Cultivating Contemplative Conversations

Article by Margaret Benefiel (December 2018 eNews)

In conversations with our “contemplative cousins,” both in follow-up discussions since the August 2017 Snowmass gathering where 20 young contemplatives gathered and in other settings, the question often arises, “What method of prayer does Shalem teach? Contemplative Outreach teaches Centering Prayer, World Community for Christian Meditation teaches the John Main method of prayer, what does Shalem teach?”

We tend to answer, “We don’t have just one method we teach. We invite people into a variety of contemplative practices, helping them find what is right for them.” Unfortunately, this sometimes translates as, “We don’t have a core teaching.” As Jessie Smith, Shalem board member and Snowmass participant, pointed out one day in the midst of these conversations, a core contribution that Shalem has made is our listening circles. We not only introduce a variety of individual practices that invite people into contemplative prayer; we also invite people into the shared practice of deep listening in small groups. Furthermore, not only are our listening circles, peer groups, and spiritual direction groups embedded in our long-term programs, pilgrimages, Society gatherings, and regional settings, we also seek to hold our staff meetings, board meetings, committee meetings, and regional meetings in this way.

When Shalem office staff meet weekly, when long-term program teams meet, when program directors meet, when the Society Leadership team meets, when Regional Conveners and Regional Contemplative Leadership Teams meet, when the board and committees meet, we seek a contemplative groundedness and deep listening, to one another and to the Spirit in our midst. The wider Shalem community, consisting of Shalem program graduates and others, also introduces contemplative groundedness and deep listening in many other settings. These are contemplative conversations.

Contemplative conversations also happen to form the leading edge of current dialogue about contemplative education. Olen Gunnlaugson, a leading contemplative educator, points out that, in contrast to the softening effect of contemplative conversations, the dominant educational approaches of today have a hardening effect on students. The emphasis on mastering standardized tests, on defeating one’s opponent in debate, on individualism and competition, all form isolated human beings who distrust and fear one another. He argues for this hardening influence to be counteracted by the softening of contemplative conversations, or “intersubjective contemplative approaches,” in his terminology.

As Gunnlaugson points out, for the past 20 years the contemplative education movement has focused on re-integrating individual contemplative practices, or “first person approaches” into teaching and learning. Arguing that education’s dominant third person “objectivist” approaches truncate our humanness and limit learning, contemplative educators have introduced many first-person contemplative practices into the classroom. These include breath-focused meditation, journaling, and contemplative art. While first-person contemplative education has been sorely needed, Gunnlaugson notes that second-person, or intersubjective approaches, have been neglected. He succinctly describes a first-person focus as being within us, a third-person focus as perceived to be outside us, and a second-person approach as focused on what is between us.  The second-person approach moves contemplative awareness from me to we.   

Contemplative educators are just now beginning to articulate and experiment with second-person practices. I think the wider Shalem community has much to offer here. When the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education held its annual meeting in Amherst, MA in October, their theme was “Imagining Humane Institutions.” I offered a session on contemplative structures and processes of humane institutions and found much interest in exploring how we practice contemplative conversations.

I can imagine members of the wider Shalem community leading the way in these conversations. How might we be called to enter these discussions in higher education? Or in elementary or secondary education, where they are also occurring?  Or in the workplace?  Or in congregations and denominations? Might some be called to write about their experiences with contemplative conversations, perhaps in the Journal of Contemplative Inquiry or in Presence or in Offerings?

In a world that needs contemplative conversations now more than ever, I invite you to open yourself to God in a spirit of deep contemplative listening. Ask yourself, ask God, “How am I being invited to practice contemplative conversations? How am I being invited to nurture contemplative conversations where I live? How can we encourage one another in our callings to cultivate contemplative conversations in a world that desperately needs them?”

May our contemplative conversations feed our souls and spur us to offer contemplative conversations to our hurting world.

This article is from Shalem’s FY18 annual report. Click here to view entire report.

December 12, 2018 by Margaret Benefiel
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Our mission is to nurture contemplative living and leadership.


In 2025, Shalem will be a dynamic and inclusive community, empowered by the Spirit, where seekers engage in transformation of themselves, their communities, and the world through spiritual growth, deep connection, and courageous action.