It is a special privilege and delight this week to bring you an audio essay on Unique Self in hospice by Rev. John Hughes, entitled “Slight Inklings: First Steps Towards a Celebration of Unique Self in Hospice.”
Rev. John Hughes is known as “grandpappy” by two sweet little boys in Kentucky, he is known as “Dad” by two beautiful young women, and he is known as “dear husband” by a woman of vast integrity, in Wisconsin. His cat doesn’t call him much.
By trade a spiritual caregiver at a hospice, John has had a checkered past, which included somehow becoming an ordained Episcopal priest and offering up his notions to two deeply merciful congregations. He practices meditation, yoga, and immersion in Integral theory, while sometimes wallowing in confusion, and often rocking out to it in his car. He is equally thrilled by Beat poetry, a swim, or a game of tennis, the sublime performance of the Green Bay Packers, and an incantation from Bob Dylan. He is an earnest newcomer to Unique Self.
John has also recently launched the organization Integral Earth. He writes, “Integral Earth is my new organization promoting environmentalism, human rights, and spirituality, from an integral perspective.” You can check out more about this project on Facebook or Twitter.
(The transcript of the essay with supplemental interview follows the embedded audio.)
Here is John Hughes’s essay transcript about his discovery of Your Unique Self: The Radical Path to Personal Enlightenment by Dr. Marc Gafni:
Slight Inklings: First Steps Towards a Celebration of Unique Self in Hospice
by Rev. John Hughes
I spend much of my evenings practicing yoga, listening to nourishing music, and reading books of philosophy and spirituality which expand my mind. One of the most compelling books I’ve read in decades is Marc Gafni’s “Your Unique Self.” As I read it in the late fall of 2012, it worked out some knots in my awareness muscles which had been troubling me for 15 to 20 years and which I will describe later. Thank you, Rabbi Gafni. I feel a lot better now.
The territory, however, is different from the map, as Ken Wilber has pointed out. I sometimes overlooked that in my youth, feeling that if I read, say, a Thomas Merton text, or Teresa of Avila’s revelations, I could put down the book and “have” it, and go forward in my life as the embodiment of the wisdom I’d just perused. Has that delusion been your experience, too? Now I know that when I study an excellent map of human experience, it is not the same as skillfully dwelling in, and as, the territory, and I think much more in terms of living into the map, working with it as an awareness exercise, over time.
After one of my typical evenings, I got up the next morning, map in mind and heart, and ventured into my work life, my professional territory, as spiritual care provider at a hospice. The people I work with, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and surrounding areas, are generally blue-collar, elderly folk who flourished after World War 2 and the Korean Conflict, who come from a base/set of traditional American political and social values (what the Integral community would call “amber-to-orange”), who practice a spirituality formed by 1950s Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. My task is to get into the boat of their experience with them empathically and travel down their river towards their death, sharing the feelings, thoughts, and scenery along the way. It is my high privilege to be their companion.
I envision a canoe, and I climb into that vessel with the patients and their families, taking their perspective, whatever it may be, as a sacred gift to me. I am in this particular boat on this day, with this particular person, and it is rocking just so, and the weather overhead is precisely this, and we are on this particular body of water, traveling towards the next shore. We have been told, “You will not survive this disease,” and “You have six months or less to live.” The loved ones around us have reacted according to the amount of love that has been shared, and how it has been communicated over the decades. It is frightening, profound, fascinating, and sometimes boring (if the family is weighed down in petty squabbles), but my own standard insists that empathy for the particulars of a person’s experience requires honoring their perspective.
My spiritual orientation and emotional resonance are of the essence in performing my work well. I have inherited assumptions from my culture which are partial truths in need of expansion. For instance, just as it would be a mistake to view the person’s “skin-encapsulated ego” as their truest essence (mainstream American culture’s default perspective), so it would be equally misleading to think “this is all only emptiness and this person doesn’t exist” in the relative realm of the territory I am in. I need the synthesis of these two partial truths, which is provided by the concept of Unique Self.
I have journeyed with one hospice patient for over two years, whom I will call Walter (not his real name). This gentleman, a former grocery store clerk who “got lippy” towards his manager after 25 years and thus found himself working as a toy store clerk in the midst of the Cabbage Patch Doll craze, is missing many teeth, stands about 5 feet 5 inches tall (down from 5’10″), and weights 190 pounds, and walks with a severe wheeze and an oxygen tube feeding into his nostrils. We sit in his dirty kitchen, a plastic clock overhead advertising a famous union, a crossword puzzle half completed between us, and a seed catalogue on the table beside the puzzle. Homemade catsup cooks on the stove behind him and spatters alarmingly, and I know that he will have me try it before I leave, and that, if the past is indication, it will be jarringly spicy. His dog Cinders, walking around with a massive tumor on its hind quarters, has come to expect a little Milk Bone treat out of the left pocket of my trousers, when I stand to depart.
