Bearing witness

Is this heaven

If you think meditation requires sitting cross-legged and chanting “Om,” you might be surprised to learn that’s only one way to practice meditation. Dozens of contemplative practices exist including everything from sitting in silence to dance and many acts in between. One of them is bearing witness, defined by Jules Shuzen Harris as “acknowledging that something exists or is true.” He suggests the Buddhist perspective of bearing witness “is to embrace both the joy and the suffering we encounter.”

For the past six months or so, I have been participating in a meditation practice with a small group of women at a nearby church. Last month, we met in my church (that is, my house, which used to be a church). After we rang the church bell, we meditated to the sound of bells. It was lovely.

But today I’m thinking of bearing witness as a meditation because I did so earlier this week when I spent a few minutes in silence holding a dying man’s hand. Without getting into the sticky HIPAA details of who this man is and whether or not he is actually dying, let’s just stipulate we all are dying. But we’re not all breathing with a ventilator in the critical care unit of a hospital. This man was. If you’re a more hopeful sort, you might argue this man was recovering, not dying. To-may-to, to-mah-to. Unless you’re a baby, we’re all in some state of disintegration.

This experience has clung to my consciousness like Pig-pen’s dust cloud, not in a haunting way but in a solemn, reverential way; it seems appropriate with the observance today of Ash Wednesday, which I associate with one’s path to death and resurrection. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In between the hullabaloo of a number of visitors checking on this man’s well-being and the nurse washing his face and pressing various buttons on his monitors and intravenous drips, I was left alone in the room with him for about 20 minutes. Cell phones were not allowed in the ward. Food wasn’t permitted. There wasn’t a TV in the room. Only the man, carefully arranged in a hospital bed, and an array of machinery. Instead of seeking a distraction, I paid attention to the moment.

I took the man’s hand and was surprised to find it warmer than my own. I held it gently because he was so frail.

I considered singing a lullaby, but he is hearing impaired and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be heard by anyone else or that I could remember whole verses. So I sat in silence listening to the ventilator do its work.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Every breath is a miracle if you think about it, but it was even more special in this setting. This is exactly what one might do to center one’s mind during meditation, only one would be concentrating on one’s own breath instead of someone else’s.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Though mostly unconscious, it was clear this man was suffering. Occasionally, he would open his mouth and grimace. But he would also sometimes turn his head and smile. There was small but real joy in these fleeting moments. He was warm. He was breathing. He was alive. Life, being a gift, should be celebrated even in the midst of pain, I believe. Sitting there with him, this is what I bore witness to.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

I did not consider the future. I have the luxury of being emotionally separated enough from the man that his state did not disturb or worry me. I was in no position to help the situation or control it or even speak words of comfort (he couldn’t hear me anyway and with a tracheotomy, he couldn’t speak either so conversation was not an option). I could just be. Holding his hand. And bearing witness. See him in the moment instead his past mistakes or all the machines in the present or what the future might hold.

According to Harris, bearing witness has psychological and spiritual benefits for the bearer: “It enables us to connect with a place of real empathy. It also provides a kind of catharsis, a release from our emotional reactions of pity, shame, or fear. Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of oneness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.”

I felt these benefits while sitting with this man. For a few minutes, I let go of my shame and pity, and in bearing witness to his joy and suffering, I felt fortunate. My private moments in that room were a blessing to him, I hope, and to me. It’s not every day one observes so intimately the process of living and dying.

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In observance of Ash Wednesday, I’m asking big questions about life and death this week on Minnesota Transplant. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a six-week season during which Christians focus on the life and, in particular, the death of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, a throwback with a lighter perspective.

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One response to “Bearing witness

  1. Monica, you inspire me, always. I don’t comment often enough, but I read, and I take notice. And I am thankful. Thank you.

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