The Dharma Box And Meaningful Communication

As a child, I kept a box under my bed as a place to hold items special to me. Some were gifts given by family or friends. Others were objects I called “my treasures,” objects perhaps found in a souvenir shop while on vacation, or by chance while out walking, like a leaf, a shell or a feather. Samples of my own writing, such as stories, poems, or reflections, also found a home in my box. 

In my younger years, I would slide the box from under my bed and recall a fun memory and laugh as I looked at the objects. Over time, I noticed a change in my relationship to this box and what I needed from it. Through adolescence and into early adulthood, I reached under my bed for this box when I felt disconnected from my sense of “self.” As I looked at, read, or held an object in my hand, I was searching for more than just a fun memory. I was searching for pieces of me. Who was I then? Who am I now? When did who I was change? Through others’ words, through photos, through treasured objects, through my own words, I found a way to reconnect with the parts of me I considered authentic (and lost). 

Recently, our ElderHealth team was discussing ways to enhance communication and connection for individuals diagnosed with neurocognitive disorders. Immediately I thought of my treasure box and a book given to me by deceased author Dan Gilmore. 

The book is called My Dharma Box: New and Selected Writings. Dan’s life crossed with mine and NP Melissa Koon’s when we teamed up to provide home-based palliative care service for him. Dan introduced us to the concept of dharma as understood in Buddhist literature and to the 10 essential rules for observance of dharma (including patience, forgiveness, and honesty). Dan adapted and expanded the concept of dharma to guide him along his journey with the serious and chronic ALS. 

Dan created what he called a “dharma box.” He left it on his coffee table to promote deeper connections with others. He filled the box with his “treasures”: photos, a favorite object, something he wrote. His idea was to invite people to choose an item from the box and for this to act as a catalyst for meaningful conversation. 

Did you have a treasure box as a child? What was inside it? If you put a box together now, what treasures could show who you are, who a loved one is, and what is valued? 

We welcome your comments and feedback for future issues of the Heart at Home newsletter. If you are an ElderHealth member, consider submitting your story to be published in our “Reader Connections” section. Contact us at

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