Courageous Women, Fearless Living: Interview With Judith Lief

Grounding, Empowering, and Nourishing Women With Cancer
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The Courageous Women Retreat for Women Touched by Cancer gives women practical tools to help them form circles of support and friendship. We talked with Judith Lief, one of the program's leaders, to learn more about the retreats and how they help. We also learned about Lief's work in hospice and palliative care.

A Buddhist senior teacher (or archaya) for more than 30 years, Lief has a special interest in pastoral counseling, caregiver support, and palliative care. She's also the author of Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality (Shambhala Publications, 2001). A grandmother of two, she lives in Vermont.

Tell us about the Retreat for Women Touched by Cancer, at which you'll be speaking. Who attends, and what's the goal for what they'll return home with?

Judith Lief: The Courageous Women Retreat for Women Touched by Cancer is a five-day program set in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, at the Shambhala Mountain Center. Women at all stages and with all types of cancer attend, from newly diagnosed to in treatment to many years past their last treatment.

The CW retreat is built around three main themes: grounding, empowering, and nourishing. Participants are introduced to the healing practices of mindfulness and yoga. They are empowered by knowledge and practical information about health and healing from the integrative medical perspective. They are nourished by community and shared experience. Our three faculty members are experienced, compassionate, and deeply committed to the women who attend. They include Dr. Victoria Maizes, from the Andrew Weil Center; Linda Sparrowe, author and teacher; and myself (Judy Lief), a Buddhist teacher and author.

Our goal is for our participants to return home with a new circle of support and friendship; with the mental, emotional, and contemplative tools to support them in their journey through cancer; and with greater self-awareness, confidence, and appreciation for life.

How did you become interested in palliative care as a specialty?

JL: I have been interested for many years in how, individually and as a society, we work with the dying and come to terms with our own mortality. I am not a medical professional, but approach these issues from a more psychological and spiritual perspective. I was trained in the Buddhist tradition under the renowned meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who authorized me as a teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In that capacity, I taught many courses on a Buddhist approach to death and dying, as well as working with the dying and their caregivers as a spiritual advisor. In doing so, it became apparent that many of the practical tools and insights that derived from the Buddhist tradition could be beneficial to people of many backgrounds and traditions, so I began to teach more broadly using an approach I called "contemplative care." Fortunately, I was able to join with Florence Wald (founder of the first North American hospice) and other pioneering hospice figures in exploring the exciting intersection of palliative and hospice care, spirituality, mindfulness, and compassion. The grittiness and humanity of this aspect of life continues to humble and inspire me.

You're described as a "contemplative hospice pioneer." How is contemplative hospice different from other hospice care?

JL: There is tremendous overlap between good hospice care and what could be called "contemplative care." The main practical value added by the contemplative approach is its training in both mindfulness and compassion. This kind of training increases caregivers' ability to stay present and grounded, even in the midst of difficult situations. It helps caregivers deal better with the stresses of hospice work and also helps them be more attentive to the needs of the dying person and their family. Contemplative care is based on the view that dying is not a failure or a mistake but a poignant and important part of the human journey, which should be honored and respected. Contemplative care also nurtures a self-reflective quality and the courage that comes from coming to terms with our own mortality.

Talk about your book title, Making Friends With Death. What does that mean and how does one do it?

JL: The idea of making friends with death may seem odd, or even morbid, but in fact the more we can do so, the more full, meaningful, and rich our life can be. Our lives are marked by constant change, and death is a reality. Not only physically but at all levels of experience, there is a constant letting go and fresh arising. When due to fear we try to freeze this flow, the result is that our lives become more cramped and unsatisfying. But when we begin to make friends with this constant dance of life and death, we can be more appreciative, joyful, and caring.

The subtitle of my book is A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality. The premise of this book is that if we look deeply and honestly into our hopes and fears around our own mortality and around loss and change in general, we will be better able to open our hearts to others and ultimately be more helpful. It is divided into three parts: the cultivation of awareness, kindness, and openness. The mindfulness and compassion practices presented in this book give readers well-tested tools to transform they way they make friends with life as well as death, for life and death are inseparably connected.

What advice do you have for family caregivers who are looking after someone at the end of life, to help them both have a meaningful experience at a difficult time?

JL: As everyone's situation is different, it is hard to give generalized advice. But a few key reminders might help. First, reach out and get the information you need, whether you need technical or medical advice, or whether you need to be more clear about the wishes of your dying loved one. Second, be patient and kind to yourself as well as the dying person, as it is apt to be an emotional and challenging time for both of you. And finally, slow down and tune in, so you can be open to what is arising moment to moment and respond accordingly. Just showing up and really being present goes a long way. Overall, the simpler, the better.