Does Secular Mindfulness Practice Foster Compassion?

This afternoon at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, I attended a double session titled Heartfulness as Mindfulness: Affectivity and Perspective in Abrahamic and Dharmic Traditions. The presenters spoke from several different faith traditions.

One of the things so refreshing about this panel was precisely that the speakers spoke from within their faith traditions. A large part of the Contemplative Studies movement is secular in its orientation. Practices are borrowed, largely from the Buddhist tradition, but removed from their Buddhist context. They are presented as individual practices for individual goals: to reduce stress, improve health and so forth.

Part of the thrust of the panel was to suggest that contemplative practices from the Buddhist and other traditions are not disconnected from values; they are communal – in the sense of being in the service of loving encounter. The speakers suggested that much is lost in divorcing the practices from their moorings.

I tend to agree. This panel, combined with the comments yesterday of the Dalai Lama, helped me understand my hesitance about the contemplative studies movement. Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather people engage in (secular) mindfulness practice than no practice at all. But I’m uncomfortable about limiting something with such great potential to an atomistic individual-centered activity. And I wonder at how effective practices removed from their context can be in fostering compassion (as opposed to improved memory, productivity, reduced stress, etc.).

[PS: for those who receive my postings by e-mail, sorry if you got an earlier incomplete version of this. I intended to hit “save” and I hit “publish” instead.]


Contemplation Is Not Reserved For the Few

The theme of the Siena Symposium which I attended and delivered a paper at yesterday was Woman as Prophet and Servant of Truth. The day was an embarrassment of riches, with a wonderful array of speakers from difference disciplines speaking about the “genius” (to use Pope John Paul II’s phrase) and the role of women as prophet.

I was troubled by one comment. Speaking about the nonmarried state during a question and answer session, one of the speakers talked about the wonderful freedom of single women to be contemplative. She spoke of contemplative women standing alone before God, not mediated through family or husband. Her language suggested that contemplation was not an activity of those called to married life.

Without minimizing the value of the vocation of those called to live single lives (consecrated or lay), I was concerned with her suggestion that contemplation is for some not others. Formed by an Ignatian spirituality that calls us to be contemplatives in action, and doubtless also influenced by my years of Buddhist meditation, I believe we are all called to be contemplatives.

It is true that it is more difficult for those with family responsibilities (especially when children are young) to find time to be alone with God. But that alone time is no less important for them than for anyone else. My shorthand expression, which I used in my own talk in speaking of the lives of some of the women Christian mystics, is that we are all called to be both Martha and Mary, and not to pick between them.

Contemplation for Busy Lives

Yesterday I rounded out my two-day/four-talk visit to Villanova with a lunchtime talk on Contemplation for Busy Lives and an afternoon address on Catholic Social Thought and Just Wage.

The lunchtime talk was informal, and allowed time for discussion and contemplative practice, but I began by talking about why making time in our busy lives for contemplation is important. There has been increasingly interest in mindfulness meditation for secular aims: mindfulness improves productivity and concentration, lowers blood pressure, etc. But my interest is in the value of contemplation for our spiritual growth.

I suggested three reasons it is imperative that we make time for silence in our lives. First, we need awareness to act with freedom. Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I say Viktor Frankl, but that has always been a common Buddhist saying.

For many people, the idea that one can choose whether and how to respond to a stimulus is a radical one. We so often behave as if there is no choice, reacting automatically to whatever the stimulus is. But when we react without choice, we react without wisdom, and we react without the benefit of God’s grace. And we know the risk when that happens: How many times do we react automatically – particularly when the stimulus in question is something negative (for example, someone criticizing us or otherwise saying or doing something we don’t like), and then later wish we could have the reaction back? Part of the benefit of a regular prayer practice is that a habit of contemplation helps teach us that there is space between action and reaction. There is space for wisdom, for grace, for choice.

Second, we need reflection to be able to learn from our experience. We lead busy lives. We spend much of our day multitasking. And even if we do one thing at a time, we experience too many things, too many feelings, too much happens for us to process things as they are occurring. We need the time to reflect on our experience. To see where I noticed God. Where I didn’t. Where I acted with more or less freedom….compassion..widsom. Indeed, that is the primary goal of the Ignatian Examen, which has been part of my daily prayer for over a decade.

Finally, mutuality in our relationship with God means we need space to be able to hear God. At the heart of contemplation is the encounter with God/Holy One/Ground of being (whatever name you wish to use). In today’s lives, taking time out to noursih that mutual relationship is more more important than ever.

From there, we talked about how we organize our priorities and I made some suggestions for incorporating various practices into our daily lives. Fittingly, we ended by stopping our talking and sitting in the silence.

Aging With Wisdom

I recently read Lewis Richmond’s Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, sent to me for review by Gotham Books. The author is a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher and, although the book reflects his Buddhist experience and training, he has written a book that can be beneficial for everyone, regardless of their faith.

