Enriching One’s Faith With Practices From Another Faith Tradition

The May 2013 edition of U.S. Catholic Magazine has a nice piece written by Heather Grennan Gary titled Spiritual exercises: Can other religious practices strengthen your Catholic core? I have to confess that I was interviewed for the piece so many months ago that I had forgotten about it until I got the e-mail that it had been published!

Gray interviewed several Catholics, in addition to me, who in various ways incorporate into their prayer practices drawn from other faith traditions.

One of the segments of her piece talks about how to assess resources from other traditions. “The essential question Catholics need to ask when it comes to assessing a resource from outside their tradition, suggests Paulist Father Thomas Ryan, is what effect it will have on the coherence and integrity of their faith.” Fr. Ryan makes a point I often make when I am talking about Growing in Love and Wisdom, cautioning against rejecting outright non-Catholic resources:

“I do think there is a difference between syncretism and enrichment,” he says, pointing to a key theme that runs through Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Dominum et Vivificantem (1986) and Redemptoris Missio (1990)—that the Holy Spirit is present and active everywhere in the world, not just within the church. “The seeds of the Word are out there. We ought to have our antennae up for what might be edifying and beneficial.”

I also agree with Fr. Ryan that “the interplay between religious traditions [is] one of the particular graces of our age, providing Catholics with regular opportunities to be challenged and inspired to live and understand their faith more fully—and to challenge and inspire others to do the same.”

To get a sense of how several Catholics have incorporated practices from other traditions into their own, take a look at Gray’s article, which you can access here.


Growing in Love and Wisdom

I just received an e-mail from a friend telling me that her copy of my new book, Growing in Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation arrived today. As excited as I was a week or so ago to hold the advance copy in my hand, it is even more exciting to know people will start to receive their copies.

This book has been a real labor of love and I believe it will be of benefit to many people, helping them to deepen their prayer life. If you’ve checked the sidebar here, you’ve seen the links to the description of the book (as well as information for ordering).

I’m in the process of setting up a number of book talks/signings in various places over the next several months. “Like’ my Facebook page (here) to get the most up-to-date information on those. Here is what I’ve scheduled thus far:

Twin Cities:

November 4 – Church of Christ the King, 5209 Zenith Avenue, Minneapolis, 10:30 a.m. (immediately following the 9:30 a.m. Mass). For more information, contact Lynn Arnal (lcarnal@ctkmpls.org; 612-920-5030)

November 12 – St. John’s, Collegeville, 8:00 p.m. For more information, see here or contact the Jay Philips Center for Interfaith Learning (651-962-5780).

November 13 – University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Woulfe Alumni Hall North (378A), Anderson Student Center, 7:30 p.m. For more information, see here or contact the Jay Philips Center for Interfaith Learning (651-962-5780)

November 28 – UST Law School, Minneapolis, Rm. 235, 12:30-1:30p.m. For more information, contact Debby Hackerson (hack0900@stthomas.edu; 651-962-4904).

November 20 – DePaul Barnes and Noble

New York City (and environs)
December 9 – St. Francis Xavier, NYC

December 10 – NYU Center for Spiritual Life, NYC

December 11 – St. Ignatius Loyola, NYC

March 7 – St. Ignatius Retreat House, Manhasset, NY


February 3 – St. Ignatius Loyola, Chestnut Hill

February 4 – Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

Ann Arbor
March 21 – Crazy Wisdom Book Store

If you have contacts or suggestions for other venues for talks and signings please contact me.

Focusing on Practice and Experience

I just read a piece on America’s website written by a Jesuit who was asked by a Buddhist group in San Francisco to sit with them and then give them a talk about Thomas Merton and his dialogue with Buddhism. Early in the column, the author, John Coleman, S.J., observed that “Merton who early on in his career showed a keen interest in dialogue with the religions of Asia ( Hinduism, Sufism as well as Buddhism) tended to think such dialogue should, primarily, focus on practice and experience and less on doctrine or beliefs, as such.” (The column is well-worth reading in its entirety.)

