My very first Hindu Memorial Service

In the field of hospital chaplaincy, one of the best aspects (among many) is that opportunities are presented continually that challenge the chaplain to go above and beyond the type of care he or she can provide to the patient, family and hospital staff.

Also, in hospital chaplaincy, you meet people with a whole spectrum of personalities and faith traditions. In all of this, there are certain encounters that leave an impeccable imprint in the chaplain’s life and the chaplain is no longer the same again.

I had the honor of meeting someone [let’s refer to the person as DEji] like that and get to know and serve DEji in the last few months. In the days leading up to DEji’s death, our conversations revolved more and more around Hindu philosophy. It was clear to me that DEji was convinced of the Soul’s Immortality – a core Hindu belief. DEji would be beaming with joy as we recited and meditated on the Shanti Mantra DEji had chosen at the beginning of the visit.

Little did I know that I will end up having the honor to conduct a Hindu Memorial Service to celebrate DEji’s life. I’ve always assisted with other memorial services at the hospital but had not put together a Hindu Memorial Service, let alone conduct it in a hospital setting. Saying that I was extremely nervous is an understatement.

I began reflecting upon my conversations with DEji and started jotting down notes as to how I envisioned a Hindu Memorial Service in the hospital sanctuary would look like. DEji had really made it easy for me to pick which scriptural verses I would use but I also had to design the service in a manner that would stay true to its Hindu-ness while serving the largely non-Hindu attendees.

I was able to design the service, design the service program and set up the sanctuary in time for the service this evening. I was nervous when I arrived this morning at the hospital  but continually reminded myself to refocus and meditate internally on the chants and verses I had picked for the service. This helped a lot. So did the support and confidence exhibited in me by my coworkers and family.

I did not want to let DEji down. There is an inexplicable shift that happens within when one is in the presence of an actively dying person. DEji taught me a lot in the last days of life.

Almost two years ago to this day, I was very close to quitting Clinical Pastoral Education as I underwent something personally traumatic. That same day, I had been assigned to participate and decorate a (relatively) joyous occasion at the same place in which today I held my first Hindu Memorial Service.

As I picked up the rose petals two years ago, I was fighting with God. Oh, I was so angry. Today, two years later, as I picked up the rose petals, I expressed deep gratitude for the honor to celebrate someone as amazing as DEji, to be able to stand in a place of worship at a hospital and recite Shanti Mantras.

If anyone had said to me two years ago that today I would be able to pull this off, I would have definitely laughed. – not at the idea of it but due to the size of self-doubt I harbored within.

The Divine works in most amazing, incredibly surprising ways. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve as a hospital chaplain, as a chaplain of the Hindu faith and as a Hindu chaplain. I am also deeply grateful for every single person who continue to support me in any way or form.

Until next time,

Namaste

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पुर्णमुदच्यते
पूर्णश्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते
शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

oṃ pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidam pūrṇāt pūrṇamudacyate
pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya pūrṇamevāvaśiṣyate
oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ

That is Whole. This is Whole.Wholeness arises out of Wholeness. If Wholeness is taken away from Wholeness, Wholeness remains. OM Peace, Peace, Peace

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Native Languages and Communication – The Spiritual Need to Belong

During my very first unit of clinical training, we were taught about the spiritual needs that are part of being human. One of them is the need to belong – Of belonging to something, to someone, to a community, to a nation, to the Universe. And of course, the sense of belonging and what it looks or feels like is different for each individual.

As the clinical training is geared towards exposing oneself to one’s own self, I went through (at times voluntarily, most times involuntarily) the journey to explore my sense of belonging. What makes me feel that I belong?

I began to walk this path and began to pay attention to what made me feel comfortable. To do this, I had to think of what made me feel uncomfortable. How did I express myself? This led me to really realize for myself that I enjoy talking. A lot. Even though I talk to a lot of people on an everyday basis, I felt something amiss. 

