Profession: Oncology nurse
Location: Denver, CO
Which came first, becoming a Buddhist or becoming a nurse? I became a Buddhist first. I was 20 when I really knew that I was a Buddhist, and I didn’t become a nurse until I was 30. Being a nurse has been a great career for supporting my life as a Buddhist and giving me time to practice and opportunities to learn about the dharma in my work.
How did you come to Buddhism? I was lucky to grow up with parents who meditated, so I was introduced to meditation when I was young. But when I was about 18 or 19, I picked up a book by Pema Chödrön and that really reintroduced me to meditating as my own thing, not something my parents had taught me. I went to Gampo Abbey, hoping to see Pema Chödrön, and I spent the summer there as a work study. I liked the fact that you can be a Buddhist without having any faith at all. You just practice and understand the logic of the teachings, and it doesn’t require faith at first. But it’s kind of funny: later I became deeply involved with the religious part of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is definitely a religion that involves a lot of faith. I started out without the faith, but eventually I got completely involved with the deep faith.
How has your practice evolved over time? I was diagnosed with MS when I was 25, and that made me feel much more urgency about practicing. At first, I think, I was practicing in the hope of healing myself or finding some magic key to healing myself. I’ve definitely evolved in the way that I think about how it affects health, and I’ve realized healing is not going to be something magical or mystical—or something from a particular teacher or practice—but an understanding that I need to come to myself. My main practice now is to do Medicine Buddha, also guru yoga, and I’ve finished ngondro, the foundational teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, which was a huge milestone for me. It took me five years to finish. It was a process of increasing commitment—you’re accumulating a number of things, and you have to make sure you do daily practice.
Speaking of daily practice, the dharma center that you attend in Denver is committed to providing a place for people to practice deeply while also maintaining full-time jobs and having a family. Do you find it difficult to strike that balance? In a word, yes. I’m really grateful to Anyen Rinpoche, because he fully supports his students having a sustainable lifestyle. He often says that you need to be Buddhist for your whole life and practice for your whole life. It’s not something you should just do for a year or two. It’s better to go kind of slow and steady. Rinpoche and our sangha here in Denver are really supportive of people who have successful careers and are also deeply committed to practice. It is difficult to balance, but certainly possible.
Your sangha works to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. What does that mean practically? That’s a great question. It’s easy to say “preserve the Tibetan Buddhist tradition,” but what exactly does it mean? I went to the Rinchen Terdzo [a three-month cycle of empowerments] last year, which was in California. I think it takes a certain type of student, a certain type of community, to be willing to try to assimilate all these esoteric details.
I think purchasing our building, our dharma center here in Denver, is also a great step toward establishing the Tibetan tradition here in North America, because it provides a place for us to meet as a sangha and have gatherings and hold ceremonies in the traditional way in our own space.
How have Anyen Rinpoche’s teachings on dying with confidence affected your work as an oncology nurse? Being involved with that teaching gives me more ease in talking and thinking about death as a reality and as something that is approaching all of us. It’s not something that I speak about with my patients directly, but I think the idea that we have an active role in how we die is a really important understanding. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the traditional Tibetan teachings about dying—which are part of Rinpoche’s teachings on dying with confidence—talk about the dissolution of the elements in the body when one is actually going through the stages of death.
Are there hospital restrictions on what kinds of things you can say to patients about death and dying? No, but I would say there are lots of cultural taboos about what we can say, and depending on the family and the person there are definitely things that are restricted. I do have a lot of opportunities to give advice and comfort. The main thing I’ve learned from Rinpoche is that it’s best if someone’s mind is not agitated—if they have a calm, relaxed mind as they’re approaching death. That’s something I feel I can help with in some way. If I can calm the person and calm their family, that’s probably the biggest contribution that I can make. Sometimes I feel like I’m being radical when I tell someone, “Everything will be okay, everything will be all right,” even when they’re suffering and dying, but I really do believe that everything is going to be all right, ultimately. I think it’s important for people to hear that it’s okay. Yes, you’re dying, but that’s normal, and everything will be okay, even through death. Sometimes I feel like I have to say it at times when no visitors are in the room, but I like to say it anyway.
—Rachel Hiles, Managing Editor
Photograph by Greg Cradick, www.gregcradickphotography.com.