Walter talks about “fat cats” and “the little guy,” and says of the former, “They only have one thing on their mind, and it ain’t justice!” His views of the world are very much colored by his perception of unjust power, and his own marginalization, but he keeps his humor. He says of his slow fade from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, “Well, all I know is to keep on trying until I lose, like in cribbage.” He enjoys his occasional trips to the hospital, because it gives him a chance to flirt with the nurses. It is a curiosity to him how heaven could “incorporate” all the billions of souls who have died over time, because “that’s gotta be like an overcrowded cruise ship by now.” After an epic struggle to pay his mortgage, Walter is in danger of losing his house, so “it’s a race between being homeless and lifeless.”
He is my patient, and I am his spiritual care provider, but over time we’ve become fast friends. I have done nothing, social work-wise, or nursing-wise, to help him, but we are two beings who sit across that cluttered table in the chill air and express our true natures, laughing. My “ministry of presence” sometimes feels impotent, but he has repeated over and over, and his family has agreed, that my visits are a lifeline to him, and help him feel not anonymous and forgotten, but valued.
This is the territory in which I am working out my relationship to the powerful and multi-faceted concept of Unique Self. I will need to read the book several times over numerous years, taking in its nuances and depth, letting it’s truth infiltrate my resistances, known and unknown. As I sit with Walter and hundreds of patients like him, savoring our shared love, my fancy reading slowly comes alive as a slight inkling of the infinite depth of what is transpiring.
I am a man who has bumped around the halls, first of conservative Christianity, then liberal activism, then mystical and esoteric faith (pre-rational, rational, post-rational). The latter, my passionate engagement with the writings of Meister Eckhart, and my attempts to embody a “green priesthood” during my years as an Episcopal parish priest, led to my being repudiated by the local hierarchy of my church. For them, the mystics of their own Christian tradition might as well have been Marxists, and when I quoted the former, my bosses called them “kooks” and “heretics.” As long as I was labeled a misfit, I decided I might as well embrace it, and I plunged into an exploration of Zen and yoga. These investigations led eventually to my discovery of Ken Wilber’s writings, which led to Marc Gafni’s.
Along this journey, I have felt some tension. My upbringing and education, my conditioning, have led me to feel that I have a “soul,” or “essence,” and some of the Zen teachings I have encountered have opposed this understanding. Yes, I can see to some degree the transparency of my “skin-encapsulated ego,” my socially contrived understanding of who I am. I have reveled in meditative transcendence as I saw that this self-understanding was the embrace of an impermanent little cloud, and that we are all actually one, and that my source, my origin, my radical ground, is all.
On the other hand, nagging me, has been the idea that someone has to show up for work, pay bills, and drive my car, and that it’s not being a smart aleck or spiritual dumb ass to notice this. Furthermore, Walter, and numerous of my patients, is/are deeply cherished, unique, lovable, with a perspective, and it rings false to think that all his charm and rough kindness is “nothing” at all. The fact that we are all embodiments of the One, of Spirit, has to be articulated somewhere in my map of life.
Who is it that is encountering Walter, and who is looking back at me? Yes, it is, we are, Spirit talking to Spirit. I get that, but down in the corner of the picture is the fact that Infinite Freedom also prefers tomato seeds in the garden, over green bean seeds. One of us loves cribbage, and the other chess. We are people talking to one another, cherishing our uniqueness, enjoying our idiosyncrasies and quirks as part of the essence of our relationship. In my limited understanding, the Eastern emphasis on emptiness doesn’t seem to capture the entire truth. It seems to miss the fact that the energy exchanged between two perspectives is like flint on flint, igniting an experience of the divine.
When I read Gafni’s words about us all being sacred letters on an eternal scroll, I rejoiced with recognition. I felt liberated. I cherish my patients, and my dear family members for that matter, for their particularity. The thesis of “skin-encapsulated ego,” surely a tragedy of misplaced identity, is addressed by the radical wisdom which acknowledges that we are all transparently impermanent, ephemeral, drops of water in the infinite sea. This treasured insight is the antithesis to the thesis, and it delivers us from much suffering. Still, it cries out for fulfillment in recognition that these little drops of water have character and depth which is reflecting something vast. This need is met when Gafni’s synthesis views that little ego as a harbinger of its later, evolved, and fulfilled existence, beyond Emptiness, as Unique Self.
