When applying to become a Board Certified Chaplain (BCC), one is required to submit a Spiritual Autobiography. The guidelines of the Spiritual Autobiography include recognizing the recurring themes and patterns that have set one up for ministry/chaplaincy. I found this to be an engaging task, especially after being on the planet for 6 decades with the sole goal of spiritual unfoldment. I include it here to inspire other chaplains who are going for Board Certification, as I have been inspired by the different SA’s I’ve heard from my cohorts. I hope you enjoy and are inspired by this intimate sharing!
Throughout writing this spiritual autobiography, the image I keep seeing is a cross-section of a large tree. Having analyzed the rings and cracks hundreds of times during my wood-chopping years, how the image feels at 61 years old, excites me. Words like pith, heartwood, sapwood, growth rings and rays give historic location to the themes, the growth rings, leading me to here. The five main themes that relate to my spiritual evolution and service as a minister/chaplain are:
1) Connection with the Earth and Animals
2) Solitude/ Being Set Apart
3) Spiritual Guidance and Mentors
My essence, the inner voice, with me since the beginning of memory, has spoken from a place that is well beyond the chatter of my mind. As a young child, it was a felt sense, something I wanted more of, usually inspired by nature and animals. This voice has been loud or soft at times, but has never left me. Throughout the formation of the themes in my life, this voice has given me guidance, like a wisdom being holding a lamp at every crossroad to show me the way.
My family was stable and blessed me emotionally, physically and spiritually. I had a loving mother and father. My first brother was born when I was two, and the second, when I was four. Consequently, I have few memories of one-on-one time with my mom or dad, but I do remember a lot of play and nurturing. My mother let me help her in her garden and was a lover of all animals. This began a life time affinity of being connected to the earth through growing flowers and food, and spending time with furry or feathered friends. We always had at least one dog, a cat, a chicken, and later, my first horse. The appearance of my two brothers, two years apart, did not threaten the time I had with either parent. I had some competitive energy with my middle brother, but an affinity with my little brother. As a tomboy, it all worked out.
On weekends, my dad woke me up at 4:00AM to go fishing. We were in the middle of Puget Sound when dawn emerged, always a sensory symphony that quivered my core. I learned to read the water’s surface and discern the mysteries below of herring, salmon, sometimes Orca or Pilot whales. Having gardens, woods and Puget Sound to safely play in and on, introduced me early to my inner voice which speaks loud and clear when I am alone in nature. In this solitude, my inner voice sang with abandon and wonder.
At the ages of eight and nine, I was hospitalized repeatedly for pneumonia, pleurisy and bronchitis. Both my parents smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, with no idea of the potential consequences of second-hand smoke. During my second bout of pneumonia, my right lung collapsed. Despite all medical interventions, it refused to inflate, and I was scheduled to have the lung removed. The surgeon visited me the day before the surgery. He sat on my bed and flatly explained how he would cut me in half and take out my right lung. In my nine-year old mind, this graphic description invoked the trick I’d seen on television where someone gets into a wooden box and a magician saws them in half. I was horrified. I asked him, “Will I die?” He said, smiling grimly, “Not if I can help it!” This inconceivable scenario left me feeling deeply confused and alone. Even the doctor couldn’t promise me I’d survive the surgery, but they could tell me that I could live a “normal” life with one lung? What good was that if I didn’t survive the surgery?
My mother was a firm believer in prayer. She prayed in private, retreating to her room to sit in semi-darkness, in front of her Mary statue, turning pages in small prayer books with one hand and doing her rosary with the other. The day before my surgery, she prayed two Nine-Hour Novenas back to back. A local Catholic School prayed for me the morning of the surgery. After the anesthesia was administered, and seconds before I was to go under the scalpel, miraculously the collapsed lung inflated, and the surgery was canceled.
The last bout with pneumonia left me a changed child. I was released from the hospital with a little emergency kit which I carried it everywhere. It contained an ID card, documentation on my lung problems, and an inhaler. Though I felt secure with the little kit, it was a reminder I could relapse any time. For two months after the surgery, I was only allowed to walk to the woods next to our house, or to the end of our cul-de-sac. Luckily for me, Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, a retired couple who had lived in China and Japan for 20 years, lived on my street. They held the first lamp on my spiritual journey, though I wouldn’t recognize that till much later. Their yard was an Asian playground, with moats, koi ponds, and water wheels turned by little wooden men Mr. C carved. I spent every afternoon there for months, following Mr. C around the yard, or watching him woodwork in his shop. At lunchtime, Mrs. C invited us in. The house was filled with Asian artifacts. Mrs. C saw right away how I focused in on the little statues and paintings, and told me just enough about each one for me to recognize that the world was broader than what I lived with.
