A Caregiver’s Guide to Reading from a Spiritual Text for the Benefit of Another


This booklet is to introduce to caregivers the practice of reading from a sacred text for the benefit of another who is in physical or emotional transition, is ill, in trauma, pain or dying. Readings are done as a simple helping measure and/or to guide a voyager to his or her own spiritual practice. They can be done at bedside or at a distance, and though this introduction is for caregivers, readings can be done by and for anyone under any circumstances.

As a caregiver just how much are you helping another? More than the obvious practical physical assistance you are providing you are having a very profound effect on your loved one, for as an involved caregiver you have the opportunity to see the person you are taking care of as a spiritual being. There are no trappings, no falsehoods, no pretense. In caregiving there is only basic honesty and with your care, you have an interaction from “being to being.”


The physical realm is of primary importance. During times of change and stress we function better if we concentrate on details. “Take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves.” With the information in this booklet keep hold of the vision that with every detail of your care you are serving your loved one in a very profound, spiritual, way.

Zen of the Present

At the end of our lives, or when we are not feeling well, having others nearby is a comfort. Be it family and friends or clerical companionship, most of us desire some sort of social interaction. Indeed there are many who say that no one should die alone and none should spend their final days alone. But as we enter our final days we also get more sensitive to thoughts and feelings of those around us. Company can be a mixed blessing, especially if those around us are filled with anxiety, negative thoughts and fears. It is important to be positive and cheerful when doing this kind of work. This doesn’t mean to be overly talkative, jocular or enthusiastic, it means be present. Leave all of your personal baggage at the door.

A patient in a hospital room has no control. He or she is at the receiving end of every transaction with no say in his/her destiny and little say in what happens in the room. He can’t control who comes and goes, can’t control if they knock when they enter or how they address him. Maybe he doesn’t want to take those pills or give blood at 3am, or be called “Honey,” but in a busy or stressed environment his opinion does not seem to matter.

In the situation of total lack of control, (probably with loss of dignity), the patient is forced to be in the present moment. The smallest details of the situation become important because he has to exert some influence where he has even a modicum of control. So in addition to cheerfulness, the ability of the caregiver to be in the present moment, with an eye on the smallest details is what matters most to one who is ill or dying.

deathbed 2

We all live in two worlds, the “being” world and the “doing” world. A patient is much more rooted in the “being” world than he has ever been before. He can’t do anything. The caregiver has to reflect this orientation to the being world. Don’t bustle into a patients room and hurry hurry around doing lots of things. Be much more aware of your mental state. The being world must be positive and the doing world must be focused on the present, taking great care of details.

Patient is the Guide

As a caregivers we are helping someone who is possibly facing the end of his or her life. You are aware that he or she is very sensitive to the thoughts and emotions around him so you are doing the work of “keeping clear,” keeping your negative expressions to a minimum. As you do this, you are helping your loved one face a more positive joyful situation which in turn helps you. Now, when it comes time for you to pass…won’t it be all that much easier? Won’t you be settled in the clear cheerful state of mind because you are now aware how important it is? All the work that you are doing now keeping your equipoise will truly benefit you and all those around you in the end.

There are no real changes you need to make in caring for those who are approaching the last stages of life. You follow their priorities. These might change, become more inwardly directed, quieter, more spiritual. It’s your job to stay out of the way and be present. The dying are generally still very much alive. They may shift to a more spiritual orientation, but things are not that different.

Dying is a transition where you hold the same presence and equanimity of manifestation as in any transition. You know about presence and compassion and are the one who is “present and accounted for.” Staying present takes some work…as you are finding out, and caregiving gives you the perfect medium to practice.

Just “being” with someone can have spiritual value. It means that the person is not alone. There is hope because there is togetherness. This mutuality in itself can communicate essential elements of spirituality simply by transforming the dread of abandonment and terror of isolation into hope. Don’t force it. Some people want company…but not too close. Just knowing that someone is there in the home with them may be enough. So just let them know that you are there for them when they need you.

