Learning How To Help

healing music – mindfulness in service                      A review by Timothy McKamey

How Can I Help

  How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service
by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman,
published by Alfred Knopf, 1985, 2011

     This book is a wonderful collection of both stories and teachings about service. The stories are collected from an incredibly diverse range of personal experiences by people in all kinds of fields from the caring professions of medicine and social services to people working in prisons, people involved in promoting political actions around issues of social justice, mission workers, people involved in intervention programs at home and abroad, and parents and children in families facing crises. The teachings,  provided by the authors, weave a tapestry of deep reflection around the various examples illustrated in the stories. Each chapter takes us deeper into the realization of how whatever kind of division we may be experiencing within ourselves can result in a feeling of separation out in the world and how this can be an obstacle when we feel the call to service. If we feel fragmented inside ourselves we are reminded how this will make others feel as we move to help.

Natural Comapassion

     The authors begin by identifying with what draws us into service. We seem to have a natural inclination towards compassion. If we aren’t sure how to proceed, we can always ask and be grateful when someone helps.

“Live simply so that others may simply live.” – Gandhi

     Our instinctive impulse is to reach out and care. But often it becomes confusing, a matter of shifting priorities. How did we go from a way of life where compassion was second nature, to a culture of formalized rules for giving?

“When people lost sight of the way to live
Came codes of love and honesty,
Learning came, charity came,
Hypocrisy took charge;
When differences weakened family ties
Came benevolent fathers and dutiful sons;
Came ministers commended as loyal.”

– from The Way of Life by Lao Tzu

     Perhaps some of the confusion comes from the change in scale and the sheer numbers of need. Where we once lived in human-scale villages, we now live in massive societies. To simply cope in such an environment and avoid burnout we tend to withdraw to protect ourselves.

     This conditioning however is not the only reason we hesitate and often withdraw. We also have our own individual fears within. Each of us wonders “Who am I?” When we are faced with the suffering or needs of others, we are suddenly faced with fears about our own vulnerability and mortality, our own eventual or ever present needs. Sometimes we may even throw ourselves into a caring relationship just to escape facing our own self-fears. We might do some good for a while in this way, but ultimately this approach will catch up with us and in the long-run render us helpless ourselves.

Who’s Helping?

      Mother Teresa described the lepers she cared for as “Christ in all his distressing disguises.” Regardless of how far gone any of us become, we are all children of God. It often happens that we realize what a tremendous gift we have been given by the person we are caring for as they will without even knowing it, help us reach this realization. As painful as the moments are when we are cut off from one another in separateness, we can meet in spirit behind that separateness, and when we do this we are made whole again. The writers remind us how sometimes the roles of ‘father’, ‘daughter’, ‘doctor’, ‘patient’, ‘helper’ and ‘helped’ turn out to be obstacles. We overcome these obstacles by becoming partners in a caring relationship and thus are able to experience deep companionship.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”     –  Albert Einstein

     To provide effective service as healing musicians we are reminded to perform our role with grace. We are not simply care-givers, we are facilitating the healing process that is inherent in all beings. The care we are dealing with is not ours to give, it is all around us.

In a philosophy class I took recently called “Know Thyself”, I learned how the separate self takes on many different roles as it moves through the world of the ‘other’. Infants distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘other’. As we grow we develop complex ideas about identity, ego, and personalities. In a single day I move through a whole range of ‘selves’; my professional identity at work, the husband and parent at home, my political identity listening to the news, I get a phone call from my parents and now I am someone else’s child, all these serve me well more or less in the general scheme of things, but in the end they each in their own way create a sense of separateness. The writers suggest that the quality of our helping may suffer from the hold our sense of separateness may have on us.

     Depending on which role is “in charge” when an opportunity to serve arises, we may find ourselves unwilling or unable to reach out, to move beyond our current definition of who we are. But if we only see ourselves as “this” or “that” at any given moment in time, we are bound then to see others in this way as well. We know that in the healing arts it is important to consider the whole person, yet how will we be able to look at another as a whole person when we are unable to even see ourselves that way?

     Behind all the versions of self, there is a central ‘knowingness’ that is aware of each of these selves as they come and go. The writers remind us that this innermost being understands the relative reality of these various identities. From this vantage point we understand that we do not have to be ‘this’ or ‘that’ but are free to simply be and flow from one identity to another, flexibly with humility and grace, as the situation demands.

