Adopting and Adapting Compassion Practice: An Analysis of Novice Meditators’ Experiences Open Access

Florian, Marianne Parrish (Summer 2021)

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This research project examines the contemplative learning experiences that healthcare chaplains enrolled in a one-year residency in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) report as they participate in an intensive compassion meditation course. Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT®) is a sequence of mind-body exercises seeking to orient practitioners toward emotions, cognitive skills, and perspectives that strengthen their compassion, thereby increasing the spontaneity and ease with which they may respond compassionately in the face of suffering. CBCT® is closely related to mind training techniques, or lojong (Tib: བློ་སྦྱོང་, Wylie: blo sbyong) that combine aphorisms with visualization and related meditative exercises. The CBCT® course for chaplains was delivered in five weekly day-long workshops. A contemplative science experimental study undertook to assess specific benefits of the contemplative training. The present investigation of learning experiences is informed by my own participant-observation of the compassion training sessions and interviews with chaplains before, during, and after they completed the training course. The timing of these interviews depended upon whether a participant was assigned to the experimental group, which learned compassion meditation early in the residency year or to a wait-listed group, which learned it later. Interviews focused on participants’ prior knowledge of spiritual and religious practices that might be analogous to CBCT® meditation, their ways of engaging in and personalizing CBCT® practice for their own use, and any personal changes or especially salient moments of learning that they associated with compassion meditation.  


Key findings include a high degree of diversity within the repertoires of spiritual and religious practices that chaplains reported. These are framed as virtue practices and intercession practices, depending on whether they seek to engender ethical qualities and/or seek divine help on behalf of oneself or others. Among the various ways that participants adopted compassion meditation and adapted it to their needs and proclivities, three overlapping modes of practice were evident: sustained meditation, momentary attunement, and mindful recognition/reframing. Case studies of de-identified individuals, including their primary intercession and virtue practices, their ways of engaging with CBCT® meditation, and salient moments of learning are presented. Understanding these aspects of learning experiences with CBCT® represents fertile ground for inquiry into the sources of individual differences in responses to compassion meditation training as well as differences in experimental outcomes. This study begins the work of gauging the diversity and individuality of contemplative learning experiences, even within a manualized evidence-based contemplative intervention.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ii

Abbreviations iv

Contents v

Prologue: During One Interview  1

Preface 2

Chapter One: Introduction 11

Chapter Two: Frames and Methods 28

Chapter Three: On Chaplains’ Prior Knowledge and Practices 55

Chapter Four: Learning a Contemplative Practice 97

Chapter Five: Experiencing Effort and Growth 129

Chapter Six: Results and Discussion 154

Appendix A: Interview Question Sets 159

Appendix B: Codebook 167

Nodes and Definitions 167

Works Cited 170

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