Researching the Heart of Contemplative Practices

Saturday, August 1, 2015 - 6:19am
Photo by Thomas Hawk

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.

A woman practices Qigong in Meridian Hill (Malcolm X. Park) in Washington, DC.

(Elvert Barnes / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

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 man practices Tai Chi in a park in Shanghai.

(Brian Jeffery Beggerly / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

I particularly loved a story that Soren Gordhamer (who later went on to found Wisdom 2.0) shared about his work with a young incarcerated man:

"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.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices

(Carrie Bergman + design by Maia Duerr / The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.)

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.”

Rebecca Green leads a group in Sacred Harp singing of "The Church's Desolation" at a convention in Great Falls, Virginia.

(Mary Ann Daly / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

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.”

Students practice Aikido.

(Cedric Meleard / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

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.

A woman does yoga outdoors in an urban setting.

(Matt Madd / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

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.


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Maia Duerr

is an anthropologist, writer, and editor. She received lay ordination from Roshi Joan Halifax as a lay Buddhist chaplain and serves on the Upaya Zen Center's Engaged Buddhism faculty. She was the research director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she led a study on the use of meditation and other contemplative practices in secular settings. Learn more about Maia and her work at her website,

Share Your Reflection



The Tree of Contemplative Practice extended itself to me this morning. Not only do the "Stillness, Generative, and Relational Practices" branches of the tree embrace my heart, but I know my roots fully encompass communication, connection & awareness. I needed this... I needed this sense of awakeness to rejuvenate my mind, body and spirit from an unexplainable nagging, tug of uncertainty and loss. I feel that familiar equanimity in my heart, mind & soul...its serenity is beautiful.

So glad that the Tree spoke to your heart that morning, Jennifer.

it is good to see a hardcopy of all the ways to grow in the tangible form of a tree

I have also long wondered where the tree came from, or rather WHO the tree came from. Thank you.
For me, the roots are as important as the branches. It's lovely to have a visual guide drawing it all together and celebrating the diversity at the same time. Thanks again!


Maia wrote: "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."

It's been interesting to me that meditation is most often portrayed in the media (On Being included) as sitting on a floor cushion, with legs crossed, and with eyes closed. It's either that or visually striking yoga postures.

That comes from the popular culture's sense that Yoga/Zen/Vipassana is what meditation is.

I think that Maia and Carrie's tree is great in that it broadens our understanding that meditation and contemplation can take so many more forms.

For me, as an Orthodox Jew, almost nothing of what I do, other than the most basic practices (e.g., coming to silence, visualization) is depicted on the tree. It would be nice to see the basic form of the tree at least mention the broader possibilities for contemplative/meditative practice, especially in the context of religion.

For example, I'd add a whole branch titled "emotional." And where do the family/community/country fit into the tree? Isn't that foundational, different than the mostly personal orientation of the tree? And both personal and collective prayer (however that's defined)?

And I would add a whole branch of pure nature immersion...the tree itself, just being with form and beauty in the natural world...

Thanks for your reflections here, Len. As I often tell people, I really encourage you to create a version of the Tree that speaks to practice as you understand it.

I agree that there is an important role for religious-based practices, and maybe they could fit well in the "Ritual/Cyclical" branch of the tree...certainly practices such as the observation of Shabbat would be examples of that. And while you are correct that a good deal of the Tree takes on a more personal perspective of practice, there is a "Relational" branch that could encompass not only interpersonal relationships but also practices that we take part in as a family or community.

all the best to you...

Thank you. Wonderful to see the interconnected nature of contemptive practices. Very inspiring.

Thank you and all the folks who give of their lives to look at this and to offer/open again the possibilities and welcome into presence.

I loved your story and quote from Soren Gordhamer:

"...[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.”

Then I saw these beautiful photos and story in news at The Guardian.
Members of neighborhood in Mexico finding opportunity in hard times. Beauty given opportunity to come forward at so many levels. See at

"Sometimes beauty grows despite all expectation" --Stephen King

Nice. Comforting. A reminder of the practices I learned in the convent 50 years ago...and never totally gave up. A type of mindfulness, I realize now.

knitting-calming, facilitates meditation, keeps me centered in meetings, has a product to assuage my guilt over not being productive.

Maia - thanks so much for sharing the "back story" regarding The Tree of Contemplative Practices! My colleagues at the Division for Early Childhood and I have been examining how to embed contemplative practices into professional development for those who serve and educate young children with disabilities and their families. Contemplative practices was one of three strategies highlighted in a recent webinar sponsored by @DECsped to support inclusive practices. We included the graphic of the tree as part of our discussion! Here is our landing page for the work - .

Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Kristie -- I love hearing where the Tree turns up!

Why use "old hippies and bald Buddhists"as a pejorative and what does it add to your otherwise worthwhile post? What is your intent here?

What a relief to let go of feeling "guilty" about not "doing it right" and understanding that in all the ways I connect with Divine, that's just and right and held lightly in the universe.

This was a wondeful way to start my Sunday morning. I even read it before the sports page. Since I have worked with high school students for 30 years it is good to be reminded to meet my students"where they are." We spend so much time telling them where they need to be be that I don't take enough time to see them where they are. Mindfulness practice has helped so I am better at recognizing "where my student are" and it's been energizing. I am grateful.

Beautiful essay Maia. I have connected with you before on Facebook, perhaps through George Kao and have valued and appreciated The Tree but the essay is wonderful to read as I look at, contemplate and use it. Thank you!

Beautiful essay,Maia. I have seen it and know you, perhaps through George Kao's work, and to have it here in conjunction with the wonderful essay is wonderful. I will contemplate it, use it and love it. Thank you so much!

Photography is a contemplative practice for me quieting my mind to see what is before me, imagining a way to capture an image and to tell a story, to integrate the technical aspects with the artistic, and to enjoy it all over again as I move it from a collection of pixels to paper so that others might enjoy the image and the story as well. Everything slows down for me in photography and I become quiet and listen whether watching a natural scene or people- I become one with it. There is also excitement to capture the moment before it escapes and to share it with people in the camera and to watch the delight in their eyes. Photography gives me contemplation and joy in my own moments, but it gives again if I can share it with others.

I had never seen the tree until a friend posted this article on Facebook. Sometimes I wonder how much time for other practices Facebook sucks out of my life? But then I am led to some nugget like this and figure it's a fair tradeoff. The tree was fascinating and really helped me see how I have matured and grown in my contemplation as I have experienced some of the practices on the varied branches. I still have a long way to go! But this will make a good roadmap for continuing my journey. Thanksgiving for your study and conversation that led to the tree!

So happy to hear that your discovery of the Tree shed some light on your own contemplative practice, Matt!

I was happy to see you mention Fr. Thomas Keating. I would also add Thomas Merton and many other Catholic Priests, as well as non-ordained Catholics, Episcopalians, and other Christians who have been practicing, teaching, leading "Centering Prayer" for many years to people of various faith traditions. I was happy to see the word Centering on the Tree, and disappointed that the word Prayer, or at least "Centering Prayer" is currently missing from the Tree. Also, the art and skill of entering into a trance, or self-hypnosis, is another area of Contemplative Being that I have learned from spiritual/pastoral counselors/therapists that has enriched my life deeply. Thanks for giving us this opportunity to read and comment on your article and beautiful Tree of Contemplative practices.
Presence with oneself and one's God or "higher power" or "source of life, love, and peace: