I was walking on the hill today after reading a difficult and painful letter from a friend, when I noticed some words resurfacing from deep within me. Please. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry. They repeated over and over. Please. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry. The more they repeated, the more powerful they became. I let the feeling of them fill my whole body. I chanted them internally like a prayer. I let them ripple outward from me into the north hills of Missoula and beyond. I hoped they would make it all the way to my friend. They were all I could possibly know about this complicated situation. They were all I could possibly say.
Please. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry.
Where had I heard this simple wisdom-poem before? The memory slowly returned to me as I walked along the snowy ridge line. When I was a third year medical student, I did my Family Medicine rotation in a small town in rural Idaho. I would follow my preceptor around throughout his clinic day while he saw his patients. As a medical student, my primary job was to pay attention. I often felt like an interloper who did not really belong in the room as the sacred meeting between doctor and patient took place. The more personal the visit, the more I felt as though I shouldn’t be there, but the patients seemed to be used to their doctor having a student with him. It was clear that he knew his patients really well and was more than just their doctor. He was their advisor and it seemed to me also somewhat of a pastor. I am sad to realize that I do not recall the name of this gentle doctor, but I came to know that he was a master of his craft. He exuded warmth and kindness with his patients. He not only knew them by name, he knew their life situations and he treated them each with utmost respect and kindness.
One day a young couple brought in their 3 day old little baby girl. I had no idea what kind of physical exam or instructions would be right for this situation. I was 24 years old with no children of my own, and I had not yet done my pediatrics rotation. This was really foreign territory for me. I remember him talking with the parents as he cooed to their baby and checked her over very thoroughly. They asked about sleep and feeding and crying. His advice on this matter was simple, and I could tell that he had given it hundreds of times. He held up one finger for each of his instructions. “Feed her when she’s hungry, hold her when she’s crying, and leave her alone when she’s sleeping.” When he was finished, he pronounced her to be perfect and said, again with a finger for each point:
“The four principles of parenting: Please, Thank you, I love you and I’m sorry.”
This kind of advice from a doctor surprised me at first. I didn’t know this was part of what doctors did, but the way it was delivered told me that something more was going on here. This was a kind of wisdom transmission being offered to this young family, and who better to offer it than their family physician? During my time on that rotation, I often found myself repeating those words silently in my mind. Please. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry. Please. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry. I pondered the meaning of this pithy wisdom. Such practical advice, so simple and direct, and yet often so difficult to invoke when the going gets tough. I wondered, were these words the parents were supposed to teach their children early on and remind them to use often? Surely raising children who said these magic words would make for smooth, beautiful and happy families. Or were they perhaps words that the parents should remember to use early and often as they raise their children? I don’t think the doctor ever specifically said, but over time, it became clear to me that the latter is not only the more profound and important, but it is also the best way of accomplishing the former. His teaching was like a little nursery rhyme that one could easily learn and recite, and hopefully reach for in times of stress and difficulty. During my time there, I heard him give this wisdom teaching to new parents a couple of other times, I began to sense that these words were more profound than they seemed to be on the surface. I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but the repetition of these words began to have a softening effect on my heart-mind.
Many years later when I found myself on the path of meditation, I began to build a vocabulary for talking about this kind of wisdom and heart transformation. Pema Chodron, a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has made a set of ancient teachings accessible to us called the Lojong (mind-training) slogans. These teachings were first compiled by the Indian teacher Atisha who brought them to Tibet in the 12th century. Each of the 59 slogans is a short pithy piece of wisdom designed to help us utilize our current situation and circumstances to awaken our hearts. I highly recommend Pema Chodron’s audio series called Awakening Compassion: Meditation Practice for Difficult Times. The slogan are as simple as “Be grateful to everyone” and “Always maintain a joyful mind”, but they have a profound wisdom and transformative quality when contemplated deeply and frequently especially in times of stress, pain or difficulty, not unlike the four pearls of wisdom transmitted to me by my preceptor. I don’t mean to compare my preceptor to Atisha or Pema Chodron, but then again, who’s to say? Like a line of poetry or a phrase of music, the words work together and roll off the tongue as they do their silent inner work.
Please. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry.
I completed my family medicine rotation with the poetry of these words moving through my head, massaging my heart and penetrating my every cell. But as the months and years passed, I stopped hearing the full phrase of music. Although I have used each of these individual words often (but maybe not often enough), I have not thought of them together nor of the good doctor from whom I learned them in well over two decades. As they come back to me now, they are ripe with the fruits of a long season of incubation and growth.
‘Please’ is not just polite, it is positioning itself humbly to ask something of another or of the world. ‘Please’ is vulnerable and honest and soft. ‘Please’ is hope and need and trust and not knowing the outcome all wrapped up together. It is the spring board where the present moment pushes off hopefully into an unknown future. ‘Please’ is not presumptuous or threatening but open handed and open hearted.
‘Thank you’ is quickly and easily spoken sometimes without even being heard or felt. But at its core, ‘thank you’ is gratitude and can be as deep as an ocean When spoken from the heart it can be felt resonating between the speaker and the listener. It is physically palpable, and it can change the neural wiring in our brain and help us overcome the brain’s innate negativity bias. ‘Thank you’ is strength and humility at the same time.
‘I love you’. Perhaps too often said by some and not nearly often enough by others. ‘I love you’. ‘I love you’. I say it until my heart softens and warmth spreads through my whole body. I memorize this feeling. ‘I love you’ is a gift freely given that somehow pays dividends back to the giver. It is never diminished by being given away or spoken honestly, only strengthened and amplified. ‘I love you’ is generous, kind and life-giving to both the giver and the receiver.
‘I’m sorry’ feels and acknowledges the pain of a situation. Whether there is blame or not, ‘I’m sorry’ seeks to connect or reconnect hearts and to ease hurt. Compassion and empathy are its close companions. ‘I’m sorry’ opens the door to forgiveness and healing. There is no person, situation or thing that is outside of the reach of ‘I’m sorry’, not even ones’ self.
These words came back into mind-consciousness after 26 years during a time of stress, pain and heartache. I felt their profound meaning and beauty in my body, as they brought tears of humility, gratitude, love and forgiveness. I know that these wisdom teachings have sunk below the level of consciousness at times when I should have remembered them. So now, as the days slowly grow longer, I am setting this intention. Please, I pray for the ability to remember these words and the meaning behind them in all circumstances when they are needed. Thank you. I am so grateful for the life that is in me and around me now, for the friendships that I have had and for the love that I have been given. I love you. My heart is quivering now because there is pain not only in me but in my friend and in the world. My heart is quivering because I am alive to feel this. I feel this because I love. I’m sorry. I know I have not always been my best self and I have caused pain when I did not intend to. I will try to own that truth, acknowledge it fully and open my heart again and again. I add these words to my training slogans. I take them on as my New Year’s Intention.
Please. Thank you. I love you. I’m sorry.