How my volunteer experience helps me during the pandemic

On March 2nd, Laguna Honda Hospital, where Zen Caregiving Project volunteers have served for over 30 years, announced volunteers would not be permitted on campus indefinitely due to COVID-19. In my third year as a volunteer, that meant I would not gather with my shift mates at 9 AM the following morning for meditation and check-in prior to my regular Wednesday morning volunteer shift on the palliative care ward. Soon afterward, our family’s school district announced that Friday, March 13, would be the last day of school for our three kids meaning we had to manage two weeks of improvised homeschool before the originally-scheduled Spring Break. 

First and foremost I am grateful for our safety and health. In addition to this feeling of gratitude each day since then, I have awoken acutely aware that I and my family members are grappling with how to handle the uncertainty we are facing at so many levels. Will any of us get sick? Will any of our family members get sick? Will we be okay financially? When will this end? Will there be a vaccine? Why aren’t our leaders doing more to protect healthcare workers? If everything is canceled, what are we supposed to do?

For my family, our busyness in our “normal” lives had given us a false sense of control and purpose. Our lives had been filled with non-stop “doing” and whether we liked it or not, we were now being pushed, kicking and screaming, to exist in the present – to simply be in the absence of all of our normal things to do. And it has been really difficult.

One of the precepts that guides our practice as volunteer caregivers is to “cultivate don’t know mind.” The idea is that most of us in our daily lives are strongly identified with our rational thinking minds and that our efforts to impose control and certainty limit the possibilities of what a moment may hold. As Frank Ostaseski, Zen Caregiving Project Co-founder says, “don’t know mind is one characterized by hope, curiosity, and wonder. It is receptive, ready to meet whatever shows up as it is.” 

So in practice, this means that when we enter the rooms of the residents at Laguna Honda Hospital, many of whom are suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses, we leave our ideas and judgments at the door. Being open to what comes when we sit with residents at the bedside means meeting them with an open heart. Letting our rational mind guide us narrows our vision and limits the possibilities of what we will consider. When we meet residents with “don’t know mind,” we can be an open-hearted witness to their experience, whether it is one of joy or suffering. 

While I have had this idea of myself being gradually immersed into a practice of mindfulness over the past three years, the last four months have felt more like a dunking; if there has ever been a time to focus on the present and practice “don’t know mind,” this has to be it. I am practicing letting go of judgment and opening my heart to the possibilities that could emerge. It’s become more clear than ever that the present moment demands our attention, and it is a subversion of our creativity and potential to use our precious human energy to regret the past or worry about the future.

So now as my family and I continue to wake every morning with more questions than answers, I draw upon my training and experiences at Laguna Honda Hospital to be more comfortable saying “I don’t know” when I’m asked when soccer practice will start again, when we can visit Grandma and Grandpa and our friends, and when Coronavirus will be under control. I feel moments, even briefly, of lightness and relief when I am able to experience the freedom of opening my heart to the possibilities. 

When our volunteer community gathers on Zoom to share how each of us is bringing our practice to bear on the current situation, I feel immense gratitude for the wisdom and compassion of our shared community. And being able to bring the openness of don’t know mind to this present moment of conflict, suffering, and overwhelming loss that we are witnessing is how I remain grounded to find hope as I face what the next moment will bring. I don’t know what it will be, but as I’m continuing to learn, despite all of my planning and our always-full calendar, I never did, as none of us ever do.

Why I support Zen Caregiving Project

Nancy Wakeman has been a supporter of Zen Caregiving Project for over 25 years. Here we explore her relationship with the organization, why she continues to support us, and her thoughts on the organization’s impact.

Nancy first heard about Zen Caregiving Project, then called Zen Hospice Project, in the early 1990s. It was a time of change and transition for her: she had lost two friends over a short period and had spent time caring at home for her father who had a stroke that was eventually fatal. During this difficult time, Nancy started to explore meditation and saw an announcement for the Zen Hospice Project Volunteer program, which combined her desire to explore and process her loss, her interest in meditation, and her drive to help others.

After completing the 40 hour Volunteer Program training Nancy volunteered for a year with Zen Hospice Project in the palliative care ward at the Laguna Honda Hospital. When asked what she had learned from the experience she shared her three main takeaways:

I learned a lot. I learned that everything changes in life. Even though I often assume there is stability in my life, I know that everything is still always changing.

I learned the value of being in the moment. And although you can’t always be in the moment, I am now more aware of when I’m not. When I am not being present to what’s going on right now I can become more judgemental and opinionated. When I am in the moment, I know everything is as it is, and I don’t feel I need anything else.

Finally, I learned the power of being with other people. We are all in life together and in a way, we are all one, even though we are all different.

Nancy has continued to support and donate to the organization as it has evolved and changed. She volunteered in the kitchen at the Guest House care facility, later supporting the organization as we closed the Guest House, leading to a greater focus on the education program and volunteering. When asked what moves her to continue to donate to the organization she shared:

I think sitting with people who are dying is really important work, as is supporting caregivers. When my father had a stroke, my mother and I cared for him at home with the support of a nurse. During the day it was my mother and I who cared for him, moving him in his bed, dampening his mouth with water, cleaning him. I understand first-hand how challenging caring for someone you love can be and how essential support is to those in that role.