Simple Presence

The foundation of spiritual care is simple presence. Sitting in simple presence is sharing a space with another person without the interference generated by social behavior or evasive actions. Sit with your loved one either while he is in bed, in a hospital room, or at home. The circumstances don’t matter. Ideally you will be undisturbed for 5 minutes or so while practicing this. You can sit facing your care partner, alongside or even behind.

Relax the body and your face. Now, let your eyes and vision relax, not focusing on any one thing in particular. We sometimes call this wide-screen or diffused vision. Try to keep your body, face and eyes relaxed and your vision diffused.

Now, try to get into a one-pointed state of mind, not stressed, the chatter of the inner mind slowing down gradually. Intentionally divide your concentrated attention and place half of your attention on your partner and half on your own relaxed face. If this seems too hard, don’t worry! Try it gently or just sit in simple relaxed presence with some awareness of your nearby loved one.

Many types of phenomena may appear, but continue until you can easily be with your loved one without having to talk or dramatize social expressions and personality.

This is an advanced exercise. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t do it. It usually takes many attempts before you can feel comfortable just sitting with another. Workshops devote several days to presenting this material, and you’ve just learned it in 5 minutes! Let’s break it into steps:

  1. Position yourself
  2. Breathe and relax
  3. Soften the face
  4. Diffuse the vision
  5. Bring your attention to bear on both yourself and your partner.

If we could continue an analogy we started long ago, the foundation of this advanced caregiving work is relaxation, the cornerstone mindfulness, and the structure itself is simple presence. You have done a lot of work to get here! Of course it hasn’t come overnight, but if you’ve been using the practices listed above, it should be coming easier to you.

exercise for caregiver presence

How To Be There

Being with those who are dying is not a mystery. It is a most rewarding experience where you get to share the most honest moments with someone you love. Trust your ability to “hang in there” and you will find that it is a precious time.

Don’t Desert

In the change from form to formlessness, from here to not-here, from breath to not-breath, is the opportunity of eternity. With courage, your presence will assist the patient to make his or her own passage.

The key to dying is allowing oneself to relax. Embracing our natural fears of the unknown with acceptance and joy brings us through difficult moments, expanding our capacity to surrender and let go. Surrendering to the moment of death includes allowing pain and fear, but not giving in to panic.

Focusing attention past the physical form replaces the our eternal self to its natural priority. Permit the terminal patient to remember his or her essential being.

The attention of the being is designed to carry through the transitions of death and birth. The state between death and birth for which our western culture has no words becomes visible to the terminal patient as passage approaches. The patient can prepare for transit, or the bardos, through development of the attention of the essential being. When the time comes for death and transition, the prepared Voyager (your loved one) can maintain his own sense of essential beingness with little or no panic.

As you place your own attention of essential being on the essential being of another, you assist in the power of the other’s voyage. Be sincere and constant. Being honest and speaking directly to the being helps maintain the voyager’s connection to the purity and strength of their spiritual essence, enabling one to meet passage with serenity. Silence and stillness may be what the patient wishes. It isn’t always necessary to be doing or talking; sometimes it is better to just “be still and know that I am God”. Finding in yourself that stillness will allow the truth to be stated easily and simply if any words need to be spoken.

Be a Terminal Midwife

The experience between death and birth carries with it forgetfulness and ego disintegration. Someone who is not experienced at remaining attentive through death may feel very disoriented. Being there as a midwife is an act of compassion toward the being, assisting the voyager in remaining as conscious as possible through the ensuing unsettling transition.

You are preparing your own self for dying by being with another who is dying. This is one of the most important aspects of being with those who are dying…they don’t know any more about it than you do until you both learn from the process itself.

Then you become more willing and able to help others face their own struggles and you may find yourself dealing with that which prevents you from always staying attentive to your essential being. This will bring you greater possibility of consciousness and greater awareness of the nature of death and dying. (From the Labyrinth Readers Society)

Your Intention is What Matters

Several recent studies have shown that people who have a spiritual practice may have better medical outcomes than those who don’t and that prayer can be effective in healing.

