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Lions Roar : March 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2009 41 much doubt that mindfulness practice brings benefit on many fronts—it reduces stress and so promotes basic health; it pro- vides methods to bring healing to difficult illnesses; it improves personal effectiveness in work and personal relationships; it can be a basis for the cultivation of all sorts of positive emotional and attitudinal states, like compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity. Jon had found himself at Umass hospital, had seen a local problem, and had the intuitive sense that the basic Buddhist mind- fulness practice he knew might help. I have tried to do the same. Whenever someone has appeared asking me to help with an issue that mindfulness practice might address, I have always said yes. In the 1980s, even before I saw the video of Jon’s program, colleagues and I at the san francisco Zen center began the Zen hospice project. We had noticed that the simple act of mindfully caring for the dying—simply offering a damp towel, a cup of tea, and a smile, with a spirit of acceptance of rather than resistance to impermanence (a hallmark of mindfulness)—was powerfully healing. Our community had cared for alan chadwick, our gar- dening teacher; for the Buddhist writer Lama Govinda; for the philosopher and anthropologist Gregory Bateson; for our friend and native american teacher harry roberts; and for our own Zen teacher, suzuki roshi, when he died in 1971. It seemed natural, then, for us to apply dharma in this simple way, especially at the height of the aIds crisis in san francisco, when so many of our friends and fellow practitioners were in need. today the Zen hospice project continues to do its care- giving work, and has spun off another organization, the metta Institute, that aspires to have an impact on how end-of-life care is delivered in america through training health care profession- als who work with the dying in the kind of mindful care we have developed over the years. I am on the faculty of metta and have found it interesting to figure out how to teach mindfulness practice in the professional context. professionals have a lot of knowledge about medical and psychological issues relating to the care of the dying and their families. But what they are not necessarily good at, and where mindfulness practice can help, is in the development of a com- passionate presence—the ability to evoke an atmosphere of love, forgiveness, and acceptance, so that whatever healing is possible in those last days or weeks can be encouraged to take place. any time death is imminent, this atmosphere is potentially present. But where there’s too much fear and denial, or too much pressing for a particular result, things don’t go well. sometimes profes- sional knowledge and experience not only don’t help with this, but can get in the way. thinking you know what to do, having experienced past cases, can blind you to what is uniquely present now. With careful attention to what is going on deeply inside, mindfulness practice can bring you to more awareness of your basic confusion about death, your possibly exaggerated need to help heroically, all your unconscious stumbling blocks. If you can learn to be aware of such things with acceptance and forgiveness, if you can also receive some training in becoming comfortable with silence through intensive meditation training, you will have a deeper capacity to be with dying in a healing way. I have two old friends, Gary friedman and Jack himmelstein, who train professionals in conflict resolution and mediation. af- ter years of talking about how mindfulness meditation could be used in their work, we began to include it in the training. Gary and Jack practice what they call “understanding-based” conflict resolution. the goal is to help people in conflict understand one another as a basis for resolution of issues, rather than to simply