Caring: Two Sides of the Coin–– The Greatest Lesson

Doreen Schweizer

An Insight: Twenty years ago, on the fifth day of the annual ten-day New Year’s meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, in an evening Dharma talk, Jack Kornfield said, “Sometimes when the mind is very quiet, you can ask yourself the question: ‘What is the greatest lesson I have learned so far in my lifetime?’, and you will get an answer.”

I was deeply settled into the silence of the retreat, so in the next walking period I brought this question to mind. Very quickly an answer arose, and I was transported back another twenty years to a time when I was acutely ill. I was back in a bed in a single room––in reverse isolation––on the eighth floor of the old Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire. A few days before, after presenting with high fever, mild delirium, and an uncontrollable, unspecified, unstoppable respiratory infection, I’d been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. I was expected to die. On this particular, remembered day, a lot of people had come to visit and spend time with me: some brought simple gifts or cards; others helped me sit up, straightened up the room, or did other tasks. One friend came and played her guitar and sang to me. Everyone brought kindness, a respectful courageous openness, and a much-needed sense of connection, simply through his or her presence. I was not alone.

What I remembered in particular was one moment, when the day of visits was coming to an end. My brother and his young family from New Jersey had left for their long trip home much earlier, and a dear friend had arrived just before the visiting hours ended for the night. She had been visiting her brother for the weekend and brought me a very fresh peach from his orchard in New York state. She was so pleased with its ripeness and with the fact that she was able to get it to me on the very day she had picked it. It was still warm. The smell, the fuzziness of its skin, and the sweet juicy taste, carried and made real to me the fact of her love. In fact, it constellated all the love that had been coming to me that day, with an almost unbearable poignancy. I was filled with joy. She was too. And I actually had an insight––a fully formed thought in my mind––which accompanied the strong feelings through my whole body. It was framed in words something akin to, and as simple as, Receiving is giving.

I realized that I had suddenly and unexpectedly become a vehicle for love. In that moment I knew viscerally the profound and necessary connection between receiving and giving, between myself and others. I knew that it was important for me to cultivate my ability to receive so that others could cultivate their ability to love. I knew also, given my circumstances at the time, that all this had something to do with being vulnerable, that it had something to do with suffering, and that it had everything and nothing to do with me personally. That was my “greatest lesson so far.” Receiving well can be a profound act of generosity–– towards others as well as towards oneself.

When you interact with another person a connection is made ….
With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection,
a connection where you’re glad the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth … (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Practical Advice. I recalled this experience from forty years ago recently, when I came upon a Dharma teaching on the subject of how to be a “good patient,” along with one on being a “good caregiver.” Even 2,500 years ago the Buddha recognized the importance of this interdependence in caring relationships and the powerful role such relationships can play in the healing process. He gave some remarkably practical tips on negotiating caring relationships, a rich area of the human experience. Bhikkhu Analayo, in his book Mindfully Facing Disease and Death (pp 38-41), summarizes the contents of three Suttas dealing with this subject. To his list, copied below, I have added some ideas (in parentheses) from a translation of the material by Andrew Olendzki found in Older and Wiser (p 110).

The qualities of a good patient, which make one easy to tend and which will enable a speedy recovery are:

* to take only the appropriate (beneficial) food and drink
* to take these at the right time and in moderation
* to take the prescribed medicine
* to disclose one’s condition truthfully and to not get irritated
* to cultivate metta towards the caregiver and to patiently endure pain

The qualities of a good caregiver, which make them fit to tend the sick and which will facilitate a patient’s recovery are:

* to (be competent to) give proper medicine
* to be attentive to the needs of the patient (and to bring forward what is beneficial)
* to cope with one’s own disgust (and not be loathe to remove excrement, urine, sweat, or vomit)
* to be willing to converse with the patient (and to gladden, rejoice, rouse, and delight the sick person from time to time––with talk in the spirit of dharma)
* to maintain an altruistic motivation (a loving mind) and avoid getting irritated
* (to not be acting in the hope of gain)

In a recent discussion on this material in our Older and Wiser study group, we reflected that, by engaging in Dharma study and meditation practices designed to help us see clearly and act kindly, we have already been training our minds and hearts in this specific relational wisdom. Our commitment to wise intention, which enables us to create less harm, is the third element that is guiding us in the direction of being “good patients” and “good caregivers,” and thereby participating in the reciprocal joy of being alive. Kindness cultivates the letting go that allows us to receive and to give from this poignant rejoicing with a deep-felt gratitude.

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