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Staying Out of the Way

COVID invited me to lead a weekly book group about the book "Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End of Life Care." Luckily, other people got the invitation to join me. I'm good, but leading a book group with no participants would have been infinitely less enjoyable.

I had read the book before, in dribs and drabs, over the years. It's good like that. You can sit and read for an hour or two and disappear into it or you can just pick one of the essays at random and it's likely to be useful.

I loved working through it with the handful of people who would join me each week on my computer screen from California, Wisconsin, Vermont, Minnesota and all over. Dear friends. New friends. Old friends. We were a wee tribe just checking each others' pulses each week.

Yep. Still there. We're not alone.

This past week, we read an essay by Dr. Ira Byock, a groundbreaking palliative care physician who has written and spoken extensively about what it means to really show up for people at the end of life. The essay was a beautiful blend of practical guidance and real, authentic pith.

And I loved that, even having read so many of his works and even after hearing him speak many times, I was invited to look at something I thought I knew so well in a new way.


We throw this word around a lot in caregiving. I feel like compassion and presence are sidled up next to each other at the spiritual watering hole, just waiting for us to tap them on the shoulder when we're trying to teach medical students or new massage therapists about what it means to stay.

Staying. Being still. Not letting your mind or your heart escape the suffering in front of you is maybe one of the hardest and most important things we can do as humans and this idea of presence has always felt central to my practice of it.

As Dr. Byock explored it through stories of patients for whom he had cared, it left me with a question. What if being present is as much about seeing fully what is as it is about not preventing or standing in the way of what's possible? What if presence has as much to do with imagination as it does with perception?

How do we welcome these meaning-making minds of our that always want to understand and compare to stay open to what's never been or what cannot be imagined?

That, I think, is mature presence. Stillness, plus fearless receptivity.


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