I would not advance the proposition that doctrine and belief are unimportant. But, as a meditator and as a retreat leader, I agree with Merton’s conclusion that there is richer fruit when inter-faith dialogue focuses more on practice and experience.

That is the thought behind my forthcoming book, Growing in Love and Wisdom, which presents adaptations of meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer. (The book will be out the end of October and can be pre-ordered at the links on the sidebar.)

Like Merton, I believe there is much drawn from the Buddhist tradition that can benefit Christians. As then Cardinal Ratzinger recognized in a 1989 letter to Catholic bishops issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “genuine practices of non-Christian meditation” may “constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God.” Similarly, the 2000 letter Dominus Iesus acknowledges that prayers and rituals from other faith religious traditions may be “occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God.”

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting dates and locations of book talks/signings. I hope to meet some of you at them!

Growing in Love and Wisdom

As I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, I’ve written a book that adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians. The book, titled Growing In Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation, will be released by Oxford University Press on October 1.

This books has been a real labor of love. As a Christian I continue to benefit much from what I learned during my years as a Buddhist and I am happy to share some of that with others. Here is Oxford’s description of the book:

In Growing in Love and Wisdom, Susan Stabile draws on a unique dual perspective to explore the value of interreligious dialogue, the essential spiritual dynamics that operate across faith traditions, and the many fruitful ways Buddhist meditation practices can deepen Christian prayer.

Raised as a Catholic, Stabile devoted 20 years of her life to practicing Buddhism and was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun before returning to Catholicism in 2001. She begins the book by examining the values and principles shared by the two faith traditions, focusing on the importance of prayer–particularly contemplative prayer–to both Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. Both traditions seek to effect a fundamental transformation in the lives of believers, and both stress the need for experiences that have deep emotional resonance, that go beyond the level of concepts to touch the heart. Stabile illuminates the similarities between Tibetan Buddhist meditations and Christian forms of prayer such as Ignatian Contemplation and Lectio Divina; she explores as well such guided Buddhist practices as Metta and Tonglen, which cultivate compassion and find echoes in Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s enemies and transcending self-cherishing. The heart of the book offers 15 Tibetan Buddhist practices adapted to a contemplative Christian perspective. Stabile provides clear instructions on how to do these meditations as well as helpful commentary on each, explaining its purpose and the relation between the original and her adaptation. Throughout, she highlights the many remarkably close parallels in the teachings of Jesus and Buddha.

Arguing that engagement between religions offers mutual enrichment and greater understanding of both traditions, Growing in Love and Wisdom shows how Buddhist meditation can be fruitfully adapted for Christian prayer.

Yesterday was an exciting day for me because the book cover image was finally visible on Amazon, Oxford and other sites from which you can pre-order the book.

To my mind, Oxford came up with a perfect book cover and I am grateful to them for their efforts:

Be on the lookout for notices re talks and book signings after the book’s release.

Now that this book is completed (all that is left is my reading of page proofs at the end of this month), I’ve turned my efforts back to the book I’m writing on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism.

The Love of a Mother

One of the meditations I present in my forthcoming book, Growing in Love and Wisdom, is titled The Kindness of Others. As are the other meditations in the book, it is adapted from a Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditation I learned during my years as a Buddhist.

The meditation on recognizing the kindness of others is premised on the idea that reflecting on the kindness shown us by others can help us develop a universal love and compassion that generates in us the desire to work for more than our own happiness.

Tibetan Buddhists use the mother as the primary object of meditation because the love of a mother for her child is viewed as a key way to understand and to generate universal compassion and loving kindness. The idea is to take the loving and grateful response that spontaneously arises toward this person, who has shown us such unconditional love and cared for us so solicitously, and extend it to all beings.

Just as Tibetan Buddhists view the love of a mother for her child as possessing particular significance, motherly love has a special place for Christians. We have numerous Biblical images of God as mother, as in Isaiah, where God promises that “as one whom a mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” (Is 66:13) We have the image of Mary, Christ’s mother, as our mother and we see numerous artistic representations of Mary cradling the baby Jesus or supporting the crucified Jesus. Oscar Romero observed that, “Mothers are like the sacrament of God’s love. The Arabs say that God, who we are unable to see, created the mother who we are able to see—and in all mothers we see God, we see love, we see tenderness.”

