The Listening Mind
I am reading How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman. “You have to be steady and quiet inside. You have to have a foundation of belief in the absolute value and beauty of life. You can’t get too caught up in it all,” says the “final guy in the hostage recovery system,” in Chapter 4, The Listening Mind. I agree. And it reminds me of the closing monologue in the film, American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey’s character says, “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry: you will someday.”
Every time I companion a hospice patient, I want to see the beauty in him and to trust in the rightness of his death. It requires that I have a perspective that doesn’t see death as bad, as something to be avoided. Instead I view death as sacred, just as life is also sacred. They are one--an inevitable cycle that manifests in a myriad of ways throughout our time on earth, culminating in one final outbreath.
The “absolute value” of life includes death. I want to facilitate beautiful deaths, and I have; not in the euthanasia way of facilitation, but in the cradling-a-dying-body way and the reading-scripture-to-the-person-who-is-transitioning way and the praying-with-the-family-at-the-bedside way. It is such a grace that “my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst.” By what miracle am I allowed to be an intimate part of these lives? How did I become so graced?
To communicate this peaceful acceptance, I must be “steady and quiet inside,” so I practice. I practice centering prayer, and I dialogue with scripture and poems and cats and trees and friends and mentors. And I listen. I listen to the movements of my heart. And more and more I allow myself to be just as I am and to receive life as it is and in some enlightened moments, to let go of whatever I am so tightly grasping.
Later in the chapter on The Listening Mind, I read about Yeshi Dhonden, the personal physician of the Dalai Lama, and the writer says, “Yeshi Dhonden has purified himself by bathing, fasting, and prayer;” and it hits me square between the eyes and right in the middle of my heart. How many times have I read that we engage in spiritual practices, not for our own edification, but for the benefit of others? I don’t know, but more than once, and this time I get it. The writer paints the picture of Yeshi Dhonden cradling the patient’s arm, solely attentive to the thumping pulse. After long moments defined by one-pointed, tender, deeply respectful focus, Yeshi Dhonden states a diagnosis that when translated into English means “congenital heart disease; interventricular septal defect with resultant heart failure.” Yes, he gets all of this from listening deeply to the person’s pulse. What’s more is that his diagnosis is correct.
The markedly interesting thing to me is that Yeshi Dhonden prepared himself to receive this understanding, not only by obtaining an education, but through “bathing, fasting, and prayer;” and this revitalizes my own intent. The story is a clear depiction of how spiritual practice prepares one to be of service in a powerful way. Certainly this is not the only example of which I know. It readily comes to my mind that Jesus often went away “to a lonely place to pray.” Then I wonder if the adolescent ability that I have to provide a reassuring presence at someone’s deathbed may be related to the hundreds of hours that I have spent in spiritual practice. The next logical query stimulates my heart to pray-dream about the possibility of being so completely spacious that my presence could actually dispel fear in the patient and their family. I want that.
Beauty at the bedside of a dying person is missed without deep listening, first to the movements of my own heart so that I can honor my own truth, which then prepares me to honor the truths of others. Deep listening requires the courage to be vulnerable and to honor vulnerability as a precious gift in others. To hear someone, I must let go of the conversation in my head about who I think he is and what I think he should do. It is into this emptiness that I am able to receive his fears, worries, deeply-held prejudices, cherished hopes, relinquished dreams, and inarticulate joys; and to cradle them gently, compassionately, as pieces of his valuable life.
All of these musings also relate directly to companioning someone in spiritual direction. My new visual for my time with a directee is to see myself as joining with her pulse--the pulse of her life, the pulse of her prayer. Can I join so completely with her that I feel her pulse, in a metaphoric sense of course? Can I hear what makes her heart beat; what makes it flutter in anticipation; what makes it race in fear; what makes it steady and sure?
I know that I can hear someone else’s pulse, but only through listening first to my own heart. I must know my heart intimately before I can allow myself to be empty enough to hear the heart of someone else. Otherwise I will become confused and think that my heartbeat is hers.
So I am again reminded of what Kevin Spacey’s character says at the end of the movie about his heart filling up. I have felt that, too. And I want to, “. . . remember to relax and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.” And I am also aware that I, “have no idea what [he’s] talking about,” in the fullest sense; and I resolve to take his advice not to worry because, “[I] will someday.”
Andrea "Ani" Vidrine works as a hospice chaplain with Louisiana Hospice and Palliative Care in Opelousas, Louisiana, offers spiritual direction from her home, by Skype, and by FaceTime, and has been leading retreats since 1999.