One of the Senior Instructors of Zen Hospice Project’s Mindful Caregiver Education Program discusses her path of service, lessons as a teacher and exciting new developments in the education program.
As a youth, Mary had the rare opportunity to gain awareness and respect for end of life care; her mother and stepfather founded a hospice for incarcerated men at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. She was able to develop a sense for the importance and beauty of hospice and palliative care. However it was her later interest in Buddhism that really opened the door to her career in the field as an adult.
Seeking a structured way to explore her aspirations of using service as an expression of spiritual practice, Mary attended a Buddhist chaplaincy program. A faculty member there guided her to Zen Hospice Project to fulfill the program’s requirement of volunteer service. It was a perfect fit.
Mary completed the 43-hour volunteer caregiver training and continued as a volunteer at Laguna Honda Hospital and the Guest House facilities for about 10 years.
Early on in her hospice service, Mary experienced the moment when the Zen Hospice Project approach fully integrated into her practice.
One day at Laguna Honda Hospital, Mary was asked by a nurse to accompany her at the bedside while the nurse had to reposition and clean a man who was in an enormous amount of pain. The nurse asked Mary to come and be there to support the patient – to give him something else to focus on and to be a soothing presence. Mary realized it would also serve as support for the nurse while she was doing her necessary but pain-inflicting duty. Mary recalled something she learned in her Zen Hospice Project training: There is nothing to fix. She repeated this mini-mantra to herself while keeping herself grounded with her feet on the floor, her attention on breath, and simply being a centered presence in room. She gently stroked his hand and maintained eye contact with loving support, silently communicating “I’m right here with you, you’re doing a great job, this will be over soon…”
Mary embodied the lesson that there are places to draw from inside each of us, to keep ourselves stable in a challenging bedside situation – and to model and offer that presence out to those under care and everyone in the room.
Five years into her volunteer service, as a natural fit for the program, Mary was invited and joyfully became facilitator for volunteer caregiver training. Along the way, she also represented Zen Hospice Project in the local community at organizations and events. So when the Mindful Caregiver Education launched in 2014, Mary was on board from day one.
Mary says she is continually learning and maturing as a facilitator. Teaching these courses is a mindfulness practice in itself. She says of the Mindful Caregiver Education, “What we offer is not mechanical instruction. It is about how caring for others connects us to them and to ourselves. And draws us to universal human truths. Most everyone who enrolls in Mindful Caregiver Education finds it really nurturing. But it also brings up vulnerability and other strong emotions.”
This openness of the Zen Hospice Project approach brings up vulnerability for her as a teacher as well. So over time Mary has developed an exercise prior to teaching each course. She imagines the participants and feels gratitude and appreciation for them, consciously connecting to their humanity and offering her humanity in return, before they even get in the room together. She understands that the whole class will be co-creating something together, students and facilitators alike. And it is never the same experience twice.
The Zen Hospice Project education model is to teach in pairs whenever possible. Mary especially appreciates the opportunity to facilitate classes with a colleague. She feels that having a teaching partner produces a richer experience for everyone. Working alongside those new to teaching brings Mary a deeper level of awareness and responsibility to the work. It reinforces her sense of gratitude to be doing something that is meaningful to her personally, that she loves, and carries real value in the world.
Mary is committed to the Zen Hospice Project model of care and is excited about the opportunity to affect people’s approach to death and dying, and long term chronic illness, and in turn their approach to living. As her teaching experience expands, her personal practice continues to evolve.
Especially enthusiastic about the new Mindful Family Caregiving Education Program she has been co-creating with her fellow Zen Hospice Project faculty, Mary is passionate about reaching out to new communities and the potential broader effect on society.
“I believe so strongly in the importance of this work. I see it as a form of resistance. Not in any political way, but in a deeper human way. The work we’re doing in Mindful Caregiver Education and with Family Caregivers is a path to reclaiming our humanity. To look directly at our mortality and vulnerability can go a long way in helping us clarify and prioritize the best parts of ourselves. We see that there is so much power in simple things like kindness and tenderness, and in experiencing the mysterious beauty that is uncovered by paying attention… even when what we’re paying attention to is uncomfortable.”