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.
“Working with the dying, you are constantly reminded of what matters: love, kindness, generosity, and our interconnectedness.” ~ Roshi Joan Halifax
Zen Caregiving Project will soon be taking applications for our Spring 2020 New Volunteer Training, to be held in April. The core training — an intensive 40 hours over ten days — is not oriented towards acquiring skills, so much as asking participants to examine and reflect on their own histories of loss and grief. By exploring our relationship to these issues, we become familiar with our own stories of suffering, enabling us to become more comfortable with the suffering of others. In other words, by becoming intimate with our own losses, our fears, and insecurities, we are more fully able to connect to the loss of others. We learn to connect through our shared vulnerability. This reflects the fundamental Buddhist teaching of interdependence and the Zen Caregiving philosophy of mutuality of service.
Please note that our open enrollment period runs until February 28th, and notification of the status of your application will not be sent out until mid-March. Applicants are required to attend all training sessions, including the Ongoing Sessions. We also ask participants to commit to a full year of service, volunteering one five hour shift per week on a regular schedule.
The application form for the New Volunteer Training will be live and accessible here on Monday, December 16th.
Zen Care Giving Project Spring 2020 New Volunteer Training Dates
Wednesday & Thursday, April 15 & 16 (Evening Sessions), 5:45 PM – 10:00 PM
Saturdays & Sundays, April 18, 19, 25, & 26 (All Day), 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Ongoing Training (Third Tuesday Evening of the month)
Tuesday, May 19th, 7 PM – 9 PM
Tuesday, June 16th, 7 PM – 9 PM
Tuesday, July 21st, 7 PM – 9 PM
Tuesday, August 18th, 7 PM – 9 PM
Tuesday, September 15th, 7 PM – 9 PM