Bearing Witness

Koshin Paley Ellison
March 30, 2023

A few years ago, my cousins called me up to talk about their father, Jonah, who was ninety-two and had advanced dementia. He had rallied from sepsis in the hospital and had returned to his assisted living facility. But now he had stopped eating and drinking and wouldn’t take his medication. 

My cousins were understandably anxious and scared, and since I’ve been with hundreds of people as they die as part of my work at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, they wanted me to come out to his assisted living community to give my opinion about how he was doing.

I arrived at the facility, and there he was in the bed. His breath was labored and he was staring at a random spot in the ceiling. It’s a scene I’ve seen many times; it’s how some people look when they are dying.

My cousins, who loved their father so much, were practically shouting at him, as many people speak to the dying, in desperation.  “Dad . . . Dad! Koshin’s here! Do you want us to put on some music? DAD!” He was not responding at all, and throughout his life, he had never been hard of hearing. My cousin turned to me and asked, “Well, what do you think?”

I told him I thought his father was doing great— which, of course, seemed to make my cousins totally uncomfortable. How could I say he was doing great? He was dying. My cousins knew that, too, even if they hadn’t yet been able to fully come to terms with his dying to themselves in that moment.

But when I sat down and looked at Jonah, he actually seemed quite peaceful. He didn’t appear to be in any pain; in fact, he was almost radiant. His room was covered with beautiful symbols from his life: emblems from his military service, awards for his groundbreaking pharmaceutical work, photos of him doing magic tricks and dancing with the wife he loved, and so many pictures of their kids and grandkids.

And he was surrounded by his loving family.

My cousins were used to their father being very energetic and jocular, so to them, who they were seeing in that moment was not the father they had known. It was this other father, a father who was dying, and it’s not what they really wanted to see.

“What should we do?” they asked me. “He’s not eating. Should we feed him?”

“Let’s take a moment to be quiet together,” I responded. When it seemed like some of the anxiety and discomfort had dissipated from them, I asked, “Does it look like he needs to eat right now? Does he look like he needs to drink?”

The answer was clear. “No,” they said.

I said, “I think that whatever he’s doing, he’s just doing that. You can talk to him at a regular level and spend some loving time with him.”

To me, this is what bearing witness is: just relaxing, and settling down, and learning to be in, as Carl Jung would say, “the time of your life.” When we’re rushing around constantly, or when we’re resistant to whatever is in front of us, we’re not really doing good. Even when, like my cousins, we have the best of intentions. And as with my cousins, it’s good to know what we don’t know and ask for help.

So much of doing good is really just about learning how to relax in the face of whatever is in front of us. Each of us does this in our own particular way. I wonder: how does it feel to bear witness to your experience and not have to react in the same habitual way? How do you learn how to pause? Can you practice responding to your own reactivity in a non-habitual, present way?

Life becomes alive only when we are expansive, and we can expand only when we learn how to relax: into our seat, into our feet on the floor, into our breath and our belly. From this place of relaxation, we can bear witness to anything.

This is how we do good by bearing witness.

Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, MFA, LMSW, DMIN, is an author, Zen teacher, Jungian psychotherapist, and Certified Chaplaincy Educator. Koshin co-founded the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which offers contemplative approaches to care through education, direct service, and Zen practice. He is the author of Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up..

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