When I brought this to the attention of my supervisor, he insisted that I explore this more. While this is in no way a comprehensive list of my feelings, here’s what I discovered for myself: 

The last two years have highlighted major personal losses for me. It’s been very hard to realize that two people I was very close will no longer be a part of my everyday life. It’s been very hard to realize that I can no longer pick up the phone and talk and share my love for the latest Hindi song or a beautiful piece of writing in Hindi or Gujarati or the most random thing that happened at work today. Of course, I continue to miss their presence in my life but, thanks to CPE (sigh!), I’ve had to explore this further.

I miss talking in my native languages (Gujarati and Hindi). I miss having friends my age with whom I could converse any time of the day about anything in my language. I miss sharing my emotions through Hindi songs and knowing that the person will understand. I still do this with my family but I do not have anyone outside my home that I can share my time with.

I realized how much I love my native languages. Someone shared this video by Patricia Ryan (a long time English teacher) titled ‘Don’t insist on English’ on Facebook. I was in tears as I watched this video because I realize the importance of being able to communicate in my own language. I also realize that everything that Patricia Ryan states in this video is very true. A quick example was when I talked about puya in my theological reflection paper. I realized that there is no English word for it. Puṇya is a concept that does not really have an exact word in English. The explanation turned into a paragraph. 

This is just one word. The thought about how many world languages currently exist and how many concepts cannot be translated in to English really boggles my mind.

Yes, I am very aware that I live in North America. Yes, I have friends who are not Indian and do not speak Indian languages and I do love them. But, as my supervisor insisted me to explore, I am finding out that this is a huge piece of my sense of being that I miss in my daily life. At times, I think it feels like limited living. How can I even translate the Hindi lyrics of a Gulzar song or a poem in Gujarati by Narsinh Mehta to English and still expect that its soul remains intact?

This realization helped me see that there are so many instances in my daily life that innately feel as if I do not belong. A reason why I just cannot relate to certain type of music or writing or conversation.

So, how does this translate to caregiving as a chaplain? 

  • A person’s native language is important. The language brings with it a sense of our-ness, a familiarity, and yes, a sense of belonging. This helps me understand the limited conversations with a patient whose first language is not English and the unlimited talks with a patient who speaks a mutual language.
  • It makes me aware that I need to find more language appropriate resources as I am able to ensure that my caregiving can be as rounded as possible.
  • It brings me to realization that I may not always come close to helping a person feel that they belong but at least I can relate to the person in knowing how it feels to not belong. 
  • It shows how much a language impacts perception. For example – the anger and rude behavior from some English speakers towards people conversing in their native language amongst themselves. The angry response is probably due to a heightened sense of not belonging, not knowing. And we know, not knowing is scary. Right?
  • It reminds me how important and vast the need is for native languages speakers, especially as it relates to the larger South Asian community who predominantly speak Hindu/Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali and other major languages as spoken in the Indian subcontinent.
  • Another reminder that grieving is complex. Grief is complex.

Losing someone (in any way or form) has many layers of feelings and emotions attached to it. It is very painful. It is very hard. And most of all, it is very lonely. Being able to truly communicate all of those things is definitely the first step towards accepting this loss. 

My question to you : What does belonging look like for you? Let me know.

Until next time,

Namaste

One can translate an editorial but not a poem. For one can go across the border naked but not without one’s skin; for, unlike clothes, one cannot get a new skin. ~Karl Kraus, translated from German by Harry Zohn

What Does It Mean To Be A Chaplain? — II

What does it mean to be a Chaplain? Read the first part here. My goal in writing these posts is to expose the field of chaplaincy to communities that have little or no idea about this profession. This is especially true for the larger Hindu community where the concept of chaplaincy has not really existed until now.