Spiritual reading is different than prayer as we normally think of it, but it’s similar in that a state of being is accessed where time and space have different characteristics than in normal day-to-day awareness. Modern day physics has shown over and over again that everything, all parts, layers and aspects of reality are interconnected. All aspects of the reality spectrum are one, including the spaces that aren’t normally available to our waking awareness. In reading, as in prayer and healing, you are transcending “normal” time and space. It’s not a big deal. Just a different set of parameters.

In the end, putting all theory and philosophical discussion aside, there’s one simple thing we can say about all of these practices: your intention, your wanting to help, is the most important ingredient. It is conveyed in the prayer, the healing or the reading and is what makes them work.

You don’t have to be too concerned about your understanding of the details of a spiritual text or prayer. You don’t need to know the stages of dying. Your loved one will get the message because you are putting a caring emotional resonance into it.

Spiritual Reading

Bedside reading is viewed to have tremendous benefit because hearing instructions from a sacred text can keep us oriented to our spiritual practice as we make the transition of physical death.

Spiritual reading is a very old practice, in use for over 800 years in the Tibetan culture and over 500 in the Christian. The practice of guiding the spiritual essence through its journey also exists in the Navaho, ancient Egyptian, pre-Colombian and many other cultures, but these forms do not generally appear as written texts. That’s why we have chosen the models of the Tibetan and Christian texts because they are better known and have been assimilated by modern culture. The Christian Science books, the Book of Mormon, and of course the Holy Bible are other spiritual texts that are traditionally used during passing, and we present a list of these on our website (www.t-g-a.org) and several other sites that are listed in the appendix.

Reading is effective for two reasons. Hearing is the last sense to fade as one passes from physical existence, and shortly before transition (dying) as well as passing through, the being has an all-embracing clarity of vision and understanding. So the reading reaches the part of the person that’s actually passing, and in that state understanding comes naturally.

Ars Moriendi

In the Christian tradition, the Ars Moriendi, or “Art of Dying,” became hugely popular during the middle ages (14th and 15th centuries) around the time of the plague when death was rampant. The clergy had long used certain texts for their deathbed practices. When it became apparent that they would no longer be able to personally attend to the vast numbers of dying, their texts, their training manuals, were publicly issued. Soon they were widely used. These small texts generally consisted of a series of woodblock prints with instructions to be read by a family member or friend to the dying. The death bed was commonly believed to be surrounded by angels and demons. The instructions were clear. Don’t avoid death, face it unafraid. Defeat the evils of temptation which will certainly assail you. Follow the way of Christ, and experience a good death.

prayers of St Joseph

The Ars Moriendi teachings became incorporated into the modern Christian Liturgy. For example, the very popular 1855 English translation, Daily Hand-Book for Days of Rejoicing and of Sorrow drew directly from the Ars Moriendi Tradition.

The book contains four major sections: prayers and hymns for the healthy, the afflicted, the sick, and the dying. As the fourth section seeks “a calm, gentle, rational and blissful end,” it adapts core themes from the Ars Moriendi tradition: the dying must consider God’s judgment, forgive others and seek forgiveness, take leave of family and friends, commend themselves to God, and “resolve to die in Jesus Christ.” While demons no longer appear at the deathbed, the temptation to despair remains as the dying person’s sins present themselves to “frighten, condemn, and accuse.” The familiar remedy of contrition and forgiveness through Christ’s passion comforts the dying. Starck offers a rich compendium of “verses, texts and prayers” for bystanders to use in comforting the dying, and for the dying themselves. A confident, even joyful, approach to death dominates these prayers, as the dying person prays, “Lord Jesus, I die for thee, I live for thee, dead and living I am thine. Who dies thus, dies well.” (http://www.deathreference.com/A-Bi/Ars-Moriendi.html)

Tibetan Buddhist teachings

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings surrounding death and dying are comprehensive. They find expression in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol, which can be described as such:

The spiritual essence of a person survives the death transition and passes on to another birth according to his or her deep inclinations. During the between lives journey, many different stages and qualities of experience occur, but if the inclinations (as developed in the lifetime) are relatively pure or if the being is guided properly by the readings from the book of the dead, the spiritual essence of the deceased can take favorable rebirth.