One day Mr. C began a complex project. He glued and clamped nine pieces of 8×8 vertical grain wood to create a solid 3-foot square cube of wood. He spent days meticulously drawing a 3D image of a fat smiling man on each of the six sides. Top, bottom, front, back, side to side—it was a hologram. This blew my little mind, I was mesmerized. After a solid week of measuring and drawing, Mr. C brought out a set of fine wood chisels. He was fond of giving me jobs. With this project, my job was to sit still and be quiet, while he convinced me I was the model for what he laboriously carved over the next several months. I could not get my head around the fact that Mr. C was sculpting a man with a big belly, but that I, a medium sized eight-year old girl, was supposedly the model. Despite that, I sat still and never tired of watching him carve with the tap-tap of his different chisels. When he completed this figure, he made a point of letting me put the jewel in the Buddha’s belly button. Spending time with Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham allowed for whatever spiritual imprint I came into this life with to take form.
My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Reno, (written about in “My First Buddhist Teacher” here on this website under Buddhist Writings) was rather dowdy. She had one blue dress and one red one, baggy nylons, slip showing, limp hair, and old shoes, but her heart was warm. When I was close to her, I felt a peace that was inviting, accepting, and unique. One rainy day she showed up to class in a new white, fancy dress, new shoes; her hair and makeup immaculate. She was so beautiful. I remember thinking that maybe she was going to get married now. Halfway into class that day there was a ruckus outside. We all looked out the window to the playground, and saw a white cat being attacked by a big dog. Instantaneously, Miss Reno dropped her book and ran across the muddy field, chased the dog away with a stick, and picked up the bloody cat. When she re-entered the classroom, cat clutched to her white dress, now shredded and stained with blood, new high heels broken, she modeled for me kindness, compassion, right action, and non-attachment—all the Buddha’s teachings rolled into one heroic act.
In fifth grade I scored in the top two percent in a nationwide test, and became part of the first academic program designed for “gifted children.” My dad couldn’t relate to this, but being labeled as “gifted” gave my mom a great deal of pride. This was a new sentiment, as she had repeatedly implied that my tomboy tastes differed from the “girly girl” she’d hoped for during her pregnancy. I liked that she was warmer to me, but I didn’t like being set apart from my classmates. I had already experienced being set apart by my hospitalizations, and did not like the feeling of being disconnected from my peers. I recall my mom giving me encouragement to give it a try. With this new approval from my mom, I agreed.
Every Tuesday I was taken from my regular classroom to another school in the district where all the local “gifted children” were present. I felt shame at leaving my peers. After all, I was not even among the smartest students in my regular class. I couldn’t explain to myself, let alone them, why I was going. This fact contributed to me losing friends. This incident of being set apart spun me into a confused tug of war between my self-identity and obligation. I see now it was one of the first events that began to shape me as Susan. I realized I would have to speak my truth. I was going to disappoint my parents, but just then began to recognize the difference between my own needs and those of my parents. One pivotal day before going to school, I broke down and sobbed, pleading with my mother to let me quit the group and return to the normalcy of my fifth- grade life. After minutes of a long silent gaze into my eyes, she agreed.
My spiritual individuation happened around the age of 12. I explained to my parents that I knew God, but that God spoke to me louder in the woods than in our Roman Catholic church. Speaking this truth appeared to give my mom and dad permission to stop attending Sunday mass. My mother’s spirit rocketed from being a religious “good Catholic” to being an empowered artist and a deeply spiritual being. My dad claimed the truth that his real church was being on the water.
At the same time, I had my first dark night of the soul due to feeling out of sync with my peers, and was diagnosed with ulcers and migraine headaches. My mom frequently let me stay home from school to quell my crying spells and give me peace. On these days I’d curl up in a blanket on the floor and look through the biggest window in our house to the treetops. I began having spontaneous out-of-body visions, and filled books with automatic writing. I obtained my first copy of the Bhagavad Gita and felt connected to Arjuna’s struggles. One day my mom took my copy of the Bhagavad Gita, handed it back and said, “I’ve always known you were a child of God.” She didn’t question my spiritual path after that. My father, though accepting that we weren’t going to church, could not embrace anything he wasn’t familiar with, and we began to drift apart. I painfully renounced all my friends and spent months developing my own interests. That summer I started my first vegetable garden, and lovingly tended it during the summer break. I emerged as a person more solidly grounded in my own sense of spirit.
