The Tao of caregiving

Local couple pen new version of the Tao Te Ching devoted to assisting caregivers of the ill and injured

Bill and Nancy Martin help caregivers and others find balance at the Still Point Center for Zen Practice in Chico.

Bill and Nancy Martin help caregivers and others find balance at the Still Point Center for Zen Practice in Chico.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Conversations on caregiving:
The Martins will present principles from The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching in a workshop June 18, 2-5 p.m., at the Still Point Center. For more information, visit or call 343-5535.

Giving care can be an overwhelming endeavor. Seriously ill patients require a lot of attention and hands-on assistance with basic tasks that don’t rank among the glamorous aspects of nursing. When the diagnosis is terminal, emotions grow particularly intense: anger, grief and guilt among them.

The caregiver role is difficult enough for professional nurses; it’s especially daunting for loved ones who don’t have the benefit of formal training. In the wake of such adversity, caregivers often neglect their own needs, compounding the challenge they face.

Millions of Americans, and countless more around the world, find themselves in this position. For them, Chico’s Bill and Nancy Martin have written The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching, a guide that applies ancient philosophy to a contemporary issue.

The book has been out only since mid-February, yet the Martins have already heard from readers in Germany, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the U.S. and Canada, where they’ve appeared on a number of radio shows.

The Martins operate the Still Point Center for Zen Practice. Nestled in an office complex on Governors Lane, near East Avenue and The Esplanade, the center offers a respite from stress through meditation, discussion and instruction.

Bill has an eclectic résumé: seminarian, minister, research scientist, counselor and college instructor. He has written a handful of books—most notably The Parent’s Tao Te Ching, which became a best-seller after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her “O List” of recommended titles.

Nancy, like Bill, has a background in the clergy as well as the teachings of ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. She also spent five years as director of volunteers for Enloe Hospice.

She hasn’t just worked with caregivers, though—she’s been a caregiver. Nancy’s mother suffered congestive heart failure in September 2009, as Bill and Nancy neared completion of the book. The Martins moved into a neighboring apartment, and Nancy cared for her mother until her passing that December. The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching was due to the publisher, New World Library, by February 2010.

Nancy’s experience changed the book, and the book changed her experience.

“I think I was probably more sane because of the book,” Nancy said, “but also I think the book was very affected by me personally knowing what it’s like to be a caregiver and being suddenly drawn into trying to take care of all of the details of care, and having to remind yourself to pull back to a broader view to see this person’s life and everything else that’s going on as well.

“Things that I experienced found their way into the book, and the book’s tone really helped me to slow down, let go of the urgency, let go of the belief that you’re supposed to know how to do something you’ve never done before.”

The idea for The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching came from Bill Martin’s literary agent. “She went through a caregiver’s situation around four years ago,” Bill said, “and she began pestering me: ‘The principles in the Tao Te Ching are perfect for caregivers; write a caregivers’ book.’”

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A year later, the Martins began their first authorial collaboration. It flowed not only from Bill’s studies but also from a Still Point course of Nancy’s called “Zen Compassionate Care,” in which she trained volunteers working with individuals “going through major life transitions.”

The book is not a how-to guide; it’s not full of checklists or catchphrases. Rather, each of the 81 short chapters includes poetry from Bill, evoking verses of the Tao (pronounced “dow”), and reflections from Nancy pertaining to the poem and a particular real-world challenge of giving care.

“Bill was going to bring his expertise on the Tao; I was going to bring the expertise from my work with caregivers,” Nancy explained. “That’s how it began … but all of a sudden it took on this very personal tone.”

“Nancy had a very difficult time finishing her part of the book,” Bill said, “because her whole perspective shifted …”

“… and it was so raw,” Nancy continued, “that I had to make sure I wasn’t making it too personal and not giving enough perspective for any caregiver, even if they weren’t caring for somebody terminally ill. I wanted to make sure the perspective stayed broad enough so any caregiver—whether they were caring for someone seriously ill or recovering from an injury—could feel that they had access to whatever he or she might need.”

A common phenomenon among caregivers is putting the well-being of the patient before their own. Afraid to leave the ailing person alone, and wracked with guilt when they do, relatives may feel trapped, then resentful.

Nancy’s mother insisted that Bill and Nancy go out to dinner from time to time, which made a big difference.

Even while in the home, finding time to relax and refocus is critical for a caregiver.

“One of the primary messages comes back to how you are bringing compassion to yourself as a caregiver,” Nancy explained. “Once you’ve opened your heart to yourself and are at ease with everything you’re experiencing, there’s much more space for you to be comfortable with whatever this other person is going through at the moment.”

In conjunction with the book, the Martins make personal appearances around Northern California. They recently spoke at two events hosted by Enloe Medical Center, and this month they will conduct workshops in Eureka and Sacramento as well as Chico. (The website lists their schedule and details.)

These sessions, like classes at the Still Point Center, draw nurses and family members alike.

The book, meanwhile, shows signs of surpassing the popularity of The Parent’s Tao Te Ching. Bill doesn’t know the exact sales figures, but he’s heard that The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching is slated for a German-language edition as well.

“All of my books fortunately have what they call ‘legs’ and they’re all still in print and keep chugging away,” Bill said. “Nancy and I have the feeling that this book will find legs gradually as one person gives it to another.”

The timeless nature of the subject matter lends itself to longevity. Quipped Bill: “Talk about having legs—Lao Tzu is still in print!”