After engaging in Buddhist spiritual formation, this question arises when we meet with suffering. Service does not seek to fix, change, repair, or assume to know or control for the ideal outcome. Being of service means bringing the wholeness of one’s being–being present, being with–more than carrying out a set of actions. Can we discern what would be skillful in a particular context? Do we attune to the inner resources of others which could be strengthened or called upon to build resilience? We need to be present, and we have to listen beyond ourselves, be sensitive or subtle enough an instrument to sense the deeper human values and potentials in ourselves and others and be courageous enough to turn towards them.
In difficult moments, the Buddhist chaplain’s spiritual formation helps them be of service. Spiritual formation built upon Buddhist compassion practice enables one to turn towards –not away from–suffering. Spiritual formation built upon Buddhist wisdom practice enhances clarity and fearlessness, and the ability to recall relevant teachings. Spiritual formation built upon Buddhist contemplative practice creates ready access to deep stillness, grounded stability, insight, and perseverance.
Research in the field of chaplaincy is now also beginning to articulate the importance and impact of Buddhist spiritual formation for working chaplains and their care recipients in terms of professional spiritual care.
A survey of over 400 Buddhist chaplains found that the primary sources of satisfaction with their work were “helping others” and “ability to be present with others during suffering and distress.” When asked what aspect of their training best prepared them to do this work, the most common answer was “Buddhist meditation practices and techniques” (Sanford, et al. 2022. “Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America,” Chaplaincy Innovation Lab).
Other aspects of the Buddhist professional chaplains’ rewards, challenges, and training are also important contexts for a fuller understanding of their spiritual formation and the field, and yet the very strong correlation between meditation training and the ability to be of service is compelling.
Finally, Buddhist training and spiritual formation creates capacity and competency that have a noticeably beneficial impact upon others. Those trained in Buddhist chaplaincy programs are often invited to support others to experience and learn basic mindfulness and meditation techniques. Care recipients and colleagues also identify unique qualities of Buddhists’ “presence” and its outcomes.
Buddhist chaplains name traditional and contemporary practices that result in capacity for “presence,” which is being further explored in research. For instance, practices that familiarize the Buddhist practitioner with emptiness, impermanence, or not-knowing seem to engender a quality of presence that can compassionately tolerate emotional intensity and which may be a condition for others’ to experience a sense of gratitude and joy; practices of non-anxious, nonjudgmental witnessing comfort others and relieve pain; practices of mindfulness generate empathy and whole-hearted openness, creating a safe space in which others feel seen, affirmed, and empowered (Sanford, et al, 2022).
Meditative and contemplative practice and study is the heart of powerful spiritual caregiving. It enables us to be of genuine service, the kind of service that heals, nurtures, empowers, and restores wellbeing of oneself and others. We invite you to make your contemplative practice the foundation of your spiritual care, and join us in the continuing growth of professional Buddhist Chaplaincy.