My eighth grade English teacher focused my spiritual path by writing a note in the margins of my journal, “Your writings ring the bell of thedharma.” A loud echo went off inside the deepest folds of my soul. Insatiably, I pursued the meaning of dharma, and have not stopped to this day. The band Jethro Tull released the album Aqualung, which became an anthem to my spiritual individuation. One of my favorite lyrics from the song Wind Updirectly spoke to the expansive God I was beginning to know:
I don’t believe you,
you have the whole damn thing all wrong.
He’s not the kind
you have to wind up
~ Ian Anderson, Wind-Up
As my independence allowed for explorations further afield, my spiritual wings began to spread. I discovered places and events which made those wings flutter: Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where I listened to the African drummers or the Hare Krishna’s for hours, the Theosophical Society’s Reading Room, the Buddhist gardens, and the abandoned tiny fishing shack at the beach where I’d spend most afternoons alone with my dog. Just like the pencil drawings on Mr. Cunningham’s block of wood became chiseled into form, I was emerging into me.
College at Western Washington State in Bellingham was only made possible by a few scholarships, as my parents had no money. In 1975, the year I enrolled in college, the Asian Studies program I hoped to major in abruptly closed. After reading some of my poetry, my English teacher singled me out and placed me in a special class for graduate students. I was befriended by the author Annie Dillard, who was a scholar in residence at Western Washing State that year. She loved my poetry. We played softball, went to open-mics, and conversed into the wee hours about the wonders of the universe. Having Annie validate my inner voice deepened my faith and my orientation to my soul. I spent that summer nested in one of the Skagit Valley’s riverside swamps, writing, painting, and studying Chinese. I quit college in the fall and moved to a remote cabin on the north shore of Orcas Island, the sacred land I was conceived on, to live a life more organic to my being.
I continued to pursue my Chinese studies on the island. Just down the mountain from my little cabin lived a great Chinese philosopher and poet, Mr. T.Y. Pang. Mr. Pang, upon hearing of my deep love of Chinese culture, took me on as his student. We spent hours analyzing and translating Confucian and Taoist texts, and poetry. As my studies grew, I became intrigued with Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism and discovered a small bookstore in Vancouver that had a collection of Buddhist translations from the Chinese, Tibetan and Thai. This became a haven for me, a place I could move the edge of my studies further.
In 1977, a few weeks before starting college for the second time, I went to Seattle to visit my family. Days later, on the way back to the island, I drove past my little brother who was playing tennis at a public court near my family’s home. He saw me and we waved to each other. In that instant a voice went off in my stomach that said, “You will never see him standing again.” Indeed, he became a quadriplegic a week later, just days after he graduated from high school, in a body surfing accident in Hawaii. After nine months in the hospital, he returned to our family home, newly remodeled to accommodate Jeff’s life as a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair. I also moved back home, dreams of college put on hold, to get to know him as a paralyzed person. Every night I lay awake listening to him weep in his room downstairs, trapped in an 18-year-old body he could no longer move. The depth and trauma of this tragedy changed me. I committed, with the fervency and permanence of a tattoo, that I would start every morning with gratitude, simply for being able to get up. I vowed to walk every day, to embrace everything I saw or smelled with newness, with wonder. I vowed I would always act on my passions and ideas, and only do things that served my spirit.
I saw the Dalai Lama for the first time in 1979, during his first visit to the United States. When he emerged onto the porch of a small house in Seattle, I went into an altered state, emerging five hours later when a friend found me sitting on the curb. Over the course of those five hours, my spiritual compass reset into something inexplicably familiar. From that moment onward, the Dalai Lama has been my root teacher and Tibetan Buddhism the focus and framework of my spiritual path. Mr. Pang wasn’t thrilled at this direction, but convinced me that I needed some kind of long-term livelihood to support my hunger for such obscure studies. I prepared to enter a local college to obtain my teaching credential.
Disability, pain and loss have been constant themes since my brother’s accident, with my friends and family, animals and myself. I moved to California in 1982 and gave birth to my daughter Donna in 1984. The pregnancy was full of complications. It became clear I was in an abusive relationship with Donna’s father, and I became a single mom in 1986. For the second time, I enrolled in college to get a teaching degree, and for the second time, I was thwarted when my daughter was diagnosed with a rare endocrine disorder and needed weeks of tests and a year of treatment. I took a job as a mail carrier in 1988, months before my mom died of cancer at the young age of 56.