On this Mothers Day, we give special thanks for the love of our mothers. I pray that reflecting on the love we have been shown by our mothers, and all who have cared for us, may help us deepen our own love and compassion for others.

Stop. Breathe. Notice.

Since one of my jobs at the law school is offering retreats and other programs of spiritual formation to the law school community, I was more than a little interested when I saw a law journal article titled “Educating Lawyers to Meditate.” The article was about the emerging “contemplative practice movement,” focusing on its appearance in the legal profession.

Many of us who meditate (whether we call it prayer, meditation or contemplation) do so as part of our spiritual practice. It is a way to deepen our experience of God.

The article is a good reminder, however, that meditation is valuable even for those who don’t think in “God terms.” This is especially true for people in fast-paced, high-powered jobs, who work under enormous pressure. It is easy in such situations to get carried along from one demand to another.

In describing the experience of one person, the article encapsulated advice I’ve given any number of times, advice that is a good for everyone to keep in mind as the pressures of job, relationship or project mount and you start to feel yourself being swept along beyond your ability to control:

Stop. Whatever you were in the middle of, just stop for a minute. Stop and do nothing. (I promise – the world will not stop spinning on its axis if you just stop for a moment.)

Breathe. Inhale and exhale, letting your mind focus on the sensation of your breath. Don’t try to change your breath, just breathe. (There is something deeply centering about sitting with your breath.)

Notice. Notice what you had been feeling. Distress. Queasiness in the stomach. Pounding in the head. Shaking. Whatever it was. Again, don’t try to change, just notice.

The simple act of stopping, breathing, noticing, gives you some space. Let’s you realize the feeling of being swept up and out of control is just that – a feeling. And let’s you realize that you need not get swept along with that feeling. That you can just let it go.

If you are a spiritual person, you might find yourself talking to God a bit at this point. But even if you aren’t, you’ll find tremendous benefit from this simple practice.

Stop. Breathe. Notice.

Living in the Now

It seems like such a simple thing – living in the now. Yet most of us spend a lot more time living in the past or the future than in the now. As Richard Rohr observed, “for some reason, the human mind feels most useful when it reprocesses the past and worries about the future.”

As a general matter, our minds are very much like undisciplined children (Buddhists sometimes liken the mind to undisciplined monkeys), constantly flying off in many directions. You sit down with a book and within a page your mind is thinking about what you need at the grocery store. You are in a meeting listening to someone else speak and your mind retreats to think about a conversation you had with someone else that morning, the memory of which then sparks a thought about something completely unrelated, and so on.

Despite our tendency to engage in this backward and forward looking mental activity, doing so brings us no happiness. St. Therese was correct in saying that “[w]e get discouraged and feel despair because we brood about the past and the future.” We create tremendous anxiety agonizing about things that may never transpire and worrying about things over which we have no control. Such worry, of course, does nothing. “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Matthew 6:27)

St. Therese expressed a better way in simple terms: “I can see only the present, I forget the past and I take good care not to think about the future. It is such folly to pass one’s time fretting, instead of resting quietly on the heart of Jesus.”

It does take some practice to do this. As a start, you might try to be conscious today of when you find yourself drifting forward or backward. When you do, try to let go the thought and gently bring yourself back into the present moment.

The Last Thing You Ever Did

I am writing a book that adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians. One of the meditations is about death, designed to help us develop a deeper realization of the uncertainty of the time of death. The thought behind the Tibetan meditation is that a realization that death will inevitably come and can come at any moment provides an impetus to more serious spiritual practice.

As I was writing the commentary for the adapted meditation, I was reminded of a passage we heard in Mass last week from St Luke’s Gospel. Talking about what will happen in the “days of the Son of Man,” Jesus talks about how people were eating and drinking when the flood came and destroyed them and how people were selling and planting when Sodom was destroyed. And he tells them that “on that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken, the other left. And there will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left.”

