The Mystery of Death and Life
I often dance with mortality and mystery as an interfaith spiritual director and companion to the dying at Zen Hospice Project, which trains volunteers to practice these Five Precepts of Hospice Care developed by its founder:
1) Bring your whole self to the bedside.
2) Welcome everything, push away nothing.
3) Find a place of rest in the middle of things.
4) Cultivate "don't know mind."
5) Don't wait.
Years ago, as a new hospice volunteer and spiritual director overflowing with compassion, openness, and newly acquired skills, I was excited to practice all that I had learned—especially the five precepts.
Everything changed as soon as I met “John.”
Sitting in his wheelchair, I noticed a swastika tattooed on his forearm. Suddenly my body tightened and with it, my open heart.
I’m Jewish and Judaism teaches tolerance. Yet I could not look past the swastika and what it represented to me.
I immediately ended the visit.
I did visit John a few weeks later; this time he was lying in his bed, dead.
When I entered his room, he was still warm, swastika in full view. This time I took a deep breath, began practicing metta, and gently caressed his arms, especially the swastika.
Though painful at the time, my response to John is an exquisite reminder of universal messiness, fallibility, and vulnerability.
I've come to understand the five precepts with fresh eyes.
Bring your whole self to the bedside. I owe it to myself and those I serve to show up more honestly. If a spiritual directee shares something that I resonate with, I might tell them a bit of my own story, which often allows for a more intimate connection.
Welcome everything, push away nothing. We can’t choose how we are going to feel, and we can’t serve everyone. Welcoming everything tenderizes me to my own and others' suffering. And joy. By welcoming everything, I am striving to live more wholeheartedly, even when the challenges feel daunting.
Find a place of rest in the middle of things. I can offer compassion, but as much as I want to, I cannot fix another’s circumstances. My ability to serve depends upon holding that distinction.
Cultivate "don't know mind." One can never know what's going on inside another's head, heart, and body, nor do we know what our future holds or when we will say final goodbyes. We can stay present, respond to what arises, and act from the most genuine place.
Don't wait. If we do our best in each moment—fully, passionately, courageously—that is what truly matters.
As I have evolved as a spiritual director, no longer are the Five Precepts simply intellectual guideposts but rather a dynamic life force within me. I make a choice, moment by moment, to be fully present. When I have the urge to move away from difficult feelings or self-judgment arises, I sit down, close my eyes, ground my feet firmly on the floor, take slow, deep breaths, and softly whisper, "Yes!”
Rachel Katz, MA, MEd, is a member of SDI and has worked in the medical field and the arts for over twelve years. She currently provides practical, emotional, and spiritual support to dying patients at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, California, USA.