What more to expect from a professional chaplain:

  • Help find your own answers: In my opinion, one of the most important things that we do, as chaplains, is to help someone find their own answers instead of telling someone what their answer should be. It is part of listening where a chaplain rephrases what is being said by the patient. This helps the patient/client understand their own emotions better.
  • Being Present : This literally just means being present with someone. It is the act of being a physical presence where no words may be exchanged, only silent presence. Another layer of this presence is also mental presence. This means that one is present with another mentally where there are no thoughts that are not related to the current situation at hand. For example, when a chaplain is paged to be with someone who has been given a new or tough diagnosis, there is not much to be said. This is where presence comes in. Just really truly being with someone as they share their tears, stories or just being part of their silence.
  • Help find strength within one’s own religious and/or spiritual center : When a person is going through a rough time, it is possible that one questions his or her own faith and look for God’s hand in their situation. This is conditional to one’s own religious or spiritual preference. There are people for whom this is not true. Even people who do not identify with a particular religion tend to question the meaning and purpose in their personal situation. A chaplain’s role here is to assess and help identify what helps a particular person deal with obstacles and tough times. There is no space for proselytizing or converting others in the realm of chaplaincy. To me, this is of utmost importance.
  • Education and Continuing Professional Training : To become a Board Certified Chaplain, a candidate is required to have a minimum of a Master’s degree. A lot of chaplains have a Master’s in Divinity, most likely from a seminary. There are also a lot of chaplains who have a doctorate, a D.Min (Doctor of Ministry) and some also have a PhD. Also, as required in any professional licensure/certification, there is a requirement of getting Continued Education credits.

I still remember the day in my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education where I was being given a tour of the hospital by my supervisor and as we waited for the elevator, one of the doctors asked my supervisor whether there was a particular training needed to become a professional chaplain. When my supervisor explained, the doctor was so surprised to know of all the work that went into becoming a trained chaplain and he said : Oh and here I am thinking, chaplains just prayed with people.

While praying is a part of chaplaincy, being a chaplain is far more than that. Far far more than that. A good chaplain is committed to constantly growing in his or her own faith and professionalism to continue to serve better. 

There are also roles that some chaplains tend to take up with respect to being a public advocate in interfaith and professional settings as well as networking and outreach within the chaplaincy community and outside of it.

With this concludes a (really) brief overview about the work of a chaplain. If there is anything I may have missed, do let me know in the comments below and I will add that to this overview.

Until next time,

Namaste.

Your own self-realization is the greatest service you can render the world – Sri Ramana Maharishi

What Does It Mean To Be A Chaplain?

Historically speaking, the term ‘Chaplain’ has its root in the Christian faith tradition. When one googles the term ‘Chaplain,‘ this is the first definition that pops up:

Middle English: from Old French chapelain, from medieval Latin cappellanus, originally denoting a custodian of the cloak of St. Martin, from cappella, originally ‘little cloak’.

Rev. Dr. Naomi Paget, the author of ‘The Work of the Chaplain,’ defines chaplains as “being clergy members from any one of various religious faiths who are employed by an institution or agency and serve the clients, employees, and families of the institution.” I had the opportunity to attend one of her presentations on Disaster Intervention and it was a very good day of learning.

Chaplains also serve those who do not follow a particular religion or are not religious. The job of a chaplain is to provide effective spiritual care.

There are many different fields of work for a chaplain but some of the most known areas are : Military Chaplaincy, Health-Care Chaplaincy (which is where I currently work), Workplace Chaplaincy (includes corporations), Prison Chaplaincy, First-Responder Chaplaincy (Disaster response). There are also chaplains for fire departments as well as police departments.

Now on to what to expect from a chaplain:

  • Confidentiality : This is probably one of the most important requirements of a good chaplain. Whatever is said between the patient/client and the chaplain stays between the two, unless explicitly permitted by the patient/client to be shared with others. In a healthcare setting, the federal law of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is also applicable to staff chaplains. In other words, the same law that applies to doctors/nurses and other medical staff which protects patient information and privacy applies to hospital chaplains.
  •  Good Listening Skills : Non-judgmental, active listening which is different from hearing. A chaplain invites you to share your burden. Irrespective of the reason for grief/loss or stress, a good chaplain invites you to express your feelings and concerns. It is said to be helpful to verbalize your feelings and emotions – this act results in a certain type of objectivity/distance from identification with those emotions and thus, help your own self.
  • Provide information and guidance regarding medical ethics, living wills, organ donation, life support decisions and more : This is especially applicable in a health-care setting where a patient or family is faced with situation that brings up all these questions that one has not had a chance to confront or even think about before this event. Chaplains can also be a link and a liaison between patient, family and staff.
  • Grief and bereavement counseling in dealing with loss or death : This is applicable across the board, irrespective of the setting in which a chaplain is encountered. Chaplains can provide information on support groups and other resources to meet various needs of individuals and families.
  • Religious services, sacraments and prayer : This is provided as religiously appropriate and accepted by the patient and/or family.

