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half-hearted presence

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dividedThe other day I offered to accompany two women to the van which would take the body of their father and grandfather to the funeral home. They looked distant and in shock as we stood waiting for the elevator to arrive. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t find the right words (as I usually do), fumbling instead with incomplete sentences and vague gestures.

At one point the daughter’s hands lay in mine, while her mother wiped her tears with a crunched-up tissue paper and jumped from one topic to another. My inner witness registered our shared confusion and my lack of groundedness, yet my body responded instinctually by trying to fix what couldn’t be fixed. As a result, I felt disconnected and out of place: I don’t think I was of much service.

Looking back, I take comfort in reading that my experience is shared by others. As Ram Dass and Paul Gorman write–

Partly we are agitated because we so intensely want to help. After all, someone is in pain. We care. So part of the time we are listening, but we may also be using our minds to try to solve the problem. …

But in our zeal to help, we may increase the distance between the person and our own consciousness. We find ourselves primarily in our own thoughts, not with another person. Not only are we listening less, but the concepts our mind is coming up with start to act as a screen that [interferes with] information.

One of the results of all this mental activity is that there’s less room to meet, less room for a new truth to emerge, less room to let things simply be revealed in their own good time.

source: Dass, R. & P. Gorman. (1987). How can I help? Stories and reflections on service. New York: Knopf, p. 98. image: “Roads Divided” at       

One response »

  1. Melanie Dines

    Hi Peter,

    It has been awhile since I’ve visited your website. When you quoted Ram Dass in “How Can I Help?”, I remembered the stories that we’ve shared at The Metta Institute’s End-of-Life-Practitioner Program. Will you be attending the Grad Retreat on Mt. Tam this year? For the first time since we graduated in 2006, I will be attending.



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