Somewhere around the winter of 2008, I received a phone call that would lead to a pivotal event in my life—as a human being, as a therapist, as a yoga teacher, and as a yogi. When I answered my phone, I heard the voice of the volunteer coordinator at the end-of-life facility where I was a volunteer: “Molly, there’s a woman here who is beginning her imminent transition from life. She’s scared and calling out and there is no one here to be with her. The nurses have asked for support in her transition. They asked if anyone from The Samarya Center was available to come down and be with her.”
I’m not sure what made me respond the way I did—was it because as the person who started the Bedside Yoga program, I thought it was my duty? Was it my ego reminding me of my own great importance in the matter? Was it a real calling from my heart? Was it because of some divine sense that this would be a powerful, and deeply meaningful, moment in my life and growth? I really don’t know. Probably a little bit of all of that, but nonetheless, I heard myself saying, “I’ll be right there.”
When I arrived at the medical center, I was brought to the room of a woman I had never met. Although I had already had the profound, and profoundly humbling, opportunity to attend a scheduled death at the facility, I had never been left totally alone with someone who was in her final hours of life. I had absolutely no connection to the woman in Room 103.
I was shown in by Margaret, one of my favorite nurses at the program. “She’s transitioning quickly, but she’s so afraid, and so alone. She’s been crying out and can’t seem to get comfortable. I thought you might be able to help,” followed by, “I wasn’t sure when you’d get here—I’ve just administered a sedative to help her relax.”
I will never forget entering her room. There lay a woman alone, mouth agape, breathing erratically, and for all intents and purposes, completely drugged out of any real sense of what was happening. There was the unmistakable smell of dying. And then there was the music. The staff had put on what I now refer to as “dying music”—insipid New Age pan flutes and waterfalls, intended to create a calming environment. Margaret gazed for a moment at her patient with a look of deep care. She touched the woman on her head and then turned to me with a quiet expression, as if to say, “Here you go,” and shut the door.
The Gift of Presence
It was just the dying woman, the music, and me. I felt instantly and simultaneously both lost and empowered. I had been with many people in the last days, and even hours, of their lives, but this was different: I had never been with anyone that I didn’t know at all, and who, as far as I could tell, was completely unaware of my presence. As the pan flutes droned, and the waterfalls cascaded, I thought to myself, “This is it. This is everything I have ever taught and everything I think I believe. If I believe in my work, and I believe in the power of human connection, then my presence here is meaningful and powerful. I just have to do what my intuition tells me, and I may be able to offer something.”
With that, I placed my hands on the woman’s head and began to offer prayers of peace and connection. Drawing from my Reiki training, I moved from her head to her knees, to her feet to her hands. I sat for what seemed like hours with her hands in mine, praying that if I was offering her nothing particularly earth shattering, that I was offering this body, this being, this soul, some humble gift of care and connection in her final moments on this planet.
After some time, I wish I could say it was intuition, but more likely it was when it became too uncomfortable to lean over her body in bed, I quietly disconnected from her and left her room. I was later told that she had passed shortly after I left, and the nurses reported that she seemed to pass in peace.
I didn’t know what to do with that information. I still don’t. Of course, I want to think it was because of me—my presence and my caring had allowed her to transition quietly and seemingly without fear—but the truth is, it could have just as easily been the valium, or the time, or the body’s innate wisdom and ability to let go, or some combination of all those things. Whatever the reason, in my own life this was a profound experience I return to again and again in my thinking, in my practice, and in my teaching.
But let me not get too ahead of myself.
When Healing Hurts
Long before I initiated the Bedside Yoga program for end of life, and long before I had any interest in or experience with yoga, I had been employed as a speech pathologist in a conventional setting. I had worked in both the acute care and follow-up units, and had spent several years working with people in challenging health, and life, situations.
With my clinical training and experience, I had honed my techniques to the degree I could. I felt comfortable with, and knowledgeable about, best practices and contraindications for a variety of conditions. I existed in a culture that largely rejected the sense that the practitioner, as a unique human being, should be shared too generously with the patient. This is, in fact, in direct contrast to the strong body of research suggesting that the relationship between the patient and the therapist is the single most important element in the process of healing.*
At the same time, I witnessed and clearly understood that the equation could be wrongly skewed in the other direction: the archetype of the all-knowing healer who, by sheer proximity to his or her greatness, could fix, cure, heal, or dismiss a patient. This, as I saw it, created disconnection not just between the patient and clinician, but also within the clinician.
For my part, the intense pressure and feeling that I should be the one making the changes happen in my patients’ lives was manifesting both in my emotions and in my physical body. I was routinely going home at night both depressed and anxious, as well as in physical pain, particularly centered around my upper back, shoulders, and arms. Sometimes the pain would be so intense that I couldn’t even lift my arms enough to pick up a dish or wash my face.
I knew intuitively, even before I knew anything about yoga, that in the intention to help and heal, there was some in-between place, a new equation, in which a balance between deep human connection and well-established interventions and techniques would create the optimal conditions in which healing would occur. I longed to understand this place, to be shown this equation, to be able to do the correct math.
I wanted to help people, I cared deeply about their suffering, but I also wanted freedom from my own suffering, and from my own ego, an ego that told me that changing others was up to me—that when people experienced healing, it was because I had done a good job, and that when they did not, I had done a poor one.
What a relief it was then, when through my deepening spiritual pursuit through yoga, I discovered a simple truth: that we cannot change anyone or make anyone do anything. That we are not in fact, the “doers,” and that to think we are creates confusion and suffering. The best we can do, and the best we can do for others, is to help them set up conditions for change, and to trust in the innate wisdom, desire, and divine timing of the other person for that change to occur, in whatever form it takes. The understanding of this truth led me to the equation I had been seeking, and one I have been passionately sharing for over a decade.