     Then too there will be those times when we’ve tried everything, we’ve exhausted all our knowledge and skill and can think of nothing else to try. At those moments however we are still free to surrender to the unknown and let our heart and intuitive wisdom reveal another way to be. When this happens we can be grateful. Once again we find ourselves trying to help when suddenly we are the one being helped, the recipient of some new information or understanding we would never have had otherwise. Sometimes there is nothing more we can do than to simply be with someone, and that too is a gift.

     As healing music practitioners we continue to learn about the importance of mindfulness. There are many paths to mindfulness; psychotherapy, meditation, collective congregational devotion, solitary interior prayer and contemplation, yoga, tai chi, just to name a few. The point of all these the writers remind us is not to destroy the ego, but to establish “a new balance between ego and the higher Self allowing our higher Self to expand, explore and root itself more firmly in a consciousness of unity.” The example is given of how Ramakrishna

“…likened the situation to a coach in which the driver (ego) sits atop in command of the horses. The owner (the higher Self) sits quietly within. Because the owner has never seen the driver he begins to think he is totally in charge. But when the owner makes himself known, quietly but firmly, the coachman, perhaps begrudgingly but ultimately in his best interests, relinquishes his fantasy and becomes content in the role of servant.”


      In order to help others who are suffering, we have to acknowledge our own suffering as well. When confronted with either our own or another’s suffering the mind may react in a number of ways; denial, abstraction, pity, professional warmth, compulsive hyperactivity. Unconsciously we try to restrict or direct the natural compassion of the heart. This tension between head and heart leaves us feeling tentative and confused. If this is how we feel, how then must this make others feel, those we are trying to help? Here again is where mindfulness can be of value.

     The ‘fight or flight response’ that has been ingrained into us since the dawn of time has conditioned us to respond to suffering in one of two ways. We either try to avoid it at all costs, or flail away at it violently attempting to “fix it” or “make it go away”.  When compassion moves us to really try and help we have to embrace another way and this is not as intuitive, but it can be learned. We have to face it head on, accept it and move through it.

     There is so much suffering in the world, it is only natural that we would develop the defense-mechanism of denial. Often when we wish to be of service to others we are simply not prepared for the shock as we come face to face with the pain. It reminds us of our own pain, our own weakness. At these times all we can do is look it in the eye and acknowledge it – moving right through it into what lies beyond. Usually what lies beyond is simply another heart like our own, isolated and alone, just waiting to be acknowledged. In that simple meeting of hearts a little suffering is alleviated and we can go on from there to see what else we might do.

     When confronted with the difficulty of such things we need to remember to forgive ourselves. Most of us have not been prepared for this. A lot of people who loved us very much worked very hard to protect us from suffering. Can you blame them? And what good would it do if you did? It seems counterintuitive, but by acknowledging our own weakness we can actually become better helpers. As Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians; “My strength is made perfect through weakness.” This idea of acknowledging our own suffering and weakness very much reminds me of what we do in blues music.

     We have a tendency to want to bring light and cheerful melodies to the ailing, to lift them up. But to be perfectly honest, I wonder if there aren’t times when blues and laments might also be appropriate. Many of us that were classically trained forget that the blues, as an art form, originally developed completely outside of the classical western tradition and only merged with it much later in jazz forms. The Afro-American experience did not have classical Greek philosophy and logic at hand as it sought to make sense of the world. The power of the blues, much as we find in the laments in some of the Old Testament Psalms, resides in its ability to identify and fully acknowledge suffering, and in naming it acquires power over it. The blues does not put up resistance to pain, but neither does it dwell on it in a negative way. One of the paradoxes of the blues is how it takes a hold of our pain and in the very act helps us overcome it.

The Listening Mind

     Much of the work we do in service is simply that of the quiet witness. At times there is little or nothing that we can actually ‘do’ other than be there for that person. The only demand on the role of the quiet witness is be as fully present as possible. The way this applies to providing music in a healing way is to allow the music to simply honor and acknowledge the patient’s condition. The most appropriate music in any given situation is that which will best facilitate the innate healing process already at work within the patient. We can help this happen by relinquishing the urge to follow a prescribed program and letting the patient’s condition instead call forth from us the most suitable music for the moment. Where performance based music involves listening with the head, healing music invites us to listen with the heart.

     We are learning how to function from a place of spacious awareness rather than from the analytic mind. Just as we practice simple meditative techniques by focusing on the breath, or by non-judgmentally watching our thoughts pass through the mind like birds crossing a cloudless sky, so too we can utilize this kind of awareness in service. Rather than thinking about “what to do”, we are learning to allow what needs to be done to rise up to the surface and make itself known by trusting and honoring our intuition.

