“Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed! Do not squander your life...”
at Upaya Zen Monastery, in darkness under a clear sky lit up with
stars was truly magical. Santa Fe, literally ‘holy faith’
is the principal city of New Mexico, the oldest and highest state
capital with an elevation of 7000 feet. Upaya monastery is just
two miles from downtown Santa Fe cradled in the quiet east valley
and the peace of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Upaya rises, always
fresh and new, to meet you out of the desert night…. dignified,
simple and beautiful. Uniquely individual adobe buildings, creatively
turned woodwork and fired art are immediately welcoming. The energy
of Upaya is creative and enlivening, truly living up to its name
which translates as skilful means, embracing and weaving threads
from all traditions into a blanket for humanity.
A training centre dedicated to wisdom and compassion expressed through
Zen practice and engaged social action, I guessed I was in the right
place as I had become inspired by the mission of the founder, Roshi
Joan Halifax, to provide an organic and evolving landscape for engaged
community practice. In particular training programmes in the areas
of death and dying, prison work, the environment, women’s
rights, and peace work are expressly dedicated as true effort to
fulfil the vision of the Five Buddha Family Mandala as an integrated,
interconnected, and process oriented weaving of spirituality, education,
right livelihood, path of service, and community into one whole
cloth. Around the same time as my application to Upaya was accepted
I received a gift of a thanka of the five Buddha families bought
in Bodhgaya from a good friend just back from a trip to India. How
world is depending on people like you!’
Roshi Joan brought 75 clinicians into the zendo in a moment with
these words. Silence….presence….the eight day training
‘Being with dying’ had begun. Since 2007, training for
health care professionals in the compassionate care of the dying
has been dedicated to the promotion of partnerships and the development
of clinical sensitivity toward authentic care giving for dying people
and their care givers.
unique and organic each year this programme has invited new speakers
and contributors. Engaging in these teachings sinks into our bones
and changes our understanding of living and dying in a way that
I really don’t think would be possible in any other setting.
It sets us on fire, reclaiming our own lives.
with language contributes to a truly visionary way to offer boundless
teachings in a non threatening way to a damaged and pathological
view of being bodies, living and dying. The term ‘contemplative
care’ is embraced as it cuts through definitions and can be
accepted in any setting. It cannot be owned by any latest trend,
group or culture. Despite the setting in a Zen monastery a secular
emphasis is successful. Compassion has no religion or boundaries.
Practicing together, witnessing our fatigue and dissatisfaction
with healthcare systems without judgement or blame proved a great
relief to all present.
Joan reminds us of how our care giving can become sick when we are
not present to our own suffering. Bearing witness to ourselves as
well as to others allows us to transform deep suffering. Ancient
wounding from the day to day taking in of suffering year after year
can and does contribute to unhealthy ways of coping. Reference to
the research literature is a wake up call that neglecting awareness
of our own inner processes can harden via vicarious or secondary
traumatization into a culture of horizontal and vertical violence,
more common than any of us would want to acknowledge.
of self compassion begins with being present……
Sitting with this breath…. ‘a thread that brings mind
and body together……and your life is hanging on it.’
A team of experts in their fields together gently remind us how
to be what we trained all our lives to be, demonstrating as if through
an embodied, interdependent and transparent relational field. The
love, flexibility and respect for each other models exactly what
we all travelled here to learn. The intentions and sincere practice
of each individual participating from front line care of the dying
from fields of medicine, nursing, psychology, social and allied
professions creates a powerful container for nurturing and healing.
spiritual life begins with contemplation of death."
our own dying wishes opens hearts to the sorrow of our own mortality
and potential to take care of our own precious lives and do no harm.
Looking at my own worst case scenario opened me to a terror of my
last moments in this body being helpless, in a clinical setting
with intervention that I would not wish for, speechless and at the
mercy of hands that feel uncaring, dehumanizing or cruel.
Aware of a best case scenario in deep and gentle silence supporting
bodhisattva vows with sangha and loved ones until my last breath
awakens an immediacy to inform loved ones of my wishes and thus
relieve them of any burden of not knowing.
Changed by the experience of Upaya, a determination to develop further
the insights that have arisen has led to an application to the chaplaincy
training programme. Like a strand of Upaya’s giant web, supported
and supporting aspirations have sustained a heart to develop as
a fully human being, aware of the deep privilege of service and
to share some strands of the teaching with others in caring professions.
what is needed to support this aspiration will arise…..out
of the desert…..
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