The Healing Equation
The equation, thankfully, is quite simple, because it requires only two elements. The first is the understanding that our “gift is our presence.” In other words, the healing that we hope to facilitate, or the yoga that we share, is within us, not dependent upon the other. This abnegates completely our own agenda, our inflated sense of self and our own importance. It invites an exquisite paradox: on the one hand, that we have a profound ability to influence others and the trajectory of their healing and, on the other, that we don’t actually have to “do” anything—we simply have to “be.”
Of course, although I say that the equation is simple, requiring just two elements, this first one, the true understanding of self, is actually incredibly challenging. We have to first do the hard work of healing ourselves, of understanding our own biases, prejudices, and limitations, as well as acknowledging and developing our greatest gifts, whatever they may be.
Fortunately, the second part of the equation really is simple. Techniques are relatively easy to learn, and will get better and more abundant with time and experience. What makes this part of the equation complicated is the fact that we often rely too heavily on techniques because we don’t see a need for or don’t trust in our simple presence. We start to allow the techniques to dominate our work, believing more in the techniques than we do in ourselves or in the person with whom we are working. The techniques become the engine driving our work and, in doing so, all but subsume the subtle and powerful force of real human connection and a sense of wonder and divine wisdom.
In my experience, this equation for healing really is like a math equation—it must be balanced on both sides, and for us to make it function, we must be willing to work on both sides simultaneously and to be able to see how and why one side or the other is dominating. It also requires us to check often on the outcome—as we “show our work” we are making sure that we are coming to the same conclusion, that we are setting up conditions for change, opportunities for healing, and not working toward a different outcome, one where we are trying to make a specific change occur.
I have seen, in both the conventional clinical model and in the world of yoga-based therapy, well-meaning interventionists missing out on the best part of healing work by creating more difficulty than is necessary or simply doing less than the best that is possible. I have seen and experienced the opposites of ahimsa, satya, and asteya when the practitioner robs the client or student of his or her own self-efficacy by overreliance on one or the other parts of the equation.
To really set conditions for change, to provide opportunities for real, lasting, and empowered healing, we must work dutifully and courageously on both sides. To create the factor of “you,” you must be committed to deep self-inquiry and constantly seek to see the other as atman, not less than, but equal to “us.” This requires practice, dedication, and total commitment to the power of this part of the equation.
At the same time, we must not confuse this understanding of the power and potential of our loving presence with a hubris that suggests we don’t need specific techniques. Our techniques give us something concrete to offer, and remind us of best practices and contraindications. Indeed, it is our techniques, not us, per se, that we are promoting and offering when we say we are therapists, start up programs like Bedside Yoga, or endeavor to explain or share what it is that we are doing to create conditions for change.
A Magical Balance
I didn’t have this equation in mind when I met the woman in Room 103; I hadn’t yet arrived at this place in my own learning or teaching. And yet that experience was one of the precise moments in time where I understood and trusted in this magical balance. I brought all of myself to the experience, including all of my insecurities, curiosity, not-knowingness, and trust. I brought the sense that, as a human being with the intention to allay another’s fears, I would be able to offer something.
But I also offered my best techniques. If I hadn’t known Reiki, or meditation, or basic Thai yoga techniques, I wouldn’t have thought I had anything to offer.
And finally, if I thought that I was the “doer,” that it was my job to make this woman’s transition into death more peaceful, I would have been unsatisfied with just about any outcome. But since I understood that my job was only to set the conditions for change, to offer an opportunity for healing, it was a job I knew I could do, and whatever the outcome was would be more than satisfactory.
Of course I’ll never know what that woman’s experience was as she passed. But I will know my experience: one free from ego and fear, that once again deepened my faith in a human connection so powerful it could be felt and shared, through skillful means, intention, and loving presence, in any situation anywhere—even in a room filled with the oddly sweet smell of death and the warbling sounds of the pan flute.
Molly Lannon Kenny serves on the Board of the Yoga Service Council, and is a past Vice President of the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
In 2001, she founded The Samarya Center for Humankind (ness), a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to individual transformation and radical social change. She created, published and trademarked a unique therapy method, Integrated Movement Therapy, built on these same principles of acceptance and inclusion.
Molly has written and taught extensively on the topics of yoga as therapy, and as a means to individual and social change. She has taught many hundreds of students in her specialized yoga teacher trainings both locally and internationally. She has been featured in Yoga Journal, MSNBC, Yoga Chicago, Yoga Northwest, Wisdom Magazine, and the New York Times, among many others.
In her other life, Molly has been the bass player and front person for several local bands over almost twenty years, and is a part of a large, raucous, multi-ethnic, and culturally and socially diverse family of origin. She spends about a quarter of each year at her home in a small fishing village in Mexico, thinking about things like cultural relativism, paternalism, social change, and delicious food.
Molly is widely known as a vibrant, funny, accessible and super knowledgeable teacher, with a heart of gold and a spirit of fire. For more information, visit her website, mollylannonkenny.org.
* REFERENCE: Lambert, M., J. & Barley, D., E. (2001). “Research Summary on the therapeutic relationship and psychotherapy outcome.” Psychotherapy 38, 4, 357-361.
An earlier version of this article was published in Yoga Therapy Today (Winter 2012). Reprinted with permission from the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
The views expressed in YSC blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the YSC, its directors, officers, or members.