Mind the Gap Between Two Hearts
November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
(alternate titles: I regret I must inform you…, Mindful Mystery of the Heart)
October 9, 2073
I am hereby informing you formally of my decision to resign my staff position at the Moffitt Mindfulness Hospital. As requested I will explain my decision in detail and hope that my account may serve as a reference for other facilitators.
My eight year tenure as Senior Facilitator at the hospital has not been without incident but the latest situation with the patient I refer to as Patient X has challenged my skills and experience.
I cannot remain in my post and it is with deepest regret that I must formally communicate my decision to you and to the Council.
The man, Patient X, came into my care in July 2073, just a few short months ago. Our first meeting may be categorized as contentious at best and antagonistic at worst.
“What you gonna do for me, lady?” the patient snarled as I walked into his room.
“I’m here to help you,” I answered calmly.
“Help me how?”
“Well, this hospital was founded on the idea that healing encompasses the body, mind and spirit. We offer mindfulness as a tool of self-inquiry. And I understand from your bio that you are afflicted with PTSD, depression, as well as aggression issues.”
“What else does it say in that file you got on me?” He reached out for the folder I was holding and I had to move away quickly. The skin of his hand was dark like my father’s and belied our common African heritage.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“Oh yeah? Where in Chicago?”
“I don’t think that’s relevant.” I knew it was important to share some personal details to form a bond with the patient, but establishing clear boundaries is also always a priority.
“Well, fuck you,” he said, rather loud. His anger slammed into my chest with the force of a lifetime of pent-up frustration.
In my work with veterans, the homeless, and other members of the underprivileged I’ve experienced my share of resentment and resistance. Patient X proved to be particularly stubborn in accepting help. The medical staff in the hospital reported that he often refused treatments and was generally difficult with doctors, nurses and counselors.
I began visiting him regularly but in two weeks time we made frustratingly little progress. His demeanor was sour, his appearance slovenly. When eating he shoved food quickly into his mouth and often ended up wearing bits of breakfast, lunch and dinner on his shirt and pants. His beard was wild, his fingernails long and dirty. I care deeply about all my patients, but I was having no success at connecting with Patient X. I talked to him about meditation, mindfulness, awareness, concentration, energy and breath work, but he remained locked in his shell of anger and pain.
Visit number fourteen started out as a virtual repeat of our first meeting.
“Miss, what I don’t understand is why you keep coming around here,” he said shaking his head.
“I do it because it’s my job and my life’s calling to help,” I explained as simply as I could. “And I believe I can help you.”
“Well, don’t you deserve a freakin medal for being such a goody-goody? Go help somebody else!”
“You are hardly my only patient,” I retorted. He was sucking me into his vortex of hostility. I could feel myself getting frustrated with his lack of cooperation. He refused to make an effort. He didn’t even attempt using the tools and techniques I was sharing.
“Fuck you.” His curse was barely audible this time and I sensed a deep sadness beneath the anger.
Taking a deep breath I made the choice to share what was true for me in the moment.
“I feel hurt when you say that to me,” I looked him in the eyes as I spoke. “Please don’t use those words with me anymore.”
For a moment he looked surprised.
“What do you know about hurt?” he said. “They cut my leg off.” His tone was matter of fact.
He pulled back the covers to show his left leg. It had been amputated above the knee. I knew about it from his file but to see it was nevertheless shocking. The upper part of his leg was wrapped up in bandages. I took a deep breath and I looked. It was the least I could do. It would be easy to turn away, but the reality of his body had to be looked at. So I looked, and he looked. In silence we looked at what was left of his left leg.
The following day Patient X was sitting up in his hospital bed and I was in the chair next to him. I’ve given the basic instructions before but this time it felt like he was open to trying.
“Soften your eyes, the skin around the mouth. Relax the jaw. Feel the connection with gravity, that reliable downward pull of the earth.” I spoke the words slowly, allowing for space between each prompt.
“You can close your eyes or keep them open if you like and rest your gaze a few feet in front of you. See if you can let your eyes settle into their sockets.”
I paused half-expecting some smartass remark, but Patient X remained silent. He sat with his hands resting on his legs. His eyes were open but cast down toward the foot of the bed.
“Now from the grounding of the earth shift your attention upward to notice your breathing. Where can you feel it? Really contact the sensation of the inhale and the exhale. Perhaps at the nostrils you can feel the cool air enter the body. Or maybe you can sense the rise and fall of the belly, or the expansion and contraction of the ribs as they lift out to the sides on the inhale and relax back in on the exhale. “
“When you notice your attention pulled away, return to the breath, to the feeling of each breath in the body.”
“It can be helpful to mentally label the patterning of the mind as “thinking” and then very gently bring your focus back to the body breathing.”
He was quiet. No smart ass remarks made me hopeful that he was finally hearing me.
“I’ll set the timer for five minutes and then we can talk about the experience.”
