Nancy was a Emergency Room doctor for thirty years. She attended the Power of Compassion retreat led by Ven. Chodron at Sravasti Abbey in July, 2013. Here she shares a breakthrough she had during the retreat that is carrying forward into her life.
I still see their faces. Oh, not often, but when a situation makes them come to mind. What I remember might be a child who drowned, a SIDS baby, a teen in a lethal car crash, a young father who was shot, a fatally injured pregnant mom. These are people who died in the emergency room while I was the physician on duty.
Their families also come to mind. The toddler furiously sucking her thumb, clinging to a “loved into tatters” teddy bear as I told her mommy that her daddy had died.
There’s a heaviness about these memories. At the time, I felt an ache. These feelings have continued in the years since.
But I’m experiencing another way to hold these people and the memory of them. After all these decades.
“Compassion is wishing the other to be free of suffering,” Venerable Chodron teaches. But, she cautions, our mind easily turns from compassion for another, to focusing upon ourselves and our feelings.
What does this sense of compassion say to my heaviness and ache?
Welcoming these long-ago people and memories into my meditation reveals something important. Initially I indeed have a desire for these people to be free of suffering. But then, there is a turning. My mind turns towards how I feel about the person dying and the family’s grief. These heavy emotions quickly swamp my previous focus upon the other. It happens split-second sudden, so effortlessly and subtly that I never noticed it before. It happens every time with these memories. And it brings that familiar, heavy ache.
I begin to watch for the pivot point when my meditation turns from the other person … to me. Noticing the shift, I can bring my mind back to see the other person – to wish them to be free of suffering. I’m able to hold their faces more steadily in front of me now, and not turn to look at myself. Heaviness subsides. Perhaps as Ven Chodron suggests, I can be free to just love them, to love them in the sense of wishing them happiness.
For the first time in years, I can be with these memories and not feel that ache.
The more I notice my mind’s turning of attention from another to myself, the more I see it happen at other times. It happens a lot actually. It usually brings painful emotions. And I’m learning that returning my gaze to the other usually lifts these.
Thank you Venerable Chodron