In 1995 I began to experience problems with my hands. I was misdiagnosed and lost the use of my arms and hands for eight years due to a failed surgery. Due to a chronic underlying circulatory condition (which should have exempted me from the surgery) my body underwent a full system collapse. Legal issues emerged, because the surgery had not been properly approved or screened. I had to fight for the services I had coming to me through my employment, and from the manner the injury to my arms and hands had been mis-handled. At the depth of this dark night, my spiritual teacher insisted on coming from Nepal to stay with me even though I had no money, no food, no resources to offer him. He said, “All we care about is your warm heart. All else will manifest.” The line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” was so true for me during this time. Over 20 years of being a solitary Buddhist practitioner came to light in the revelation that my non-traditional path of Buddhism was in fact quite traditional as was validated by my lama and his entourage. His stay affirmed my belief that though my life was excruciating, it was perfectly fitting for spiritual growth. At the same time, I met Dale Borglum of the Living/Dying Project, who invited me to sit at the bedside of people dying. As my health continued to fail, Dale paid for my appointments with the best alternative healers in the Bay Area. He supported me during a 72-day fast I underwent to repair my intestines from the toxicity of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs I’d been prescribed.
I also met Bruce Murphy, the Chaplain at Marin General Hospital, and felt the first call to chaplaincy. After giving the possibility a lot of thought, I determined I wasn’t ready given the complexity of my health and life challenges. I began four years of therapy with Dr. Arthur Deikman, a pioneering psychiatrist in the field of mysticism and spiritual emergence. He gently kept me on the path of spiritual integration and called me a warrior for how I was meeting such difficult times. I attribute surviving that dark time and emerging on the path of spiritual mentorship and chaplaincy to my lama, to Dale, and to Dr. Deikman.
The truth of suffering became a bridge which brought me from isolation to interconnectedness, from being singled out, to finding a calling. This led to over 20 years of working within the Tibetan Community in Exile, specifically the monastic community. I started two non-profits with two different monasteries, one in Nepal, and one in India. I began what was to become a long- term relationship with my soulmate, Kesang, in 2001. In 2002, all the legal issues settled in my favor, and I moved from a small village into a nearby town.
This began a 12-year journey of being caregiver to my good friend Jay, a quadriplegic whose injury was at the same level as my brother’s. Jay was a spiritual traveler of many dimensions, a great interfaith scholar, a visual artist and musician, and a spiritual mirror to me. Being his caregiver 24/7 for 12 years was intense, but through sharing his life I was also able to stay current with my brother’s physical challenges, as both of them had similar needs. In addition, living and loving two high-functioning quadriplegics fueled my own resilience when I experienced my own disabilities. Jay died six months before my brother, almost to the day.
In 2008, after accompanying a friend through her husband’s death, I met the Kaiser Hospital Chaplain, Dave Mitchell, who encouraged me to revisit the idea of studying chaplaincy. Later that very day, Gina Rose Halpern accepted me into the Chaplaincy Institute of Arts and Interfaith Ministry (CHI). Like Dr. Deikman, Gina Rose constantly reflected back to me my own wholeness, creativity, spirituality and resilience. She encouraged me to challenge a Master’s in Divinity acceptance protocol with my extensive life experience. I was accepted at Starr King School of the Ministry, fulfilling a lifelong dream of achieving a higher degree of focused education. Finally, I was going back in school to really focus on what was in my heart to study! This would be my third attempt to reenter academia. I was well aware of the obstacles to starting school from my past two attempts of my brother’s accident and my daughter’s illness, and nervously protected myself the weeks before starting at Starr King.
On the way home from the second day of orientation at Starr King, my car was stopped on the freeway due to heavy traffic when I was rear-ended by a car traveling at 50 miles an hour. As a result of the impact, four discs slid into my spinal cord, causing excruciating pain in both legs. My doctors and physical therapists advised me to postpone school for at least a year, but I was not about to give up the chance of getting a Master’s Degree. I refused pain medication, and relied on ice and a TENS unit for pain management, so that I could have the focus to study and drive myself to school.
January of 2011 began a three-year period of great intensity and transition. My father, my lama and my spiritual uncle all died within the first month of 2011. I was ordained by CHI, and my daughter got married. During the last year of my M. Div. program, I took a class in Prison Ministry, which led to a semester of independent fieldwork at San Quentin State Prison. This extended into four units of CPE under the Catholic Chaplain there. I completed my M. Div. in 2012, and my four units of CPE with CPSP in 2013. Jay and my brother Jeff died in 2013. I began SEF training in 2015. Throughout these events, I was spiritually supported through sharing time with my beloved horse Tiger, who died in 2016. All this time, the leg pain from the 2009 car accident increased, eventually leaving me unable to walk or stand unless necessary. I had spine surgery in January of 2018 which alleviated my symptoms, and has given back to me the multiplying fruits of my own resiliency, inspired by my many disabled mentors
When I look back on my spiritual formation, which led to chaplaincy, I see every step was set in place with precision, much like the tap-tap of Mr. Cunningham’s chisels. Each theme has ripened into an ability and skillset that helps me serve others. My love of nature, solitude, trust in my spiritual practice, a deep prayer life, the right mentors, and an inclusive, visceral understanding of suffering has led to sustaining self-care.
