this is the connection I felt with that mother monkey whose sorrow seemed to run so deep.
Mercy—Exchanging Self with Other
Someone once told me that mercy is the grace of compassion. It is one of the ways we express our love and nonduality in relation to each other. Mercy is a quality of great value for our work with dying people and those who are suffering. How can we give care without mercy? Mercy needs to be there, or our care is cold and mechanical, defended and shrunken with fear, or tentative and distracted.
The following practice is so simple, and yet maybe one of the hardest things we can do. It is a practice of ultimate and extreme compassion, a brave act of love when we can really see through the eyes of another.
First, remember why you are practicing. Recall your aspiration, this vow to really be of benefit to others, this vow to awaken from your own suffering. Let your practice rest in the hands of your good heart as you remember your innermost request.
Now, bring to your mind and heart the presence of someone who is suffering deeply. Maybe this person is sitting before you right now.
Open your heart and mind to him. Feel your way into this person’s heart. Look out through his eyes. Really imagine that you are this person, living his life, feeling his suffering, and knowing his true heart.
Be this person. Feel into how he experiences his world, his life. Exchange yourself for this person at the deepest level.
After some time has passed, let yourself rest in unconditioned presence.
End the practice by dedicating the merit to the well-being of others. [17-24]
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