Recently I interviewed my husband, Michael, a palliative care and hospice physician, for my next book, Heart Aware. I realized how useful Michael’s practices are for us healthcare providers. I remember my time working in the late 80s as a consultation-liaison psychologist on an AIDS floor, and on a locked unit with seriously ill patients in the 90s.
Even now, being in private practice, I find Michael’s use of meditation practice extraordinarily useful. The holidays can be trying for many, and often it is not easy to hold our sense of steadiness in the midst of it all.
“Walking down the forest path, I feel the contact between the soles of my feet and the earth. Unexpectedly, my feet touching the forest floor becomes a portal to groundless ground. I found my heart opening into a sense of spaciousness around me, an ease of being that feels simultaneously wide awake and grounded. Walking into the hospital, I feel open-hearted and rooted.”
During a walk together to and from the forest with our dog Lucy, Michael has been describing how he brings awake awareness practice into his work as a palliative care and hospice physician. On our walk, Michael shared with me the phrase that had led him to become a physician for the seriously ill and those close to death: “This is a place of healing.” Michael had discovered early in his career that the veil between life and death can also be a doorway to another kind of reality. “My 40 years in medicine has been a great quest to find out what healing means and what it means to be a healer.”
Healing can mean “becoming whole,” even in a setting where a cure is no longer possible.
Throughout the years, Michael had been searching for additional ways to help his patients beyond medical interventions and pharmacology. Michael went on, “For years, I was on a Jungian journey, fascinated by the idea of the wounded healer.” The wounded healer archetype describes a person whose own woundedness has led them to become a healer to others. The wounded healer helps to awaken the patient’s innate healing capacity.
While Michael has brought active imagination and dream work into his care of patients over the years, he has come to see that healing has more to do with who we caregivers are as people rather than what we do. “Now I realize that ‘we’ are the medicine,’” Michael continued, ”and that my spiritual journey is not just about me, but about the quality of presence I bring to each encounter, to every patient.” In recent years Michael has been drawn to Buddhist psychology and practice and finds that in particular, Tibetan awake awareness teachings are in synchrony with the earth-based spirituality of his Celtic background. He has found that both paths are also in harmony with the wisdom teachings he learned from his Native American teachers.
Awake awareness practices have helped Michael to stay present even in difficult encounters. “On a daily level, I see that I can increasingly trust that the patient and I are already held in a field of awareness and that it is my quality of presence that helps to awaken us to this.” After some reflection, he added, “the question is, do I show up to my patients as my anxious, scrambled, overwhelmed medical persona, or can I be at the bedside as ‘mountain-awareness,’ or ‘forest awareness,’ or ‘heart awareness,’ or as open and awake awareness?” Michael is reminded of Psalm 43: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of waters." Michael says, "When I am settled in the groundless ground, then perhaps others will intuitively feel this, and their heart might follow the unspoken invitation to join.”
Michael continues, “Trusting now that my presence at the bedside is what I am contributing, I listen deeply to how a person is doing and inquire about their pain.” He then says, “Sure, I use the skills I gained over the years, but I also trust presence, that ‘deep calling to deep.’”
I ask Michael how that plays out on an everyday level. “Every morning I walk to work and do an emptiness practice, such as emptiness of self, the emptiness of feeling, the emptiness of time and finally cross over to awake awareness. Normally I am in the view by the time I reach the office. I open the door, and many eyes are looking at me expectantly; numerous questions are awaiting me, sticky notes on my computer, and messages on my phone. And poof… I’m out of the view.” He thinks for a while, “But at least I notice that I’ve lost awake awareness, and, when I can, I try to re-establish it.”
He is silent for a moment, “There are prompts that bring me back to the view. One of those is the sensation of contact between my feet and the ground.” He continues, “this is because I do these walking practices to and from work.” He adds, “When I become aware of the sensation of contact, I am brought back to the groundless ground and back into the view.”
We pause as Lucy greets a passing dog, and we wander on. “I do these glimpse practices all throughout the day. Sometimes metacognition comes in, and I realize that I am not in the view. Yet, sometimes, awake awareness comes in unbidden.” After a few moments, Michael says, “Sometimes I find myself in a place of deep listening. When people are really open in their hearts or when I am in the presence of someone close to death, awake awareness is effortlessly there.”
As we leave the forest, Michael says, “The approach of death burns so much of what is superfluous, insincere, false, or irrelevant away. Who is left is the person in their essence, telling their story. When they come into awake awareness, it opens for me too.” Michael ponders, “The veil is very thin when there is profound heart-soul-disclosure; when someone shares their deepest pain or longing or expresses their deepest gratitude when their heart is wide open. The actual presence of death itself also opens the veil.”
Ten minutes away from home. Michael adds, “When I am walking home from work, I also use the time for practice. Then I do a resting in awareness practice, the center becomes centerless, and the sense of personal self has receded to the background. ”He continues, “I always come home through the forest, and I always have this sense of being welcomed by the trees manifest awake awareness. The awareness that comes through the portal of my own heart-mind is one and the same as the light in the trees, heartfelt and bright.”
After reading Michael’s account, please make his use of practices your own, and imagine how you could use some of them during your workdays, especially during the holidays.
Let’s marinate our holidays with mindful awareness!
Kearney, Michael, MD, 2018, The Nest in the Stream, Lessons from Nature on Being with Pain, Parallax Press
Michael Kearney, MD, 2016, Mortally Wounded, Stories of Soul Pain, Death, and Healing, Spring Journal, Inc
Michael Kearney, MD, 2000, A Place of Healing, Working with Suffering in Living and Dying, Oxford University Press
Radhule Weininger, PhD, 2021, Heart Medicine, How to Stop Painful Patterns and find Peace and Freedom-at Last