The Boundaries of Knowing – by Ann Cecil-Sterman

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Because I’m in my 50s, the feeling of our current culture where there seems to be so little privacy, decorum, dignity, self-censoring, no quiet realm for deeply personal things, where things that you would never talk about are now common currency on social media—all feels so unbecoming. Is there anything that people think should be unspoken? It’s such a different world from that of—as my children would say—the 20th century. However, I came out of my meditation this morning feeling a strange gratitude for it. Everything has a place after all. As a teacher, I’ve only referred to my deeply personal life if I’ve needed to use some information learned there to illustrate something. Anything more seems undignified. But it occurs to me this morning that this confronting baring we are undergoing in the culture can have a place in the teaching of meaningful things. And so to my great amazement, I may be joining the fray just a little.

Last week, my dear, gentle assistant was captured by the email of a woman who is in her last stages of cancer with weeks to live. Kathleen told the woman she would do her best to get her in and also that there was hope, because at this time of the year the schedule can be slightly unstable. Based on that, the woman flew to New York and set up camp in the hotel a block away. So of course, I called my daughter and told her I’d be late home. (Teenagers need parents so much, even though they’re trying to get away from them, but that’s another blog.)

The woman came in and sat on the sofa, shifting awkwardly, trying find a more comfortable position. Her green-grey complexion was arresting and I could see the tumors in her abdomen protruding through her shirt like blocks in a Braque painting. The story spilled out: years earlier she had met a man who declared his deep love for her and swept her into a marriage which soon after she realized she didn’t want. Within weeks of that, her husband received a job offer in another country and away they went, away from her job, friends, family and most crushingly, away from the mountains she so loved. His love for her was so deep, he said, but her wishes were not heard. She told me that this constant undermining of her self-determination was the reason she had a cancer diagnosis. To tell him that she didn’t want any of it would have broken his heart; she couldn’t imagine him being able to endure the pain of it. In the field around her I could feel the profound sadness. I could feel the stifling, the pain of years of not being able to speak openly, the sad apathy after yielding to another person’s will while cruelly denying one’s own. I felt her resignation from her own life and then I felt the energy of the choice not to go on.

Patients who reach advanced cancer stages originally had one of two broad agenda: either they needed a monumental shift to occur in their lives, or they needed a back door, a way to “leave the building”. Regardless of which is present, the role of the practitioner has the same goal: to provide an environment in which choices can present themselves to a clearer mind and more open heart, all the while being impeccably solid in making no judgment.

Do we need to know which fork in the road the patient was at when they became ill? I do think so. To the patient who needs to have a major change in order to go on, I would ask, “How can I help you?” I have patients who live many years after a fourth stage diagnosis. But to the one who is in very late stage and has elected to go out, I don’t ask at all. They seem to want to feel a kind of ease that they’ve never felt. They seem to want to feel what it’s like to be free in this life. To reach acceptance and a sense of completion and love. And acupuncture is marvelous enough to be able to provide the environment in which that can happen.

The practitioner’s mindset in these two scenarios is different because the two environments are different. If you were to approach a patient who is going out peacefully with your own intention of turning the disease around, that is, if you were to embark on a rescue mission, that patient would feel violated to the core. They would be unable to reach a state of repletion, of completion, and peace, because their wishes are not being honored.

How can we tell which is which? I want to tell you a very personal story, one that very few of my friends even know, just because I think it is helpful. Briefly, I was born by cesarean while my mother was going in and out of a coma. My father walked into the hospital room, took one look at her and screamed for a doctor saying that if they didn’t cut her open, he’d lose both of us. She was wheeled into surgery but it took three days for her to be strong enough even to see me. Meanwhile, in true 1960s style, I was viewed by my father while separated from him by plate glass. I used to have fleeting memories of my time in that nursery and of the very stern matron who was a quite inappropriate hire. I failed to bond well with my mother, a problem to this day, and when I was in kindergarten, every time the teacher left the room and the children (naturally) played up, I would cry incessantly and hard. This happened every day for years, confounding all the teachers. There were no school counsellors, it was just a weird thing that Ann did.

When I was 27 I walked into a bar on the 37th floor of the ANA hotel in Tokyo while I was on tour as an orchestral musician for Sarah Brightman, playing with a group of amazing musicians and singers from New York. It was my first night there and I hadn’t met anyone except the oboist. Never a drinker, I didn’t know what I was doing in the bar until the Broadway singer Jimmy Lockett walked over to me and said, “So you made it up here. I am here to tell you that you need to learn to meditate.” I thought he was hitting on me at first but I found him compelling anyway. Over the next many weeks, in hotels all over Japan, I had daily and nightly private instruction in meditation, sometimes while he practiced sword form on the other side of the room or in the hallway. He gave me books and homework and even dietary advice (no alcohol, no pork and no sugar). Toward the end of that time, he said, “Okay, now that you have a handle on meditation you should know two things: you are a healer but you are also an empath. An empath is a person who thinks what they are feeling is their own feeling, but it is not. What you feel all the time is what is in the ethers; they’re the feelings of other people, they’re not yours. And without meditation, you will always confuse them with feelings that originate in you. Meditation allows you to know with certainty what is coming from you and what is coming from someone else, or from the moods of the people around you at large.”  I was very taken aback, but suddenly my experiences in the nursery and at kindergarten where I felt that I was so far from normal and where I was so incredibly confused, and later through school and even at university all made perfect sense. If there’s no boundary between you and the feelings around you—if you can’t discern that difference, you can’t be totally grounded in the presence of another person. And you certainly can’t know for sure that what you’re feeling is not yours.

This was a total changer for me. When I returned to Australia, everything felt different. There was a crystalline clarity to things. I saw with absolutely searing certainty that every single person is an empath. It’s not a label for a given few. It’s not a secret doorway into being a good practitioner. With meditation, with knowing where your boundary is within the limitlessness of all things, you can sit with your patient and know what is their feeling, what is your response to their feeling, and what is your feeling generated by you. And more importantly—instead of feeling what they are feeling in your body, you can decide to feel what they are feeling in their body. You can keep what they are feeling over there with them in their space.

From that position, there’s no limit to how much you can help a patient. And there’s no limit to how much they will tell you because they know intuitively without doubt that you will not go down a feeling path with them. They will sense that you are rock solid yet miraculously totally empathetic.  As you visit them over there in their field, they know that you are safe and won’t be hurt no matter what they say—no matter how heart-wrenching or terrifying or shocking or embarrassing or humiliating their telling.

And so with this patient, surrounded by the feeling of wanting out but with peace and wholeness, the treatment of CV12 and LR14 (the great luo of the stomach) and the reduction of BL60 brought her an environment in which she could choose to go back to those mountains when it was time, to go with grace, dignity, self-determination, complete.

Ann, NYC

Practice like nothing else matters, because everything does.

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