Dr. Elaine Yuen is former Chair of the Wisdom Traditions Department and Professor at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Currently retired, she continues to teach and write on pastoral caregiving (chaplaincy), contemplative education and Buddhist studies. She hails from Philadelphia where she was an associate professor, researcher, and interfaith chaplain at Thomas Jefferson University.
Rachel Payne of Boston University interviewed Elaine Yuen for this article.
Q: What are some highlights from your experience working as a chaplain and teaching chaplains?
A: My chaplaincy training was in Philadelphia at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. There was something about that present moment experience of being with people, not knowing what could unfold, and discerning what might be relevant and helpful. One thing that has always intrigued me was knowing when a pastoral encounter was complete.
It’s not as if you dispense prayers like medicine or something like that. That has always interested me, and it has continued in my teaching. Looking into what that present moment experience really is: most traditions have different ways of thinking about this question. In Buddhism, it is connected to the practice of meditation.
Q: You are an accomplished meditation practitioner and teacher, and you teach on contemplative approaches to spiritual care. How do you see the relationship between meditation and providing spiritual care?
A: It’s a big question. I feel very much that my Buddhist practice has pointed to being present in the moment and prepared to engage: mindfulness and awareness. But almost equally important in terms of my own Buddhist training is what we call the training of bodhichitta, “awakened heart.” I have a lot of Quaker friends who call it inner light.
For me, it is believing in this heart that exists within everyone, so that there is this place that I am trying to connect with or help people discover for themselves. What opens up their heart? Where does their basic goodness reside? It could sometimes be in a prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer. It could be that their family opens up their heart. Or in Philadelphia it was sometimes the football team, the Eagles. The storied Eagles would open up their heart!
So this was always something that I practiced: mindfulness and awareness was seeking to establish this bridge with whomever I was interacting. And over that bridge, the meaning-making aspects of a pastoral care encounter could be interrogated and tried out.
Q: What excites you most about the field of chaplaincy?
A: To me the most exciting thing is how you could support people’s meaning-making in difficult transitions. No matter where it is — in the hospital, in a pandemic — there are difficult transitions. I was trained in medicine, and it doesn’t always have the time or bandwidth to do that. The ethical and moral conundrums that come up around a very physical thing like medical care — I think it is wonderful that we can bring attention to them.
Q: What concerns you about the field?
A: I know the field is becoming much more institutionalized, for lack of a better word. I think it is navigating it pretty well but chaplaincy as a practice — there’s an ineffable part of it. So I know as a researcher we can describe it, give case studies, say how many people did this kind of procedure, and that’s useful, but to me we should always be seeking a balance.
I taught public health at a medical school, and we talked about medicine as an art and a science. Chaplaincy has been mostly art and the science is coming into it. Maintaining a balance is important as we go forward.
Q: What do you believe to be the most important skills to cultivate in future chaplains?
A: Listening skills are important, and that includes the dialogic aspect of listening. I think it’s important for chaplains, whoever they are, to find a deep reservoir within their faith tradition, because you are put into difficult situations. You need to be able to find some form of what, in Buddhism, we would call “non-dual awareness,” the cloud of unknowing, being able to work with the ineffable aspect of ordinary being, which is a lifelong process.
So that goes into the religious training aspect of people identifying their own religion and the competency of how you navigate different religious or cultural traditions. Multicultural, multi-religious ability comes from listening and dialogue and your own deep reserve. And that is completed by curiosity. Because if you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re in trouble!
Q: Is the current pandemic changing how you see the role of chaplains? In what way?
A: It seems so much more real. As chaplains we talk about resilience, and it’s “really real” now. Some of my students have come to the chaplaincy program and they thought they’d have some kind of reasonable livelihood that combined meditation and a paycheck or something. Now the suffering is so real. And the chaplain’s mandate to meet that suffering is very real, too. It’s not just for coffee and a chat when people call the chaplain. I’m not sure how that is going to shake out.
Q: What would you tell chaplains now, given this pandemic?
A: I would encourage chaplains, wherever you are, to be able to take a moment and breathe. And be grateful that we’re all here in service and that we have this precious human life to be able to offer to others for as long as we can. And to take a pause and then continue because there are often so many logistical aspects of chaplaincy, but to be able to take a pause, too, is very important.
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