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I Don’t Want Anything to Get in the Way

August 25, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Last Saturday I had a very long talk with one of our new residents about everything from her childhood through some of her adult years to her arrival at the Guest House.  What most interested me was the way she was acutely aware the demands of how to live her final weeks.  She told me that while she never took on an “official” spiritual practice, she was always very aware that something “very deep” needed to be attended to.  From what she told me I could tell that she had indeed attended to this deep part of herself that she did not have the inner vocabulary to name.  Towards the end of our conversation I noticed that she had a photograph of the Dalai Lama pinned to the bulletin board just to the left of her bed. Seeing that well-known photo I remembered my many years of Tibetan Buddhist practice and I felt just a little closer to her—we had a mutual friend!

On Wednesday, I went upstairs to say hello to my new friend before my shift began.  I was stunned and saddened to see how her condition had deteriorated.  She smiled when she saw me and waved me closer so that I could hear her barely audible whisper.  I know that a person’s condition can deteriorate very quickly during the last few days of life, but seeing the change was shocking.  After a few words she closed her eyes and seemed to drift off into another space that I could hardly imagine. Occasionally, she would open her eyes and stare out the window at the foot of her bed.  She seemed to be looking at something that I could not see.

I told her that I would sit with her quietly until she fell asleep. She smiled and reached for my hand and I told her to tell me if there was anything she needed.  After a while her breathing changed and I knew that she had fallen asleep so I tiptoed out of her room. 

After my shift was over I went into the park next door and sat down on a bench, trying to take in everything that I experienced in my five-hour shift.  I had several good exchanges with a couple of the residents but the sad expression on my friend’s face when she told me that she wasn’t feeling well filled my mind and tugged at my heart.  I wanted to “do” something but I knew that there was nothing I could do. I remembered that one of the first things I learned in hospice training was that I should not try to “fix” anything, but instead just accept everything that was happening as fully as possible.  As my first Zen teacher told me many years ago, “There is nothing to learn, and nothing to be done.” I’m not sure I ever really believed him until I sat down on that park bench last Saturday.

The next morning I decided that I would give my friend a mala that a Tibetan lama had given me many years ago.  The mala was just plain sandalwood, but he had brought it from India for me and I had worn it during several Tibetan and Zen retreats through the years so it felt more special than the more expensive ones that I had in my collection. I didn’t think that my friend would use it to keep track of mantras but I thought that holding it in her hand might give her some kind of support that my words could not.

While feeding her some blueberries and strawberries I had picked up for her, I told her about the mala and asked if she would like to have it. She looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “No, thank you.  I don’t want anything to get in the way…” For a moment I was disappointed and then as I let her words sink more deeply into myself, I felt the wisdom of her words.  She was paying close attention to “things as they are,” and didn’t want or need anything. She didn’t want any distractions of any kind—not even a blessed mala—to keep her from experiencing the last precious moments of her life as fully as she could. She had entered the space of “religion beyond religion,” and all she needed was herself.  She no longer needed to pray or meditate or recite mantras, she just needed to be in the Great Silence beyond everything.  She had completely surrendered to a reality much greater than anything she or I could understand.  As I watched my friend, I felt myself also surrender to things just as they are without any reservations. She was a small woman but her presence filled the entire room, and seemed to contain everything.  I remembered a line or two from one of my favorite Zen chants, the Song of the Grass Hut:

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.

In her own way, my friend had “illumined” many things about the great question of life and death that I had only dimly perceived. On the way home I could still feel her presence, or maybe it was the presence of something else that I could not name and I silently recited another couple of lines from The Song of the Grass Hut appeared:

Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present.

If I have the opportunity to see her one more time, I will not bring anything extra—just myself.



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One Comment
  1. I am very touched by this and by your poems. You have flourished and grown even wiser
    , to become more and more yourself.

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