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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 11 66 only see the world and your advice through their illness. I recently experienced a pain so intense that I asked my wife to call 911. It was some- thing unusual for me, since I have always been reluctant to seek help before trying to control my pain through meditation. But not that time. The intensity made every technique I spent years practicing as useful as a 1970s computer. Fortu- nately, it was nothing serious. But I learned that given a battle between the immediacy of a prob- lem and a concept, the practicality of a problem always wins out. That was the case with one of my patients who described himself as a “con- firmed atheist.” He noticed the mala I was wearing on my wrist and asked me what it was. When I explained that it was the Buddhist version of a Catholic rosary, he asked me about Buddhism. Not in a way that was inquisitive, but rather challenging. As I struggled to explain my “practical” Bud- dhism using centuries-old concepts, I realized my words were sounding like the canned speeches of people who came to my door and wanted to lead me from damnation to salvation. “I can have a monk visit you and explain it,” I said, since the San Francisco Zen Center was across the street. “No,” he said breathlessly, an oxygen tube in his nose. “I don’t want to hear any mumbo jumbo from a professional religionist. Just tell me how what you do because of your beliefs can help me die better.” That was the first of many interactions I had with patients who taught me to see my words and actions through their eyes—the eyes of someone who looked at the world through cancer, HIV, a chronic heart condition, early stages of demen- tia, ALS, or any of the hundreds of illnesses that tainted everything they felt or perceived. If Buddhist caregivers are to be effective, they need to understand that almost everything experienced by people they are caring for is seen through the lens of their illness or the certainty of death. It’s a very different world than the one a caregiver lives in. Urging them to look at it through a Buddhist perspective, as well inten- tioned as it is, may be counter-productive. Imagine being dropped into a strange country TOBIASKLUTKE/NEWYORKZENCENTERFORCONTEMPLATIVECARE PHOTO TOBIAS KLUTKE Koshin Paley Ellison of New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, with his grandmother