A couple of years ago Peter Reilly, friend, long time educator and mentor, authored a book for teachers. It was called “In the Garden of Hearts: Meditations, Consulations and Blessings for Teachers” Peter honored me by asking me to write a chapter for the book, which I did. Today I stumbled across it, and thought…wow, not bad…I should share that.
So here it is. And do check out his lovely book. This is a master teacher who has so much kindness and wisdom for others who teach and heal.
One could say I am a teacher. At least I‘ve been a teacher. Plenty of times. Primarily I teach adults and college students. I am also a therapist (a different kind of teacher). But what taught me most about teaching and the work of the heart was not derived directly from any formal education, or even the therapy room. It was what I learned from Hospice work. “Hospice work?!” you ask. Yes. People old and dying. There I learned that being a great student of someone we seem to be “helping” is the best way to do our work with heart, the best way to be fed by that work and the best way to avoid burnout. So I’d like to tell you briefly about being a student with some burning questions and what can happen when questions exist in silence between two people.
Here is the short of it: After leaving a perfectly respectable career designing bridges at age 41, I found myself training as a healer and volunteering in a Hospice in the most dismal of nursing homes, sitting with people curled in balls and not speaking. I won’t give the details. I knew very little if anything about them. Fortunately, I had little to do but sit and contemplate what was before me. Who was this person? Where were they? What was happening in the silence? How could I reach them? Did they know I was there? Who was I to be here in their presence, in their room? And most importantly, “How could I help?”
Questions abounded. Questions were all I had, aside from a scattering of cards on the nightstand and a name. There were no stories. No ego. No identity. No parents. No tests or grades, no government targets. Just me and them, both in our vulnerability. One sitting, one lying.
The truth is, I wasn’t there just to do some kind of good. I was an investigator with questions about consciousness. I saw each dying person as a portal to another world. I wanted to know how to reach across the chasm of silence that lay between us and to have a conversation. For reasons I can’t give space to, I was there to ask “What can you teach me?” “What do you know that I don’t?” I was curious. Strangely, without all the usual props of life stories and drama, without a professional role, without words, I had the freedom to study human connection much more deeply than usual. With their permission (of a kind), I experimented in service with on and off body touch, music, song, prayer, and meditation. I watched their physical responses. I eventually measured their responses in a study using biofeedback. I discovered that ….oh yes, they certainly did know I was there. They were responding, at least on some level. They not only recognized me, we formed a non-verbal relationship. I learned that the most important thing I gave was my willingness to be taught, my respect, my blessing and my great curiosity. I learned that the most disempowered people had incredible power, even the power to help me find my own power. How cool was that?
Later I would have a regular hospice job which came with pay and a long list of patients, paperwork, meetings, and politics. At team meetings we talked about regulations, family dynamics and medications. I was surprised to find so much burnout on my co-workers’ stern faces. I didn’t hear many inner questions, nor did I see traces of the heart’s deeper journey. There were too few large questions, too many small answers. Most had also pulled away from each other as colleagues. Though surely they cared, they seemed to have forgotten something important: to do this work they needed to take their own deeper dive. The cost of losing questions and resisting the gifts of the vulnerable ones seemed to be disconnection. Disconnection seemed to be mysteriously connected to burnout. Working this way left marks on my own heart and body that were hard to endure. Eventually I left to be a volunteer again, which paid much better in certain ways.
But don’t read this and despair. Each day as teachers we can seize an opportunity for the miraculous. We can find the most challenging, irksome student in our class in our mind and heart and befriend them. Before entering the classroom, perhaps we can imagine them sleeping before us as an old person, or a newborn without language or identity, without the problems we k
now so well. Perhaps we find the opportunity to have a silent conversation with them in this most primordial state, or just as we know them asking “What do you know that I don’t?”
The truth is that whoever we are helping is at least partly our teacher, too. And if this is true, how are we doing in their class? Is it that they are not listening and sitting still, or is it that we are not?
What might change if we saw them like th
is, received their gift, or said thank you?
Go ahead and try it.
Show up. Be silently present.
In the silence find your own questions.
I promise you, something will change.
And how exciting will that be?
Want to know more about what being with the aged or dying taught me? Or even the great value of silent learning? Check out The School of Unusual Life Learning, or join in for a free online meeting about the school Sunday November 3. Register at email@example.com. Or Just click here at 3 p.m. EST Sunday.
Jeanne Denney MA, P.E.