Have you started at the beginning?
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Now that you are up to speed, let’s take a look at the Second Precept: Bring your whole self to the experience.
I don’t want to sound redundant, especially if you just read my introduction and what I wrote about the first precept, but suffice it to say, that I will. . . There is nothing simple about this precept and yet, if healing is to occur, bringing our whole self is vital.
My training is in humanistic/existential therapy and I have had some amazing teachers along the way. I had a teacher my first year in college in NY tell us a story about a client that used to come to therapy every week, dressed to the 9s. It was as if her clothing was her protective mask, the image she wanted to portray and to use as camouflage from letting her true self come to the relationship.
He told us that every week he wore jeans and a sweatshirt on the day he saw her. It wasn’t like it was a mission but he just “came as he was”. He said over time she experienced him as genuine and heartfelt and well, real. She connected with him and as she did, that protective mask started to chip away. When she could come into the consultation room, “just as she was”, with mascara running down her face, or scuffed sneakers, or cheeks inflamed from anger, her healing could begin.
Bringing your whole self to the experience means not relying on technique, distance, or feeling like you have some magic that the other person doesn’t. It’s not about you fixing your family, the person whose home you are volunteering in, your elderly grandmother who is living with dementia. It’s about being present and being genuine and congruent. It’s about understanding that in any relationship there are two people who create the space.
There is no time when faced with dying to stand on ceremony. There’s no time for platitudes like, “I know just how you feel.” When we use nothing but techniques and hide behind our title (whatever it might be – daughter, therapist, best friend, lover, etc) we stay in the realm of false pity rather than being able to be truly open to one’s pain with genuine empathy.
Our head nurse at hospice used to say leave your baggage at the door (before going in to be with a family) and while that was true, you didn’t want to let your frustration about traffic distract you from your encounter, we can’t leave the important parts of ourselves by the welcome mat.
Bringing your whole self to the experience. Frank suggests, in his training, that it is in our exploring our own suffering that helps us to create an empathetic bridge with the other. I love that idea and believe it is because of this very thing that healing takes place. And I think we have to be honest and face facts. . . whether you are a therapist or a companion to the dying, when you are together you are both touched, both changed forever, both healed.
Not too long ago, someone complimented me on my “skills” when talking to someone who was in the midst of grieving. Although I knew the compliment was being truly offered in a sincere way, I chuckled to myself. There was no pretense on my part, no thinking in my head, “what would Roshi Joan say” or “what task would Teresa Rando say this person is on in their grief process.”
It was about opening the heart, extending one’s self to a person whose heart might be hurting. It’s about every so lightly, touching the memory of my own grief experiences and allowing that to be close to me. It was about a genuine care and concern for another individual, even though it was someone I do not know very well.
And with that came curiosity, not rubbernecking, morbid curiosity but wanting someone to know that I wouldn’t side step her grief just because we were at work. I wanted that person to know that I was open to listening if she wanted to tell her story.
To me, bringing your whole self to the experience is about not sitting with a desk between you and your client. It’s not about wearing a white jacket. It’s none of that professional coldness that gets drilled into us. It’s not about never touching a patient who is struggling to talk and having difficulty breathing from the intensity of their anxiety about death approaching.
It is about being vulnerable and at the same time not letting the situation be all about me. It’s about meeting a situation and being okay to see where it takes you, or more appropriately, allowing yourself to be led instead of trying to fix the other person.
Can you have enough compassion for yourself and the person you are with so that you can be open to the reciprocal gifts of the moment?
Bring your whole self to the experience.