issue 26 Winter/Spring 05
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Being Mindful, Easing Suffering

Reflections on Palliative Care
Author: Christopher Johns Jessica Kingley 2004, $29.95/£18.95p/b, 272pp

Christopher Johns is a palliative care nurse, complementary therapist, researcher, teacher and Buddhist. Being Mindful, Easing Suffering is a useful resource for anyone working with the seriously ill and the dying, drawing on Johns' experience with patients in a hospice. The book is in three parts. The first offers an introduction to palliative care and the use of the reflective process as a narrative form. Part Two, which forms most of the book, is a reflective journal kept by Johns over a two-year period. Each entry recounts his encounter with a patient and his or her family. He also reflects on what he learnt, how he could take those lessons into future experiences, and how he might broaden his perspective on human suffering with the wisdom gathered by reflecting on the event. Part Three is a short piece written by Bert Leguit, a Dutch Buddhist and nurse, that offers another perspective on Johns' reflective narrative.

'Part Two: The Narrative' is the most gripping part of the book. On the one hand there are the stories of the patients themselves and I was particularly affected by the story of 'Iris', a 38-year-old woman whom Johns treats with reflexology and other complementary therapies to ease the symptoms of metastatic breast cancer. By the end of the book she has died and Johns recounts the story of their developing relationship as practitioner and patient with tenderness and honesty, including his grief at her death.

On the other hand there is Johns' own narrative as the person writing the two-year-long journal. I was particularly struck by the spiritual journey he undergoes as he integrates his Buddhist practice more and more into his work at the hospice. In the early stages of his journal his references to Buddhist ideals and principles seem somewhat self-conscious and awkward, but as time goes on he brings his Buddhist practice and daily life together with increasing ease.

Shining through the book is Johns' commitment to and love of his work and his wish to deepen his understanding of suffering. As he says himself: 'The narrative can be viewed as my search for meaning in suffering and how best to ease it'. He also comments: 'I pay attention to my practice because it matters to me. Indeed, every day I work at the hospice is a gift to me. It nourishes my soul and fills me with joy'.

Vidyamala is a founder of Breathworks, which offers mindfulness-based strategies for living well, focusing on those experiencing chronic pain and illness