The third Buddhist Contemplative Care Symposium was held at the Garrison Institute earlier this month, bringing together 170 caregivers and healthcare practitioners for the weekend-long event to discuss ways to make sure patients’ wishes are kept in mind as they navigate the dying process.

Tricycle’s web editor, Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, sat down with conference organizers Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founders of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which offers the only accredited contemplative-based chaplaincy program in the U.S. Their book, Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End-of-Life Care, was released by Wisdom Publications in April and is in its third printing.

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Here’s what Chodo and Koshin had to say when asked if the holidays are the appropriate time to have the tough conversations about what we want out of our life (and death): 

Koshin: Now is always a good time for meaningful conversations.

Chodo: Death is always present. It doesn’t stop for the holidays. But I wouldn’t necessarily raise the topic over Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas lunch unless there was someone in our presence transitioning toward death. In that case, then I would want everyone in the room to be open to a conversation. Because why would we be sitting around and bullshitting and not talking about what’s in front of us?

So I don’t think it should be barred from the holidays, but it’s also not something I’d put on the menu in particular: turkey, cranberry sauce, death.

Koshin: One of the things that’s particular about this symposium is that we’re gathering together to share the challenges and joys of being with people in their death process. Most of the people here are not clinicians—75 percent of end-of-life care comes from family members and friends. How do we have the meaningful conversations that make our wishes known, and how do we allow ourselves to really be open to these conversations? Have you told everyone you love that you love them? Are there people in your life who are you most grateful to? Who haven’t you told that you love them or are grateful to them? Are there relationships you would like to repair? What are you waiting for? It’s amazing that we don’t often take these risks because of our own nervousness or distractedness.

Chodo: Speaking of the holidays, a great party or after-dinner game would be to have everyone write down the five most important people in their life.

Koshin: And why.

Chodo: And why. Who is the person you could call at three o’clock in the morning if you really needed something? Most of us don’t have five people. We might get one or two.

Koshin: Who would drop everything to show up for you.

Chodo: And that can be quite shocking: “Wow, I need to tend to my relationships. I need to write more, call more.”

Koshin: Those relationships are like the refuge of sangha. We live in a time where isolation is one of the greatest indicators of morbidity and early death.

Chodo: It could be simply looking around the table and thinking, “Yeah, no, yeah, no. Maybe, yeah, no. Yeah, definitely”—those are the people that are important to me in my life.

Koshin: It’s also who you don’t want to be there. Because when we have very little time, seeing certain people can be too complicated, too charged, too traumatic. It’s important to just be able to know who you don’t want to be there and if you want to address that relationship . . . or not. Our practice is to investigate everything.

Read Robert Chodo Campbell’s essay, “Death is Not an Emergency,” from Awake at the Bedside

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