Facing Death

Buddhists, like the early Christians, see death as something not to be avoided, but faced squarely and utilized to one’s spiritual benefit. This is a radical idea in today’s western civilization which doesn’t recognize the positive potential of the moment of death. If our culture did realize it, we would treat the dying process completely differently, with great care and respect. Bodies would be left untouched for at least several hours after the moment of death. Readers would be at the side of every death bed.

When it is apparent that the end of life is approaching, instead of denying and cowering from death, face it and practice your particular spiritual discipline strongly. Celebrate your life at the same time with remembrance and joy. Help those around you and they in turn will help you in your transition. In whatever faith you choose, the spiritual readings will serve as your anchor and will be of great benefit.

We will now show you step-by-step how to set up a reading, prayer or healing space where you can do this work. You have already learned the principles of simple presence. Apply them as you read. Remember, in the reading chamber there is no distance or time. You can do readings or prayers for anyone, alive or dead, no matter when or where they died. You can do readings for large numbers of people and on the sites of past tragedies. We hope that whatever you wish for becomes possible for you.

Ten Steps to Doing a Reading

Doing a spiritual reading is straightforward. Here is an example of the practice that is generally used with either the Tibetan or American books of the dead. Any other spiritual text can be read in the same way. Using the simple presence practices given above, you establish contact with the being you are reading for and then you deliver the reading, as clearly and distinctly as you can. As you develop your practice of reading, a few guiding hints will come in very handy. Thus, we have provided ten simple steps that should help you perform a reading:

  1. Confirm your intention to do a Reading. You may do this as an inner affirmation or perhaps simply state aloud: “Yes, doing this Reading for (insert name here) is something that I want to do.”
  2. Find a place to do the Reading. This should be a location where you will be undisturbed for fifteen to twenty minutes. This does not need to be a private space — just one where you will not be required to move or interact with others during the course of the Reading.
  3. Assemble the few materials you will need for the Reading.Name (full) of the individual for whom you are reading. (You may also wish to write birth date, time and location of passing on the same slip of paper.)Whatever text you are usingPicture of the individual for whom you are readingCandleStick incenseMatches (box of wooden safety matches preferred)BellSmall bowl of waterSmall bowl of grain such as rice or barley

    Small empty dish (this will be used for the used match)