To be continued…

Until next time,

Namaste.

Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.  ~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The Need For A Chaplain Who Is Hindu

There are many articles written by many distinguished people highlighting the need for a Hindu chaplain. Some of the most popular articles I’ve come across are

Both articles do a great job of highlighting what chaplaincy would look like within the Hindu community. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at length to authors of both articles. I also work closely with Swami Sarvaanandaji as I work towards my board certification.

I wish to offer a slightly different approach to the need for a chaplain who is Hindu.

As I visit patients in the hospital, I walk into a wide variety of situations. There are so many occasions when I have an opportunity to work closely with family members of patients who are going through some major illness and there are times when there is a patient who has absolutely no one else in his or her life to even visit them at the hospital.

One visit comes to mind right now. I was visiting a really elderly woman (let’s call her Ushaji) who had been at the hospital for over ten days. When I visited her, she asked me in broken english – Are you Indian? I smiled at her and answered – Yes, I am. Her face lit up and she asked me whether I could speak and understand Hindi. I said – Yes, I can.

Those three words opened up a whole different personality of this woman who, until that point according to her medical staff, was quiet, reserved in her behavior. The freedom of being able to communicate in one’s language is such a huge freedom for people in a hospital setting. While chaplains are not medical interpreters, just being able to converse in one’s native language can be a major ice-breaker. This is why there is a need for an Indian chaplain.

As I continued to speak with her, Ushaji shared some wonderful stories about her upbringing and her family. Then we struck the real issue – her faith. She did have visits from other chaplains before but she was hesitant to ask them what she asked me. She asked me whether I knew of a particular Guruji who gives spiritual discourse (pravachan). I instantly knew who she was referring to and asked her more about it. Over the conversation, I was able to dig out more information about how important it had been for Ushaji to watch this Guruji every morning and evening – something she had not been able to do for over ten days now.

I told her that I will ensure she gets to listen, if not watch, the pravachan at least once a day when I visited her. I ran a request through my director and was able to bring in my personal laptop to Ushaji’s room so she could watch 15 minutes of this Guruji on Youtube.

Ushaji was elated about this and over the next 4 days, she was responding better than ever to the treatments and was home by the end of 6 days. This is why there is a need for a chaplain who is a Hindu. 

Another example is that in a university setting. There are many Hindus who work in the college/university setting as a Hindu Life Advisor (or Coach or another title of the sort). Their presence allows Hindu teenagers to voice their opinion, share their concern without feeling judged and to have their cultural needs met. An example comes to mind. A sophomore (let’s call him Jeet) at a very good university (hundreds of miles away from his hometown)  was stressed out and through some channel found out that he could talk to a Hindu life advisor who works for the university. Jeet went to the advisor and was able to vent his frustrations about his parents, their expectations of him and so on. Someone had told Jeet that he was an adult (18 years of age or older) and that he could do what he wants. Well, Jeet knew better. He knew that he could not just do what he wants because the opinion of his parents mattered to him. He needed someone who understood that cultural need. This is where the Hindu life advisor on campus was a great resource and support to him. This is why there is a need for a Chaplain who is a Hindu. 

Having shared these stories, it is important to remember that a professional chaplain of any faith will be able to assist a patient of any faith. Actually, it is a critical training component for professional chaplaincy. The challenge, though, is how little others know about the Hindu dharma and the myriad of practices that fall under dharma. This is why there is a need a chaplain who is a Hindu.

To be continued…

Until next time,

Namaste

Life is a school where you learn how to remember what your soul already knows. ~Author Unknown

Ganesh Utsav and Healthcare Chaplaincy

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A Very Shubh Ganesh Chaturthi, everyone! May your days be filled with unobstructed life situations and full of sheer bliss and peace.

