Gina Belton: Radical hospitality in tending to our stories at the end of life
By Richard Bargdill
"Rather than striving for the vertical ascension up and out of this world, the sacred feminine celebrates the body, interdependence with all beings. She is not about wielding the sword but rather about bearing compassionate witness. Her non-violent fearlessness is needed now more than ever."
- Clarissa Pinkola-Estes
Gina was coming off a five-day contemplative retreat with other alumni of the Metta Institute's End of Life Practitioner Program when I was able to interview her about her dissertation that she is putting the final touches on. The retreat experience was intense and she gained an appreciation for the cross pollination of her Pacifica Graduate Institute work, her Div. 32 community, her end of life community, her Zen Buddhism community and her indigenous community.
Her work is about tending the stories in the intersection between the western bio-medical model and the indigenous knowledge system, in the end of life experience. She asks, “What are our stories?” From an academic sense, looking through a prism of philosophy, culture and myth through an eco-psychological lens, her community study applied mixed methodologies in narrative inquiry, grounded theory methodology and critical indigenous methodologies. Honoring relationality, Gina's research in this phenomena is complex, though it is not complicated—not unlike our end of life experience. Her guiding research question was, “What is the significance of the feminine principle in the end of life experience?”
Since she is also a depth psychologist, she wanted to understand the shadow aspects of these relationships. For Gina, eco-psychology is not a new discipline but is the unacknowledged and colonized world cosmology of indigenous peoples, a perspective of relationality and that “means that indigenous human beings value relationality between the beings of nature; there is an ethos of harmony, interdependence in trans-species relationship. This means, humans are not living in a hierarchical relationship where they dominate other beings. The planet itself is a living and breathing being with a soul. This is completely in alignment with my own indigenous life view.”
Gina shared a story about being with her grandfather and having to take care of some plants. Being a young girl, she was not thrilled about this task and was treating the plants roughly. Her grandfather took her arm and he moved it in such a way that it was out of alignment with the rest of her body. He didn't say a word. But that somatic contact told her everything she needed to know. That she was being disrespectful within this relationship—not just to him but to this plant. She cried upon the insight and wanted to ask the plant for forgiveness. That is an example of eco-psychological awareness recognizing that relationality. We are no better than that snail crawling across the ground. In fact, that snail has something to teach us.
“If I'd tell a story like that to clinicians in a Western hospital they might ask what does this have to do with anything. That's because the Western model is one of separation, hierarchy and dominance. Most folks aren't aware that hospitals are actually new inventions that have only been around for 150 years. They are based on a military model from the Crimean War and U.S. Civil War, so the culture is already creating a mechanistic culture of dominance, coercion and submission. You are a disease, a diagnosis, a pathology to fight, a problem to be fixed—not a person. So when you come into the hospital you either surrender or submit.
Surrender is very different in that it has an openness to it: “This is it. I'm dying.” But submission is completely different. That is more like, “let the doctors take it from here. They are going to do what they think is the best for you.” As soon as they slam you out of the ambulance and into the emergency room doors, you are another number and sadly, you willingly or unwillingly abdicate your responsibility in the relationship.”
A “decolonizing approach” suggests that if the environments of care are holding and supporting the persons—acknowledging our relationality—then they are not constricting, harming, traumatizing, oppressing and marginalizing them. “So what I wanted to know about death was, how is this experience liberating, if all this constricting is going on? I have heard that some indigenous communities believe that you are not really human until you take your last breath, you have spent your whole life time to become fully human, or as the Nahuas [Uto-Aztecan] call it “finding your true face.” Only then can you answer ‘Did I live, love and suffer well?'” This is a question of integrity and speaks to relational accountability. She added, “Taking up the perspective as a community researcher was important to me to uphold relational accountability because I didn't want to be another distant researcher colonizing another indigenous lived experience with an academic attitude of privilege and entitlement to another's wisdom. I am a community researcher. This means I am prepared to also be transformed."
“I tended the stories of four non-indigenous physicians and four indigenous community members. I was listening into their stories and coding for their philosophies of dying, wellness, caring for each other and community. I wanted to understand how culture informed their experience of death and dying and what myths were driving these cultural and philosophical views. So the difference between tending versus collecting stories is that I was prepared for wonder and awe. So I was willing to be surprised especially about the western world-view.”
The Western myth can be observed through the story of the Greek god Apollo, whose realms are music, truth and healing. Through harmony he brings order to chaos and medicine, but his shadow includes rigidity and conformity. One way to look into how this conformity unfolds is by a tale of dismemberment and the Procrustean bed. Procrustes is the guardian of the gate of Athens. Every Greek child knows that from the day they are born they are on the road to Athens—this is their mythological journey toward adulthood. What they are not told is that when they get to the gate of Athens, Procrustes will be waiting for them and he will have with him his bed. But before you can pass through the gate you have to lie down on this bed. If you are too short, he stretches you until you fit. If you are too tall or too much in some way, he lops off the pieces that extend past the edge of the bed. Ouch.
When asked to share one story from each of the two groups [indigenous and Western], Gina replied, “we must remember the diversity within the diversity and not to group views of indigenous people into one big red/brown aggregate. So asking me to pick one story of the four indigenous stories doesn't necessarily represent the other. Let's be careful not to see this like the Procrustean bed.” She continued, “With that said, one theme from a Yurok/Hupa tribal member informed the core concept of my research, something I call ‘cultivating our capacity for an ethic of radical hospitality' when encountering death [and the philosophical and cultural ‘Other']. So the story of this death is about a respected elder and scholar in this tribal nation, who was dying and culture required that any of his people who want to pay respect and there were many, many people who loved and respected this man. I knew the eldest daughter of the man who died, for his community ceremony it took a whole fairground to hold this service. It was stunning, so moving. I've never seen such ceremony, except for when my grandfather died. It was amazing.