As I thought about Jesus’ words in connection with the uncertainty of the time of death, what struck me was the description of what people were doing in their final moment. Although Jesus is talking about the second coming, the same is true of death – with no warning, it will come, which means that any moment could be our last moment.

And the question we might want to ask ourselves is, if each moment could be my last, would I be happy if some of my moments were my last moment? A nasty word to someone that offended me? Being in so much of a rush that I cut someone off in traffic? Telling my daughter I’m too busy watching TV when she asks me to look at something for her homework? What would you want the last thing you ever did to be?

If we could really get in touch with the reality that death could occur at any moment, wouldn’t that have an effect on our behavior? If we really knew that any moment could be last, perhaps we would do more to make each moment count.

Allowing the Mind to Heal

One of the books I’m currently reading is a wonderful book by W. Alan Wallace, titled Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity. Wallace presents what he terms a multicultural view of meditation, not rooted in faith, that seeks to help one develop insight into the nature of mind and consciousness.

Among other benefits of mindfulness meditation is its aid in combating habitual tendencies that interfere with the mind’s ability to heal itself. Just as the body has an “astonishing ability to mend its wounds and cleanse itself of injurious agents from the environment, so long as we allow it to do so by “keeping a wound clean and bandaged, setting a broken bone, or surgically removing contaminated tissue,” so too the mind has great potential to heal itself, so long as it is settled in its natural state.

However, we don’t create the conditions that allow it to do so. Wallace writes

The problem is that when the mind is wounded – by trauma from a natural disaster, social conflict, or illness, by other people’s abuse, or even by our own harmful behavior – we often let those wounds fester. The mind obsessively churns up memories of the past or speculations about the future and we compulsively fixate and elaborate on them in ways that aggravate our mental afflictions. Psychologists call this tendency rumination, and it’s a way that mental wounds become infected, which obstructs the natural healing capacity of the mind.

There seems to be agreement that the human tendency to ruminate can be harmful to physical as well as mental well-being. Yet it is quite a common tendency.

Wallace likens mindfulness meditation to surgically removing infected tissue. The more we can keep our awareness focused on the present moment, allowing the mind to settle into its natural state in which we can observe without judgment and evaluation, the more we allow the mind to heal.

This is not to suggest that meditation is a cure-all and, certainly in the case of serious mental illness is not a substitute for therapy (although it may very well be a useful adjunct). But mindfulness meditation can go very far for many of us in helping us to better respond to painful and unpleasant experiences.

Revealing What is Already There

At the encouragement of my friend John, I am currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s, A New Earth.   A passage early in the book prompted in me a series of connections.  Tolle writes,

“Trying to become a good or better human being sounds like a commendable and high-minded thing to do, yet it is an endeavor you cannot ultimately succeed in unless there is a shift in consciousness…You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge.”

When I read that passage, it brought back to mind two things that were said to me many, many years ago.  One was in a conversation I had with a German Theravadan Buddhist monk during a retreat I did in Thailand almost twenty years ago.  He said, “You don’t transform from light to darkness by sweeping out the darkness, but by turning on the light.”

The other was in a conversation with the person who was my first meditation instructor (and I don’t want to count how many years ago that was).  I told him I was having trouble keeping myself from thinking while I was meditating.  He laughed and said, “Is that what you are trying to do?  Trying to calm the mind by making efforts to stop thoughts is like trying to get rid of the ripples in a lake by patting the ripples with your hand.  That just creates more ripples.”

The three statements are not quite the same, but in different ways they get to the same place –  the need for us to stop striving in the way we sometimes strive to be good.  We sometimes engage in lots of outward directed activity (and sometimes quite frantically) to try to become something we think we should become…to become something that is different from what we think we are.  In different ways, I think these statements remind us that much of spiritual growth consists in allowing to be revealed what is already there.  Different people give it different names – the light of God within, Buddha-nature, or the “goodness” of which Tolle speaks.  But, by whatever name, it is there already, waiting to emerge, waiting to be revealed.  It is not something we have to run around to try to find.