What is the difference between prayer and meditation? Some people may say that prayer is active and meditation is passive. I would not agree with this. Meditation practices can be very far from passive.
Defining prayer can be a tricky business, as can defining meditation. For example, there are kataphatic forms of prayer and apophatic forms. Kataphatic prayer involves the use of words and symbols; for example, saying the Lord’s Prayer would be seen as a kataphatic form of prayer, but reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer may lead to a different form of prayer. Thomas Keating, a Benedictine monk, practised a form of meditation which he called ‘centering prayer’;1 this form of ‘prayer’ does not involve the recitation of words and is done in silence and would
be perceived as apophatic. There are many different forms of meditation within Buddhist practice. There are cultivation practices, where the meditator plants seeds of, for example, loving kindness (mettã) in their mind and broadens the focus of the meditation to include individuals and then moves on to wider groups. However, reciting the mettã sutta (a Buddhist text) is more conventionally prayer-like in its focus.2 When I worked as an editor at Oxford University Press, I bought a copy of The Oxford Book of Prayer for my father, as a Christmas present. He told me he’d really enjoyed the Buddhist prayers included in the collection.
Recently, I stumbled upon a wonderful book about prayer, written by Jane Redmont, who works as a congregational consultant in the episcopal diocese of Massachusetts. When in Doubt, Sing is her exploration of what prayer is, and she includes many practices. She believes there is no right way to pray, and writes: ‘So much depends on temperament, circumstances and time of life’.3 I enjoyed her honest approach and find it inspiring that she includes imagination as an important part of prayer: ‘The first step of prayer is telling the truth about who and where we are. It is also, at the same time, learning the truth about who and where God is. We are the ones who tend to place limits on the mercy of God. Prayer involves a capacity to stretch our imagination, to imagine and therefore to begin knowing a God who is not a projection of our own self-condemnation.’3 She includes chapters about praying with anger, writing as prayer and spirituality and social justice.
There are many types of prayer in various spiritual and religious traditions, and I believe aspects of Buddhist meditation can be perceived as a form of prayer. In the book, Spirit in Session, the author Russell Siler Jones invites the reader to focus on their experiences of prayer in a therapeutic context (see section from Spirit in Session reproduced in this issue).4 This article is a response to that invitation, and in this article, I am going to regard my own practice of meditation as a form of prayer. If your perception of prayer differs from mine, then that’s fine… the reflection can be done in a way that suits your practice. I am going to explore my own experiences as a client, trainee psychotherapist and in supervision and self-care.
Experience as a client
I remember feeling rather uncomfortable when my therapy sessions started with a long body scan meditation (10–15 mins), led by the therapist. I confess, I thought: ‘I don’t want to do this during my sessions. I can do this at home by myself.’ I was really conscious of the cost of therapy and wanted to get what I perceived was my money’s worth. Eventually, I was able to say that I didn’t wish to spend so much time doing such meditations and we agreed to spend a few moments in silence at the beginning of each session. I do believe spending time on the body can be immensely valuable, but I think it needs to be timed carefully and sensitively and attuned to each particular client and what they’re able to access. I really question the use of longer guided meditations in the therapy hour. I think therapist and client need to negotiate carefully about the use of such ‘techniques’. For me, it felt rather formulaic and I sometimes felt I was waiting to get on with the ‘real’ business of the therapeutic hour.
I wondered if it might be to help the therapist get through a session and reduce the time he had to spend listening to me. It put him in control of the first part of a session.
Experience as a trainee psychotherapist
During my training at the Karuna Institute, we did various group exercises making use of Buddhist brahma vihãrã meditation practice. The brahma vihãrã practices are seen as a form of cultivation practice. These practices involve the use of ‘phrases’ and include loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity. A lot of material has been published about loving kindness and compassion. I was fortunate to attend a recent workshop at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London that was taught by the Dalai Lama’s translator, Thupten Jinpa, on the practice of compassion (which is regarded as an extremely important part of Tibetan Buddhist practice). He has developed an eight-week compassion training course. He gives an example of the phrases that can be used in compassion practice:
‘May you be free from pain and suffering
May you be free from fear and anxiety
May you experience peace and joy.’5
In a Buddhist form of psychotherapy, the presence of these qualities (loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity) may be perceived as providing an ideal holding environment for a client. I believe we could benefit from more focus on joy and equanimity.
Non-disclosure can be a challenging aspect of working as a counsellor or therapist. I remember thinking, ‘I mustn’t mention my interest in Buddhism’ and then feeling amused when one of my clients in a placement asked me: ‘Have you heard of mindfulness?’, opening a conversation about how he had found mindfulness practices to be very helpful.
