Conference Review: 1st International Spiritual Care Conference, Dzogchen Beara Retreat Centre, Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork.

April 27th/ 28th 2009

Reviewed by Mary Kangataran

A significant and remarkable event took place in the Europe Hotel, Killarney on April 27th and 28th last. Attended by over 500 people, it was in the form of the 1st International Spiritual Care Conference, organised and hosted by the Rigpa Spiritual Care Education Programme in Ireland, and its spiritual director Sogyal Rinpoche, the highly acclaimed Tibetan Buddhist teacher and author of ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’. The conference was entitled: ‘Compassion & Presence: Spiritual Care for the Living and Dying’. The event was following naturally upon the recent opening of the new Spiritual Care Centre, Dechen Shying, at the Dzogchen Beara Retreat Centre on the beautiful Beara Peninsula in West Cork. The completion of the Centre and its opening to receive guests living with serious or terminal illness and their loved ones is the fruition of the vision of Sogyal Rinpoche. Rinpoche considers that ‘spiritual care is not a luxury for a few; it is the essential right of every human being, as essential as political liberty, medical assistance and equality of opportunity’.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote a message to mark the launch of the Spiritual Care Centre which included these reflections: ‘Illness, suffering and death are part of the reality of human existence. It would be foolish to pretend that we will not die or that we are not sick when we are’.

When caring for someone who is seriously ill it is important to cultivate positive attitudes like compassion, love and tolerance. Real care for the sick does not begin with costly procedures, but with the simple gift of affection and love. In the practice of healing, a kind heart is as valuable as medical training, because it is the source of happiness for both oneself and others. People respond to kindness even when medicine is ineffective, and in turn cultivating a kind heart is a cause of our own good health’. So it was into this inspiring occasion and atmosphere that presenters and participants were invited to come together to discuss and reflect on what is spiritual care?

One of the first presenters on this 2-day conference, in the exquisite backdrop of lakes and mountains visible from the conference room, was Christine Longaker, the Rigpa International Education Director and author of ‘Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying’. She set the tone and laid the ground for all that was to unfold and follow later in the conference, and clearly communicated that ‘spiritual care is the doorway through which we can meet others on the deepest level. It does not call on us to offer our own solutions, but to be fully present to those who are suffering, with compassionate attention and an open heart, and with a deep confidence that in this atmosphere of acceptance, they can re-connect with their own sources of strength, meaning and hope’.

This was followed by a Panel Discussion chaired by Dr. Tony O’Brien, medical director of Marymount Hospice in Cork. The panel included Dr. Ira Byock (Director of Palliative Medicine and author of ‘Dying Well’ and, more recently, ‘The Four Things That Matter Most’), Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy (Founder of Focus Ireland and much-published author, most recently ‘Stillness Through My Prayers’), Dr. Ann Allegre (Director of Medical Programmes for Kansas City Hospice), and Dr. Tony Bates (Clinical Psychologist and founding director of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health). Before engaging in thoughts and ideas on spiritual care, they each introduced themselves to the audience in a personal, meaningful and humorous way. It felt somewhat like an intimate (but large) fireside chat which opened and expanded into a deeper sharing of what each individual on the panel understands or experiences spiritual care to be. Dr. Ira Byock suggested that there really is no such thing as spiritual care – it’s just about caring for the whole person! Experience has taught him that people will show you their spirituality, what is truly meaningful to them, so he begins by just listening to his patients. A clear priority of Dr. Byock’s is to ‘deliver the person from anonymity. We take care of persons, not just diseases’. Sr. Stan, a much-respected and admired social activist in Ireland, spoke about spiritual care as ‘caring in a deeply human way’. She feels very acutely the deepest human need is to be recognised and respected. In her experience, to care spiritually is to ‘reveal the beauty in others. When we touch in to others’ hearts something beautiful is born’. Dr. Ann Allegre spoke sensitively about her own experience of near-burnout in her hospice work some years ago. It was through the pain and difficulty of this that she turned to the Rigpa International Spiritual Care Education Programme to help her face her deepest questions around death and dying. From this process she now acknowledges how spiritual care and spiritual practice have transformed her, and given her very helpful tools and resources to work with. Dr. Tony Bates spoke about seeing his patients, not as syndromes, but rather as human beings who have ‘closed themselves around a great hurt or suffering’. Each speaker, and each in their own unique way, had described their understanding and practice of spiritual care which, regardless of the environment or context, was effectively all about establishing an authentic connection with another human being, guided and motivated by love, compassion and a profound respect for the interior wisdom of the other. Another very striking quality being heard and experienced by the listening audience was the power and transforming effect of just ‘being’.

