Contemplative Practices and Prayer

I recently attended an intriguing conference presentation on contemplative pedagogy that left me wondering about the relationship between the contemplative practices and prayer (thanks to my colleagues at UVic Nursing – Drs. Anne Bruce, Deborah Thoun, and Coby Tschanz — who got me thinking!).  The presenters featured the resources of CMind, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, including the Tree of Contemplative Practices.  Fascinating – prayer does not show up as a contemplative practice on this visual.  At first I wondered whether there was a deliberate effort to avoid religiously-based practices, however I noted lectio divina and a general reference to “ceremonies and rituals based in spiritual or cultural traditions”.  No doubt, the tree is not intended to be comprehensive, and to the extent that it offers examples, it is indeed helpful to see how contemplative practices vary in their expression as activist, creative, generative, movement, relational, ritual/cyclical, or still practices.  By these characterizations, prayer fits well within the family of contemplative practices.

I also appreciate the sincere effort to communicate practices that “encompass and transcend differences in the religious traditions from which many of the practices originated, and to allow for the inclusion of new practices that are being created in secular contexts” (from CMind website).  The relationship of these various contemplative practices to their religious roots is a complex one.  Transcending the origins (i.e., religious traditions) can create commonality and shared experience.  Courtney Bender and Wendy Cadge, in their study of Catholic and Buddhist nuns engaging in interreligious dialogue in the U.S., found syncretism and hybridity (mixing of traditions, sometimes to create something new at the boundary) but also appropriation, where questions were raised about the implication of “picking and choosing” practices without adoption of the precepts and philosophic frameworks, in essence the concern of uncoupling practice from the Buddha’s teachings.

Our interest in our project is in how prayer is expressed by the religious and the non-religious, when it aligns with contemplative practices that focus on knowing self, and when it aligns with relational practices that extend beyond self.  Because of the diversity of the clientele in the hospitals where we are gathering data, we are particularly interested in how differences are worked out—whether they are recognized as distinctions, or whether they are neutralized by a focus on practices rather than underpinning beliefs (Cadge & Sigalow, 2013).  These tensions between the particular and the general, between exclusivism and inclusivism are real, and yet participants in our study are finding a range of ways to navigate these edges.

  • A British humanist chaplain tells of the relief of a humanist patient when she finally visited him, “…he is annoyed because he has been told there is a humanist chaplain but nothing is happened, he says he has ‘waited days and days’. When I say, ‘I am the humanist chaplain’, we both burst out laughing”.  [an example of ‘matching’ religious identities that is very meaningful for the patient]
  • A Canadian spiritual health practitioner (chaplain) explains how she might address a prayer to “Creator” when praying with an Indigenous person, though she herself from her Christian identity would be more likely to pray to “Father God” [an example of code-switching by using the languages, rituals, and practices of the people with whom they work; Cadge & Sigelow]
  • In both the UK and Canada, spiritual health practitioners (chaplains) provide spiritual support to all who request their services, offering generic, neutralized connection and prayer. [an example of neutralizing difference in order to bridge differences, Cadge & Sigelow]

These are examples of the type of data we are analyzing to better understand how prayer takes form in contexts of diversity.  Prayer as a contemplative practice transgresses social boundaries.  To the extent that prayer is not listed among CMind’s 30+ contemplative practices, we question whether prayer is seen as too transgressive to the non-religious audiences this movement represents.

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Bender, C., & Cadge, W. (2006). Constructing Buddhism (s): Interreligious dialogue and religious hybridity. Sociology of Religion, 67(3), 229-247.

Cadge, W., & Sigalow, E. (2013). Negotiating religious differences: The strategies of interfaith chaplains in healthcare. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 52(1), 146-158.

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