Practicing Not-Knowing

On Keeping an Open Mind After Encountering Suffering

By Joan Halifax

When I recognize the need to serve someone who is suffering, I usually take an in-breath to get grounded and settle the body on the exhalation. Then I might ask myself as I encounter this person’s suffering, How can I keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions or actions? I also can ask, Why, really, do I want to be of service in this situation? Am I caught in the trap of pathological altruism? Do I have what it takes in this moment not to harm but to serve? If I experience fear, judgment, or aversion to suffering, ideally, I notice this and let go again into openness by bringing my attention back to my breath, grounding myself, and then being present to whatever is arising.

Recently, I was sitting with a dying friend when suddenly his wife climbed into the bed and rather vigorously plumped up the pillow his head was resting on. She then tapped his arm, again and again, telling him that he was all right. At that moment, no one was all right, as far as I could see. And I had to drop into Not-Knowing, holding a space of love for both of them. She was terrified. He was in mental and physical agony. After a while, they both quieted down, but my impulse to pull her out of his proximity was not easy to resist. Pausing and getting grounded helped me refrain from rescuing and advising, and to just be present.

Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD, is a pioneer in the end-of-life care field. She is a Buddhist teacher, anthropologist, and author. This article is excerpted from her forthcoming book Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

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