“We talk about not knowing, bearing witness, and compassionate action as though they happen independently, but I think they are in deep commune with each other, moment to moment,” says dancer and choreographer Keely Garfield, who has recently begun a new job as director of Spiritual Care and Palliative Care Chaplain with Northwell Health at Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, New York. “For me, dancing utilizes the same skills, and I would say that my showing up in the dance studio has a similar quality about it.” 

Born and raised in London, after Keely completed her dance studies there in the 1980s, she headed west. “The modern dance world was very much centered in New York, and I thought that I would hop along here and stay for about maybe three months, taking classes and seeing performances and really soaking in the life of a dancer. And thirty-seven years have gone by.”

This past spring in New York, Keely Garfield Dance presented The Invisible Project, which, Keely explains, was “informed by my role as a chaplain working in end-of-life and trauma. Chaplains employ a set of skills, or competencies; among them are compassionate presence, reflective listening, bearing witness to suffering, affirming strengths, facilitating expression of feelings, and meaning-making.”

Did you grow up in a religious tradition? My mother was Jewish and my father was Catholic, and there was a certain ambivalence from the beginning toward religion. And yet I so wanted to belong. My mother would ignore the High Holidays, and then, at sundown, she would frantically search for the candles and whip us off to the synagogue at the end of the street, where we would stand sheepishly at the back or outside. It was very painful. But that pain that I inherited from my elders also turned me into a spiritual seeker. I took a deep dive into Judaism here in New York; I studied the Shekhinah and Hebrew prayer through the lens of the feminine. I also spent many, many Christmas Eves at midnight mass. And I became a yogi, a yoga teacher, singing my heart out at kirtans and studying Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy and theology. And it all comes to bear when, in my work, I’m called to recite the Shema here, the Lord’s Prayer there, or the Mahamantra for my Hindu patients. It’s a grace.

I think that the first time that I really felt included, that there was a place for me to be, was when I walked into the sangha I practice with now, the Village Zendo, with our abbot, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Like a lot of spiritual homes, it is a convening of misfits and mishaps and wonderment. I’m very happy to have found my brick-and-mortar spiritual home.

What brought you to the threshold of your brick-and-mortar spiritual home? In 2007, I started a wonderful yearlong training program called Urban Zen Integrative Therapy, learning about yoga therapeutics and Reiki and essential oils and meditation. The contemplative care part of that training was led by Roshi Joan Halifax. One afternoon, the Village Zendo joined us in this beautiful event space in the West Village. I found myself sitting next to what looked like a bunch of earnest monks in their black robes and rakusus, and I just thought: I want this. And now I’m one of those strange people in a black robe with the rakusu sitting on a cushion enveloped by silence. 

When were you ordained? In 2013, I took Jukai, and in 2021, I was ordained as a Buddhist chaplain. My teacher, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, gave me the dharma name Rakushin. It means bliss body, or body of joy. It’s descriptive: I’m a mother (my two children are the loves of my life), a dancer, a yogi—and it’s prescriptive: go out and use that, with the awareness that I too will succumb to old age, sickness, and death.

keely garfield dance
Photo by Whitney Browne of Keely Garfield Dance

What inspired your move toward chaplaincy? A few years ago, I was working as a professor in dance at the New School, very engaged with my dance company, teaching yoga, and working in wellness, and I had no thought about a career change. Then, one day, after an Ango intensive practice retreat, friends and I were all heading for an espresso at the nearest place. In the car, my dharma sister, who was a chaplain, turned to me and said something like: have you ever thought about becoming a chaplain? And it was at that moment that I was like: I am thinking it now!

The teachers have really been key. The Rev. Trudi Jinpu Hirsch-Abramson had come to the Zendo to teach us about death and dying, I’d studied Being with Dying with Roshi Joan through Urban Zen, and had focused on caring for the caregiver with New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. So the scene was set. 

When I learned that Jinpu was leading the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program at Vassar Brothers Medical Center, I knew I was going. I traveled up to Poughkeepsie two or three days a week and studied with her and my wonderful CPE intern group, and then I did my residency at Mount Sinai in the middle of COVID and worked at NYU Langone. And here I am.

What are some of the joys and challenges of chaplaincy? The joys and challenges are intertwined. It’s not that one is over in yonder field and the other is over in a different field. I’m a big fan of the Zen monk poet Ryokan, who tried to cultivate throughout his life and practice the ability to see that there were no differences between himself and everything around him. There are no differences between myself and everything around me. That is both a challenge and a joy.

Also, I try to cultivate the idea of being the “reliable other.” If I can become that reliable other, it feels joyful, and it’s a challenge to become that for someone. I’m not always that for myself.

And then, I think, the struggle is very simple: being with people who are really suffering day after day, sometimes in ways that are unimaginable. How does one take that on and not become completely overwhelmed and ineffectual? And sometimes that does happen, and it’s a moment to take a step back and another step back and take some time. It’s like the Japanese saying: fall down seven times, get up eight. The challenge is to get up again for the eighth or ninth or tenth time.

Buddhist chaplains often mention the lack of a supportive structure; many of us don’t have opportunities to meet and debrief with other chaplains in person. Is this a challenge for you? Absolutely. There may be a lot of chaplains where I am, but people are busy. We know that part of the power of healing in this work is the narrative, it’s the story. We have to tell our stories too—we can’t just bottle them up or push them aside. We do need more systemic support for how we tend to ourselves as chaplains so we can keep being useful and do the work. 

For me, taking some time to go sit in the chapel and do zazen there, or sitting down on the cushion and getting quiet goes a long way. In silence you can hear the groaning of the world, right? So in my own silence I can hear the groaning, bow to it, and that enables it to move back into the stream of things.

You’ve also worked in trauma. Yes, I feel like I’ve encountered some things that will probably stay with me till the end of time, things that are horrid and cruel and violent, and this only deepens my sense of compassion. I lived down in Battery Park during the events of 9/11/2001, and I was in the World Trade Center Plaza that morning as the catastrophe unfolded. I had dropped my son at school a couple of blocks away and was taking my daughter to the mall in the World Trade Center to buy some shoes. In that moment I experienced a sense of terror, for sure, but also great despair. It was a long road back. It was hard for me to come back into a place of trust. 

I think that experience has helped me recognize in people who are traumatized, especially by violence or catastrophic events, the sense of shock and kind of severing between who you were, who you are now, and dreadful uncertainty about who you’ll become. As a chaplain, I am always sitting with who you are right now. Sometimes—like when I was one of the first responders after the Sunset Park subway shooting last year—I meet you in the ED and follow you through the ICU, stepdown, rehab, and even discharge. Again, it’s really about accompanying, about being on that journey as the reliable other. And, if I’m lucky, I can join you in reimagining who you are now and who you will become. 

A trauma victim once said to me, “My greatest fear is that this is going to make me hate people. And I don’t want to hate people, so I’m going to choose to continue to love them.” It’s weird to say, but maybe that was my journey too from my own experience with trauma and catastrophe back toward love.

Your life experiences have been so rich and varied. Has this chaplaincy chapter taught you anything new about yourself? It’s a hard question. I think this is a great practice for me at this point in my life because my essential nature is relatively fiery and flamboyant, and I think of myself as an activist. I’ll be the first one to put myself forward for something difficult or “no can do.” Taking the opportunity to learn how to be softer and more gentle, how to take a step back, how to play more with silence as love—what a wonderful opportunity to learn about that right now in my life. I certainly know how to get on a stage with a giant light over my head and leap. But learning how to sit still and listen, and to have a simple practice, is really, really something right now.

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