Letting in and Letting Go

“The Lawrence Tree” by Georgia O’Keefe 1929

“The Lawrence Tree” by Georgia O’Keefe 1929


I have been pondering the diverse lives I encounter in working as a Hospice chaplain, the ways people live in their skin and be with what is actually happening, rather than what they hope could happen. And also the ways people don’t do that, the varieties of vagueness and confusion, dodging the striking truth of transition in its fullness. None of being with or not being with guarantees the character of experience. But it does make a difference in what is allowed to shine through and what atmosphere results, serving as teacher and support.

Within the natural pulse of being open and being closed is the knowing that sees the larger rhythm. That larger awareness can manifest so clearly in such different unexpected forms, in people with gradations of dementia, in people who seem to deny or fight and within the depths and varieties of pain. 

In conversation with a colleague recently we shared our experiences over the years of working with folks who have different forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. We shared what we have learned about letting go into different forms of communicating, learning to rely less on our verbal default. We talked about connecting through sentiment and following meaning that had no linear or conceptual reference points but was just as clear and resonant as many more familiar, linear forms of meaning-oriented conversation. 

Awareness can shine through even those with the most progressed dementia. This always stands as evidence to me of a difference between the brain and the mind. There is a knowing that sees the real on some level and shines it out through the eyes and gesture, through a kind of feeling exchange. This knowing is a mind more expansive than biology yet intimately interconnected with our embodiment. There is so much knowing we fail to access when we believe quick assumptions and rely on limited forms of communicating and listening. 

The messages in expressions of pain and denial can be shrouded by our quick assessments of both, which miss the subtlety of meaning and awareness often intrinsically there but less obvious. Recently I talked with a man who seemed to some to be in denial of his wife’s dying. In our visit he sat at the end of the bed and told a story of being a boy in Scotland. One day running home and scared to be late for supper, he bumped into a priest who was curious about the boys anxiety. The resolution of their exchange was the priest saying, “Laddy, if you worry, you will die and if you don’t worry you will die.” This moment entered this man’s cellular knowing, shifted his DNA and lived behind his actions from then on. We will die regardless, he knew, so why spend so much of life worrying? He knew she was dying and knew it was coming for a long time and he could see the road ahead, turning new and choiceness directions, asking inconceivable things, remaining ordinary and ok. He was ready and aware of her and his changing. He trusted his own sense of life’s different landscapes that stood in their own integrity and needed not the elaborations of his worry. 

There was a woman with a fresh, fast moving cancer diagnosis. She was still in shock and disarray, but full of intelligence and an exacting presence. “I just don’t want to die!” she said. Her statement wasn’t pushing to take away the fact. It expressed truth, and that truth coexists and co-arises with an awareness of everything that will soon pass. She laughed easily and lamented strange new sensations in her body. She longed for rest and was restless in the knowing her time is short. She was irritable and frustrated. She has a whole community of friends she knows will stick with her and kids that listen to her angular demands. She is rooted in reality while longing wildly in varied directions, feeling around the ocean floor for an anchor as she finds herself pulled into different water. 

We benefit from giving ourselves and each other much more room for being in process and for being unresolved. We benefit from granting pain it’s place in our continuums. We are all quite fundamentally smart. In any expression of pain or confusion we know the platitudes and mere ideas that claim to transform “bad” to “good” or summarize an idealized and simplistic view of our more intimate, deeper experience. None of us need cliches or pedantic educating. What benefits all of us is fearless accompaniment and the real respect that imparts. Sometimes the quality and flavor of the day is awful and aching and so be it. What size is our monster, the darknesses that can feel like an unwelcome guest, but guest nonetheless? What is her temperature, the octave of her roar, the quality of her wailing? Be with it without apology or advice-giving. We are mysteriously courting insight throughout our human travels, in all our full-throated expressions of real color. To build relationship with that insight, to let it rise and root, requires yielding, listening, being unkempt and wild sometimes, relinquishing our grip on mere ideas as solid and unchanging. 

In these holidays centered around appreciation and giving and celebration, we’re well served and nurtured by letting each other be exactly what we are in any moment, by letting each other be in process rather than deceptively definite or certain. Let’s let go of fixedly managing ourselves and each other from a place of measurement, of rushing to contain the expanse of ourself or another in familiar terms and buffers. Let go of presumptions of knowing another’s experience and instead listen and pay attention with curiosity like a child in the woods. Let go of caring what others think. Release the need to fix or “make better” (as if we even know what “better” is). Temper the urge to follow perpetual distraction, falling prey to the baser seductions of reactive or territorial engagement. Relinquish ideas of resolution, take a breath, and be in the ordinary brilliance of anything. This stops feeling like an effort in time as we grow to trust our awareness even in our darkest and most uncertain moments and iterations. We become and dissolve all the time. Explore and see.