If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, let us work together.
Lilla Watson, Australian activist
The term “Contemplative Care” is very important to us. It is still largely unknown in Europe, in contrast to the US, where there are already many individuals and institutions who put this concept into action.
In German-speaking countries, the most common term used for this kind of work is “Seelsorge”, which roughly translates to “chaplaincy” or “pastoral care”. Its literal meaning is “caring for the soul”. In a Buddhist context, however, “Seelsorge” is a difficult word, but still very useful to us on an everyday basis. On the one hand, almost everyone in German-speaking countries can relate to the term. On the other hand, it is legally established and binding in many areas, such as prisons or hospitals.
Of course, a lot of abuse has happened in the name of “Seelsorge”, so it is important not to use the term without commenting on it. Even modern international terms such as “spiritual care” cannot be used to replace it, because in the German-speaking world, “spiritual care” is generally used to describe work within hospitals and hospices, but not in other areas. Therefore, the term “contemplative care” is very important to us. It can be used flexibly and bypasses the word “spirituality”, which is not entirely unproblematic either.
But what exactly is contemplative care, what does it encompass, what is it that we, as contemplative caregivers, actually do?
We have to be very diligent and careful with all these attempts at definition, and they require extensive, permanent commentary. Because here we are, trying to express the unspeakable, to talk about the places that our rational minds cannot describe by means of language, “the island without words”, as Wittgenstein puts it.
Contemplative care is not psychological or social work as we understand it in our everyday social contexts, it goes far beyond that.
Contemplative care is not based on empirically developed methods but draws on the experience of spiritual training through contemplative practices that have been developed over thousands of years, and the possibilities of mutually effective, contemplative transformation that arise from them.
We do by no means propose to exclude or devalue forms of psychotherapy, but rather an approach of “as well as”, of togetherness.
Contemplative care in and of itself is boundless.
However, from a very young age on, we all learn to set ourselves apart, to separate ourselves from our surroundings and to perceive other beings and things as objects, as something that exists outside of ourselves. The original meaning of the word “object” is “against something; an other“. This is how our conditioned mind, our self, works. With this separation, however, our original suffering begins. We experience ourselves as separate from our surroundings and this state worries us, sets us on edge.
This form of perception, however, does not at all correspond to reality as it truly is. Here are just a few examples: we all breathe the same air, filled with the breath of others, with the microbiome of others. Every living being’s (plants included) microbiome is unique and contains around 30 trillion microscopic organisms such as bacteria, fungi and the like. These unique microbiomes constantly communicate, both within their spheres and with each other.
But in order to survive emotionally, we set ourselves apart. That’s important, but it separates us from the others, we generate an imaginary outside world that actually only exists in our own imagination, we create our very own private universe. This process of fragmentation can be found in every aspect of our social lives. A few examples: everything that we do not regard as “normal” is cut off from society and put in an institution. The sick are put in hospitals, the handicapped in homes for disabled persons, the psychotic in psychiatric wards, the old in retirement homes, the dying in hospices and the evil guys in jail. Everything is nicely separated. Whoever is left leads “the fabulous life!”
In Buddhism, the practice of boundless compassion helps us to soften and overcome these boundaries. It enables us to perceive everything as fluid or permeable like a membrane.
Andreas’ guiding principle for this practice comes from the founder of Chinese Chan Buddhism in the 9th century AD, Dongshan Liangjie. In his enlightenment poem he formulates this insight in the following words: “Now, it is truly me; now, I am not it“.
Perceiving oneself and others as permeable does not mean that there are no boundaries at all, but the way in which they are conveyed is seen in a different light. A point of view in which, as already explained, we all see ourselves as mutually connected and therefore all meet on equal footing. There is neither a sick, disabled, dying client in need of care, a mentally ill person or prison inmate on the one side, nor a therapist or healer on the other side.
What we do as contemplative caregivers is to share something from our own experience. This experience arises from our own practice of contemplation. We open up a field, a space in which there is no evaluation, judgment or advice, a space in which anything is allowed to appear. This foundation, this being allowed to be seen by the other unconditionally, which is the precondition for the other to be able to evolve, enables the unconditional and complete acceptance of the other. This acceptance, this being seen holds great potential for fundamental change, because it’s the only way how the other person can truly see and accept him- or herself. It is the fundamental experience of compassion for oneself. The resulting insights are the basis for developing responsibility for one’s own life and, in consequence, for the lives of others as well. Making room for this process and providing guidance is what’s important.
Contemplative care is not a dogmatic method based on empirical methodology. It is rooted in our very own inherent possibility of all-encompassing, boundless compassion. Our colleagues from the Abrahamitic religions usually call it the ability of unlimited love.
Contemplative care is non-denominational in principle, but the ability to offer it is nourished from one’s own contemplative practice and the experience of permanent recurring transformation gained from it. The basis for experiencing this transformation is one’s own unconditional acceptance of everything that one meets in life and everything that arises inside oneself, the willingness not to run away, but to look closely. To face one’s own demons and those of others sincerely and truthfully.
In recent years, we have gained a lot of experience in the practical implementation of this practice and would like to make it available to others. And we’re not the only ones. Currently, we are translating one of the few books on the subject of Buddhist chaplaincy and pastoral care, The Arts of Contemplative Care, into German. It will be released in early 2021.
You can learn more about our own contemplative practice on our Sangha website Daijihi.org.