Spiritual Formation is the foundation of what it means to be a great chaplain or spiritual care provider. Spiritual formation facilitates the synthesis of our religious education, spiritual practice, personal histories, and social identities and locations. It is the kind of spiritual maturation process that enables effective spiritual care, and the outcome which is sought by employers. Unfortunately, just where and how students of chaplaincy are meant to acquire this powerful spiritual integration is often simply left of up individuals to figure out for themselves or an implied or hoped-for by-product of graduate studies and post-graduate clinical training. Not at Maitripa College. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.

What really helps?

Many of us drawn towards helping others in times of crisis, suffering, and pain ask ourselves this question. We want to help, but some version of doubt can easily arise: we aren’t sure how or if we can, if we have the requisite background or personal experience, or if there is anything that can even be done…Even for those of us with some experience in the study and practice of Buddhism, a bodhicitta motivation and practice is still a wide, long, deep path.

Given the astounding number of circumstances in which we and others find ourselves overcome with intense grief, sorrow, depression, anxiety, confusion, jealousy, hatred, greed, and narcissism, there is no single answer to the questions: what makes such suffering bearable? What can help us to transform it? However, there is still a way that we can train ourselves as to be as efficacious as possible, working in the midst of pain like a spiritual first responder.

Spiritual formation for Buddhists can be cultivated upon a strong foundation of a clear world view and contemplative practices, with additional scaffolding from community, one’s personal histories and resources, and a contextual understanding of contemporary social realities. Integrating religious education, the practice and theory of spiritual care, and one’s life experiences is essential for professionals’ spiritual formation, but truly becomes embodied when this self-reflection and awareness is accompanied and deepened by meditation (or other personal and communal contemplative dharma practice).

How can I be of service?

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.