Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Meditative Practices from the Many Religious Traditions

Eastern and western contemplative practices help manage stress.

Sadly, usually when you read about the religious traditions in the news the theme seems too often to be how one tradition is in conflict with another. A second theme often underscores the notion that one tradition is right while the others are wrong. Too often we focus on religious differences rather than commonalities. Events in the new such as the recent murders at Fort Hood by a Muslim military psychiatrist underscores these differences and perhaps do little to help interfaith relations.

Why is that? The reasons are likely to be complex and multifaceted. I think part of the reason has to do with our lack of religious literacy. We tend to get religious training when we are very young and unless we work hard at it, our religious training tends to end when we are still youngsters, Additionally, the metamessage of most religious education (often provided by well meaning but frequently marginally trained parents and volunteers) is that your religious tradition is the right one while all others are misguided.

Furthermore, most of the information we pick up about other religious traditions comes from the press which always highlight the worst the traditions have to offer rather than the best. Good news doesn't make the news but bad news sure does. This is a tragic state of affairs and too often I find that even highly educated and thoughtful people ultimately know very little about their own religious tradition and so much less about those of others. What they do know about other religions is usually about extremism and destructive views and behavior.

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When it comes to contemplative practices such as meditation, we too often tend to think that the eastern tradition offer much in this area while the western traditions offer nothing. Yoga, mindfulness, Zen, and other contemplative practices are well known while the rich meditative practices from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions often are overlooked completely.

On October 30th, I hosted a conference at Santa Clara University regarding a new book project that I'm spearheading entitled, Contemplative Practices in Action: Diverse Paths for Well Being, Wisdom, and Healing. The project includes experts from all of the major religious traditions and provides an understanding of how the various faith traditions all offer contemplative practices that can be used for stress management, well being, health, and healing. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and other approaches each provide useful approaches to meditative practices. Many of them are similar in technique. In some ways, they reflect foods from different cultures: different flavors but all delicious in their own way.

I am not saying that all religious traditions and contemplative practices are the same. For myself, I use Christian contemplative practices but have come to appreciate the contributions from the other traditions to help people improve their health and well being. I integrate them into my clinical practice and frequently consult with clergy from the various traditions. 

In my view, the right thing to do is to be respectful and appreciative of the contemplative practices of all of the religious and spiritual traditions as well as respectful and appreciative of the many good and well meaning people from these traditions. While sadly some do horrific things in the name of their religious tradition, the vast majority do not and we have to be careful not to over generalize.

We probably all have a lot more to learn about our own traditions not to mention those of others. In doing so, perhaps we can all benefit from the richness that is available to us from the religious and spiritual traditions. Recent quality research and clinical practices seems to agree.

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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