My response to this book is completely different, rereading it for the second time – I first read it several years ago after attending a “Breathworks” mindfulness course, and I gave my copy away because I “didn’t need it”.
Now I realise that the book is written mainly from the teacher perspective rather than the participant journey: using poetry and metaphor, Santorelli urges us to face our shadows and fears, avoiding the seductive draw of numbness or melancholy that might be our natural response to being in the company of human suffering; recounting the story of the solder who meets the devil, he says our shadows might be converted to radiance or gold. Halfway through the book he goes further, likening the hospital environment to the traditional graveyard meditation on mortality, and equates working in a hospital to a long retreat.
Saki emphasises the primacy of empathy during the course, saying that he does not console, but stays present to both patients and himself – he also asks participants to refrain from offering advice or smoothing over suffering and so very early on, they begin to find community by listening to each other’s stories. Also in the first meeting he checks that people are there voluntarily, pointing out that they are free to leave if they wish. Later in the book he casually relates how 3 people have left, because of the travelling or time commitment for home practice.
He underlines the collaborative and symbiotic nature of relationship between the “wounded healer” and the patient’s powerful “inner healer”. He urges the trainer to look at their own wounds, pointing out that this work is “not the stuff of résumés”. In the chapter entitled “Namaste!” (the divine in me bows down to the divine in you) we are reminded that the trainer is not “more than” nor the patient “less than”, that patients want to be seen in their wholeness and not as an illness or disability. He uses Michelangelo’s “there is nothing in the mind of men that is not already in a block of stone” to remind us that we have unimaginable inner resources and to trust the alchemy of the individual and group.
I especially enjoy Saki’s phrase “postural options” for meditation because it says a lot about the context of mindfulness for pain and illness, where many of us may struggle to sit on the floor or even in an upright posture if we have a spinal injury for example. Also, that “walking meditation” might be transmuted to “rolling meditation” for a wheelchair user.
After reading Rumi’s poem The Guest House to participants, he remembers how a bereaved mother asks how she’s supposed to “laugh in the face of the arrival” of the memory of her son or of the grief or pain that she feels and he talks about the possibility of approaching what seems to be impossible perhaps just for a second or two, “working the edges” – this reminded me of many such occasions in Breathworks mindfulness courses where participants are encouraged to gradually and kindly “turn towards” their suffering.
I’m inspired by Saki’s description of “collegial sangha” at UMMS (University of Massachusetts Medical School), where mindfulness trainers share responsibility and commit to assisting in one another’s unfolding journey, attending each other’s classes, listening to one another’s meditation recordings, discussing strengths and weaknesses. Their decision to work together in this way is to discourage psychological cleverness and stay in the world of openness and curiosity or “not knowing” – I recently had a similarly supportive experience in a Breathworks teacher training retreat and resolve to stay in touch with my peer group.
Overall, reading this book reminded me that we are all in it together, this one “wild and precious life” and to show up and be present.