Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative
and End of Life Care

Edited by Koshin Paley Ellison and Matt Weingast, Wisdom Publications


Thought leaders in the field of contemplative caregiving offer resilience, wisdom, and support for those who keep watch at the bedside.

In Awake at the Bedside, pioneers of palliative and end-of-life care — including doctors, Dharma teachers, chaplains, poets, and caregivers of all kinds — offer insights on incredibly challenging questions such as, how do we think about death and the dying? What is the current state of palliative and end-of-life health care, and how do we give care without becoming emotionally and spiritually depleted?

This book isn’t about dying. It’s about life and what life has to teach us. It’s about caring and what giving care really means. Equal parts instruction manual and spiritual testimony, it includes specific instructions and personal accounts to inspire, counsel, and teach. An indispensable resource for anyone involved in hospice work or caregiving of any kind.

Contributors include Anyen Rinpoche, Coleman Barks, Dr. Craig D. Blinderman, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Joshua Bright, Dr. Ira Byock, Robert Chodo Campbell, Rafael Campo, Ajahn Chah, Ram Dass, Kristen DeLeo, Issan Dorsey, Mark Doty, Norman Fischer, Nick Flynn, Gil Fronsdal, Joseph Goldstein, Shodo Harada Roshi, Tony Hoagland, Marie Howe, Fernando Kawai, Michael Kearney, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Stanley Kunitz, Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Judy Lief, Betsy MacGregor, Dr. Diane E. Meier, W. S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Frank Ostaseski, Rachel Naome Remen, Larry Rosenberg, Rumi, Cicely Saunders, Senryu, Jason Shinder, Derek Walcott, Radhule B. Weininger.

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Praise for Awake at the Bedside:

The greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It is the ultimate source of success in life. Awake at the Bedside supports this development of love and compassion.

Dalai Lama photo

—His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama


New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care is a leader in the integration of spiritual practice into contemplative-based care, and its co-founders are beloved faculty in our Integrative Medicine Fellowship. This nourishing book, Awake at the Bedside, should be required reading for any compassionate caregiver engaged in fostering healing in themselves, clients, loved ones and society. It envisions revolutionary change in how we care for ourselves and the world


—Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Healthy Aging and Founder of the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at University of Arizona Medical School


Profoundly moving, inspiring and helpful, Awake at the Bedside is a real treasure.


—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path With Heart


The book is marvelous. A compilation of essential treasures exploring the face and feeling of utter engagement, compassion, and wisdom in turning toward death and being present with and for people who are dying. Our culture might benefit greatly from this book and its institutional implications for end of life care and for caring, period.


—Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, author of Full Catastrophe Living and founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction


Moving and informative — this is a much needed book! Put into practice, the wisdom of Awake at the Bedside could transform end-of-life care in America. And, every reader will receive support from the collective understanding shared in these pages.

Salzberg Sharon Web

—Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness


Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End-of-Life Care brings together an extraordinary group of teachers who share their wisdom and insights into the great issue of our lives: how to understand the dying process in a way that allows for grace and peace as we transition into what for most of us is the great mystery.  This volume will certainly be of help for accompanying others in their journeys as well as providing a deeper understanding of our own.


—Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening


The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s Awake at the Bedside is a much needed companion on the path for the seriously ill and those who care for them. This book and the Zen Center focuses on training people to focus their compassionate attention on the patient, to be with the patient, wherever they are, and then following the patient’s lead to bring healing and wholeness. This is the essence of palliative care and our whole health care system needs a prescription for this medicine.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


—Dr. R. Sean Morrison, Co-Director, Patty and Jay Baker National Palliative Care Center; Director, National Palliative Care Research Center; Director, Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute; Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai


I was fortunate to know Chodo and Koshin when a very dear friend was dying. Chodo sat at Lynn’s bedside, held her hand, as well as her suffering, while bringing a sense of calmness to all the chaos as it unfolded. In the midst of Manhattan, their organization, New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care offers an oasis of compassion and their community of caregivers provides a wonderful, much needed service. Their vision is to change the way we take care of our ill and dying and it lies close to my heart; my personal experience of loss has shown me there is better way and this is it. This book highlights the work of pioneers in the contemplative end of live care movement. Awake at the Bedside is a beacon in the dark night of our healthcare system today It is a must read.


—Donna Karan, fashion designer & Founder, Urban Zen Foundation


Weaving together the wisdom of ancient traditions and the experience of those in the caring professions today, Awake at the Bedside is a deeply moving, poetic and practical guide to those caring for and the dying.