Those themes formed me, and now inform who I am today, and how I serve as a chaplain. I will revisit them now at the end of this Spiritual Autobiography in the context of my chaplaincy and ministry:
1) Connection with the Earth/Animals: My constant connection with nature and animals has given me skills to help me empty into the field of encounter in front of me. The sea, the color of trees at sunset, and the body language of animals taught me how to read non-verbal language. I know I have cultivated a quiet, healing presence, as this is reflected back to me by the people I work with on a daily basis. This connection also provides a reliable source of my own self-care and rejuvenation.
2) Solitude, being Set Apart: Having a life where I was ‘singled out’ in so many ways has given me the gift of knowing the terror of being singled out, as well as the gifts that could be waiting ahead. Often being singled out forces the knowing of one’s truth. Experiencing this helps me recognize connection, disconnection, and interconnection in those I work with. It is easy for me to stay grounded and be present when I accompany people during their spiritual disconnections through illness, disability or trauma because I know this moment is one in a string of many, and I can fully join in their fears or anxieties without needing to fix them.
3) Spiritual Guidance and Mentors:Spiritual guidance and mentors are a thick growth ring in the tree of my life, as exemplified in this paper. Experiencing such guidance and mentoring has shown me how to be with someone in their own spiritual connection and disconnection. Thanks to the variety of mentors I’ve had, from my parents, to the Cunninghams, to my 4thand 8thgrade teachers, Mr. Pang, my Tibetan teachers, and my animals, my eyes are open to the many ways spiritual guidance can be conveyed.
4) Disability and Pain: This theme is also a thick growth ring, the one theme that has supercharged the next theme, that of Resilience, to fully bear fruit. Disability and pain have given me the sharpening stone to whet my resilience. Equally, disability and pain have prioritized self-care as the center of my being. Utilizing appropriate self-care is a have-to; it is not negotiable. Without appropriate self-care, I could not serve in any capacity. Disability and pain have also ravaged my family, so I know the ripple effects caused when one person enters life changes through these experiences. When someone mentions their pain, I can fully resonate with the sorrow, sadness, regret, remorse, grief and loss that are often marbled into that pain. My being able to be completely present with this experience on a visceral level has allowed me to provide a healing presence to others as well as spiritual companionship. Having experienced the stripping away of identity through disability, pain or trauma, I can fully accompany anyone on any step of their journey through this.
5) Resilience: Resilience is the theme that intersects and joins all the other themes, like the penetrating rays of the tree. Resilience has been the element responsible for transmuting the details of my challenges into the rocket fuel of spiritual transformation. Starting with the little girl and her emergency kit, I took my own healing into my own hands. Having witnessed Jeff and Jay’s spiritual and creative rise from the ashes of their quadriplegia, I committed to stay empowered, like they had, and to face these challenges as a survivor, not a victim. Thirty years later, both arms in casts, I studied law to navigate my multiple legal cases, and though I lost my every cent I’d ever earned, I eventually emerged successful in each case. Fighting my legal cases for 10 years on my own taught me about oppression, discrimination, patience and perseverance. Having “been there,” I can identify and resonate with the many subtle ways oppression and discrimination wears a person down, as well as the fruits of patience and perseverance.
This experience has served me well in my work with inmates, as they are all caught up in an oppressive bureaucracy and system. Knowing what it feels like to have lost everything while fighting to reclaim my rights, knowing what it feels like to have your fate lie in the hands of a judge who doesn’t know you, these experiences create a palpable resonance of compassion and understanding between the inmates and me. This resonance allows for trust, mutual experience and disclosure on an intimate, healing level. This resilience has created an energetic atmosphere of wholeness through which I view and serve the world today. Looking back on these five themes, these growth rings, I see they are united by the rays of resilience.
The training I’ve received in both seminaries, my CPE, and my ongoing training as a SEF CPE facilitator keeps me bolstered with an array of tools and outer resources. I keep my pastoral skills sharp with my Practitioner Community and my chaplain colleagues at the prison. Though the population I currently serve is inmates, each skill outlined above is useful in any kind of chaplaincy. With the inmates, all the above qualities serve my ability to spiritually accompany them from their life of disconnection and violence to one of interconnection and inner peace. With my advisees, CPE students or chaplain friends and ministers, the skills and qualities I’ve cultivated and internalized support them in their own challenges with others, or their own internal challenges and tests of faith.
Thank you for reading!