  1. Prepare the reading space. Set up your altar table. A candle should be placed in the center of the table toward the back, leaving room for you to rest the book on the table. Place the photograph (if you have one) and the name on a slip of paper in front of the candle. Place the small bowl with rice to the right. Lay the stick incense to the right of the bowl of rice. Place the small bowl of water to the left of the candle. The small dish can be placed to the left and slightly in front of the water. This is where the burnt match will be placed. Place the box of matches in this dish. Each of the items on the altar are used to help create a reading space conducive to assist your focus on the Reading.
  2. Sit comfortably but attentively in your space. It is best to keep the back relatively straight with both feet placed on the floor at about shoulder-width apart. Relax the body especially the facial mask. The relaxation of the facial muscles will bring about relaxation of the whole body. Take a few deep cleansing breaths. A cleansing breath can be performed by inhaling deeply through the nostrils, then exhaling sharply (without strain) through the mouth.Make sure that everything is at hand. You are ready to start the Reading.
  3. Begin by establishing contact. Look at the picture. While the picture may begin as a proxy for the individual, very quickly you will establish a direct immediate contact, as if the individual is right there in the reading space with you.If you do not happen to have a photograph, do not worry. You may use a paper with the written name for focus. A photograph is much preferred but in its absence, the individual’s name on a slip of paper is an adequate substitute.
  4. Open the reading space.Say aloud: “I wish for this effort to be used for the benefit of all beings everywhere.”Light the Reading candle.Light the stick of incense and stand it in the bowl of rice.Place the burnt match in the empty disk along with the box of matches.Ring the bell three times.After ringing the bell three times, speak the following aloud: “This Reading is addressed to the being of (insert name of individual here).”Read (once only) the “Obligatory Reader’s Invocation” or opening prayer.The space is now fully prepared for the Reading.
  5. Deliver the appropriate Reading for that day. This may either be the Clear Light Reading or one of the Readings for the forty-nine days. This will depend upon where you are in the Reading cycle and which text you are using. There are three basic types of Readings. If you are doing a “Clear Light Reading” or “Sitting Vigil,” then the Reading will be “Confronting the Clear Light.”If, however, you are doing a Reading from the “The Forty-Nine Day Cycle,” then you will do the Reading scheduled for the day. Keep in mind that each day’s Reading is performed twice once in the morning and once in the evening.
  6. Close the reading space. When the Reading is complete, declare: “This completes the reading of (insert name of Reading such as ‘Clear Light’) addressed to the being(s) of (insert name of individual here)”.Ring the bell three times.Turn the stick incense upside-down in the bowl of rice to snuff it out.Gently snuff the candle flame.Wrap the photograph and the person’s name in a piece of aluminum foil to be put away until the next Reading.Clear the altar items.Declare quietly: “I wish for the results of this reading to be used for the benefit of all beings everywhere.”
  7. The space is closed and you are ready to resume your other activities.If you are keeping a journal or log of the Readings, now would be a good time to do some writing.

As a final note, some people measure the success of a Reading in terms of the phenomena that happen during the Reading. These might be sights, sounds, feelings, sudden insights or realizations. These are just phenomena. Whether the room opens onto vast fields of illumination, or you hear celestial choirs, does not matter. All phenomena is illusion. Let the phenomena pass by you the way a bamboo lets the wind pass by. Concentrate on the simple things like enunciation, focus of attention, relaxation of your facial mask, and reading each word without skipping. Keep it simple.

Simple but essential skills to develop for reading

We will close this booklet which is to accompany the American Book of the Dead readers version with 7 more quick tips for improving your reading skills.

  1. Read slowly and distinctly. Many readers sound at first as if they are trying to win a race. You’ll find that if you solw down even below the limit of slow speech tolerable for you , it will be almost be too fast for a labyrinth instruction reading, unless you are a professional actor or actress, in which case just read normally, emote as necessary and never let them see you sweat.
    2. Read the instructions as if you had just thought of them. If you find a word that isn’t your own – that is, you don’t know what it means, get it defined before going any further. Don’t under any circumstances substitute your own words for the words of the text when doing a reading. Just find out what the words in the text mean.
    3. Read each passage as if for the first time. Get the feeling of freshness about each idea as you read it; feel the newness of each instruction as you encounter it.
    4. Don’t just read the instruction – deliver it!
    5. Read every instruction as if it is important for it to get through. Think of the voyager as someone who will sink unless you get through with these instructions. Get the idea of being a flight controller giving emergency fligt instructions to a stewardess on a commercial jetliner on which the pilot and copilot are knocked out. Hey, what a great idea for a film plot!
    6. Read with purpose and certainty. The only way to do this really effectively is to feel it. And the only way to really feel ait is to know that the teaching is a working system. The only way to know that is to experience it. So make sure that you get the experience of it.
    7. Read what is actually there, not something you substituted. Anyone who eels and understands the urgencyand importance or getting clear and precise instructions to a labyrinth voyager will be careful enough to read the actual text. If you drift off, you may substitute other words for the words that are really in the book. Make sure that you give correct data, and the best way to do this is by training your attention not to wander.
    If you are interested in the full Labyrinth Readers Course please contact the Labyrinth Readers society at the LRS Facebook forum
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