Contemplative Caregiving: A Q&A with Jonathan Prescott

Jonathan Prescott headshot
Jonathan Prescott will be speaking at Discovery 2019 on March 8, 2019

Jonathan Prescott is the founder of Wise Caregiving, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people become effective, sustainable and empathetic caregivers. Jonathan’s career as a hospice, cancer-care and hospital Chaplain, along with his spiritual practice as an ordained student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, gives him a unique perspective on how to thrive within the helping professions. His trainings help people learn the arts of listening, balance, boundaries and presence as a therapeutic tool.

Q: You’re presenting on “The Art of Listening” at the Discovery 2019 conference, why is listening often discussed in terms of caregiving?

A: Good care begins with good listening. Otherwise, our responses might not be appropriate to the need. Discerning needs can be particularly challenging when the person you care for has dementia. Usually, we trust the person we’re caring for to verbalize what they need, such as ‘May I have some water?’ or ‘I’d like to be alone now.’ But those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias may not be able to use words reliably. At the Discovery Conference, I’ll teach listening techniques that engage not just our minds, but also our hearts and bodies. We can use these techniques to open a listening space within, deepening and broadening our attention and leading to responses that are more appropriate and effective. This yields not only better care for the patient, but also more sustainability and satisfaction for the caregiver.

Q: You are the founder of a nonprofit dedicated to helping people become effective, sustainable and empathetic caregivers. Why did you feel compelled to work with caregivers?

A: [It] grew out of the abundant gifts I received as a Clinical Chaplain in hospital, cancer care, and hospice. I founded this nonprofit to pass those gifts along to others.

Being at the bedside of the ill and dying is hard work. Even though I was drawn to walk beside people during some of their most challenging moments, I often felt overwhelmed. Luckily, I had amazing teachers who helped me learn keep my heart open in the midst of suffering. I trained with Zen Masters, palliative care experts, hospice founders, coworkers, monks, meditators, mensches, and more. But the most important teachers have been my patients. They teach from their own experience how to find meaning right in the middle of pain and loss. Their’s isn’t textbook wisdom – it’s authentic, practical, and real.

As I reached a natural pause in my direct patient work, I became inspired to give back some of what I’d received. I’d been with more than 1,500 people as they died and countless others as they faced illness and decline. How could I not honor them by sharing their wisdom? So, just as I’d been drawn to work with the ill and dying, I was drawn to pass along their gifts.

Q: Your work frequently focuses around “contemplative caregiving,” what does that refer to?

A: To contemplate means to look deeply. In all times, places, and cultures, contemplatives have mined life for its wisdom so they can help people live with more steadiness and meaning.

Our culture is well known for its material technologies, whether in engineering, computer science, medicine, physics, or other fields, but less well known are the transformative technologies developed over millennia by contemplatives. Contemplative technologies speak to the mind and the heart and teach us effective caring, empathy and compassion. They show us how to listen and respond wisely, how to sustain ourselves, how to hold paradox without confusion and difficulty without despair. They help us be more than technologists. Contemplative wisdom teaches us to be human beings.

The medical profession values results and data, studies and outcomes. These are wonderful and important. Without them, we’d still have barbers as surgeons. But our medical system risks losing its heart. We’re turning our caregivers, whether family or professional, into technologists and economic widgets. We’re losing the heart that contemplative wisdom teaches. We can do better. We can be both skillful and openhearted, knowing experts and curious companions, giver and receiver. We can, in short, be contemplative caregivers.

Q:The theme of our conference this year is “Resiliency.” Any thoughts you’d like to share on this topic as it relates to your work?

Paradoxically, we increase resilience by caring more, not caring less. We caregivers often absorb our patient’s or loved-one’s burden as our own. We want to help, we like to help, and we’re so good at helping that sometimes it becomes who we ‘are.’ This noble self-sacrifice inevitably leads to burnout. We turn our back, throw up our hands and say, ‘Enough!’

A more resilient model expands our concern to include ourselves. At the Discovery Conference, I’ll teach a boundary model that moves us from other awareness to self and other awareness. We gain resiliency when we don’t leave ourselves out of our circle of concern. We’re already skilled at shining the light of awareness on others. I invite people to use that same skill to become aware of their own experience. This not only yields better resiliency, it also uses information gleaned from our own experience to make better assessments and offer more appropriate care.


Mr. Prescott will be presenting“The Art of Listening”at our Discovery Conference on March 8, 2019. To learn more about Discovery and to register, click here.



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