Archives for posts with tag: Empathy

Japan is a country famous for suicide (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/06/24/130624fa_fact_macfarquhar). Its many suicide spots have become tourist attractions, including the Aokigahara forest, the Sea of Trees at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where bodies can lie undiscovered for months, and where tourists come to photograph corpses and to scavenge.

There is no religious issue about suicide in Japan, unlike in the West. On the contrary, the act of suicide is usually seen to restore honour, and is viewed more as a constructive than a destructive act.

A Japanese Buddhist monk, Ittetsu Nemoto, has set himself the task of confronting his country’s suicide culture. He conducts death workshops for the suicidal, where those affected are encouraged to imagine how they might feel if they were unexpectedly given a cancer diagnosis, with only three months, one month, one week, or minutes, to live. Within this imagined scenario, participants are challenged to consider how they might spend the limited time remaining in their lives. This approach, which encourages a shift of focus away from the desire to end life to a consideration of the act of living, appears to be both cathartic and therapeutic.

Nemoto did his training in a Rinzai Zen monastery, which was particularly rigorous and harsh – ‘Apprentice monks are treated like slaves on a brutal plantation’ – and seems to have had all the components of both extreme physical and psychological suffering. Few trainees manage to complete the programme. The aim of the training process is to eventually achieve a throwing away of the self, thereby ultimately discovering who you really are:

‘A well trained monk, it is said, lives as though he were already dead: free from attachment, from indecision, from confusion, he moves with no barrier between his will and his act.’

Nemoto is now abbott of a temple that is much less austere. Priests drink, smoke and marry, a deliberate move to ensure that they are not distancing themselves from their community.

In his work with those who feel suicidal, Nemoto advocates confronting rather than avoiding the fact of death. He has succeeded in opening up talking about dying, in a country where so many choose to kill themselves, and where notions of ‘talking therapies’ are far from commonplace. Nemoto has learned much about his own suffering since he embarked on this project. Initially, through his practice of Zen listening, he found that he became overly involved, and was deeply affected and distressed by every story he heard. He felt responsible for all those whose suffering he witnessed. He became seriously ill, with heart disease, and had to temporarily withdraw from the project. He was deeply shocked when his followers appeared to have no interest in his ill health, and persisted in seeking his help for their own needs, rather than enquiring about his. Nemoto felt he was dying, and that nobody cared, despite all that he had given of himself.

However, through this period of personal suffering, Nemoto discovered another truth: too much should not be weighted on the act of helping others; rather than it being something special or significant, helping others should be something one naturally does in the course of one’s life.

Today, following his recovery from illness, Nemoto only reaches out to those whom he physically meets. He no longer communicates by mail or email. As a result, those affected often have to travel very long distances, and need to be very committed, to seek him out in his temple. He interacts with fewer people, but Nemoto feels he achieves more. He also takes notes when listening to those who come to see him, an approach that has allowed him, he believes, to distance himself sufficiently from their distress and suffering. He also believes that such distancing has facilitated greater resolution for those he attends.

Nemoto ‘believes in suffering, because it shows you who you really are.’ I believe that to live, to truly exist, is to suffer, not in a penitential sense such as Nemoto might have experienced in his training, but in the sense that personal suffering, however one likes to interpret it (and it is a subjective experience in the end), is inextricably linked to living and to humanness.

Taking on the suffering of others, as Nemoto learned, can be a destructive and not altogether helpful act. Empathy, and the capacity for being there for the other, does not necessitate such…

CQ

This stimulating and thought provoking evening was presented by Poet in the City in collaboration with Medicine Unboxed.

I had not previously come across Medicine Unboxed, which ‘explores a view of medicine that exceeds the technical: one elaborated by the arts, philosophy and the imagination as much as science, and one that insists on care and human understanding as much as treatment’ (http://www.medicineunboxed.com). I will certainly follow their activities from now on.

The session was chaired by Dr Sam Guglani, a clinical oncologist and curator of Medicine Unboxed. The panel consisted of poets Jo Shapcott, Jane Draycott and John Burnside, and Dame Sheila Hollins, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry of Disability.

I have thought much about the evening, both the poetry, the discussions that took place, and the questions that arose from the audience.

What impressed me most was the wide ranging and ambitious directions the discourse took. Narrative Medicine, Medical Humanities, and other such disciplines, have become much more familiar today, and I embrace them and what they do. Yet I also wonder whether discussions on poetry and medicine, or arts and the experience of illness, need to spend time outside their institutions too, within a broader context of empathy and compassion within society as a whole. Idealistically perhaps, I believe that this is the only way we can alleviate the isolation and loneliness of those who are ill, and who suddenly find themselves resident in another world.

I therefore welcomed the emphasis John Burnside placed on our compassion towards animals, as to all living creatures, which we increasingly erode.

I have been wondering whether compassion is strictly intuitive, innate, or whether it can be ‘taught’. I have also wondered whether you have to personally experience suffering in order to be compassionate, and as a corollary, to be capable of empathy.

I would have hoped not, but I am not so sure. I do believe, that to be alive is to suffer, not in any penitential sense, but the very nature of existing necessitates a suffering of sorts, to a greater or lesser extent, which of course applies to health care professionals as much as it does to everyone else. Whether this suffering is acknowledged and ‘felt’ perhaps separates the compassionate from the (apparently) non compassionate.

I enjoyed last night’s session very much at the time, and in its aftermath, there is much to reflect on, and to consider.

CQ

The Pier was the second film I saw at this weekend’s Irish Film Fest. [Actually, it was the third, as this screening also included the short film, Pentecost, which was a gem].

I am not sure even now what I thought of The Pier, but nonetheless, there are some things that may be worth noting.

The first is a personal one. I had no idea that the film was located in and around Schull, my ‘spiritual home’. Thus, recognising the area, and the locals, was a wonderful and warm surprise.

The film itself, written, directed and starring Gerard Murphy, was a more mixed experience. It tells the somewhat familiar Irish story of the ‘prodigal’ son (Gerard Murphy) returning home. He is summoned back from the US with the news that his father (Karl Johnson) is dying. He duly returns, only to find that his father is not dying, after all. He appears hale and hearty, and as cantankerous as ever.

Although he is dying, actually and imminently. We later discover that he has lung cancer, a diagnosis he eventually shares with his son. This prompts a grudging reconciliation of sorts between the pair, which is at times touching and moving. However, the father’s role is too much of a type, a caricature of sorts, that of a truculent, difficult and bitter man, who mostly engenders little in the way of sympathy or empathy. Murphy’s character is more likeable, and understated. A confused and dour sort, his moments of kindness, particularly towards the local pair of children who seem practically orphaned, are endearing.

Religion, and atheism, get a nod too. It is Ireland, after all…

The realisation of imminent death brings out the best in the old man, perhaps too predictably, and at times slightly maudlinish.

But this is not a tear jerker. I am not sure one connects enough with the protagonists to go that far.

CQ