I had a sobering exchange Sunday afternoon with a new friend. We had met recently at a conference and we were talking about suspicion and distrust between doctors and patients.
“I’d love to do a presentation showing the little thought bubbles above the doctor’s head,” he laughed. “You can’t possibly be paying attention the whole time.”
I didn’t have to answer him for him to know he hit the nail on the head. We can’t possibly be paying attention the whole time. I know the feeling of distraction all too well – from extreme fatigue, from worrying about how far behind schedule I am, from ruminating over a bad interaction with the previous patient, or most recently from massive emotional trauma (see the “Three Healers Who Listen” posts from earlier this month).
My patients are just as distracted. Calls come in on their mobile phones throughout the visit; occasionally someone apologizes before answering. Their children are at wit’s end and cannot sit still, so they methodically empty the drawers onto the floor. They are late for work, which starts 15 minutes after their scheduled appointment time and Scotty cannot beam them up.
If this is supposed to be sacred space, the place where healing happens, why aren’t we both paying more attention?
When Jacob has his dream of the ladder, he is on the run from his very angry brother and just looking for a place to crash. He puts a rock on the ground and goes to sleep and sees the famous vision of angels descending and ascending the ladder from Heaven to Earth and back. Only when he wakes up does he realize he has missed something.
“God was in this place,” says Jacob, “and I knew it not.”
Many of the traditional commentators explain Jacob’s comment to mean, “If only I had known how holy this place was, I would never have gone to sleep here.”
Really? If Jacob hadn’t gone to sleep, he never would have noticed the angels, or the ladder. It was only when he went to sleep, when Jacob let go of his fear of Esau pursuing him, of his rootlessness after leaving home, that he could open himself to the vision. Only then could he see the holiness in front of him.
I’m not suggesting sleeping through clinic – though I’ve had people doze off on me, and I’ve occasionally needed to slap myself across both cheeks to revive before going into an exam room. By “sleep” I mean the state of letting everything outside the room go. Like hitting “sleep” on an alarm clock, silencing the clamor of ringing phones, screaming children, and other insistent patients down the hall, for a few precious minutes in isolation. The relationship that we build in those minutes is like the ladder, the words we exchange like the angels.
The Italian commentator Ovadia Sforno reads “I knew it not” differently. “If I had realized the special distinction of this site,” he interprets, “I would have prepared myself mentally for receiving these Divine insights.” Here is the lesson for people who want to achieve healing in these all-too-brief encounters we have: like Jacob, we can’t come into a sacred encounter cold and unrehearsed. To be ready for divine interactions, we need to prepare.
I’ve just started working through a spiritual program known as Musar, the Jewish tradition of building up our middot, our “soul-traits” to become better people. Musar asks me to prepare by journaling, identifying the places where my soul could use a little remediation, then develop a practice – phrases to repeat or chant, actions to engage in – to build up the positive traits I need, in order to balance out the ones that are tearing me down.
Musar for healers – and for the people we’re trying to heal – might begin by asking us to build up the character trait of presence. Like Jacob needing to be fully present in his moment to see the angels and the ladder, healers need to be fully present in the encounter to see the person, not the patient. We need to practice phrases like, “How can I help you feel better?” or “I’m so sorry this is happening to you – whatever happens next I am with you.” Patients need to be fully present in the encounter to allow their own healing and wellness to rise above the noise of their phones or the impatience of the clock. We need to practice phrases like, “I need to be whole again,” or “I’ve been neglecting this for too long and now I need to focus on setting it right.”
It will never be perfect. We will all show up distracted, pressured, and uninspired at times. But if we have prepared ourselves mentally and spiritually just enough, a word, a gesture, a heart sound or a blemish on the skin will cause us to startle awake and say, “God was in this place.” And that’s enough to start from on the road to healing.
Now about those thought bubbles, my friend….