'The Work of a Life': Cultivating Contemplative Practice with Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford

March 18, 2022
Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford, HDS Assistant Dean for Multireligious Ministry
Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford, HDS Assistant Dean for Multireligious Ministry / Photo: Caroline Cataldo

How a once "bad meditator" became a Buddhist chaplain now offering spiritual care to those in distress and to minority religion students at Harvard Divinity School

For Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford, contemplative practice has never looked like meditating on a cushion. Discovering what it does look like for her personally and vocationally has been a lifelong journey. Recently appointed as Harvard Divinity School’s Assistant Dean for Multireligious Ministry, Sanford shared with HDS Communications her vision for her new role and her experience with—and insights on—contemplative practice.

Sanford is a scholar, teacher, Buddhist chaplain, and ordained lay minister in a Chan lineage. Prior to joining HDS, she was a campus chaplain and one of only two Buddhists to lead an interfaith religious life department at a college or university. Her work focuses on Buddhist chaplaincy and spiritual care in interfaith contexts, and campus chaplaincy and the spiritual needs of young adults. If she could teach her dream class, she says it would probably be “Moral Lessons of Star Trek” or “Existential Philosophy of Calvin and Hobbes.”

Sanford’s interview below marks the beginning of a series on contemplative practices across faith traditions at HDS, featuring faculty, staff, students, and alum. 

HDS: You have said, “Contemplative practice is as old as religion itself.” How would you characterize contemplative practice and its relationship with religion?

Sanford: Contemplative practice is the activity of paying attention in particular way. That may sound vague, and that’s because the potential objects of attention are as broad as our world, as deep as our minds and hearts, and, in some religious traditions, greater than either.

As a child, I instinctually and unknowingly practiced contemplation by stilling my chattering mind to listen attentively to Midwestern storms passing overhead, thunder rolling across the land, wind speaking through the trees. In that sense, contemplative practice needn’t be explicitly religious. However, when human beings bring that quality of attention to spiritual matters, it enlivens our religious understanding of the cosmos. When we read our religious texts, they are full of instances of contemplation, moments when someone heard the voice of God or the movement of their own heart, saw the beauty in a flower or realized the coming of death to all beings.

In the Buddhist traditions, for example, contemplative practices were already well known in northern India when the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born. Throughout his spiritual quest, Siddhartha Gautama practiced with several contemplative teachers. Ultimately, he found answers to his questions only after he sat beneath a tree and resolved to meditate until insight dawned. This is when he became the Buddha or “Awakened One,” thereafter teaching others what he had realized through his meditation. Thus, contemplative practice remains central to Buddhism.

It is worth saying that, even so, not all Buddhists meditate. For some, chanting and devotional practices are far more important. However, that, too, can be a form of contemplation because the category is so broad. Likewise, in Christian traditions, contemplative prayer is more common than meditation. St. Ignatius’s spiritual exercises for the Jesuit order are all contemplative practices. Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, and other traditions all have their own well-developed contemplative practices.

Contemplative practices are also increasingly being used in secular applications, particularly in psychology for stress relief, pain management, and mental health. There is a lot of empirical evidence for their effectiveness. The dialogue about the interactions of contemplative practices with spirituality and religion is ongoing and is a growing field to which many Harvard schools, such as the Divinity School and the Medical School, are actively contributing.

HDS: Having joined HDS’s efforts in this field as Assistant Dean for Multireligious Ministry, what is your vision for your role?

Sanford: My goal is to help Harvard Divinity School live into its aspiration to welcome the full scope of religious and spiritual pluralism found in contemporary society into an educational setting that prepares religious and spiritual leaders to serve a just world at peace. HDS already supports students and scholars of many traditions, but as society diversifies and changes, we can’t rest on our laurels. I focus on the needs of minority tradition students.

HDS has been a historically Christian and Unitarian Universalist institution. Now there are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and many spiritual-but-not-religious, humanist, and religiously hybrid students. Until 10 or 20 years ago, most of these groups never had the opportunity to pursue graduate-level education in ministry in the U.S. For example, in the U.S. there are currently only four fully accredited institutions with a graduate degree in Buddhist ministry. HDS is one of them. There is no institution in the U.S. that currently grants a graduate-level degree in Hindu chaplaincy or ministry.

My role is to support programs such as the Buddhist Ministry Initiative, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, and explore the options for other programs, such as Hindu, Muslim, or Humanist ministry. The students are already here. How is HDS serving their needs, preparing them to serve society, and where can we do better? Moreover, what do we all gain from the religiously plural environment this creates? We’re not training Buddhist ministry students on a separate track, for instance. They’re in classes with everyone else, and everyone else has the opportunity to take classes on Buddhism. We are committed to the power of pluralistic multireligious education. I am here to support that diversity in both its distinctiveness and with a shared sense of purpose.

HDS: How has your unique background impacted your experience with contemplative practice?

Sanford: Buddhism is well known for its emphasis on meditation and contemplative practice. Many who were not raised Buddhist are drawn to the tradition because of or even through those practices. I was not one of those. I became interested in Buddhism in my early twenties because of its philosophical and psychological teachings. After, I kept noticing conversations about how important meditation was cropping up in books, magazines, blogs, and podcasts. I was very skeptical. Sitting on a cushion and looking at my mind? Please.

