The case for compassion

holdinghandsI wanted to share with you a blog from the Washington Post, written by the co-founders of an important organization, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. The Center follows in the footsteps of Upaya, where I participated in the “being with dying” program. I was particularly struck by the opening paragraph, describing a heart-breaking situation with a patient who is dying of cancer:

“I am dying. My tears are not because I am sad I am dying. I am just so disheartened that no one wants to talk to me about this and just sit with me. I wish someone would sit with me, like you two, and just be with me at this crucial time.”

It’s such a small request—one that the authors fulfilled without a second thought—but one that can quite literally mean everything to someone who is facing the end of their life.

Ultimately what we’re talking about in these situations is the need for compassion.

We often hear the term referenced in terms of health care, but not everyone realizes how critical compassion really is to any palliative treatment plan. There is a strong scientific basis underscoring the role that compassionate care plays the psychological and, consequently, physical well-being. It takes myriad forms and it’s clearly not quantifiable in scientific terms, but there is little question that small acts of compassion can have a massive impact; holding hands, listening to someone sharing their story, smiling at one another in silence, or even crying together all provide a level of comfort to a dying patient that many of us cannot conceive of.

The response of the patient they referenced leaves no question of that:

“As we were leaving Sarah’s room, she smiled and said, ‘Thank you both for pulling up a chair and sitting down. Thank you for looking at me. I felt you so engaged and that you were curious about me. When we sat in silence, which was kind of awkward at first, it turned out to be just wonderful because you didn’t run out. Maybe this is what I missed my whole life—care, attention and curiosity and silence. Thank you for offering that.’ 

She died quietly the next day, leaving us an invitation to imagine a health-care system that provides not only care and attention but also curiosity, presence and when there is nothing more to say, silence.”

So I’d like to leave you with a simple request of your own. As the holiday season barrels towards us, please take a moment to exercise compassion, however briefly or minutely with a loved one because in the end, those moments are all that matter.

Wishing you all peace for this season and all the year.

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On Buddhism and Dying

Prior to writing, Dying in the Land of Enchantment, I had often been quick to describe myself as a ‘godless westerner’. As an agnostic, I had never gravitated to any religion in particular. Not surprisingly, my time at Upaya’s Being with Dying retreat forced me to revisit my spiritual leanings, and a recent book signing in Detroit this past weekend. Now it’s important for me to point out that I actually don’t consider myself a Buddhist, even after my experience at the New Mexico Monastery. Rather, I feel strongly that certain tenets of Buddhism mesh well with my views on death and dying. Even so, many people are quick to assume that I am, indeed, a Buddhist. As such, I always approach meeting with religious organizations with a little bit of trepidation. I needn’t have worried about that at this last signing at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. There was a pretty good turnout, including two nuns, and honestly those gathered provided on the most stimulating discussions of any of the events I’ve yet attended on this book tour.

Roshi Joan Halifax

Perhaps part of what attracted me to Buddhism is that it doesn’t preclude you from subscribing to other religious beliefs. Indeed, many of the participants I met at the monastery in Sante Fe were, in fact, rooted in the Judeo-Christian culture, and still consider themselves to be part of that belief system (including Roshi Joan Halifax). And what I found particularly interesting in speaking to all these people from disparate religious backgrounds, was how prevalent the practice of storytelling is in each; the idea of allowing individuals to tell their own stories, whether it be at the end of one’s life or at any other point in their journey, seems to me a common thread in most religions. I was heartened to see this come up in our discussions, as embracing storytelling helps everyone, patients included, understand that their life has meaning and grants them the ability to make sense of it all.