I have a Mindfulness Practice. That is to say, I struggle daily (and with varying degrees of success) to sit in stillness with my breath and to live each moment with openness, awareness, loving-kindness, and equanimity – to cultivate what Zen Buddhists refer to as the “beginner’s mind.” Volunteer work is a big part of this practice for me. Volunteering gives me a tangible way to offer service to others, or seva. It’s also a great way to learn stuff. And to re-learn stuff I thought I already knew.
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time I was volunteering at a busy hospital, offering free massage to patients. I usually only had 5-10 minutes to spend with each person. I had to reach around IV poles and other equipment to make contact with my clients. Nurses who needed to check vitals, or sweep my client away for a test or procedure frequently interrupted the sessions. It was a hectic setting, with very little of the calm and privacy one usually associates with massage. This is where I met “Norma.”
Norma was just beginning treatment for cancer. A friend sat in the chair beside her. It was not unusual in this setting for people to ask me about my work and myself.
As she leaned back to allow me to massage her feet, Norma and her friend (a self-proclaimed “survivor”) exchanged some basic pleasantries with me and then Norma’s friend began to ask about and discuss the risks associated with receiving massage from someone who is not specifically trained in Oncology Massage. You may already know, dear reader, that this is a particular passion of mine and within minutes, I was having an intense conversation with Friend about her history of lymphedema and the challenges associated with managing it.
Norma started to cry.
“Oh, oh! Honey,” Friend stroked Norma’s shoulder and grabbed her hand, “I’m sorry. Did we upset you? Don't’ cry. That’s not going to happen to you!”
“Well, it might.”
My heart sank into my stomach. My stomach sank into my legs.
“Well…sure, I guess,” Friend struggled to keep smiling. I kept my mouth shut and slowed the pace of my massage. “But you don’t have to worry or be sad! You’re here now and everything is going to be okay.”
“I don’t want to be here now! Everything is not okay! I don’t want any of this to be happening!”
I didn’t speak for the rest of the massage. I poured calm and sweetness into my touch, but inwardly I was raging.
How stupid I’d been!
I should have known better.
I did know better!
I love this work. I am committed to this work. I have many, many hours of training in Oncology Massage. I study with a brilliant and insightful mentor. I have a strong and supportive network of Oncology Massage Therapists.
A cancer diagnosis is terrifying. A person who receives this diagnosis is plunged into a world of uncertain outcomes, a world where the treatment can be as painful and scary as the disease, a world where one’s own body can feel like an enemy.
I believe the most significant benefit that massage can offer this person is comfort. I believe that my greatest gift to this person is my ability to use touch to remind her that her body can still be a source of joy. That she can still feel pleasure; that her body is still a good place to be.
Instead of offering Norma that gift, I’d allowed myself to be distracted. Like someone sitting in meditation for the first time, my brain had wandered away and I'd let it go. I’d been there, but I hadn’t been present. My lack of presence had made me unaware. My lack of awareness had made me insensitive.
Chatting with another person instead of focusing on my client?!
I’d made a terrible mistake… worse! I’d made a beginner’s mistake!
I’d been mindless.
I spent a great deal of time punishing myself. I reminded myself over and over that I’d hurt someone. I imagined all the graceful ways I could have redirected or ended the conversation with Friend. I crafted elaborate apologies at the same time that I prayed our paths would never cross and I’d never have to see or speak to Norma again.
About 2 weeks had passed when I read this from Jack Kornfield:
Forgiveness does not forget, nor does it condone the past. Forgiveness sees wisely. It willingly acknowledges what is unjust, harmful, and wrong. It bravely recognizes the sufferings of the past, and understands the conditions that brought them about. There is a strength to forgiveness. When we forgive, we can also say, “Never again will I allow these things to happen.”
I realized that this experience had been more Oncology Massage training. At the same time I’d been berating myself, I had also been focused completely and intently on my clients in and out of the hospital. I was mindful of my words. I was newly aware. I would not make the same mistake again.
I also realized I had already seen her! Just that day I had massaged the hands and feet of the woman I’d made cry 2 weeks earlier and I hadn’t recognized her!
I can give you lots of reasons I might not have recognized Norma. It was another very busy day. I massaged lots of hands and feet. Almost everyone was wearing a hospital gown. She was in a different room. She had a different friend with her.
But the truth is this: I didn’t recognize her because when I walked up to her she beamed at me.
“Hi! I’d love a foot massage!” she’d said, whipping off her socks, “Can you do my hands today too?” She had nudged her friend and said, “This is the best thing! It feels sooo good!”
“Finding a way to extend forgiveness to ourselves is one of our most essential tasks...we can hold the pain we have caused in compassion. Without such mercy, we will live our own life in exile.” – Jack Kornfield
I didn’t recognize Norma because I was looking for someone who was still wounded by my thoughtlessness, someone who hadn’t forgiven me. Turns out, I was the only one there who fit that description.