However, to be a “good Buddhist,” I felt like I had to check it out. Give it a fair shake. So, I went to a weekend retreat at a Buddhist center way up in the Colorado mountains and sat on my cushion for three days. I hated it. I can’t emphasize that enough. I loved the mountains. I loved the people. I loved the actual teachings about Buddhism, but I hated the meditation. It seemed boring and pointless. But I didn’t want to give up just like that. Buddhism teaches about not allowing our passions and desires to rule us, so I thought, “So what if I hate it? It’s not hurting me any and might actually do me some good somehow.” So, I kept at it, badly, in fits and starts, but I never gave up entirely.

Years later, when I decided to become a Buddhist chaplain, I knew this might be a sticking point. People would expect me to meditate and teach meditation and be this contemplative-type person. I managed to fake it all throughout grad school, or so I thought. In the end, what I was learning really did sink in somehow.

When I became a chaplain and began to offer spiritual care to people in distress—people going through some of the most difficult periods of their lives, dealing with suicidal ideation, sexual assault, homelessness, mental illness—I suddenly found this ability to be present with them in a way I had never experienced with another human being before. I made them the “object of my meditation,” as we say in meditation training. I gave them every bit of concentration I had cultivated when I was practicing breath meditation or loving-kindness meditation. And somehow, that changed everything. When I could be present for another person in that way, that made a difference, for them and for me. Suddenly, meditation wasn’t boring and pointless anymore. I wasn’t looking at my mind; I was looking at the human reality in front of me as my mind and heart was beholding it.

I still struggle with meditating, but I don’t hate it anymore.

HDS: What do you consider to be your contemplative practices, and what do they add to your life?

Sanford: Many people prefer to set aside a dedicated time for contemplative practice. (Would that I were so disciplined!) I have found that it works best for me to interweave contemplative practice with the things I do every day. I practice contemplative walking when I am out with my dogs, particularly on long walks in nature. I open some of my classes with a short grounding meditation to help students let go of stress and cultivate gratitude for the people who support our education. When I am falling asleep at night, I calm my mind with breath meditation to let go of ruminative thoughts and worries. When I wake up in the morning, if I have time, I do a short loving-kindness or compassion meditation to set my intention for the day.

Loving-kindness and compassion meditations also helps me cultivate empathy and respect when I am arguing with my significant other. On weekends, I do yoga for balance and flexibility and to stay in touch with my body. When I am stressed, I practice contemplative writing and journal my stream of consciousness to get at the root of an issue and reflect on what it means for me. And, most importantly, when I am being a chaplain, which is my spiritual vocation, I make the person I am with the object of my meditation to actively listen with an open heart. For the girl who hated meditation, I sure do a lot of it in every part of my life nowadays.

Integrating contemplative practice into one’s life is like exercise for the mind and heart. Contemplative practice supports my mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health the way physical exercise, which can also be contemplative, supports my physical health. My practices allow me to remain present, see clearly, and respond to whatever is happening in my life. Life is full of extremes—suffering and joy, effort and boredom, injustice and beauty—and my contemplative practices help me balance amid it all.

HDS: How do you continue to sustain your practices over time or when your commitments pull you in multiple directions?

Sanford: What has helped most is knowing myself. By being reflective—a skill contemplative practice supports—I have made friends with myself and learned what works best through trial and error.

I struggled for a long time because I thought a “real” contemplative practice meant sitting on the cushion for a prescribed set of minutes at the same time every day. I was doing what other people did and chastising myself as a “bad Buddhist” when I couldn’t sustain that kind of practice. But brahmaviharas or “Diving Abodes”—the virtues of compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—are insidious, and the first step in cultivating them is to apply them to yourself. Once I started making friends with myself and seeking what would work, no matter how seemingly minor, things started to fall into place. Every so-called “failure” became a lesson.

Turns out I can’t meditate first thing in the morning. I just fall back to sleep. But once I’ve been awake for an hour or so and had some sunlight and coffee, I can sit and do nothing with the best of them. I also can’t meditate sitting upright on a cushion because of a back problem. Once I stopped letting teachers correct my posture and just started sitting on the couch, I didn’t dread meditation quite so much because it stopped being painful.

I also started to realize that contemplation really does come naturally to most people. I began looking for moments in my life that were already trending in that direction, like my writing and hiking. I focused attention there, cultivating a contemplative attitude towards activities that I already enjoyed. I think of it now not so much as a discipline, but as a garden I am cultivating. It is a little wild in places and in need of constant attention, but once established it kind of looks after itself and brings me and everyone around me immense joy.

HDS: What advice do you have for those who are hoping to start or restart with contemplative practice?

Sanford: Two things. First, this isn’t a solo endeavor. Connect with a teacher and other contemplative people. I promise your mind is a fascinating place, and when you start to train it through any form of contemplative practice, trippy stuff can happen. You need to have experienced people around to help you unpack and process what comes up. It is very likely that your own religious or spiritual tradition already has some formal contemplative practices and teachers who would love to meet you. If not, there are many secular mindfulness programs with certified, reputable teachers. There are even those who teach and meet online, so geography isn’t the barrier it once was. Just don’t go it alone, especially if you’re new to this.

Second, you can start anytime, and you can always start anew. The ground is your own mind and heart, and that ground is always available to you. Don’t have an hour to meditate every day? Fine. Try five minutes while you’re on the bus or give your entire attention to the dish you’re washing right now. That’s all. Just keep planting those little seeds and tending your garden. Even if you neglect it for a season, it’s always there waiting for you. Be gentle with yourself. This is the work of a life, not a weekend. Your life is well worth it.

—by Natalie Cherie Campbell