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Mindfulness and Ministry: Cognitive Based Compassion Training

Post Author: Ali Van Kuiken

A previous version of this article listed Reverend Maureen Shelton's title as doctor. This error has been corrected. 

I’m re-doing my CPE. That’s right. I did it already: not just one unit, but four, and now I’m doing it again. That story will be told in a separate article. This article is about a valuable practice I learned about in my second-time-around second unit: Cognitive Based Compassion Training, or CBCT. 

CBCT was developed at Emory University and comes out of the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics. It is now part of Emory Healthcare’s CPE program and a new initiative they have called Compassion-Centered Spiritual Health (CCSH). My first impression of CBCT was that someone re-invented the wheel known as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). I’ve learned about DBT previously in my work as a psychiatric hospital chaplain. After more exposure to it and a conversation with Maureen Shelton, Director of CCSH, I’ve come to see how CBCT offers something very unique for all pastoral caregivers, whether chaplains or pastors.

Reverend Shelton explained that, unlike other mindfulness programs, CBCT builds on itself. It has an initial set of mindfulness practices that form the practice’s foundation and then an additional level of analytic meditation. The compassionate focus is on the individual doing the practice. The solid foundation is one of finding a “zone of well-being” and being able to return to that space more easily after disturbances. This allows the practitioner to become more settled into this “zone of well-being,” allowing the “zone of well-being” to become more “sticky.” It becomes a solid part of your habits. 

One of the initial practices CBCT offers is called “connecting to a moment of nurturance.” It involves remembering a nurturing moment from your past when you felt safe and taken care of, or if no such memory is accessible, imagining a place or situation that would be safe and nurturing. Then you focus on that moment and allow it to fill your mind. You imagine sensory details, fully placing yourself in that space imaginatively. Then you are invited to note any changes in how your body feels. This ability to place yourself in a nurturing moment allows you to move closer to the “zone of well-being” instead of being in a place either of low activation on the one hand or high stress on the other. This ability to create a self-nurturing moment is the basis on which the rest of the CBCT practices are built. 

Then, CBCT builds on that moment of nurturance, furthering your well-being. You are not being asked to show compassion to your enemies while feeling inadequate yourself. You are not being asked to pour into the lives of others from an empty cup. It begins with your own well-being, with your own resilience. In my conversation with her,  Shelton clarified what is meant by “resilience” in CBCT. It does not mean the ability to handle more and more difficulty and stress. It is being able to stay in the “zone of well-being” more frequently or to catch yourself going out of that zone, so you can see more clearly what options there are to engage with the world. 

CBCT is all about opening up space and giving options. Shelton first took the CBCT course from Emory when parenting a teenager. She noted how valuable CBCT was for her parenting, giving her that much needed space between event and reaction. That space allowed her to view the situation calmly and see the various options available to her. It was empowering. Shelton said she was able to create a gap between thoughts and she could rest in that gap and realize, “I am more than any one thought or feeling.” 

Reflecting on how CBCT can be especially helpful for pastors, Shelton noted how common it is for clergy  to feel the need to fix things or the sense that it is all on you. This practice aids in being able to lean in to vulnerability for longer and to see more readily the resources that are there within the people you are working with and within yourself. Because CBCT prioritizes skills to care for ourselves in order to better care for others, we can take the time to settle in, to notice if we are being activated, to ground ourselves, and to lean into the care of others. 

CBCT has other applications as well. Shelton spoke of her personal practice of doing CBCT before her regular Bible reading and prayer practice so that she can delve more deeply and be more present to those practices. I have found CBCT to have a calming and grounding effect on my life when I take the time to engage with a moment of nurturance.

A decorative image of a stack of smooth stones on a beach, with the ocean and sky on the horizon.

CBCT has many things to offer pastoral caregivers both in terms of our care of ourselves and of our congregants. And the best part about it? You can access it for free on the The Compassion Shift website. All you need to do is create an account and you can access eighteen free videos, averaging six minutes each, which fit easily into a busy schedule. By creating an account, you can also access live practice sessions on Zoom that happen five days a week. Even if you are limited in your ability to pay for classes or conferences, you can still benefit from CBCT using this free resource, allowing you a tool for the grounding of self and focus and care for others. I encourage you to give it a try as part of your practice of caring for yourself and others.

The Rev. Ali Van Kuiken is a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in central New Jersey where she lives with her husband, toddler, and cat.

Image by: Pixabay from Pexels
Used with permission
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