It is so important to provide resources to caregivers because we, as a society, are reliant on having people in the community who are willing to provide care.

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank Nancy for her financial support of the organization across the years, her engagement with our mission, and her support of our staff and work.

Webinar on Mindful Touching as a Means of Comfort

In this session, Irene Smith presents mindful practices of self-touch to nurture and support you in times of difficulty and uncertainty. Mindful Touching as a self comforting tool can be grounding, centering and nurturing as well as easily integrated into any daily routine.

Webinar on Loss and Grief as Initiation

Loss and the natural grief that accompanies it can be one of life’s primary transformational experiences.  In this session, Roy Remer explores how the pain and poignancy of loss can also teach us lessons which may be of benefit to others in our community. The session includes short meditations, opportunities for inner reflection, and guided exercises. 

This session was run on May 23, 2020, as part of Reimagine: Life, Loss, & Love, a Worldwide Virtual Festival on embracing life, facing death, and loving fully, during COVID-19.

How can mindfulness help me now?

Since the shelter-in-place began we’ve heard a lot more about mindfulness in mainstream media. It’s being suggested on websites, videos, and posts as one way to support us through the pandemic, and a good self-care practice to adopt.

But how is it helpful? And why should we think about building mindfulness into our daily life when we already have so much going on? We posed this question to Zen Caregiving Project’s Executive Director, Roy Remer, and here’s what he had to say. 

Can we start at the beginning? What is mindfulness? 

A definition of mindfulness I like is: paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgment. Let’s break that down.

  • Paying attention to the present moment: often our minds are not really tracking what is happening right here, right now. Many of us get stuck thinking about past events and what we have done or should have done. Or we are jumping ahead to the future – what’s next on our to-do list, what we hope will happen, or what we are worried might happen. The practice of mindfulness helps us keep our attention on what is happening in the present moment. For instance, when we are washing our hands, instead of rushing through to get it done, we can work on really being there with the activity, feeling the sensations of water on the skin, listening to the sounds of the water, observing the suds from the hand soap. It doesn’t mean it takes any longer but it is an opportunity to return to the present moment experience,  and you will probably find more pleasure in the activity.
  • On purpose: By this I mean, noticing when the mind gets distracted. Distraction is natural – it happens to all of us, all the time. Even the most experienced meditators will find that their minds wander as that is what minds do. But the point here is to notice when this happens. The noticing allows an opportunity to bring our distracted attention back to the present. 
  • Without judgment: As it is human to become distracted, we should also be kind to ourselves when we notice we have once again become distracted. We congratulate ourselves on noticing our mind has wandered and gently return to the present moment. This process of noticing distraction and coming back to the present is a lifelong process – which is why it is called mindfulness practice – we need never stop working on it! Though, over time it does get easier. 

How does mindfulness help us in our daily life?

  1. Mindfulness helps settle the mind. A calm mind allows us to respond thoughtfully rather than react immediately to an event or thought.  When our mind is calm it can help calm those around us. I am sure we have all experienced being with someone who is very anxious or agitated and how that can leave us feeling unsettled too. It is also true one person’s calmness may have a calming effect on others. 
  1. Mindfulness helps to focus attention. We all know that multi-tasking is tiring, and often not productive. Mindfulness helps us to focus our attention on one thing at a time, reducing fatigue. It also reduces human error as we are a lot less likely to make mistakes if we have all our attention on the task at hand. As a caregiver, this reduction in error is particularly important. 
  1. Mindfulness increases awareness of the present moment. Many of us spend a lot of time dwelling on negative thoughts about past events that we can’t change and worrying about future events that haven’t happened yet. Mindfulness helps to interrupt those looping thoughts and helps us see the difference between our thoughts and what is actually happening right now. 

Being more aware of our present moment experience also helps with self-care. We notice sooner when we feel tired, or are having an emotional experience, and make sure we stop and look after ourselves.  

How can mindfulness help me in difficult situations?

Having a mindfulness practice allows us to stay calm in challenging situations. It also helps build our resilience by supporting our ability to bounce back from difficult circumstances. When we are paying attention, we can see when we add something extra that does not help a situation. Negative or harmful thinking for instance. There is a difficult situation, and then there is the way we meet a difficult situation. We can stop, take a few breaths, and see what is in front of us clearly. Mindfulness builds a capacity to be with discomfort.

But what if I don’t have a lot of time for mindfulness?

The more you practice, the greater the benefit. The good news is you don’t have to spend hours meditating to get benefits. Meditation helps a lot. Though, even integrating a little bit of mindfulness into your daily routine is helpful in building the skills I mentioned above. And you may just find that instead of being another thing on your “to-do list”, mindfulness becomes something that you just do naturally, or even something you want to do! Start out with small, easy mindfulness activities. 

How do I find out more? 

There is lots of information online about mindfulness and we also run a course called Foundations of Mindful Caregiving, that explores how to integrate mindfulness in caregiving and the related areas of compassion, loss, and self-care. The next series begins on 4th June – see our website for more details.