'Revolutionary' Spiritual Care Conference Takes Place in Ireland

The conference speakers and organizers pictured together in Killarney. Photograph by Chinch Gryniewicz

Five hundred health care professionals and caregivers attended the international spiritual care conference organised by Rigpa in Killarney, Ireland from 27-28 April.

The conference set out to explore how caregivers of all kinds can find spiritual and contemplative resources to support themselves in their work, and integrate those resources into the care they give to their patients. Delegates included consultants, doctors, nurses, nuns, priests, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, pastoral care workers, therapists and home carers, who travelled from as far away as Australia, Japan, the United States and Saudi Arabia to attend.

Despite the diverse backgrounds and specialties, there was a strong sense of collaboration and a common purpose. John Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society, and one of sixteen speakers who presented their perspectives on spiritual caregiving in Killarney, described the conference as “revolutionary”. Dr Gian Domenico Borasio, a professor in palliative medicine at the University of Munich, said: “The conference was a very important milestone in the effort to bring awareness of spirituality and spiritual needs back into modern medicine. It was there centuries ago, but it got lost through the advent of technological success, and now we are slowly bringing it back again.”

Organised by Rigpa's Spiritual Care Education Programme, the conference was entitled Compassion and Presence: Spiritual Care for the Living and Dying. It was held at Killarney's Europe Hotel, against the beautiful backdrop of Lough Lein and the mountains of County Kerry. Sogyal Rinpoche helped to create an extremely inspiring atmosphere for the days to follow as he gave a public talk entitled Finding Peace and Stability in a Troubled World on the eve of the conference. Almost half of the eight hundred people in the audience had not heard Rinpoche speak before, and he shared profound teachings on how meditation can help us to meet the challenges that we face in our lives today.

The following morning, as the conference got under way, Rinpoche gave a talk entitled The Heart of Compassion. In order to truly be able to help others, he said, we need to work with our own minds, which begins with the practice of meditation. “As the cloud-like thoughts and emotions fade away [through meditation], the sky-like nature of our true being is revealed, and, shining from it, our buddha nature, like the sun,” said Rinpoche. “And just as both light and warmth blaze from the sun, wisdom and loving compassion radiate out from the mind‘s innermost nature.”

The other speakers, all experts in their fields, were Dr Ann Allegre, Dr Tony Bates, Ursula Bates, Dr Ira Byock, Dr Susan Delaney, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, Christine Longaker, Dr Ciaran O’Boyle, Dr Tony O’Brien, Rosamund Oliver, Sinead O’Toole, Andrew Warr and Christine Whiteside. In their talks and round-table discussions, they set out to define spiritual care, presented scientific evidence and research studies, and addressed a number of key issues, including patients' quality of life, end-of-life care, and stress and compassion fatigue among carers.

Several speakers gave advice on how programmes such as mindfulness meditation can be integrated into the workplace. Delegates were also offered the chance to experience for themselves a number of different contemplative practices and tools, including meditation, compassion and loving kindness.

The work of Rigpa's Spiritual Care Programme is inspired by the vision that Sogyal Rinpoche set out in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, in which he called for a more compassionate approach to the way we care for the living, and for the dying. The conference was timed to celebrate the opening of the new spiritual care centre, Dechen Shying, at Dzogchen Beara retreat centre in south-west Ireland.

There is a long-established and rich tradition of spiritual care-giving in Ireland, and Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, who visited the care centre while it was being built, sent a message of support for the conference. Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, an Irish Sister of Charity who has been responsible for developing social service programmes to help thousands of people in need, said the conference had been “a great spiritual renewal”. She added: “I found all the speakers so inspiring, and it was all really around the same thing, spirituality in the broadest and the deepest sense. It is about compassion, love, care, and the deeper meaning of life.”

Feedback from delegates on the content and the organisation of the conference was also extremely positive, and there are already plans to organize a follow-up event in the future. Dr Tony O'Brien, a consultant in palliative medicine who chaired the first day of the conference, said: “People were constantly approaching me saying how much they had enjoyed the conference, how valuable it was and how we had achieved such a wonderful balance in the programme and a sense of inclusion. I believe that you achieved something particularly special and memorable and gave a voice to many who are striving in their own workplace to create a greater awareness of the spiritual needs of our patients and their families.”

Dr Ciaran O’Boyle, who is Professor of Psychology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, added: ”I found the mix of presentations and the interfacing of Buddhist and Western thinking absolutely absorbing, and it has given me a lot of food for thought. I also think that a lot of people at the conference, myself included, received not only academic and professional gifts, but personal gifts in the form of insights and reflections also. It was an honour to be there.”