This is the fourth in a series of short interviews on end of life care that I’m conducting for Spirituality & Health. This week I’m speaking with Zen monk Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founder with Robert Chodo Campbell of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC), the first Buddhist organization to offer fully accredited chaplaincy training in America. NYZCCC delivers contemplative approaches to end of life care through education, direct service, and meditation practice. —Sam Mowe
How did you end up working with people at the end of their lives?
In 1997, my Grandma Mimi got to the point where she needed more support and care. One afternoon, sitting in her living room eating caramels, we made a pact that we would care for each other. We sealed it with an embrace and looked into each other’s eyes for a few minutes. This was the first time I had ever understood the power of commitment. We started out with shopping trips and visits to doctors, followed by late night trips to the hospital, and finally moving in together at the hospice residence for the last six weeks of her life.
One night she woke me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I spent all these 87 years thinking I knew what love was. I didn’t know anything. To love is to love everything about someone, even the parts I don't understand or feel comfortable with. Part of me contracted from loving you because of this Zen thing of yours. I felt it was a betrayal of our Jewish heritage. Please forgive me.” “For what?” I asked her. “For not loving you completely, like I do now,” she said. “Now I see there is something so simple about the Zen practice that allows you to be with me. You and Chodo should start an organization that helps people learn about meditation and how to care for people.”
With this blessing, Chodo and I changed our lives and began our vision for the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, a non-profit organization that trains people to face life’s great challenges: old age, illness, and dying.
What is the most important thing for a caregiver to do when helping a loved one through the dying process?
Each person is different. We each care differently and each person dies differently. At the Zen Center, we start with three important teachings for service: beginner’s mind, witnessing, and loving action. In caring for others we start with beginner’s mind. Each moment is new. How do I allow this moment to be fresh? This might mean asking: How do I allow this heartbreak to be fully felt?
Recently, we were with a man and his dying wife. Everyone was caught in what was going to happen, which is so normal. We took a moment together to take a conscious breath. With this, we then began to wonder and witness together what was happening. He was ready to die, and was concerned about his wife and how she would be after he was gone. The loving action was to explore together what his concerns were and how she was doing. Up until this point, the wife was so consumed with fear of losing him. Together we were able to hear his concerns, explore them, and imagine the sorrow of life without him. “Thank you,” she said. “I have been so caught up in fear that I was not able to feel my sorrow. Now that I feel it, I can be with him in a more loving way.” This encounter was a teaching on beginner’s mind, witnessing, and loving action. Simple to say, but an ongoing practice to realize. This is the heart of our work.
How has working so closely with death and dying influenced your Zen practice?
In Zen, the teaching is that birth and death are happening in each moment. Each moment is born and then dies. Working with dying people has brought a mirror to my daily life that this is it. There is no future moment. How I treat myself, and the world, matters—moment by moment. My projections and defenses are my responsibility and keep me from being free.
I have met hundreds of dying people who wished they had not believed they needed to try to control how other people experience them. For so much of their life they spent time with managing their lives instead of living it. So, each day I practice paying attention to my relationships and not assume I will experience these later. The ground of my Zen meditation practice is coming back, over and over, to just this moment. I love practicing being this vulnerable, receptive, and alive.
As a Zen monk, is it challenging to offer spiritual care to those who belong to different religious traditions?
I don’t see myself as a Zen monk offering care. I see myself as a caring person, caring for the world. I do this work because I am curious about the world. At the Zen Center, we practice being curious and wonder about the world. Easy to say, challenging to practice.
Zen teacher, Eihei Dogen provided this instruction: “To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to not cling to the self. To not cling to the self is to allow the complexity of the world to flow.” First I need to study myself and know my conditioning. I need to know my biases, preferences, and conditioned way of thinking and behaving. This conditioning often stops me from being curious about the experiences I am having. I can make someone an enemy or a friend—without being curious about who they actually are. When I walk into the room of someone I am caring for, I practice softening my clinging to “who I am,” and when I can do this, I can allow their complexity and diversity to be present.
What would you like people to say about you after you die?
Whatever they wish! The great compliment of a Zen person is to say, “I didn’t learn much from them.” This expression is an attitude key to practice: it is not about me. Relationships are about how you support and encourage others to be themselves completely. So, if some people felt I helped them do that, that’s a life of serving, and that is enough.