Noble Living, Noble Caring, Noble Dying

Conversation with Phakchok Rinpoche on Noble Caring

Our Noble Living, Noble Caring, Noble Dying team continued their conversation with Phakchok Rinpoche in New York. In this section, our team members discuss care giving, and how we can best offer care to those in the last stages of their current life.

How do we care nobly? In other words, how does any person, regardless of spiritual interest best care for those who are dying? And how do we learn to care for others compassionately. Andrea Sherman mentions the skills of bearing witness, dropping judgment, and working to have a compassionate heart.

Compassion Practice

Phakchok Rinpoche says that the person helping someone to die should first have a compassionate heart. In almost all cultures, death is a type of sacred experience—and helping others through that is often left to experts. Yet now, times have changed so we may find people in that situation–often they may have a secular outlook. That’s fine, but even if we are secular—if we are aiding in the dying process, it is good to think that we are doing this with some sort of a higher purpose. Moreover, we can approach the dying person with loving kindness, compassion—and non-judgment is important. We can benefit the person most if we actually practice these exercises ourselves. Its hard to just read these words off a book and think we can actually have these skills—we need to practice and train in these qualities. And we need to believe ourselves that we are developing compassion—that our own compassion is a little bit pure. We may not have perfect compassion, but we should remind ourselves that we are training in this.

Conversation on Avoiding Burnout

Dr. Lisa Wang brings up the question of self-care. How do we care for a dying person and at the same time care for ourselves? How do we avoid caregiver burnout?

Phakchok Rinpoche says that he has observed burnout coming from three main issues.

Physical Burnout

The first issue is that we often exhaust our own human bodies physically. We’re not getting enough rest, or eating well, or maintaining our posture correctly, or sleeping—we’re just wearing ourselves out. And there’s a strong connection between mind and body—we know that. So, if we don’t treat our bodies respectfully, we will feel mentally drained as well. Our mind will react when our body is overworked. There is no magic bullet for exhaustion. Thus, there’s no other choice but to be smart—we need to take some rest. Take a power nap, get some rest.

Overstating Our Importance

Secondly, we exhaust ourselves by thinking that what we do is so important. We all do this–and that actually increases the weight—we get tired because we place so much importance on our work—it’s funny, but it actually drains our strength. But, if we switch our approach, we can remind ourselves very gently that what we do is important–but then we ease up on ourselves—don’t think too much.

Self-Care

Thirdly, a caregiver needs to make time for self-care. If we’re a spiritual practitioner, a Buddhist—we do a meditation session. If we follow another tradition, we do whatever spiritual practice that is. And if we are a secular person, we still take time to practice some meditation such as placing attention on our breath, and to contemplate compassion. If we don’t practice some meditation, we might have some physical rest, but we’re still not giving our thinking mind much chance to rest. Both our physical body and our mind need to rest. So that’s the best way to take care of ourselves–and that’s important.

These are the three main principles, but we can also then personalize them to add whatever helps us to feel fresh. For example, Rinpoche personally likes to burn incense—it makes him feel fresh and clean, and more clear.

Do whatever helps you feel more pure—Andrea suggests pausing to drink a glass of water.

Reflection Exercise

  • Before you care for someone today, take just a few moments to center yourself. Check in with your physical body and your mind. How are you feeling? If you feel tired or tense, pause physically. Even a few seconds of slow stretching will nourish your body.
  • Pause and mentally list just three small things you can do today to avoid burnout. Then repeat those throughout the day—“I will take a minute to drink a glass of water quietly”, or “I can walk around the block to build some energy”, or “I will call a friend just to say hello”. Often some contact with the natural world brings a sense of resilience and space. What can you think of that takes little effort but brings a sense of calm and peace?

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.