वक्रतुण्ड महाकाय सुर्यकोटि समप्रभ
निर्विघ्नं कुरु मे देव सर्वकार्येषु सर्वदा

Vakra-Tunndda Maha-Kaaya Surya-Kotti Samaprabha
Nirvighnam Kuru Me Deva Sarva-Kaaryessu Sarvadaa

Meaning:
O Lord Ganesha, of Curved Trunk, Large Body, and with the Brilliance of a Million Suns,  Please Make All my Works Free of Obstacles, Always.

Mentioned above is the Ganesh Mantra. Invoking the presence and blessings of Lord Ganesha is the first step of any rites, rituals, puja (worship). A lot of devotees also begin their daily tasks in the same manner. Personally, I recite this mantra during my morning worship as well as when I step out of the house for the day. As the English translation explains: Asking for all my tasks to be free of obstacles by Lord Ganesha’s grace.

It is extremely important to note that every Hindu deity is symbolic and that devotees understand that images are pointers to the Supreme Reality that pervades everything that exists.

Lord Ganesh is a representation of one who has realized the Ultimate Reality. Lord Ganesh encourages seekers to aspire for and reach the Supreme State through proper spiritual practices.

The large ears and elephant head of Lord Ganesh represent wisdom through sravana – active listening – to the eternal truths of Vedanta and manana – independent reflection upon those truths.

This works as daily reminders for me as I put on the badge of a chaplain when I enter the hospital. As chaplains, the very thing we are taught is to listen to the patients, to really hear what they are telling us. Following that, we are encouraged to reflect in an independent, unbiased manner upon what transpired within the patient room and figure out any lessons learned.

So the manifestation of Ganeshji reminds me every morning what I am to aspire for : Active listening and independent reflection.

May your days be filled sheer bliss.

Until next time,

Namaste

Miracles Happen!

These were the words that crossed my mind when I walked out from my very first Clinical Pastoral Education training class.

Cliched much? I know. But still a fact. Chaplaincy is a miracle in my life. Background story time. And this is one story I love telling over n’ over again.

Okay here’s what happened.

It was last summer – Summer of 2012. I was going through a really rough time personally and professionally. I had lost my job in May 2012 and I had been unable to find another one. I figured apart from applying for any possible positions, I started looking at volunteer positions within major hospitals in the area.

One of the first people to get back to me was the Director of Spiritual Support and offered to train me as a volunteer Executive Secretary. Finishing up the requirements for being eligible to work in a hospital, I showed up on my first day. After a couple of days of background work, I was asked whether I would be willing to visit patients on the floors as we were short of volunteers. I immediately took the chance even though I knew I had no previous experience of visiting patients in hospital rooms. That day was an eye-opener. More on that in a different post.

So after the day was over, my director approached me and asked me if I would be willing to take up a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and train to be a chaplain. She must have quickly read the confusion on my face because she quickly added, “Trust me, Shama. You have the heart of a chaplain.” I was honored to hear her say that. Silly me, my response to that was: I don’t mean to be rude, but what’s a chaplain? She explained to me in detail and emailed me the application forms. The only thing I could say at that point was to get back to her later.

I came home that evening and spoke to my dad in detail regarding what had happened. He said, “Apply. What better way to be a Hindu?” I did not think too much of that but went ahead and submitted the application. By the way, the application to CPE requires a few short essays regarding your personal life story and personal faith. That was a Friday.

My training started the following Monday. When I walked into the class, I felt like a child on the first day of kindergarten. What transpired in the room during that class has enlivened my days from that time on.

A whole year has passed since then. I am now at a stage in Hindu chaplaincy that we are driving an initiative in North America to educate the community, especially the Hindus, about the rising need for Hindu Chaplains as well as reserving a spot for Hindus in the inter-faith community.

This is just the beginning of the miracle that continues to unfold in my life.

I intend to post every Monday. If there are some events happening that I would want to share, I shall update the blog more than once a week.

Until next time,

Namaste.