Being present with terminally ill people will teach you a lot. It’s a powerful mindfulness practice to maintain an accepting awareness of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that arise. Many aspects of this experience can be quite challenging for people raised in a society that insulates them from the realities of old age, illness and death. For me, volunteering one day a week for several years with the Zen Hospice Project (ZHP) in San Francisco has transformed the way I live. It opened my heart. It made me intimate with the Four Divine Abodes: lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha).
My first lesson came in my early months there in the Fall of 1994, when I haltingly became friends with an AIDS patient who was as reserved as I was. Allen was a bright, witty and sensitive young man. He was the most interesting of the four patients living in ZHP’s downtown Guest House, and I worried that I might not be that interesting to him.
Just before Christmas I mustered my courage and offered to take Allen shopping. At our first stop, we laughed and reminisced over a bin of vinyl albums dating from our teenage years. A few shops later he admired a crystal in a copper star and I covertly bought it with the help of a compassionate sales clerk. Later I hung it over his bed and received a long, sincere hug when Allen discovered it. But I still wasn’t sure if he really considered me a friend.
Around that time, ZHP’s continuing training program offered a talk on the Brahmaviharas. It covered the near and far enemies of lovingkindness. The obvious far enemy is the opposite of metta: ill will. It’s the near enemy that’s a trickier concept. It’s often mistaken for lovingkindness: affection that includes attachment or a desire to get something beyond the joy of loving itself. I had fallen into this trap, because my affection for Allen felt dependent on his liking me back.
We did get a lovely chance to affirm our friendship before he visited his family for the holidays and again when he came back. Shortly after that, though, he went down with meningitis, and was unconscious during most of my weekly shifts at the Guest House. For two weeks, I could visit Allen but not have a conversation with him. I realized I was not just missing him, but grieving over the loss of our new friendship even before his death. Harriet, the volunteer coordinator, assured me Allen still knew I was there, and that was important to him. She asked me to help groom him for his family’s final visit by cutting and cleaning his nails, something I’d never done before. The idea of hurting Allen or drawing HIV+ blood scared me. But with Harriett’s gentle reassurance, I carefully began.
I took Allen’s warm hand in mine and felt my affection for him shift into something gentler. Slowly, paying very close attention, I washed and then clipped the nails on each finger. As I worked, I spoke to him, knowing he might be able to hear even though he couldn’t talk. I told him how much I cared for him, what a fine man he was. For the first time in my life, I felt my heart open freely without even caring if my gift of love was being received.
As the words floated from my mouth, they seemed to carry away my self-referencing thoughts and concerns, leaving only the sweetness of the love I felt for Allen. The experience was exhilarating and transformative. Having felt metta finally, I knew it was both possible and preferable to the way I had previously regarded other beings.
I’d like to say that Allen’s legacy has been a consistent openness of heart in all my dealings with others. That’s not always true, but it has freed me more often to savor the simple pleasure of knowing people – and all other beings – without the baggage of self-concerns. Further lessons in the Four Divine Abodes awaited me after Allen died, but what I learned from him has helped transform the way I approach all my relationships. Allen’s crystal in its copper star still hangs above the Buddha I face when I meditate at home, reminding me to treat everyone like an honored guest in my life.
Rebecca Dixon has had a daily meditation practice since 1992 and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area since early in this century. In addition to her years with hospice, she has spent several years teaching meditation to incarcerated women and to the chemically dependent. A graduate of Spirit Rock’s CDL teachers training program, Rebecca is now a guiding teacher at two weekly sanghas in the Bay Area. For more information, visit RebeccaDixon.org. The facts of this story also appear in a memoir in progress entitled, Dreaming Rachel.