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Doctoral Research Project Explores Healing with Heart-Focused Prayer/Compassion Meditation

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Doctoral Research Project Explores Healing with Heart-Focused Prayer/Compassion Meditation

Core HeartMath research and principals figured prominently in a recent doctoral research project that explored whether heart-focused internal prayer-compassion meditation could contribute to personal and communal healing.

“Can a heart-focused formal and informal contemplative practice of tuning in and identifying with indwelling life force energy, or spirit as one’s deepest, truest self, contribute to healing?” That was the central question in a program designed by doctor-of-ministry candidate the Rev. Catherine Mary Quehl-Engel.

Quehl-Engel conducted her project in Mount Vernon, Iowa at Cornell College, where she was a chaplain. Cornell students, faculty and staff and members of the community comprised the 30 participants in her six-week Deep Abiding: Praying, Living, and Loving From the Inside Out program and study.

During the program, she explained, “Participants were free to interpret indwelling life force energy or spirit as best fit their own religious, secular, or spiritual, but not religious perspectives.” Throughout her thesis, she touched on a wide range of Eastern and Western contemplative, spiritual and other traditions such as mind-body-spirit practices. She gave considerable attention to scientific research exploring heart-focused compassion and intention and the interconnection between all living systems, which is theorized by a growing number of scientists, including at the HeartMath Institute.

The Deep Abiding program was designed for healing in a variety of emotional contexts, among them fear, disappointment, inability to control a situation, and discomforting and nonlife-giving thoughts about oneself.

In her Thesis Statement and Intended Outcomes, she observed: “In society and at liberal arts colleges like Cornell, there are people living busy, overstretched, and often anxious lives who seek the healing benefits of contemplative practices. They do so not only out of a desire for personal transformative healing, liberation, and empowerment but also in order to live, lead, and love as channels of healing peace in the world.”

Following the program and based on detailed participant surveys, Quehl-Engel concluded that a majority of participants had indeed experienced significant levels of healing.

The program had two primary learning outcomes. First, Quehl-Engel hoped people would cultivate a practice that opened them to personal and communal healing. Second, she wanted them to turn to the indwelling life force energy or spirit in their daily activities “when confronted with fear and sadness amid the demands, discomforts and difficulties of life.”

“The program was also created,” she explained, “to reclaim the original purpose of many contemplative spiritual traditions: namely, to help awaken awareness of life’s inter-connective oneness, and to live, love, lead, and serve as instruments of healing peace.” Quehl-Engel cited findings like the following in support of her conclusion that the program helped lead to healing:

  • 96% of respondents reported using the practices for personal healing on a weekly basis during the program.
  • 93% of respondents said they still used the program for personal healing on a weekly basis one month after the program ended, though less frequently.

Participants’ homework practice, Interior Prayer of the Heart, was integral to the Quehl-Engel’s research and program along with learning and sharing sessions they had to attend. They were assigned formal and informal homework.

An adaptation of HeartMath’s Heart-Focused Breathing™ Technique was a key component of the homework, the formal version of which participants did for 15 minutes once or twice per day.

“The formal practice involved inwardly surrendering, softening, retuning, and reidentifying with indwelling spirit or life force as one’s deeper self,” Quehl-Engel wrote.

This was done through five heart-focused steps. These steps included heart focus and heart breathing (the first two steps of Heart-Focused Breathing).

“With awareness on the heart center, one breathes in smooth five counts for the inhalations and exhalations as if from the front and back of the heart center,” she said.

Similar to the third step of Heart-Focused Breathing, participants then experienced heart feeling by recalling an image, word or phrase, sound or some other means of evoking an awareness of “healing beauty, unconditional love and/or tender mercies at a visceral, feeling level.”

They then focused on sending out healing, compassionate intention to others, something members of the HMI-founded Global Coherence Initiative practice individually and collectively. This, participants understood, was vital in achieving personal healing. They ended the formal practice by expressing their gratitude for healing and asking to live their lives as instruments and channels of healing peace.

For the informal contemplation-in-action homework practice, participants followed the formal practice steps during their everyday activities. Examples of when include the following:

  • When they wanted to prayerfully send healing and compassionate intention to others.
  • When they wanted to be a calming, peaceful, healing presence.
  • Whenever they noticed their “reminder wristbands,” thus helping to make their spiritual practice become “a way of being.”
  • When they felt joy, wonder and/or gratitude.

Note: Quehl-Engel successfully defended her thesis in March before the faculty of Washington Theological Union, a graduate school of theology and ministry in Washington D.C.

View dissertation, Deep Abiding: Praying, Living, and Loving From the Inside Out program and study.

Do you feel a heart-focused formal and informal contemplative practice of tuning in and identifying with indwelling life force energy, or spirit as one’s deepest, truest self, contribute to healing?