By learning to listen within, we will also become better at hearing what another has to say. There is, after all, only one letter difference between healing and hearing.

“When we share our stories
We help each other grow.
By recognizing one in the other,
We may come to know,
We have more in common
Than one might think, our task
Is to with grace reveal
The face behind the mask.”
–  from The Language of the Heart  by Tim McKamey

 Helping Prison

     The authors show us how we can identify so strongly with a role we have taken on that it becomes a prison. Whether we are the helper or the helped, if we get caught up in the transactions associated with those roles, we become imprisoned. Humanity is not about transactions, its about relationships. We break out of the prison by letting go of the role enough to risk an actual relationship, not simply settle for a transaction. As so often happens, we enter into a situation thinking we are bringing something of value only to find out afterwards we received something even more valuable in the process.

     As I come to learn more about the work of a healing music practitioner I keep running into this idea of letting go. There are a number of things that may have served us very well as musical performers which now become obstacles in the art and practice of healing music. These are not completely foreign ideas because we all experience the grace and inspiration creative moments offer from time to time. But these can be rare and tend to come upon us unexpectedly and cannot simply be called up at will. Most often these moments occur for us when we are being intimate with our music, such as during composing, or learning something new, less often in a performance situation when we are “putting on a show”. Our ‘prison’ as performers locks us into a predetermined set of actions and this can get in our way when we seek to provide healing music in a caring relationship.

     The familiar notions of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ musically or what ‘sounds good’ may be carefully re-considered in this practice of healing music. By setting aside my preconceptions about what I am bringing to the patient am I able to begin to comprehend the music that the patient’s condition is calling forth from me.

 The Way of Social Action

     This chapter speaks to all those who are actively engaged in promoting social change and issues of social justice. There are some great stories here, as in all the chapters from people on the front lines and lessons learned in the trenches. But it reminded me that as healing music practitioners we have much to gain from our fellow activists because in a very real sense our work has a lot to do with change. Also, the art and science of healing music is a relatively new field and we will have many occasions to be spokespersons for this emerging field. There are great examples and explanations in this chapter that show us, once again, how important listening is. Even when we set out to change someone’s mind about something, or educate someone about a particular concern we are motivated about, it is important to listen to where the other person is coming from so we can meet them in the most effective way possible. Isaac Newton said “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” How important that is, especially if we are trying to rally people together about a common cause.   


     As in earlier chapters, the authors remind us to be aware of any personal baggage we bring into our healing relationships. We need to be doing what we’re doing for the right reasons so a little honest self-reflection is always in order. We may have a natural enough inclination towards compassionate service. But we also need to know how to pace ourselves for the long haul. Besides all the common sense things like taking care of ourselves and getting enough sleep, there are less obvious things that will make all the difference in the long run.  We are continually being reminded in this book about the importance of being able to witness without judgment. Just as we simply watch our thoughts come and go in meditation, in life too we have to develop a kind of detached awareness. Energy is important in our work and so we have to use it wisely and efficiently. This means not wasting energy on things we have no control over. We are learning to put our attention where it will do the most good.

     We are encouraged to not worry too much about Not Knowing. We often will Not Know. But we can still be good companions in Not Knowing. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s, there are few.”  –  Suzuki Roshi

Reprise: Walking Each Other Home

     As we progress along this path we will have many opportunities to awaken from the illusion of separateness. By re-awakening our unitive awareness, we will learn all we need as the need arises. If we have questions, we can ask them. If we have answers we may offer them. But what so many of the stories in this book remind us is that we have far more to learn than we’ll ever know. It’s hard to pour new knowledge into a cup that is already full of what it knows. Life is a curriculum. We will have frequent opportunities to empty our cup in order to receive new understanding.

     Separateness and unity seem to be fundamental issues in every spiritual tradition. This book asks the question “How Can I Help?” We find how in answering this question we not only help others but resolve the unity within ourselves as well . “We work on ourselves, then, in order to help others. And we help others as a vehicle for working on ourselves.” The words healing and wholeness come from the same root, ‘haelan’. Healing then has to do with dissolving separateness and resolving unity, both within ourselves and with others. There are so many ways that music lends itself instinctively to this process. We are fortunate as healing music practitioners to have the tools of music at hand to constantly remind us of the importance of harmony.

                                                                                               – Tim McKamey, Aug. 20, 2013

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