Experience in supervision
I told one of my supervisors that I sometimes did loving kindness practice for my clients. He responded that he was not so convinced that it was such a sensible thing to do. He felt I might be spending too much time focusing on my clients outside their session time. I felt sadness on hearing his response. Was I doing something wrong? I wasn’t so convinced. I’ve been reflecting on this for quite a few years and am still left wondering. Is it OK for a counsellor or therapist to spend time between sessions holding their clients in mind and wishing them well? Of course, I do believe there are dangers in choosing to do so for some clients and not others (a form of favouritism). As a trainee psychotherapist, my clients did come to my mind between sessions and I found it helpful to find a way to try to surround these thoughts with loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity. Of course, meditation is a practice and it isn’t easy to do (I explore the possible dangers in a section below.)
Experience in self-care: as a resource for the therapist
For me, self-care may be the most important area for the practical application of prayer and meditation in a therapeutic context. Karen Kissel Wegela’s book, Contemplative psychotherapy, provides a model for the use of the brahma vihãrãs in therapy.6 Clinical psychologist John Welwood, turned to the practice of Buddhist meditation to enable him to cultivate the core conditions of person-centred counselling.7
Paul Fulton, a clinical psychologist and meditation consultant, explores the use of various Buddhist meditations in the training of therapists and counsellors in the book, Advances in Contemplative Psychotherapy. He describes equanimity practice as helpful in understanding our limits and as a ‘sober balancing’.8
The potential dangers of spiritual practice (focusing on the brahma vihãrãs)
Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist meditation teacher, describes the danger of practising loving kindness and compassion unskilfully: ‘…we can slip into a sense of owning people and then trying to manage them’.9 I recall my mother saying to me, ‘I only want you to be happy’ (with the possible implication of ‘I can’t cope when you’re not.’). I believe a genuine wish for someone’s happiness (without strings attached) is very commendable.
Each brahma vihãrã (loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity) has a near enemy and a far enemy. The near enemy shares some characteristics with the quality of the brahma vihãrã. The far enemy is the complete opposite of the quality. Desire is the near enemy of loving kindness and the far enemy is ill will. Grief is the near enemy of compassion and the far enemy is cruelty. Any identification with a client’s suffering might lead to overwhelm, attempts to rescue or fix problems, or to being dismissive, contemptuous or disengaged. Joy in the home life is the near enemy of altruistic joy, and aversion and boredom are seen as the far enemy. I find it much easier to hear and rejoice about the accomplishments of my 19-year-old niece (I suppose this is an example of joy in the home life, the near enemy), than to hear about an ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. Sharon Salzberg’s challenging question: ‘Can we allow the lives of others to be different from ours and feel happy for them?’ seems very pertinent when working with clients in a therapeutic context.9 Sarah Shaw, a Buddhist scholar and meditator, names ‘unknowing’ (I think this could be more easily understood as indifference) as the near enemy of equanimity and the far enemies as desire and resentment.10
Suzanne C Hidore, a person-centred counsellor, compares the brahma vihãrãs to Carl Rogers’ core conditions (unconditional positive regard, empathic understanding and genuineness) in person-centred therapy.11 Hidore describes how the near enemy of loving kindness, attachment, creates fear and control as opposed to love and freedom. Unconditional positive regard can be compared to equanimity, and Hidore points out that indifference can occur when a therapist puts themselves into a position of an authority on right and wrong and doesn’t allow the client to be their own authority and denies the client their own responsibility for their actions. The near enemy of compassion is pity, and this could lead to a therapist attempting to rescue someone from their experience. If a therapist attempts to rescue a client, then this action would deny the client their opportunity to experience the life they have. As Hidore elegantly puts it: ‘When love becomes attachment, compassion becomes pity, or equanimity becomes indifference, therapists do not serve the good of their clients or themselves. Traps may lead to dependency, self-doubt, fear and confusion. Instead of creating a relationship, the near enemies create separation… between the client and therapist, within the client, and within the therapist.’11
Amanda Anderson is the editor of this journal and has trained as a psychotherapist.
1. Keating T. Intimacy with God: an introduction to centering prayer. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company; 2009.
2. Shaw S. The spirit of Buddhist meditation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 2014.
3. Redmont J. When in doubt, sing: prayer in daily life. Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin Books; 2008.
4. Jones RS. Spirit in session: working with your client’s spirituality (and your own) in psychotherapy. Templeton Press; 2019.
5. Jinpa T. A fearless heart: why compassion is the key to greater wellbeing. London: Piatkus; 2017.
6. Wegela KK. Contemplative psychotherapy essentials: enriching your practice with Buddhist psychology. New York and London: WW Norton; 2014.
7. Welwood J. Toward a psychology of awakening. Boston and London: Shambhala; 2000.
8. Fulton P. Mindfulness practice as advanced training for the clinician. In: Loizzo J, Neale M, Wolf EJ (eds). Advances in contemplative psychotherapy: accelerating healing and transformation. New York and London: Routledge; 2017 (pp74–86).
9. Salzberg S. Loving kindness. London and Boston: Shambhala; 1998.
10. Shaw S. Buddhist meditation. London and New York: Routledge; 2006.
11. Hidore SC. Near enemies in psychotherapy. The Person-Centered Journal 1998; 5(2): 107–110.