Researching the Heart of Contemplative Practices
Do you remember a time before the word "mindfulness" showed up in what seems like every other news story? I do.
Back in 2002, mindfulness and meditation were on the backburner of public awareness, usually thought of as something reserved for old hippies and bald Buddhists. I fell into neither of those categories, and yet I was drawn to a contemplative life. But I also wasn’t ready to check myself into a monastery.
My particular path seemed to cut right through the middle of secular life, out of financial necessity and also because that is simply my temperament. For me, a life of the spirit is one lived in the flow of daily life and everything that goes with it — beautiful yet complicated relationships, the search for right livelihood, and even engagement with social issues like raising the minimum wage.
For that reason, my job at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society fit me like a glove. The mission of the center, founded in 1997 by Mirabai Bush and others, is to integrate contemplative awareness into contemporary life in order to help create a more just, compassionate, and reflective society.
In the winter of 2002, I was hired to direct one of the center’s initiatives, the “Contemplative Net” — a research project intended to map the emerging field of contemplative practice and identify people who were pioneering the use of those practices outside of traditional religious contexts. Some of the sectors they served included healthcare, education, business, government, and social justice.
It was a dream job for me. I came with a background as a qualitative researcher who was passionate about Buddhism and meditation (and still am). My job was to read each interview transcript and look for common themes as well as divergence. It was a joy to digest the words of these people, many of whom I had long admired. The 84 interviewees encompassed a diverse range of spiritual traditions: Buddhist, Christian, Islam, Judaism, and more. Some of them included Angeles Arrien, Bernie Glassman, Joan Halifax, Father Thomas Keating, Fleet Maull, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, Peter Senge, and Margaret Wheatley.
As I sat in my office overlooking Northampton’s quaint Main Street and sifted through the reams of data, I began to see a pattern. The interviewees spoke about bringing mindfulness practice into prisons, schools, corporations, and many other settings. But, across the board, one thing was clear: they all agreed that it was essential to “meet people where they’re at” and find ways to make these practices accessible to diverse audiences.
"A guy named Michael was in for a gang-related murder and used to come to the classes. But during the yoga, he would never really do the yoga very much. During the meditation, he would just kind of look around. He wasn’t very involved. But afterwards he gave me a big hug and always thanked me. Over the weeks I started to get frustrated with him. Like, ‘Why do you show up to class if you’re not interested in practicing?’ And then one day it hit me: he didn’t come for the meditation or the yoga. He came for the hug....
If you never formally sit and close your eyes and meditate, but [if] you’re creating a space that supports people where compassion can come forward and where they feel accepted, that is actually more the central issue, and really maybe the heart of contemplative practice.”
Part of my job was to figure out how to communicate the findings of this research in a meaningful way. While pondering this insight about creative adaptations of practice, an image of a tree came to me.
Each branch took the form of a grouping of contemplative practices, as the interviewees had described them. For example, “Stillness Practices” focused on quieting the mind and body in order to develop calmness and focus. “Generative Practices” came in many different forms but shared the common intention of generating certain qualities such as devotion or compassion. Other branches — Creative, Activist, Relational, Movement, and Ritual — also took form based on stories and examples from the interviewees.
Most importantly, two roots at the base of the tree represented what all these diverse practices had in common: connection (whether that be with the divine, nature, oneself, or other people) and awareness.
When I shared this idea with my research team, they gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Another staff person, Carrie Bergman, was a gifted artist and gave the tree a beautiful visual form. We dubbed it the “Tree of Contemplative Practices” and included it in the final report on the project, “A Powerful Silence: The Role of Meditation and Other Contemplative Practices in American Life and Work.”
I finished my work at the center in 2004 and put the tree in the back of my mind. I didn’t think about it for a long time until recently when I started offering programs about how to bring mindfulness into everyday life and work.
As I was in the middle of designing a workshop for a group of pastoral care providers at a children’s hospital, I remembered the tree and thought it might be a helpful tool. When I shared the idea with one of the planners, she lit up and said they had already been using it with their staff. She was delighted to find out I had created it. I felt honored and surprised, as I had no idea that the tree would extend out into the world in this way.
Now when I look at the tree after all these years, I realize that what it does so well is to prioritize intention rather than form. It can be easy for us to get caught up in the idea that we aren’t good at sitting meditation and then give up on the whole activity. The tree has allowed people to see beyond sitting meditation and to understand that a practice can take many different forms, depending on our personality and what’s going on in our lives. As one woman said, “It was a revelation to me that meditation wasn't the only way. Choosing a different branch enabled me to finally find a practice that worked for me.”
Another said, “The tree has opened up my understanding of how to view contemplative practices, how engaging in my life mindfully makes whatever I am doing a practice of contemplation. Following my breath is still my touchstone, but I love this greater view.”
The tree also allows room for creativity. Whenever I present it, I emphasize that it’s a living document, one that people can add onto or change in a way that speaks to them. In workshops, I give participants a blank version of the tree so they can create their own. It was never meant to be a definitive taxonomy but rather an invitation to explore what practice means to each of us. One woman shared that during a personal retreat day, she added a branch for “Food Meditation” which she described as “engaging in awareness with each step in my meal preparation.” She told me that this form of practice helped her to shift away from an old habit of rushing to eat when she worked on chaotic film sets.
It taught me something about my own practice as well. It’s helped me to understand that while zazen (sitting meditation in the Zen tradition) is fundamental in my life, practice shows up in other ways that resonate with my personality. I’ve learned that if I don’t mix in some walking and writing practice in the course of a day, I can get a little wonky.
That’s always been my biggest hope for the tree — that it can liberate us from narrow ideas of what contemplative practice is and help us to find one (or more) that truly works for us. And with this discovery, rather than bemoaning that meditation is something we’ll never be good at, we can actually embrace a practice and find ways to integrate it into our lives. My hope is that the tree offers a way to democratize contemplative practice so that we can take back our power to wake ourselves up, and cultivate a greater sense of equanimity, joy, resilience, and compassion.