I pressed the timer button on his bedside table and closed my eyes. The air of the room felt warm against my skin. My breath was quick and shallow. I don’t know why but it felt so monumentally important to me that he try meditation. I’ve worked with many patients, and cared deeply about their health and wellness. This felt different.
It was two weeks later and the timer had been set for twenty minutes. When the soft sound of the bell tickled my ears I opened my eyes quickly to look at Patient X, at my patient, at the meditator in the hospital bed. His eyes closed, his face looked relaxed. I was surprised by how handsome he looked without the tense forehead, the scowl, the clenched teeth. The hair was neat, the wildness tamed, his beard trimmed, shirt clean and ironed.
He began to move his hands slowly placing them both in the center of his chest. His eyes were still closed and I continued to watch as be brought his palms together, took a deep breath in, and then bowed on the exhale.
He opened his eyes and looked at me. I felt embarrassed at being caught but I couldn’t look away. There was a pulsing energy expanding in the space between us. The force of it grew until we were both inside the translucent sphere of magnetic pranic power. I was trembling. I don’t know how much time passed but a small bird landed on the window sill with a bright chirp. We both turned to look at the bird and the energy sphere dissolved. Neither of us said a word but I knew that something had fundamentally shifted between us. I was both thrilled and terrified at the sensations in my body. There was a warmth in my chest. I consciously began to elongate my inhale and exhale.
He remained silent and looked out the window at the bird, the tree, the sky outside the hospital. It was a warm autumn day, the sun cuddling in toward the horizon. I could smell the freshly cut grass from the courtyard three stories below. There was so much tenderness, sweetness and yes, love, in the room I could hardly bear it. I knew I needed to say something to break the silence.
“Well… great. It seems like you’re making fantastic progress with meditation.”
“I’ve been reading the books you gave me.”
“Oh yeah? That’s wonderful. I’ll… see you tomorrow.” I felt like a guitar string that was pulled tight and then plucked. The vibrations were resonating all throughout my organs. This was not at all my usual reaction to a patient’s positive progress.
I came home that evening and my husband greeted me from the kitchen where he had already prepared dinner for the family. The girls were working on their homework. I quickly changed and walked out into the cool evening air with my dog. Sometimes my daughters come along for the walk, but that night I needed to be alone. I needed to be with my heart. It was yelling, crying, shivering, breaking and palpitating inside me. I walked quickly and the dog followed obediently by my side. The neighborhood had changed a lot over the years since I first moved here as a carefree young woman. There were many more trees and flowers along the sidewalks, more benches, and more smiles on people’s faces. The world was in much better shape than it was ten or twenty years ago. We’ve virtually eliminated hunger throughout the world, and almost every community from the most urban to the most rural now had access to clean drinking water. We have not solved the problem of jobs and education, but we are making good progress.
My career had taken me on the path of healing and I love my job. But something about Patient X left me shaking, made me question everything. Was I really considering making a monumental change in my life? But how could I not when in the very fiber of my being I felt myself drawn to this man? He was a virtual stranger to me and yet I felt closer to him than to my spouse.
When I came to the pond I stopped and sat on the bench. The dog lay at my feet. He was not questioning my strange behavior that night.
The patient was standing in front of me, much taller than I, his frame blocked out the light from the window. I worried I might be crazy. My hands clenched into fists.
“James, I’m very proud of your progress in the two months we’ve worked together.”
“Thank you, Zoey.”
“I hardly recognize you from the angry aggressive guy I met back then.”
I don’t know why I said that. It wasn’t professional. But this was not anything I’d prepared for. Sure, in my training there were discussions of boundaries between teacher and student, between facilitator and patient. There were guidelines. There were definitions. There were red flags.
“I won’t be able to continue this program… with you,” the words tumbling out of my mouth sounded cold and brittle.
“Hey, I don’t understand. What’s the problem?” He was frowning. I hated seeing my rejection reflected in his eyes. “I did apologize for my behavior those first couple of weeks. It was out of line. I was hurting. And it wasn’t fair but I was taking it out on you.”
“No, no, it’s not that,” I rushed to assure him. “Nothing like that. No, you’re fine. You are doing fantastic.”
Nothing I said sounded authentic.
He walked over to the window with a heavy limp. It’s incredible that he was walking at all. He loved the new prosthetic leg.
My throat was tight. I knew I needed to tell him the truth.
“I can’t work with you because I’ve developed feelings… for you.” I swallowed and continued, “It’s not unheard of. And it’s nothing bad. But… there will be a new facilitator assigned to your case.”
James turned toward me with a quizzical look.
“I assumed that I was imagining it. And you told me that you’re married so…”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I offered.
“Neither did you.”
I shook my head. “Then why do I feel so guilty?”
I didn’t mean to say it. But there it was.
Thank you for everything, Madam Arbitror. I do not know what the future holds for me, for James, for my family. All I can do is honor the authenticity of my feelings, while striving to apply some measure of wisdom.
Yours in the Oneness,
Moffit Mindfulness Hospital