There is a lot to chew on in the text of the chapters. The book provides a good discussion of differences between genders in the aging process, discusses factors that encourage lasting happiness and healthy aging (including one I have discussed often as important for all of us – gratitude), and addresses important contributors to unhappiness – including, importantly, the tendency to engage in comparisons between the life we imagine and the life we actually have. (I think there is much truth to Richmond’s observation that “at the root of every discouragement is a comparison: things should be different, things could be different, and because they are not, I am disappointed, I am discouraged.”) All of these discussions benefit greatly from the inclusion of stories of people Richmond has encountered

Each chapter ends with instructions for a contemplative reflection designed to help in the aging process. The contemplations, each of which is “designed to cultivate some strength or talent or wisdom toward an aspect of aging,” should be accessible to everyone, regardless of the level or extent of their prior experience of meditation and contemplation.

Although not central to the value of the book, for those who are interested, Richmond also provides a good introduction to some basic Buddhist teachings. Like the contemplations, these are presented in a very accessible way.

The last chapters of the book provide a roadmap for a “A Day Away.” As someone who does an annual 8-day silent retreat and leads many weekend or day retreats, I can’t second strongly enough Richmond’s encouragement to spend “a day by yourself in spiritual retreat…to deepen and consolidate” the teachings and suggestions he presents in his book. These chapters will hopefully make the prospect less daunting, even for those who have not taken any time for such retreat in the past.

At a time when people are living longer, and when what we term “old age” can be decades, how we use the gift of the extra time is an important question. As Richmond observes, “Aging is beyond our control, but how we age is up to us.”

Being a Contemplative in Action

The phrase “contemplative in action” is a commonly-used description of Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality. It conveys the idea the contemplation is fulfilled by action, that prayer is complemented by our actions of love in the world.

It also conveys something about how we are in the world. I read a wonderful statement that conveys beautifully what that means. It is posed in the form of a question I read in a back issue of Listen, a newsletter for spiritual directors. The question is:

Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s one the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest?

Although framed as a question (the answer to which is yes), it lays out some qualities that describe one who is a contemplative in action: Alive. Active in the world. Possessing an inner openness and presence. Alert. Completely at ease. Completely at rest.

Some of those sound, at first blush, to be contradictory. But they really aren’t. At our best, when we are being contemplatives in action we can be, at one and the same time, active and alert (being Christ in the world) and at ease and at rest (secure in God’s presence in and with us). Busy with our hands, but peaceful in our hearts.

I say “at our best” because we don’t manage to unite those seemingly contradictory elements all the time…maybe not even most of the time. But it is a worthy goal.

Vision – The Life of Hildegard

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Vision, a film that portrays the life of Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildergard, a 12th Century Benedictine nun (the tenth child in her family, she was given over to the monastery at the age of eight), is a fascinating woman who had tremendous fame and influence during her life, but who faded from people’s memories almost immediately after her death. She was forgotten for centuries, only to be rediscovered in 1979, on the 800th anniversary of her death. In recent times she has attracted quite a lot of interest by various groups: musicians, who have happily discovered her musical compositions (coincidentally, we heard some of those at a Rose Ensemble concert Saturday evening); feminists, who view her as a pioneer of women’s equality; proponents of natural health remedies, who champion her work on medicinal plants and healing techniques; environmentalists who share her conviction of the sacredness of the earth. One author commented that “while it would be anachronistic to regard Hildegard as an ecologist or feminist, her firm grasp of the interconnectedness of all things and of the loving mercy of God, who fashioned the whole of creation out of love, continues to speak to us today.”

Whatever else she was, Hildegard was a woman open to the presence of God. From an early age she had visions in which God spoke to her. While she hid these for a long time, at the age of 45 she listened to God’s command that she write what she saw and heard, something for which she needed to get permission from the males who ruled the world in which she lived. (It was the endorsement of Bernard of Clairvaux that paved the way for such permission.) She spent a substantial amount of time for the rest of her life doing exactly that. She faced many hardships as she continually sought to be true to what she believed God was asking of her.

Hildegard wrote in a letter not too many years before she died, that she never felt secure in her own abilities. But, she wrote, “I raise my hands aloft to God, so that like a feather, which lacks all solidity of strength and flies on the wind, I may be sustained by him.” Around the same time, describing what she sometimes called “the Living Light” that she occasionally saw, said “While I behold it, all sadness and pain is lifted from my memory, so that I feel like a carefree young girl, and not the old woman that I am.” This realization that God worked in her life sustained Hildegard through all her struggles and her frequent bouts of physical illness and brought joy to her soul. She wrote “From my childhood days, when my limbs, nerves and veins were not yet strong, the gift of this vision brought joy to my soul; and this has remained true up to this very time when I am a woman of more than 70 years.” When we keep the fact of God’s sustaining love clearly before us, then our journey seems much less threatening and more filled with opportunity.

