Healing through Reading

Jan Linehan, director of the Spiritual Care Programme

Jan Linehan, who works for Rigpa’s Spiritual Care Programme writes:

Recently, thinking about the influence of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, I remembered that Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning about his experience in the Nazi concentration camps inspired so many people, wondered once whether there was such a thing as healing through reading – “autobibliotherapy” he called it.

From my own experience and from listening to the stories of so many other people who have read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in time of crisis, illness or loss, it is clear to me that reading can heal and that this book has been a source of deep personal healing for many.

The book has the remarkable quality of being inclusive, open and human, so people from all faith traditions, and even those who don’t think of themselves as spiritual, relate to it. In my work with the Spiritual Care Programme, a training and seminar programme which was inspired by the book, I often meet people, especially healthcare professionals or those who have faced illness or loss, who tell me how the book really helped them in a time of great personal crisis and how it continues to do so in their day-to-day work or lives.

Sogyal Rinpoche was one of the first Buddhist teachers to connect the central messages of Buddhism with the world of hospice and palliative care in the West and to call for an urgent change in the way we “look” at illness, death and dying. The influence of these pioneering collaborations, as well as the book and its values, are clearly evident when I talk with people or read contemporary reports and journal articles on palliative care, spiritual care, and compassionate care.

The site of the new Spiritual Care Centre in Germany

Most people are not aware of the stress and emotional distress many health and social care professionals face in their work with the sick, the dying, and their families, and the fact there is little or no specialist training or support for them. For nearly 20 years, the Spiritual Care Programme has been training these carers in meditation, mindfulness, and compassion to address the stress they face and provide them with effective tools for “self-care”. These tools, which are based on Sogyal Rinpoche’s book, can and do make a huge and practical difference to the individual health or social care professional and can change the experience of everyone around them – patients, families, and colleagues.

There are also many other groups and individuals who have been inspired by the book and are making a difference in hospitals, and medical and nursing schools, for example the Tonglen Association in France. The influence of the book goes beyond training and courses, people around the world have been inspired to set up hospices and care networks, and the Spiritual Care Programme is also creating dedicated places of spiritual care, starting in Ireland and soon in Germany as well. 

Dechen Shying Spiritual Care Centre, Ireland

Sogyal Rinpoche said that he hoped that The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying would “inspire a quiet revolution in the whole way we look at death and care for the dying and the whole way we look at life and care for the living”. I see this hope being realised every day through the book’s continuing influence, the education and support activities of the Spiritual Care Programme, and the way in which so many people have been personally inspired to help bring about this change.


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