– Stephen Batchelor, author of After Buddhism


In the practice of medicine in the West and the U.S. in particular, the act of dying has been completely separated from the care of the patient yet this process, so profound, can give one the deepest of gifts… an insight into what living a life really means. As a physician and neurosurgeon, I have seen too often my colleagues pull away as a patient nears the end of their path and have seen relatives, fearful and anxious as to how to proceed. This wonderful volume gives each of us the gift of wisdom and knowledge that will not only relieve our own anxiety and fear but will allow us to embrace what is at the end of the path and allow our own awakening.


—Dr. James R. Doty, Professor of Neurosurgery, Founder & Director, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), Stanford University School of Medicine


Humans experience advanced illness with such a complex and changing interplay of suffering and solace, stress and resilience, that the most certain observation is that each is unique, and one never knows what is needed, or can be attained, unless there is engagement—listening, reflecting and ultimately understanding the person who is ill.  As illustrated in this Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End of Life Care, and in all the work of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, the necessary and very human task of connecting with another in order to understand, support and provide care is one of the most important things to be learned from the practitioners and practices of contemplative care.


—Dr. Russell K. Portenoy, Chief Medical Officer, MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care & Executive Director MJHS Institute for Innovation in Palliative Care; Editor‑in‑Chief of the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management; Co-Editor of the Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine


This book isn’t about sickness or death—it’s about diving into the heart of life discovered when we truly meet another person. Providing practical support, emotional resonance, and celebration of ordinary sacredness, it is a priceless treasure.

Judith Simmer-Brown

—Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies, Naropa University


I am extraordinarily grateful for what this book provides. Filled with quiet insight based on years of experience and the study and practice of dharma, Awake at the Bedside extends an intimate, wise and loving hand on behalf of those whose lives are presently coming to an end, and those who care for them. As pragmatic as it is inspiring, the editors have given us an important window into how to approach the latter part of what Zen calls “the great matter of birth and death.” It is an authentic and guiding compendium of compassionate understanding, the kind of useful, true and faithful companion we all need as the end of life comes near. As our families and communities continue to age and die, this book will serve us well.


—Eihei Peter Levitt, Founder and Guiding Teacher of the Salt Spring Zen Circle in British Columbia, poet, translator and author


This is the best book I’ve read on the end of life—not only what it means for a dying person but what it means for all of us. Reading it moved me to tears many times.


—David Loy, Zen teacher and author of The World is Made of Stories


Finally a compendium that gets us above and below and behind the clinical science, which narrows and dominates our understanding of death and dying and wellness. As a hospice physician, I’m aware that this batch of writings gets us to the more difficult and subtle work otherwise crowded out. Medications and tests and procedures can be invaluable, but they are just the start. At best they clear space, but how do we attend to that space?  How do we fill it, or not?  How do we make meaning?  What is meaning any way?  How do we relate self and other on this shared ride?  Well, here we go.  Let’s look inside these pages and see.


—Dr. BJ Miller, Executive Director of the Zen Hospice Project & Attending Specialist for the Symptom Management Service of the UCSF Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center


From poetry, meditation, and philosophical counsel to care-giving and care-receiving guidance, this profoundly moral book is a gift to all mortal sentient beings. The contributors’ list is a who’s who of the leaders in the end-of-life-care movement today. Awake at the Bedside is vital reading for anyone involved in the process of death – and that means everybody. Another great contribution from the astounding Zen Center for Contemplative Care people.


—Janet Gyatso, PhD, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, Harvard Divinity School


Awake at the Bedside is balm for our frantic, fearful, and diseased race against death. It is a quiet feast of small portions–poetry, wisdom, social insight and spiritual guidance. Bring it with you.


—Thomas R. Cole, PhD, Founder of the McGovern Center for Ethics and Humanities, University of Texas School of Medicine at Houston


A new paradigm is expressed in Awake at the Bedside—death is as important a transition as birth— the journey that needs above all else love, presence and listening. This book speaks eloquently to this new expansion of human compassion.


—Dorothy Dai En Friedman, gardener and Zen Teacher


Lucid, supportive and honest, this collection of stories, poems and practices is a perfect companion for providing loving support to those we care for, including ourselves. A rich and soulful reference book for families, caregivers and professionals.


—Michael Stone, author of Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind


Having walked through the process of witnessing the transition of a being I love, I am so grateful that Awake at the Bedside has finally arrived. This is an important book. An insightful and inspirational guide for all us as we move into the inevitability, the necessity, the privilege, of holding space for those we love as they make their journey back home. Palliative care is such a complex and emotional experience, both for the giver and the receiver of that care. How to do it consciously? How to do it with honor, acceptance, and surrender? There were so many moments I needed clarity, support, best practices and affirmation. I am grateful that Awake at the Bedside is now available. It provides the compassionate guidance so as to honor death with the same grace we do life.


—Seane Corn, yoga teacher, activist and Co-Founder, Off the Mat, Into the World