Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I gave a service in Virginia's beautiful Northern Neck this week. The topic was endings. I was asked to put this excerpt on the blog.

The common thread between our stories is that most everyone I know at some point in the past thought that they would be different at this point now.  I credit that difference to our lives being non-linear, our development coming erratically, and to put it diplomatically: our self-awareness and worldly wisdom being not exactly, well, on point.
I believe the Buddhists really do have an edge on the rest of us. The state of mindfulness takes all the painful zing out of an unexpected ending. If we have been in the moment accepting now for what it is, then the ending is just another version of this moment. When we live in the now and stop the monkey mind from yelling “What if???” and “It’s supposed to be like this not like that!”-then we see that all endings are pretty surprising.
This past week I visited with patients in a large Richmond hospital as part of a continuing education program I am in to become a certified chaplain. I have been there only three weeks and have already given up on the elevators. Taking the stairs is a superb tool for mindfulness training.
When I take the elevators, I walk in the box. The doors of the box close. The doors of the box open. I see a patient or ten. I get back in the box.
The doors of the box close. The doors of the box open. I go down a hall that looks identical to the last. I see another patient or ten. I get back in the box. The doors of the box close. The doors of the box open.
When I take the stairs I have a better understanding of where I am in the labyrinthine hospital layout, and where I am in here {pointing to my heart} and I begin to see patterns that were invisible when I traveled via box.
I leave the chaplain office, climb the stairs three floors, and turn right. There I meet premature infants as little as a pound in size. They live in boxes but the doors neither open nor close. When I step back, turn left, and walk down a hall I meet pregnant women confined to the bed so that they may have infants who are larger than a pound.
They look like sci fi mamas because often they are not allowed to move off their backs so all I see is a head, a belly, and pillows. When I exit and turn left down another hall I meet families who had normal labor and seven pound babies. Sometimes they are mad about hospital food and the sound of construction in halls and often are wondering how their hair looks. I get very confused on the third floor.
I walk up a flight and I turn right where I meet men and women of all ages who are being monitored at all times by machines. They look out their windows as they worry about their families and homes. I met two young men in two rooms who were despondent because each was depressingly certain he was the youngest person on the unit. Their rooms were nineteen steps from each other but they were together in concern and in youthful spirit. I was with each of them when their lovers visited and saw them gaze at their girlfriends as if starlight were trapped in women's bodies.
Nineteen steps down  from them and around a corner is a man in his nineties whom I visit next. He is a bit confused, but when I lean over his bed he reaches up and gently strokes my hair which has fallen over my shoulder. He says, “You are such a pretty girl” and as I look into his face I see the reflection of starlight in his milky blue eyes.
I go back to the stairs and I walk up to the top of the hospital where the intensive care unit sits right beside the psychiatric unit, both closest to heaven. In intensive care I visit with a wife in her 30’s who tells me about how the man in the bed on the ventilator stole her heart when they met and how she asked him, “Why steal it? I would have just given it to you.” He has already spoken his last words but we pray that he will live just one more day. “I just don’t want it to end today,” she says.
I make the few steps next door to the behavioral health unit for a group session where the patients are walking their twelve steps but not with their feet. They have strong bodies and perfectly healthy hearts. “We are dying,” they tell me, each in her or his own way. Their families say they just need to go to church. Or they need to just stop taking those drugs. If I took the elevator I might agree with their families. But I take the stairs and I know that they are dying. There may very well be a cure, but right now they are dying.
There are endings to each of the stories I walk in on in the hospital. I rarely learn the ending to theirs, not that ours are any clearer. As I walk up and down the stairs I think about the endings, all of our endings. I fear some of them. I hope for some of them. I go home and I wonder about all of them.
But I can’t enjoy supper with my kids when I think of all the people I see in a day in terms of endings and beginnings. Such thinking puts a timer on our stories. If when I am sitting with someone in their now... if I am thinking in terms of endings then I can’t concentrate for all that ticking.
While I take the stairs I have been thinking that wherever I am in my life there is someone a few houses down, a few streets over, a couple of seats away in the labyrinth of life struggling with the same thing but calling it by a different name. How our stories will end seems overwhelming but isn't that because we are not the authors? It is not our place to say when the story is over. We can control some of the action, we get to write all of the emotion, but the ending is not ours to know.
What makes not knowing bearable is that in this moment... right here... in the eternal now.... if we are being who we are meant to be... the ending doesn’t matter at all.
May it be so.


Nan said...

Whoa. This is such a powerful post. A wake up, a breath in and breath out and keep reading, a here we are and I have been there kind of post. A I must share this kind of post.

Thank you for writing again, at least for writing and sharing again.

irac60 said...

Emotional Alchemy: by Tara Bennett-Goleman. It's likely you already have this book, if so, it's worth revisiting. If by chance it's not on your shelf, I believe you would find it a valuable addition.

Bennett-Goldman, a psychotherapist and teacher, has done what I would have deemed impossible: this book is an honest-to-goodness DIY psycho-therapeutic text with foreword by the Dalai Lama. The book integrates Buddhist psychology with Western Schema therapy. The schemas here that seem to apply to me are numerous!(I'm doing my best to maintain the delusion that no one else has noticed:-( LOL).

There are sections in this book that I believe directly address your hospital experiences, particularly the myriad mind-sets encountered on the third floor and the difficulty of winding down to enjoy a meal with family. Chapter two of the book, seems particularly applicable: A Wise Compassion. Note the concept of Equanimity with a bit of a Western twist:

"I wish you happiness and well-being but I cannot make your choices for you or control the way things are". Compassion with an intensity Cap; a good idea I think.

Raising Faith said...

"there is someone a few houses down, a few streets over, a couple of seats away in the labyrinth of life struggling with the same thing but calling it by a different name." Indeed.

I am going to be thinking about this post for awhile--thanks for sharing it with us.

Colin said...

taking the stairs, and not the elevator, nicely captures how to put ourselves in better position to be present. It also depicts how easily we allow sense experience to be mediated by technology. (This comment is another instance.) By taking the elevator we tend to be slightly agitated because on a subconscious level we want to make sense of what we have bypassed -- ie, a trace thought looks to construct the experience of pressing the ball of the foot to the third step on the second flight. Or I'll imagine how you'll react to this post or if you'll ever see it.