“Your Unique Self is the infinite love-intelligence, which is All-That-Is–living in you, as you, and through you,” writes Gafni. “…You first realize that you are part of the seamless coat of the Uni-verse. You then realize that the Uni-verse is seamless but not featureless–and that you are one of its essential features. You see that you are irreducibly unique, and therefore irreplaceable as a unique expression of All-That-Is.”
I am living into the Unique Self insight. Walter, and other patients Betty, and Mildred, and Herman and Norm, and I, are essential features of the Uni-verse, not just nothing. When I sit among them, I am drinking in an eternal essence of Spirit, with character. When one patient says, “We are all just a glamorous mishmash of good intentions and bad ideas,” I tilt back my head and savor the beauty of Uniqueness, of a feature in the Uni-verse. In reading this book once, and thinking about it for a few months, I have taken my first step on the road trip which stretches out, with distinctive curves and hills and valleys, into infinity. What I think I see up ahead, in my foggy binoculars, is a trip of joy.
Some follow-up question about John’s process of writing this Unique Self reflective essay:
HF: What questions really animate your exploration of Unique Self in the lived moments with your patients?
JH: For me, I am thinking about the language that is used in conversation as a veil over Unique Self most of the time. The way we communicate is highly derivative, it seems to me, from our culture. Okay, it is 100% derivative, but it is often cliché and inauthentic. I watch for moments in the conversation, gaps or Freudian slips or sudden vistas of honesty, and view these as portals which will whisk me, Harry-Potter–like, to a new land of revelation. So, I am watching for these portals as revelatory of myself and of others. Can we both get to Unique Self today? Or are we just going to be skin-encapsulated ego? On the other hand, sometimes compassion asks of me that I let the patient rest and not necessarily work with authenticity. They are dying. Is a Unique Self conversation my desire, and not—at this precise moment—skillful means? I have to be thoughtful and watchful. Sometimes I see a glimpse of a person’s Unique Self, or what I think might be a portal to it, and I also see that the patient wants to roll over and sleep. This is not a therapy session; let them sleep.
HF: What are the open and closed doors in your practice of these components of Unique Self?
JH: I’m not exactly sure what the correct answer is to this question, but I’ll tell you what strongly mitigates against Unique Self. I have so many patients to see and so much paperwork and computer charting to do, that I feel often that it’s a struggle to connect with authenticity to the patient. I have to have a powerful spiritual practice every day to have a shred of effectiveness in the face of so much suffering, and I have to be present to the patients and their families, and yet I also have only so much time to be with one encounter. I am a clerk half the time, a Unique Self clerk, but not around, in patient’s homes and rooms, to do this practice. Then sometimes when I enter a home or room, I know I am under the gun, and my beeper is going off with a problem to address 40 miles away, and it is simply difficult to have a quality interchange. I could easily miss a portal to Unique Self, a gap or slip in the language, if I am in a hurry and distracted. Open door? The patients are in extremis, dying, and so in a place of unique vulnerability which offers a greater opportunity for connection than usual.
HF: What is an unresolved question at the heart of your essay on Unique Self, the thing you wished you could say, but couldn’t get into it?
JH: The question of God, or Spirit, is massive and enduring, a mystery, but in this work the question always is “where is Spirit right this moment?” How do I know I am accessing Spirit and Unique Self and not just fooling myself because I’ve read the book? How do I know this amounts to anything other than a little translative pleasure, dressed up? Hard question. Tough walnut.
HF: Where might others find some fertile points of departure or resonance with you, do you think, after reading this piece?
JH: First off, from a decade of writing and delivering sermons, I know that you never know what people are going to connect with. I could deliver what I thought was the best sermon of my life, sneeze at some point, and someone afterwards might say, “I was deeply and powerfully transformed by your sneeze.” It’s that random. But a fertile point of resonance might be the continued acknowledgement that the territory is THIS right here in front of us, and empathy with others is THE DEAL. We are all in a boat, and all need others to climb in with us. It’s important. Also, resonance might exist with my stating that Unique Self is a concept to live in over repeated readings and down through the years, with much reflection again and again, and not just mastered with a simple read.