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Compassionate Curiosity – Learning to listen without ego-based judgment

Posted Jun 09 2011 10:45pm

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” This Buddhist proverb rings true for children and apprentices (who are naturally curious), but should also apply to the mature–those who care for or offer advice to patients recently diagnosed with cancer.

When we become adults we lose our sense of freshness and often assume we know things we may not. In ministering to people in grief over their cancer, we caregivers and more mature cancer survivors would do well to refresh our sense of the miraculous, to bring a wholly unpolished perspective to the situation.

Have you ever intentionally looked at a circumstance without making any assumptions? When you have come alongside a person with a recent cancer diagnosis, have you taken a fresh look and chosen to sit at his or her feet and learn? We can learn simply by saying we don’t know. We are helpless to know. And we must banish the phrase, “I know how you feel,” even if we have been diagnosed with the same type of cancer. We can’t know each person’s unique experience.

Often we are frightened when we don’t have answers to life’s confusing questions. Even cancer survivors further down the path don’t want to admit we have no quick fixes. Pride gets in the way. This is especially true in Western cultures where medical practitioners, therapists and cancer patient-advocates are expected–and pressured–to know everything. Many are trained to appear confident around struggling patients, not tentative or at a loss for words. But how much better–how much more affirming–would it be just to observe, witness, listen to, and learn from the mourner rather than blindly offer pat answers? Would it be that uncomfortable?

“Compassionate curiosity” is the moniker given to this new way of thinking. Maybe Curious George knows something we don’t. Maybe curiosity trumps certainty. Maybe professionals, patient volunteers and caregivers can be led rather than lead all the time.

A useful way for you to evaluate your effectiveness as a caregiver or other concerned person is to notice your own reaction to others when they try to interfere or judge you. What has your own personal grief taught you about what helps people heal? Do you appreciate the mystery of grief and resist the wish to have it resolved (which it can never be)? Perhaps caring for the mourner requires a different language than that used in modern psychology and even by the American Cancer Society.

Depending on your answers you may be what Dr. Alan Wolfelt, in his book Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers, calls a responsible rebel who believes in compassionate curiosity and challenges ego-based expertise. I know from my own personal experience that when friends and professionals alike listen to me without a need to judge, they have created a safe place for me. I can be myself and ratchet up the level of intimacy I feel toward those persons.

In the context of grief counseling, one observer of this wise philosophy is Bradford Keeney. Noting the hazards of being an expert or master counselor, he wrote “You will find that it no longer matters what you say. Everything uttered will be contextualized as the voice of a master…Avoid the political posturings of ‘mastery’ and return to embracing and cultivating a beginner’s mind. Maintain and respect ignorance. Speak to hear the surprise from your own voice.”

I like that admonition to “to hear the surprise from your own voice.” Now every time I talk to someone loaded down by the weight of cancer I will strive to express that surprise. I will try to come alongside those who mourn, setting aside my own assumptions. I’ll let the master cancer survivor in me become the apprentice survivor. I’ll give the gift of listening, a gift that keeps on giving.

It’s true that some patients who seek advice just want it straight from the experienced patient or the expert: they are the type to do whatever the doctor tells them to do. But patients are not all the same, and shouldn’t be treated as if they are. Discernment as to the condition of the patient is key. And that is also part of the learning process. As Thomas Moore so wisely stated, “Real understanding is a creative mixture of certainty and unknowing. The trick is to know when you don’t understand.”

May we all rekindle that spark of curiosity that left us as we left our adolescence.

Has a medical professional ever dealt with you in a way you felt was judgmental and full of assumptions?  In a way you felt was impersonal, without understanding? Have you ever addressed a fellow cancer patient or a person in mourning using compassionate curiosity? If so, did it make a difference in your relationship?

Happy June,

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