Monday, September 7, 2015

Listening, Mindfulness, and Bearing Witness




All this week, I’ve been thinking about how we bear witness to our lives.  To me, it takes mindfulness:  live every moment in that moment.  Or, slow down every moment.  To bear witness to another’s life also requires mindfulness.  It is not awareness of breathing or of a particular piece of music or a specific activity like walking, one foot in front of the other.  It’s deep listening both to what is spoken in our lives, by nature, by others, and also what is not said with words but communicated through posture, expression, non-verbal sounds—in short, body language, something deeper than spoken words.

All during the past, stress-filled week—the weeks never get easier no matter what the schedule says—I tried to find an island of calm, a meditative moment where I could summon up my focus, my mindfulness.  I failed.  All I managed was to sit for a few minutes until the panic set in, moments where I did not know how I would ever let go and just be.  We are so caught up in do-ing that we never fulfill the task embodied in our species’ name:  human be-ings.  It is not necessary to always take action; sometimes we just have to be, i.e., bear witness to our lives and the lives of others.  Because I lost this sense of be-ing, I entered into situations with an edge, a “chip on my shoulder.”  I was not at my best.  I was testy with students and impatient.  What I needed was a good, long walk or a day to refocus my energies and get on track.  I needed to center on my breathing, in and out, and try to get my racing mind under control.  Everywhere I looked, disaster loomed—too much drama because of fatigue.  Were things really that bad?  Narcissism?  Anxiety is my problem when pressures and stresses mount and almost always, things work out fine.  In retrospect, there was no need to be nervous or worried, but the next time such a situation arises, my throat will still start to close and my headache will pound.  There I am again, lost in the funhouse.

Too many times, I feel I want to disappear.  Thoreau off in the woods around Walden Pond.  The monk in his cell.  The ascetic in the desert cave imbibing the pure light of divine wisdom.  Ahhh, to be out and anonymous in the world.  To be silent and stoic.  Why do we always have to participate?  Why do we have to get caught up?  When teaching, I feel I must offer my students something of intellectual value, but too often the well is dry.  In the realization that I have nothing enlightening to say, I just want to keep silent.  Be still.

This is when listening comes in.  I need to listen, first to the breath of life coming in and out of my body.  Second, to the world around me—the people, their voices, what they say and do not say.  I need to listen to the silences of which I am so unaware.  No judgment.  No response necessary other than openness.

When I think of mindfulness, I think of meditation and the deliberate life.  Every action is the totality of the moment.  I block out the next action, the anticipation of what will happen next.  Instead, it is all about a single breath, a single step, a single moment.  A birth and death in the most intimate drop of rain.  Forget the storm; the seed of every tempest is in a single molecule of holy water.

This week, I am leading a discussion of two powerful pieces of witnessing.  Carroll Pickett is a prison minister in Huntsville, Texas.  In his time there, he has witnessed 95 executions of convicted murderers.  It was a job he did not want but upon reflection, he recognized he was being called to do something extraordinary.  He spent entire days with the condemned from six in the morning until the body left the prison well after midnight.  Then he went home and recorded on tape what he had witnessed.  He is not an advocate for the death penalty but rather than stand outside the prison walls holding a sign in protest, he felt he could do more by standing inside next to the condemned as they take their last breath.  The piece is called “The Ministry of Presence,” and it was featured on the National Public Radio show Unfictional.

The second piece is a 70 minute documentary called Griefwalker.  Stephen Jenkinson is a Harvard-educated palliative care specialist who counsels people who are terminally ill.  He also works with their families.  In the documentary, he is often shown listening to his patients.  Intensely, empathically listening.  Sometimes he asks questions.  When he does speak in statements, he is blunt and to the point.  The cradle of life is death, he says.  In his words he makes clear that as much as birth, growing up, becoming an adult are all part of life, so too, is death.  We cannot separate our lives from dying.  All is one piece and the fact that this life ends should profoundly influence how we live.  But so many people do not consider that they will one day not exist until the diagnosis comes or old age envelopes them.  But Jenkinson argues it should be part of every moment of our lives.  We should hold it close like a precious gift, this dying.

Both of the men profiled bear witness.  They are examples of people who put themselves out there for others.  Pickett, the prison chaplain, is a minister, a companion to others on their journey as they reach their state-mandated end.  Jenkinson is both a counselor and a teacher.  He reminds me that the best teachers don’t always have the answers.  They are not there to tell others what to think.  They come into our lives to provoke us to think.

For me, with all the books and mindfulness exercises, it is still too easy to slip back into my old habits.  It is too easy to lose my way and then I must stop and remind myself that there are entire worlds in a moment.  Slow down.  Breathe.  Forgetting these lessons leads only to shameful and embarrassing incidents of overwrought emotions.  It is not pleasant.

We can keep waiting for the weeks to get easier, but they never will.  As strange as it seems, I have to divorce myself from the situation.  I have to become the proverbial fly in the wall.  Only by stepping back and truly looking at myself as a character in a scene and then recording what I see in my journal, only then can I find a handle, a way to return to mindfulness.  So I have become an even more passionate scribbler in my notebooks.  The words spill out of me and flood the page, and I realize that writing is my mindfulness.  I can meditate on my breathing.  I can take a walk.  Better than those, I can sit down with a blank page and focus on the moment.  What does it feel like?  How is it precious?  How do others react, to me, to the situation?  For a long time I have known that my way in the world is to write.  It is as necessary to me as breathing.  The pen, scratching across the page, is home.

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