Volunteer Profile — Engaged by the Mystery
Sandy Scull has been volunteering with our Open Circle program for 8 years. He is a Vietnam veteran, a retired licensed psychotherapist, but still an active investor— endeavoring to become less active in order to pursue interests with more heart and soul. He has an artist/therapist wife, a daughter who just graduated from college who teaches in Oakland, a 12 year-old son, and two golden retrievers. The male, Mouballa, retrieves balls and his sister, Mousocka, socks. He enjoys sailing, poetry, carpentry projects, and surfing (now limited mostly to Hawaii).
“I subscribe to Zorba the Greek’s “full catastrophe” living and I can’t separate that from spiritual practice. It’s an everyday opportunity to love and is the real practice.”
How long have you been a therapist?
I am not currently a therapist. My psychological background was in transpersonal psychology. I focused in the trauma area, primarily with Vietnam veterans and men with AIDS. Curiously, the issues of these two populations overlapped around the themes of meaning, guilt, separation, abandonment, death anxiety and loss. When I began volunteering with the life-threatened with the Living Dying Project, I noticed these universal themes were still quite relevant. The transition from the therapeutic orientation I had been holding to working with the dying was relatively easy. And now I don’t have to look at my watch, ask for the check, or fix anything. I show up with my beingness. Self-improvement and egoic concerns pale in the face of death. The potential for radical openness awaits. I’ll meet in that field anytime.
What is your spiritual practice?
My spiritual practice is about paying attention. Working with the dying helps me do that. Getting my priorities straight as I sometimes get distracted with peripheral concerns. Keeping life’s big questions in the foreground also helps to break down the tendency for habit to take over. I explore spontaneity and expression through dance. I write poetry to free the numbness around imagination and to allow an unfolding of integrity. In my morning hot tub I have been doing an esoteric Sufi practice for ten years called the Wheel of Solomon. Recently I included the Afghan people in the various stages of attunement, which has mitigated some despair and helps me feel more connected.
What interested you about working with dying people?
I have always liked the poignant energy of beginnings and endings. It’s such a privilege to be able to really focus on holding space for someone letting go of this world, as they have known it through the body.
How have your views of death changed since working with the terminally ill?
My early view of death was formed in the Vietnam War. Tragic, unnecessary, and bordering on the obscene. In contrast, I could characterize the passing of a few clients as numinous. Opening to the mystery can be as exhilarating as it can be humbling. Dying is paradoxically so alive and potentially as human as it gets.
What is one of the most important lessons you have learned from this work?
To savor the present moment. Not to hold back, but at the same time, honor the fullness of silence.
What do you like about the work?
What I just mentioned. Also for the work increasing my threshold for paradox and ambiguity.
What don’t you like?
Long-term clients who whine and are not life-threatened. Sounds like me!
How would you describe healing?
Such a big topic for small space. For me it was about showing up in certain circles that I trusted and was inspired by. Finding the discrimination and courage to compost my stuff, then the will not to pick it up again. Initiatory ritual in the Native American tradition played a big part. And right action in the presence of one’s calling.
Why do you think people are more open to healing when they know they are dying than when they think they are healthy?
Most people love the preciousness and intensity of being engaged by the mystery. It’s easier to remember oneself when an X-ray sits in front of your nose than as something indistinct over your shoulder. Denial gets busted when death has your name. The ultimate wake-up call. I’m all for preventive medicine in each moment, not just to stave off the inevitable, but to engage in a more life-affirming manner. Say no to me and I’ll look for the yes within myself.