“Her father was dying from a heart ailment but it was sudden and they ended up in the local catholic hospital. So taking into account historical wounds and inter-generational trauma born of genocide and colonization in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and ‘the church', there is already a perceived unspoken agenda. Radical hospitality embraces an ethos of harmony in upholding community, relationality, humility, sensitivity and most importantly respect. So in this story, when an elder is dying it is a call to the entire community to show up and to witness you while you are leaving this world. You are still teaching and guiding your family, your community, until your very last breath. From an orientation of indigenous cosmology, it is not out of the ordinary for us to die. Like everyone else, we don't like it. We don't want it. My friend said, ‘I'm going to miss my dad but this is what's happening. This is what's here, this is what's real. So we are going to show up and do what we do.' So this dying time is ceremony. Her mother also participated in teaching her family and community in her own expression of hospitality. The woman said, ‘My mother didn't have to let all these people in here. She didn't have to let all this witnessing to occur. But she was being respectful of her community and her husband.' Her mother's capacity had an ethic in that moment of radical hospitality: my lover, husband, father of my children, ceremonial leader, community elder is leaving us and as much as I want to have a private moment of my own, he's not all mine to have. There's such a profound depth of generosity in this kind of radical hospitality.
“To be a witness is not the same as being a bystander. A witness is an engaged embodied experience. To be a witness is to be active, a bystander is passive—I see that out of the corner of my eye, but I'm certainly not going to do anything about it and I'm contracting and restricting my presence so that I can pretend nothing is happening there. To bear witness to something, someone, an experience, I am bringing my full self to the experience—to bear witness acknowledges our relationality as we are becoming and unbecoming in mutuality. So we are becoming and unbecoming in relationship with the other too. In bearing witness we ask how deep and wide can I get? So in the context of end of the life work, this kind of bearing witness can transform our anxieties, fears and perceptions of something that is tragic into to something that is soulful and healing, like what my Yurok/Hupa friend described with her dad.
“But in a Western worldview, if a whole bunch of people start showing up to your nice clean hospital, sitting on the floors, carrying on conversations, feeding babies, telling stories and such, they don't like it. The order and rigidity doesn't allow for hospitality in a hospital. Death and suffering is not a neat and tidy experience. My friend described that no one looked at them, just asked them to move, no one offers them a blanket and no one offers them a cup of coffee, no one offers them a kind word. No one even recognizes your existence. Witnessing means ‘I see you. I see you. I see you. You matter to me.” When someone witnesses our sorrow, when someone tends our story, there is the potential for healing. If I'm going to tell you how to tell your story to me or if I'm going to receive it in a particular way, then your story is no longer for you and a kind of estrangement occurs. So the operation of the feminine principle in an ethic of radical hospital is her fierce receptivity. Fierce receptivity is what it takes to turn toward our suffering in the dying time. Fierce receptivity is what it takes for us to open up to the mystery and awe of our universal human experience. Fierce receptivity is what it takes recognize that we are not separate.
“In tending the stories of the Western biomedical model, the most surprising thing I witnessed was when physicians recognized or named their own oppression in these hierarchal environments of care. Sure, you're attached to your role; sure, you're enjoying your privilege and entitlement; sure, you're resistant to giving that all up; sure, you are quite comfortable in working in this hierarchical model because it serves you AND you are also suffering.
“One physician described when he was in graduate school that his mentor was an anthropologist. So each student had to do grand rounds as class assignment—grand rounds is when doctors and students talk about ordinary and extraordinary cases as a group. He was working with his mentor on what he was going to present during his turn and he comes across the idea of the ‘empty bed.' He said that, ‘I rush through it all, give all of this care. I see people and then they are gone. I don't know if they are dead or alive or if they went home. But even if they do die, we are just left with this empty bed. I've never known what to do about that.' He talked to his mentor about it and they decided to do a ritual about the empty bed. This is another example of bearing witness. Even if it was just him and his mentor, or even just him and the bed, it is a community of two. But he took it to the next level and they did it in grand rounds and that is a big community. It was a way to honor the people who moved on in their lives one way or another. He described that the participating medical students had very powerful experiences and were certainly transformed in the moment. But I asked him if he was doing it now and he said ‘Uh, no. I could never do it now. I'd get laughed off the floor.' So he described how painful it was to not be able to do that even in the smallest of expressions. That is his oppression.
“What ensouls this experience of the end of life? If we want to experience healing in our dying time, we might consider death as our initiation. What if the person who is dying is initiating us? What if the person who is dying is your teacher? You have to show up for your initiation. In the archetypal and actual phenomena of initiation there are three phases and they are: severance, threshold, incorporation. What's always missing in the medical model is incorporation. What that physician did was incorporation. This profound experience of incorporation for him and these medical students was an expression of honorable closure. Our honorable closure of this life, however it was lived, asks of us, ritual and ceremony—this is what the collective wisdom of the indigenous knowledge system has to teach ALL of us.”
“When I say the feminine, I don't mean gender. I mean the feminine principle that is living—or suppressed—in both men and women. The feminine principle attempts to relate. Instead of breaking things off into parts, it says, where are we alike? How can we connect? Where is the love? Can you listen to me? Can you really hear what I am saying? Can you see me? Do you care whether you see me or not?”
- Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst and depth psychologist
We look forward to learning more about Gina's work at the upcoming Div. 32 conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.