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how to do nothing

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Two days ago I dreamt being at the monastery. Our assignment was to create a skit, a theatrical piece, to depict an aspect of Buddhist practice. All around me, people were having fun with props, being alternately goofy and profound, playing off each other, and so on. All the while I sat on my meditation cushion unable to think of a way to show my cleverness. The principle I wanted to illustrate was that of “not doing;” to know when to act and when to be still. In the dream, I felt stuck in “not knowing,” yet resolved to sit until I could figure it out.

munch deathLast night at hospice the dream’s dilemma showed up in real life. A patient had just died and relatives arrived. A co-worker introduced me and offered my spiritual care services. The daughter of the deceased declared that she didn’t want to see her father’s body, nor did she seem anxious to be with the new widow. Yikes! What was I to do?

I did nothing; at least nothing overtly. Instead, I remained standing near the cluster of people, letting the nurse describe to them the patient’s last moments, how he’d been at ease, without pain, and comforted by a pastor’s reading from the Bible. It seemed that this family had their own work to do (and weren’t new to chaos). It thought it presumptuous—and intrusive—to interject myself into their dance. They seemed capable of asking should they need anyone’s help. Instinctively, I held back and paid attention to what was going on around and within me: I was bearing witness.

A Zen saying helps to illustrate my intention: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”

image: Death in the Sick-Room by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)


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