So it was in this somewhat transformed state and awareness that we received teachings from Sogyal Rinpoche in the next session. Rinpoche’s talk was entitled ‘The Heart of Compassion’, and being in his presence, experiencing the wisdom and compassion of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, and resting our minds and bodies in a contemplative and peaceful state with him, allowed us to experience something of our own ‘being’. Now we were really beginning to understand and experience more deeply the meaning of ‘presence’ and ‘compassion’.

Later sessions with presenters Jon Kabat-Zinn (scientist, writer and meditation teacher, and author of many books including ‘Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness’, and more recently ‘Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness’), Dr. Gian Domenico Borasio (Professor of Palliative Medicine at the University of Munich), and Dr. Ciaran O’Boyle (Professor of Psychology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) all contributed a wealth of scientific evidence and research to confirm the significance of spiritual care in their differing medical environments. We also learned that the University of Munich has recently created in its Palliative Medicine faculty four new chairs, one of which is Spiritual Care!Mindfulness meditation has grown phenomenally in the US and elsewhere, and is increasingly being recognised as a valuable healing practice within medical and scientific organisations and institutions.

The afternoon workshops gave opportunities for speakers to address smaller groups in a more intimate and interactive way. Sr. Stan shared very openly and meaningfully about the joys and challenges of befriending the homeless, learning about herself as well as others through these friendships, and experiencing her life being transformed and deepened in them. Dr. Ira Byock identified the four things it matters most to say: ‘Please forgive me’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘Thank You’, and ‘I love You’. In his workshop and through the sharing of stories he explored the transformative potential and power of saying these things.Chris Whiteside, a much-respected workshop leader and facilitator from Dzogchen Beara, shared from her great experience and learning about how to extend our capacity to care. Rosamund Oliver, a psychotherapist and educator with Rigpa’s Spiritual Care Education Programme, introduced people to the practice of Deep Listening – a meditative practice of listening with body, mind and heart, the whole of one’s being. Sinead O’Toole, from the School of Nursing at University College Dublin, led a workshop on Stress and Compassion Fatigue, exploring tools and techniques for recognising and working with stress and fatigue in caregivers. She also engaged with the group in considering ways for caregivers to work that would bring healing and renewal to themselves, and to those they work with.

The second day of the conference began with a Guided Meditation by Sr. Stan, and was followed by morning sessions focussing on a theme of ‘Compassion in Action’. This included presentations from Dr. Tony O’Brien on ‘A Physician’s Understanding of Spirituality’, Dr. Ira Byock on ‘The Ethics and Practice of Loving Care’, Jon Kabat-Zinn on ‘The Art and Science of Compassion, Kindness and Mindfulness’, and Ursula Bates (Clinical Psychologist and director of Psychosocial and Bereavement Services at Blackrock Hospice) on ‘Mindfulness in the Public Health Service in Ireland’. Each session was a source of information and encouragement, and a cause of significant hope in realising the extraordinary work and accomplishments of the presenters in their different fields of expertise and practice. Perhaps an overriding theme of significance that permeated through each of the sessions was the deepening realisation of the truth that everybody matters.

The afternoon workshops included Christine Longaker on ‘The Healing Power of Presence’, Dr. Tony Bates on ‘Mindfulness & Changing Paradigms in Mental Health’, Dr. Ann Allegre on ‘The Difficult Transition from Curative to Palliative Care’, Dr. Susan Delaney (Clinical Psychologist and Bereavement Services Manager with the Irish Hospice Foundation) on ‘Compassionate Self-Care’, and Rigpa Instructor Andrew Warr on ‘Loving Kindness for Caregivers’. These workshops brought to attention some of the ongoing processes of change in different aspects of health care, and also the great importance for everyone in a caring profession to effectively and compassionately self- care. All of this flowed naturally towards the conclusion of the conference, with a panel discussion and reflection on all the crucial points highlighted throughout the two days. It was very evident that many participants had experienced the conference as enriching and inspiring; that faith and hope had not just been restored but revitalised and reenergised; that the spirit and atmosphere of the conference itself had given participants a very real experience of being cared for; that many were taking away new knowledge, awareness and experience that would inform and contribute to their own work and lives; that compassion and presence, experienced in such a real and live way at the conference, are indeed essential qualities in all caring relationships; and that our ‘being’ may, despite all our conditioning and habits, actually be more powerful and beneficial than our busy ‘doings’; and, of course, that everybody matters.

It was with some reluctance and sadness that we participants had to let go the beautiful and enriching experience of the conference, the nurturing experience of feeling so well cared for, the inspiration of the beauty of our environment and landscape, and the joy of ‘being’ in Killarney.

Mary Kangataran is a Biodynamic and Integrative Psychotherapist working in private practice in Co. Clare.

Footnote: The Rigpa Spiritual Care Education Programme in Ireland is an experienced team of qualified educators offering accredited seminars, in-service training, workshops and in-depth courses throughout the year, and is located at the Dechen Shying Spiritual Care Centre, Dzogchen Beara Retreat Centre, Garranes, Allihies, West Cork.