I think Vision does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of the life and difficulties of this extraordinary woman and I enjoyed it immensely. The website for the film, where you can find more information about Vision , including where it is playing, is here.

Letting Jesus Reveal Himself to Us

Ignatian contemplation is a way of praying with Scripture that is very powerful. It involves putting oneself into a scene in the life of Jesus as a participant and allowing the scene to unfold…allowing God to reveal to us what God wants to convey.

I recently read a statement by William A. Barry, S.J., that helps explain why this form of prayer is so powerful. Barry writes

I can know another person only if that person reveals himself or herself to me. So this desire to know Jesus more intimately is a desire for Jesus to reveal himself. If I have this desire, I must then take the time with the Gospels to let them stimulate my imagination so that Jesus can reveal himself, this is, reveal his dreams and hopes, his loves and hates, his hopes for me. As I engage in this kind of prayer, I will be surprised by what I discover about Jesus and thus about God, and myself. In the process, I will come to love Jesus and become more like him.

Barry’s statement serves as a good reminder. We sometimes forget that prayer is mutual, and focus on what we want to reveal to God. But prayer has to involve letting God reveal Godself to us.

The Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is about getting to know Jesus intimately so that we can conceive of nothing else but following him. Barry’s quote is a good reminder that such knowledge is crucial if we are to be Christ in the world. We cannot simply will ourselves to love like Jesus loves and to be like Jesus. But by knowing Jesus intimately and by falling deeply in love with him, we will come more and more to be like him.

Dealing with Anger

The third of my major writing projects during my year-long research leave (the first being the book about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism and the second being a book of prayer reflections on growing in discipleship and love) is a book that adapts Buddhist meditations for Christian prayer. Many of the analytical meditations I engaged in during my time as a Tibetan Buddhist, especially those aimed at developing equanimity and compassion are easily made suitable for prayer by Christians.

As I’m beginning work on this project, I’ve been going through some of my notes from teachings I took from various lamas during the time I lived in Tibetan Buddhist communities in Nepal and India. Yesteday I came across my notes on some teachings relating to the core delusions and “antidotes” to those delusions.

Anger is one of those “core delusions” from a Buddhist perspective. Some of the things recommended for dealing with anger strike me as useful for everyone, regardless of whether they are Buddhist.

One instruction for anger is to begin by developing an awareness of the arising of anger – of the physical sensations and the thoughts that appear in the mind. Once you have the feeling, one contemplates the fruits of anger – the fact that it causes physical and mental suffering to the self, that it disturbs the peace and happiness of all around you; that it causes one to say or do things they will later regret and are ashamed of, etc.

Another invitation is to allow a strong feeling of anger to arise, recalling perhaps some recent situation in which one was very angry. Then the instruction is to apply one or more of the “antidotes.” One of those is to recognize that the real villain in the story is delusion, not the person whose act or words generated your anger. Just as you would not get angry at the stick that hit you under the control of another, if you recognize that delusion is operating, it is easier not to get angry at the person under the control of delusion. A second is to put oneself in the other person’s situation and try to consider their feelings and what was operating in them. Another is to try to view the person as a precious teacher because they allow you to practice patience. Another is to reflect on impermanence – situation will change, so why get upset.

None of these are necessarily easy. By they are worth keeping in mind. And it is worth spending some time contemplating the points during a time when one is not feeling angry, which may make it easier to call them to mind in a situation where anger does arise.


While starting to put together the prayer material for the Lent Retreats in Daily Living I’ll be giving at both the University of St. Thomas and at St. Hubert’s this year, I picked up an old favorite collection of prayers and poems – Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits. It is a book I’ve used often (and heartily recommend), but haven’t looked at in a while.

One of the things I came across, which I honestly never remember seeing before in the book is something titled Seedlings, which contains some verses by Anthony de Mello, S.J. The suggestion is to place the statement in one’s heart and gently ponder on its inner meaning.

Here are two, each of which speaks a simple truth, but in each case a truth we sometimes often don’t grasp. So my invitation is to take one of them and sit with it. As the book instructs, the idea is not to “force it open with your mind,” but sipmly to “sow it in your heart. And give it time.”

You do not
to change
for God
to love

Be grateful
for your sins.
They are carriers
of grace.

God’s Breath

In the midst of almost frenetic activity, I have to remind myself to breathe.  Close my eyes, take a deep breath in, hold, and slowly let it out.  And again.  Maybe a third time.   After a few breaths, time stops.  The craziness of the six things I was trying to do at once in the moment before fades away.  And there is space and calm.  And in that quiet space, the recognition that God is right there, breathing with me, breathing in me.  With that simple reminder, I can turn back to my task, a lot more centered than I was before.