For sometime I had been looking for a volunteer opportunity so as to give something back to the universe but had trouble finding an opportunity that really felt right. Then, one evening while waiting in the music store for my son’s guitar lesson to end I noticed a note posted for hospice volunteers with various skills, one of which was the system of Reiki. I thought great, I can help patients and there families that are at a traumatic phase of their lives and also have the opportunity to apply my Reiki training, which until then had been a practice for myself except for the occasional treatment for family and friends. I thought that hospice volunteering would be difficult, dealing with people on death’s doorstep, but choosing the difficult path seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
The hospice patients are generally in one of three environments: At home with up to six months to live, being taken care of by loved ones and usually some outside help. Volunteer visits are as much for the care givers, to give them a break from care taking, as for the patient. Hospice patients are also in nursing homes, where again the patients may have up to six months to live. They may or may not have local loved ones to be with them. Lastly, in the hospital. These patients usually fall into two categories: They waited to near the very end to enter the hospice system through the hospital and literally only have days left, and patients that ended up in a sudden acute situation because of illness or accident. They usually also only have days left. The hospital option was the only one that I could fit in my schedule.
After several evenings of required training classes by the hospice staff I was ready to go see hospice patients and their visiting families. Great, I can help people in their time of need and give Reiki treatments to so many people. I quickly found out that I wouldn’t be giving Reiki treatments in the traditional western sense.
It was on my first visit I discovered because these patients are often in severe pain, distressed or in such a severe medical condition, they are either heavily sedated to make them comfortable or they are comatose. I have been volunteering for almost a year now and there were only two patient that I was able to have conversation with, and both had dementia. One of them thought I was a Rabbi, so we talked about Jewish life, and the other just wanted me to sit with her and watch Law and Order. I asked if I could hold her hand while we watched, she was so happy and thankful for that and seemed to be content. Sometimes it is the simple things that we must do to help relieve the suffering of people. These and other experiences helped me realize that I am there to help people with there suffering, I am not there to give Reiki treatments, so if watching TV and holding their hand will help them a little, that is what I must do. It is all about being present and not having my own agenda. To be present for the patients and grieving families I must first be present for myself.
To help actualizing being present I use Reiki techniques every time I go to the hospital. Before I even go to see a patient I first head to the hospital Chapel to meditate for 5 to 10 minutes to do Joshin Kokyu Ho (focusing the mind on one thing with breath). After expanding the energy out for a few minutes I imagine the energy being pure compassion expanding all around. This process helps me ground and center myself and be present with myself which is very important so as not to carry away what goes on in the hospital room to home or take my own daily stresses into the hospital room. Being clear and grounded enhances the attention that can be directed toward the patient and family.
On a side note the hospital chapel is an interesting place, there could a Muslim facing Mecca with their prayer rug doing prostrations, some one of the Christian faith with hands in gassho position, a hospital employee just chilling out and me, a Jew and Reiki practitioner, doing an esoteric mediation, all at the same time.
Most of the grieving families have never heard of the system of Reiki, so if I want to give a treatment I must first explain it. The system of Reiki is not such an easier thing to explain in a couple of sentences, and they are not interested in getting a long lecture on it since their minds are preoccupied with what is going on with their loved one, I found it most times fruitless to try and explain what the system of Reiki is and how it may help them. Now, I only do so if I really feel guided after being with the family for a little while. What seems to benefit them the most is just being there, some one to talk, a simple hug or touch on the shoulder. They are so appreciative that a complete stranger is taking time to visit in their time of need.
At least fifty percent of the time when I enter the room the patient is alone, either because their loved ones could not be there at that time, or they don’t have any family, which is very unfortunate. Being that the patients are typically unconscious, I usually sit next them and meditate while holding their hand, if I can get to to it. The meditation is about creating an open compassionate space, (which is in line with the 4th symbol and mantra taught within level III of the system) for the patient and just letting them take what ever they need from it. What is interesting is that the space often seems to be some what different from patient to patient.
After volunteering for a while I let it be known to the volunteer coordinator I would like to teach meditation, so he organized a once a month class for hospice staff and volunteers. For the first class one point that I thought I should get across to the class was how hospice work and meditation are related, so I came up with the following.
The purpose of finding a quite place and meditating is not to escape reality, nor to make it separate from your daily life. The purpose is to bring the meditative state of mind to your daily life. In other words your life becomes a meditation.
As one meditates thoughts will arise and certain emotions may be attached to the thoughts. The important point is not to be attached to the thought or associated emotion nor letting it whirl around in your mind, but to be able to say “ok that was a thought” and let it go.
In our daily life events occur that may be pleasant or disturbing with their associated emotions. Like in meditation, we do not want to become attached to these events or their potential outcomes. In this way we can be fully present for the next event. Certainly, being fully present moment to moment leaves no room for anger and worry, leads to a happier life for you and for the surrounding people, and allows one to be more compassionate. Without being present and paying attention, how can one be compassionate?
Isn’t our work all about compassion. So I see my meditation practice as supporting my practice of compassion and my practice of compassion supporting my meditation practice. Thus daily life and meditation practice become the same. To some degree meditation is a practice of being present with oneself, while practicing compassion is being present with someone else. Two aspects of the same thing.
I still get angry, I still worry and still not compassionate to myself and others at times. But if I look back 1 year, 2 years – 5 years, and see how much I have changed and grown, the meditation/Reiki practice is well worth it. In addition there is always room for further growth so I just continue my practice.
The hospice experience enabled me to have a new perspective and deeper understanding of what I have been taught and read about, being present, which is what it is all about. At the same time I think that I have only scratched the surface in regards to be actually being present, so I have much more work and practice to do. The Reiki precepts from beginning to end are about being present, think about it.
Scott Kravis is a Shinpiden Reiki Level III graduate of the International House of Reiki. Scott is teaching Reiki inspired meditation to the the Hospice Staff and Volunteers of Saint Barnabas Hospital in Livingston New Jersey