Taking a Zen Approach to Caregiving

By JUDITH GRAHAM, The New York Times, January 11, 2013

New York, USA -- You try to help your elderly father. Irritated and defensive, he snaps at you instead of going along with your suggestion. And you think “this is so unfair” and feel a rising tide of anger.

How to handle situations like this, which arise often and create so much angst for caregivers?

Jennifer Block finds the answer in what she calls “contemplative caregiving” — the application of Buddhist principles to caregiving and the subject of a year-long course that starts at the San Francisco Zen Center in a few weeks.

This approach aims to cultivate compassion, both for older people and the people they depend on, said Ms. Block, 49, a Buddhist chaplain and the course’s lead instructor. She’s also the former director of education at the Zen Hospice project in San Francisco and founder of the Beyond Measure School for Contemplative Care, which is helping develop a new, Zen-inspired senior living community in the area.

I caught up with Ms. Block recently, and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q. Let’s start with your experience. Have you been a caregiver?
A. My experience in caregiving is as a professional providing spiritual care to individuals and families when they are facing and coping with aging and sickness and loss and dying, particularly in hospital and hospice settings.

Q. What kinds of challenges have you witnessed?
A. People are for the most part unprepared for caregiving. They’re either untrained or unable to trust their own instincts. They lack confidence as well as knowledge. By confidence, I mean understanding and accepting that we don’t know all the answers – what to do, how to fix things.

This past weekend, I was on the phone with a woman who’d brought her mom to live near her in assisted living. The mom had been to the hospital the day before. My conversation with the daughter was about helping her see the truth that her mother needed more care and that was going to change the daughter’s responsibilities and her life. And also, her mother was frail, elderly, and coming nearer to death.

Q. That’s hard, isn’t it?
A. Yes, because we live in a death-denying society. Also, we live in a fast-paced, demanding world that says don’t sit still — do something. But people receiving care often need most of all for us to spend time with them. When we do that, their mortality and our grief and our helplessness becomes closer to us and more apparent.

Q. How can contemplative caregiving help?
A. We teach people to cultivate a relationship with aging, sickness and dying. To turn toward it rather than turning away, and to pay close attention. Most people don’t want to do this.

A person needs training to face what is difficult in oneself and in others. There are spiritual muscles we need to develop, just like we develop physical muscles in a gym. Also, the mind needs to be trained to be responsive instead of reactive.

Q.What does that mean?
A. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re trying to help your mother, and she says something off-putting to you like “you’ve always been terrible at keeping house. It’s no wonder you lost my pajamas.”

The first thing is to notice your experience. To become aware of that feeling, almost like being slapped emotionally. To notice your chest tightening.

Then I tell people to take a deep breath. And say something to themselves like “soften” to address that tightness. That’s how you can stay facing something uncomfortable rather than turning away.

If I were in this position, I might say something to myself like “hello unhappiness” or “hello suffering” or “hello aging” to tether myself.

The second step would be curiosity about that experience. Like, wow, where do I feel that anger that rose up in me, or that fear? Oh, it’s in my chest. I’m going to feel that, stay with it, investigate it.

Q. Why is that important?
A. Because as we investigate something we come to understand it. And, paradoxically, when we pay attention to pain it changes. It softens. It moves. It lessens. It deepens. And we get to know it and learn not to be afraid of it or change it or fix it but just come alongside of it.

Over hours, days, months, years, the mind and heart come to know pain. And the response to pain is compassion — the wish for the alleviation of pain.

Let’s go back to what mother said about your housekeeping and the pajamas. Maybe you leave the room for five minutes so you can pay attention to your reaction and remember your training. Then, you can go back in and have a response rather than a reaction. Maybe something like “Mom, I think you’re right. I may not be the world’s best housekeeper. I’m sorry I lost your pajamas. It seems like you’re having a pretty strong response to that, and I’d like to know why it matters so much to you. What’s happening with you today?”

Q.Are other skills important?
A. Another skill is to become aware of how much we receive as well as give in caregiving. Caregiving can be really gratifying. It’s an expression of our values and identity: the way we want the world to be. So, I try to teach people how this role benefits them. Such as learning what it’s like to be old. Or having a close, intimate relationship with an older parent for the first time in decades. It isn’t necessarily pleasant or easy. But the alternative is missing someone’s final chapter, and that can be a real loss.

Q.What will you do in your course?
A.We’ll teach the principles of contemplative care and discuss them. We’ll have homework, such as ‘Bring me three examples of someone you were caring for who was caring toward you in return.’ That’s one way of practicing attention. And people will train in meditation.

We’ll also explore our own relationship to aging, sickness, dying and loss. We’ll tell our stories: this is the situation I was in, this is where I felt myself shut down, this was the edge of my comfort or knowledge. And we’ll teach principles from Buddhism. Equanimity. Compassion. Deep inner connectedness.

Q.What can people do on their own?
A. Mindfulness training is offered in almost every city. That’s one of the core components of this approach.

I think every caregiver needs to have their own caregiver — a therapist or a colleague or a friend, someone who is there for them and with whom they can unburden themselves. I think of caregiving as drawing water from a well. We need to make sure that we have whatever nurtures us, whatever supplies that well. And often, that’s connecting with others.

Q.Are other groups doing this kind of work?
A. In New York City, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care educates the public and professionals about contemplative care. And in New Mexico, the Upaya Zen Center does similar work, much of it centered around death and dying.

People who want to read about this might want to look at a new book of essays, “The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work” (Wisdom Publications, 2012).

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