CARING FOR THE DYING: THE DOULA APPROACH TO A MEANINGFUL DEATH
An excerpt from:
Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death by Henry Fersko-Weiss
Conari Press, March 2017
Pages 66-69, “Centering”
Good listening begins well before the first words are uttered. It starts by shifting out of the busy mind we carry around with us at all times—a mind filled with thoughts and feelings like schools of fish that change direction in an instant and swim rapidly in every direction. Imagine that you are at a lecture, trying to hear the ideas being presented, but a couple next to you doesn’t stop talking the whole time. That couple is your busy mind distracting you and interfering with your ability to hear the lecture. A name for the act of shifting out of busy mind is “centering.”
There are many different approaches to centering. As a student of Zen Buddhism, I find that meditating on breathing is an approach that works well. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes before I visit a dying person or the family, I will meditate on my breath as I sit in my car or walk down the street to where the person lives. If I’m sitting, I will focus my mind on the physical sensations of my breath in my lower belly or at my nostrils. If I’m doing walking meditation, I coordinate each breath with the stepping motion of one foot after the other, concentrating on the sensations of raising and lowering my legs and the contact of my feet with the ground.
At times, I will add a short phrase spoken internally and softly as I breathe in and out, a practice that comes from the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh. For example, breathing in, I might say: “This moment.” Breathing out, I would say: “Only moment.”
Another approach utilizes guided imagery, also called visualization. I will explore guided imagery more thoroughly in chapter 9. For now, I want to describe a centering visualization.
For this visualization, a person sits with their eyes closed, so they can move more easily into the imagination. They start with a minute or two of breath meditation, then call up the image of a still pool of water—perhaps in a forest. Then they visualize sitting at the edge of the water watching its surface. A frog jumps in, creating ripples that move outward in all directions from the plop of where it entered the water.
As the person continues to watch the surface of the water, the ripples slowly dissipate until the pool is completely still again. The person feels themselves become that stillness. When they feel ready, they open their eyes and carry that stillness and the receptivity of the pool in their mind as they enter the person’s home or room.
The busy mind can be very insistent. Thoughts, memories, sounds, or bodily sensations will drag a person away from their focus. Each time that happens, just return to the centering practice. The activity of returning over and over again to the breath, or to a mental snapshot of the still pool, will keep them centered as they prepare to listen to a dying person or family member.
Centering stills the mind and accesses intuition that may help a person see things not obvious to the upper layers of consciousness. But they also need to open outward to listen deeply. So once a person is centered, they turn their focus to every sound they can hear in the space around them. In this part of the preparation, it’s essential for a person to maintain some portion of their focus on the breath at the same time that they listen intently to every sound. It is this dual focus, awareness of what is happening inside as well as outside, that is most effective for listening deeply.
The last part of centering is to set an intention to let go of all expectations and goals. If a person is caught up in wanting to make something wonderful happen, is anxious about saying the wrong thing, or has an agenda related to a particular issue, then they are too caught up in concerns about themselves or their ideas about what is needed to truly listen.
Family members will have to distinguish between times they intend to listen to their dying loved one and times when they may need to bring up an issue or raise a concern. It is often hard for family to separate these two activities. A doula can help with this. For a dying person to speak openly and freely—particularly about deeply meaningful or emotional subjects—they must know that their family member is there at this time to just listen. This can be so critical as the dying person faces their final days.
After setting an intention internally, I find it helps to verbalize that intention out loud. There is something about speaking it, even though I’m alone in my preparation, that seems to give it weight and power; that makes it feel like a commitment I intend to strive toward.
As I do this part of my preparation, I will hold my hands with palms together in front of my face or heart, which comes out of my Zen practice and symbolizes for me that the giver and receiver, or the listener and speaker, are not two and not one at the same time. This gesture with the hands is also a sign of gratitude for whatever will be offered.