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Integrating Christian and Buddhist contemplative experiences

Updated: Jun 26

I was delighted to have the following post shared with the Shalem community. Enjoy!

As a peer group leader with Shalem’s Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Spiritual Groups and Retreats program, my focus was on helping our associates to be fully present in the Presence through the many prayer practices taught throughout the program.

Silence is one practice that plays a vital role in helping us to be fully present and arrive in a state that Thich Nhat Hanh described as “present moment, wonderful moment,” in his 1990 book of the same title. Many of us also find our deepest contemplative moments when, as Tilden Edwards states, there is “enough silence to give vivid room for the divine Mystery to show its delicate, subtle Presence: as beauty, love, purifier, wisdom giver, inspirer of what is called for, or in whatsoever other ways that radiant loving Presence may show itself.”(1)

Yet, Barbara A. Holmes(2) has been helpful in broadening our understanding of contemplation to include musical moments of transcendent joy and crisis, especially in the context of the beloved community. Informed by Dr. Holmes, I realize that what is important is not a matter of sound or its absence. What matters is adopting a contemplative stance, in the presence of music, silence, or better yet, in every moment – whether by oneself or in community.

Centering Prayer, as taught by Thomas Keating and others, is one vehicle to finding that contemplative stance, by returning againand again to one’s “sacred word” and letting go of distractions. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, we recognize that the ego, or adapted self, continually responds to the endless stimuli of the outside world. Focusing on the breath, which is ever-present and always available, can set the stage for contemplation.

Breath-counting is an ancient “technology” for helping one focus. How might you use breath-counting as part of your practice? Breathe in and silently think “one”, then breathe out. Breathe in and think “two”, then breathe out. Keep going and continue, if you can, to “ten”. Then start again with “one.” If you get distracted and lose track, or find yourself thinking a number higher than ten, simply start over again at “one.” As you do this, set aside thoughts, emotions and body sensations if they arise; and focus on the breath and counting only.

Another breath practice from Zen(3) is to breathe and, this time, to be aware of thoughts, emotions and body sensations as they arise. Imagine them being like boats floating past you on a river. The idea is to simply observe them, whatever they may be, and let them continue on their way. Wu Hsin (403-221 BCE), offered some helpful advice: “Being aware of the sound of the bell doesn’t mean the bell belongs to you. In the same way, being aware of your thoughts doesn’t mean they belong to you.” Our thoughts are conditioned responses, often coming from an analytical mindset, that usually interfere with our direct engagement with reality.

From a Buddhist perspective, our “goal” (an ironic word choice) is to be directly and fully present with reality; to “be here now” (Ram Dass(4)). From a Judeo-Christian perspective, it is to return again as our unconditional, vulnerable selves – selves held by and blessed by the Source of all love. Contemplation is the stance of holding still enough to allow us to experience the divine, unfettered by notions of a separate self. Yet from both traditions, we are encouraged to recognize that whatever we are experiencing in deep contemplation is but a way station to the Mystery – mystery that transcends all human thoughts, emotions, and body sensations and draws us ever deeper. The deeper our journey, the more fully prepared we can be to help transform the world into the kin-dom of heaven, one in which, in Thich Naht Hanh’s words all things “inter-are.” Contemplation prepares us for doing the hard and important work of seeking peace, justice, and mercy as acts of love and compassion.

The early bird application deadline for Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Spiritual Groups & Retreats is May 15th. Apply Here.

  1. Tilden Edwards, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living, Paulist Press, 2010. ↩︎

  2. Including Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Fortress Press, 2017 & 2004) and Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Wounded Village (CAC Publishing January 1, 2021). ↩︎

  3. Thomas Keating offered a variation of this practice on the Center for Action and Contemplation website: ↩︎

  4. Ram Dass, Be Here Now, (Harmony, October 12, 1978). ↩︎

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