2022-12-4-BK: The Privilege of Being Present at Transitions
7:20PM Dec 7, 2022
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is December 4 2022. And last week, I had the privilege of sitting at the bedside of a 99 year old man, as he was dying. And I wanted to offer some comments about that. I had received an email from a longtime member of the Sangha, and a senior student, Susan Culpeper. In that she mentioned that she was flying to Florida to be with her father, who had just been moved into a hospice center there. I asked where in Florida, and she said, Port Charlotte, which is just an hour down the coast from here. I offered a visitor and she took me up on it. Susan had come to Rochester, for the ordination in October for the ordination and just to reengage with the Sangha. She had been through a long year and a half grueling recovery from major major surgery, and was her first chance and in all that time to connect physically in person. But she came down with COVID while she was at Chapin Mill, and so she never made it to Arnold Park, for the ceremony. So this was, this wouldn't be my first chance and yours for us to see each other in person. And for my part, I needed a Sangha fix. There's no one. No one in the Sangha down here. And it was there was an opportunity for me for sure. So the hospice, the hospice was a very nice place. Spacious, quiet, very responsive, staff of volunteers, quiet area around the inside and outside, kind of rural Florida or on the outside. If you have to die, I'd say this would be a good place to do it. I said earlier, I use the word privilege and it is a privilege. Well, it's a privilege also, to visit for me it's a privilege to visit people in the hospital. Why I've wondered that myself. When I go into hospitals as a visitor. I, I always feel somehow uplifted. And this is the best way I can understand it. That when you're visiting someone in a hospital, you're in visit, you're visiting them in a in a reduced state that is you're visiting them when they're in a vulnerable state. And vulnerable. means open. receptive. receptive, receptive, not so much to any words of mine. It okay if they have questions, people in hospitals? If they have questions, then I'm glad to reply as best I can based on my experience, and maybe even based on my familiarity with Zen Teachings, the Dharma. But when I say receptivity, on their part, openness on their part, it's more to the, these basic facts of existence, which Siddhartha encountered when he left the palace, according to the story, and his, his wandering through the dusty plains of northern India. He came upon a sick person, an old person, a dead person, and they say a monk, sort of by contrast Oh, Ah, as I see it. So it says in the account for the first time, well, he was 29, he would have lived in ancient India, in an environment, even the palace where would have been multiple generations of family. And so we don't need to take this literally, it was at the age of 29, he didn't see for the first time, a sick person, he would have been sick himself, surely by the age of 29. sick person, an old person, even the dead persons, the dead are not tucked away in India. And that time, certainly not in that time, the way they tend to be in this country in Western culture. But as I understand it, that for the first time Siddhartha really saw a sick person, an old person, and a dead person. He had, he had gone beyond what for many of us is a denial of these basic features of human existence, all existence, not just human, he would have been protected to a large extent from these things, but now, on his own out there he be the impact, as I understand it, the impact would have been a different order entirely. And it really got to him. When we are in a hospital, we have to face lack of control of the body and its functions to some degree or the loss of the illusion of control. We can often find our way through much of life with sort of, probably unconsciously, the sense that we are the we're in charge of the body to some degree, through diet and exercise and other aspects of the way we live. But then, even even if we are very scrupulous about diet and exercise, and so forth, at some point, we're going to realize that it's not all up to us.
impermanence, entropy, if you will. And nothing will bring this home, quite like being on our back. So serious illness or injury, I always see that as two sort of the same thing and Buddha's teaching a sickness and injury. And both, both of them reveal in a very forceful way, the limits of our our control our management of our well being. When I do go to hospitals, I'm still talking about hospitals. Now, when I do go to hospitals. If someone, the person I'm visiting, is conscious, and they have any questions that I might be able to answer. Of course, I'm not talking about medical questions, then, then I will respond
to what I have experienced, or at least what I've read when I know but otherwise, my teaching, quote, unquote, and I hope anyone's teaching and that situation is simply to be with the patient. Please be with me and it means to be fully present right there with her or him or them. Be right there without any agenda.
Open Open oneself as open as the patient might be, at that point to be equally open. To be noticing, noticing, as best we can what's called for in that situation by that particular patient. And this is not something that maybe comes so naturally to us. I have heard many, many, many, many, many stories of people who the best intentions go into visit a relative or friend, and start spouting what they think the patient needs to hear. One of the most common is you'll get through, you're gonna beat this, you're gonna, you're gonna beat this thing. Now Don't falter, is you're gonna do you're gonna be fine. Patients. Many patients don't want to hear that. Because it's a no. It's kind of bullshit, that we can't know for sure that we're going to beat it. It's just the sort of a cheerleading idea of visiting people in hospitals. So it's the last thing I would do. Maybe not the last thing. I also would not say you're a dead duck. This is going to be too much for you. We don't need to claim to know how it's all going to resolve itself. If we're just fully there with them, noticing, watching, hearing, listening, listening, sensing what it is they need.
Yeah, and I suppose it's possible, there was some patients, that that is what they need, they want to hear a kind of pep talk. Don't know. That person we're visiting is not the person we know, from outside the hospital not quite the same.
Of course, our training for doing this is Zen practice. For those of us who practice Zen, what is Zen practice, it's training ourselves, to be aware. To be noticing, the condition of the mind noticing, when the mind is drifting off into thoughts or fantasies. And then to to not dwell in that. not dwell on the thoughts or fantasies but to shake them off to come back. To whatever the practice is, it's to koan and come back to the koan. Otherwise, to come back to if you're sitting course the breath if you're doing breath practice, but to to detach from thoughts and fantasies. And there it is, it's again, it may not be so easy we we we may want desperately to see a certain outcome with a with a patient. And so, we need training to to be fully with them and not be imposing any kind of doctrine or belief system we have. Unless they ask again once they ask for it. I've had that sometimes where the person will ask about the teaching the Dharma, then even then, whenever we offer we have to be sensitive to when to stop talking.
Now, this privilege I had last week was not hospital it was a hospice. And Susan's father was unconscious. Now, what about that? What can you do for someone who is lying unconscious? Ah How do we know? They're completely unconscious? I've I've heard and read that they can hear what we're saying, in some cases, the unconscious person so called unconscious person. I once sat with someone who was unconscious. And all I did was just sit. I wasn't sitting cross legged on the floor, there was a chair there. I sat up on the front edge of the chair, which I always recommend it's works best for me to not be leaning back in the chair if you don't need to, sitting in a chair next to the bed of this woman. And I just did Zen. And she came out of her unconsciousness this was it wasn't the hospice, she came out of her unconsciousness. And she she told me that it was wonderful. Just to have a visitor who just sad. Because isn't it true that if we're just sitting whenever our practices while we're sitting, but if we're for Zen are somehow encompassing everything, we're concurring with what is. And I think that's, that's the most we can do. That's the highest form of, of giving. Some people may feel moved or compelled to pray. I've never quite understood petitionary prayer myself. But I would certainly welcome that from anyone who wanted to, I suppose if I were, if I were in a hospital, or hospice and someone was praying, I wouldn't object to that. But I don't want to get into the whole premise of a loving, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God. So let's just step away from that. And just stick to what my own sense is that just fully being with the person who was sick or unconscious or dying in unconsciousness. Vincent was unconscious. I never I'd never met him, of course. But it was it was moving to sit there with him. Susan had invited me. We had spent about an hour catching up before she invited me to visit him and I was pleased that she did. And 99 years old, very thin. Buying on a size knees pulled up sort of halfway in the fetal position. Breathing eyes open, eyes open a little bit, but clearly not responsive. So no questions to be answered there. No questions from a patient. And so I just put my hand on his hoping that that will be okay with him. And just held his hand there in silence for I don't know 10 or 15 minutes. It was a privilege. It was a privilege to be in such a hospice facility where there was such quiet so real
In the few cases where I've been with someone as, as they were dying, I felt the kind of how do you describe it? Electricity doesn't quite capture it. An excitement for me and excitement, and the same excitement that I felt in the room when I went once to be at the, the birth of one of my sister's children, she had invited me to be there I was, my assignment was to support her back. And but even before then, when I walked in the room, it was it was what I remember from being on psychedelics, there was a and I mean, there was a solemnity, a transcendent excitement in the room, at that delivery, and can feel just reporting from my own experience feel the same thing when someone is dying, and in hospice or when they have just died. You know, that there's in in Buddhist texts and texts, you hear the linkage of the term birth and death. Think that's not so common in our own Western, Judeo Christian traditions to link birth and death might say life and death and the considered birth and death in both both our transitions, the ultimate transition. And both have this be the individual who was being born, even the individual who's dying is has the same volume vulnerability, fragility. The same promise who who can know at the birth of a child what lies ahead and who can know as we're dying? What lies ahead? You know, this is all I think a quite a different experience if you believe in rebirth and if you don't, maybe, to me it is.
We have birth and death words birth and death linked also. In the the wooden block hanging in the Zen dos at Arno Park and Chapin Mill. Great is the matter of birth and death. Life slips quickly by Time waits for no one wake up wake up. Don't waste a moment both birth and death are times of opportunity. A case of death it's it's it's the it's entering this transition that we often refer to as the Bardo, the transition period where we are.
Entering solitude with our karmic forces. It's exciting. It's more than exciting.
Vincent, died the next day. Susan texted me where is he now? I think this is the week of the Buddha's enlightenment ceremony at the Zen Center. If not this week, it's next week. I don't so closely check the calendar. But I hope that For people who are there for the ceremony or are listening in on Zoom watching, can appreciate that, especially that part where Siddhartha for the first time encountered an old person, sick person, the dead person can appreciate what what is possible, after we sit squarely face these vulnerabilities of, of sentient existence, because if we do face them, and we use them as, as inspiration, this is bizarre impermanence. If we can face our own impermanence and use it, to see what we can find it's beyond impermanence, beyond impermanence, then we are really taking advantage of this human existence. Thank you again, I, I won't, I don't plan to be doing a lot of these recordings. And I appreciate John Sensei and Donna Sensei, inviting me to do these from time to time or at least consenting for me to do these from time to time. And help all of you will have wonderful holidays and check in again. One of these weeks