Why do we pray the way we do? How does it resemble other contemplative activities in our lives? And how is our spirituality influenced by our bodies and physical surroundings? As we learn more about how the body reacts to spirituality, we are also confirming age-old intuitions about the relationship between the brain and the body, and religion gives us a map for exploring this new knowledge.
Dr. Kevin Ladd is a social psychologist and Associate Professor at Indiana University. He conducts most of his research in the area of the psychology of religion. In particular, he is interested in the topic of prayer. He is co-author, with Bernard Spilka, of The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach.
He is currently working on a three year project funded by the John Templeton Foundation to explore what people tend to think about while praying, how people literally see the world in terms of spiritual importance, what people tend to feel while praying, and how people use their bodies while praying. Other research interests include the interface of science & religion, prayer, wisdom, music, ritual, health, coping, prejudice, psychometrics, physiology, neuroimaging, synesthesia, spiritual transformation, character development, personality, clergy & congregational performance/satisfaction, and magic.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. As part of the program, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, NJ has been holding a series titled “The Science of Tsuris: The Polyvagal Theory and How Judaism Responds to our Biological Imperative to Connect.” This talk was adapted from a session recorded on October 27, 2021).Read Transcript
Ilana Schwartzman: I want to start off by thanking everybody who’s here today. And as I was mentioning earlier, special thanks go out to Lori Yanowitz, who has put so much work into this entire program and has brought us all together and brought us to a better place. This is the final program in our series, “The Science of Tsuris: the Polyvagal Theory and our Biological Imperative to Connect.”
In our program on stillness, we discussed what is a restful versus a restless environment for each of us. This included location and size and shape of the space, colors, sound and possibly textures. Did we want to be alone or with others?
Tonight, Dr. Kevin Ladd will have us consider the physical facets of spirituality. When we think and speak of ourselves, much of the attention centers on our mental beliefs and the language that we use to express those thoughts. Substantially less time is spent considering how actions and physical locations influence us on multiple levels, including spiritual experiences and awareness.
Dr. Ladd is a professor of psychology and the director of the Social Psychology of Religion, a lab at University of Indiana South Bend. His research interests include, but are not limited to, the interface of science and religion, prayer, wisdom music, coping, spiritual transformation, and magic. He is the co-author with Bernard Spilka of The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach. So as you can hear, this is right up our alley. And we’re so glad to have Dr. Ladd with us.
Kevin Ladd: Well, thank you very much. It’s great to be here. And the commute was really very merciful. No delays any place, it was very nice getting down the hall. (laughs)
So I wanted to today, just sort of – I know we’ve got about an hour, so I’m aiming toward maybe 40 minutes or so and then some questions and answers. At the end of that time. I want to cover three sort of broad strokes with different kinds of research that we’ve been doing in our lab. One of these has to do with our physical bodies, and how it is that we use our bodies during prayer. One of them is focused more specifically on our eyes and how it is that we see things that are relevant to our prayer life. And the final one is then how we actually engage in moving our feet.
So let’s start with the whole body at first, and then we’ll sort of break it down into pieces. When we did a couple of different projects with regard to this topic on prayer and the body, one of the first things we did was we started pulling up visual images, in addition to textual portrayals, just trying to see if we can figure out, “What is it that people do with their bodies when they pray?” And we found there are sort of three kinds of ways that people use their body across many different traditions, in many different places around the globe.
One of the first ways that people tend to use their body is in a very upright, erect sort of a posture, while praying. In some traditions, the arms go up, in some traditions, they don’t, but it’s an erect, a standing sort of a position.
A second way (very reasonable to assume and to see that it exists), is in a more centralized kind of a position – maybe a seated position, maybe a kneeling sort of a position, but something that sort of brings the body from this long extension into something that’s more compact, more centralized.
A third way in which the body is often oriented during the process of prayer has to do with being on the ground, in a very low sort of a position, maybe, again, stretched out completely in some sort of a form on the ground, and the arms maybe forward to the sides – different sort of variations, but something very, very low to the ground.
We thought this was really interesting, because we could see these kinds of ways of engaging the entire body across a whole variety of different traditions.
What we wanted to know was, does it make any difference? So the first question that I would ask you – maybe we’ll mix in more sort of questions here? What do you think? Does it make any difference? How many of you have ever engaged in the upright sort of standing up kind of prayer? Okay, how about the way that you sort of bring yourself in, the seated or kneeling kind of prayer?
How about the flat-on-the ground stuff? Okay, not as many there. What are your thoughts about what this might — does it do anything different? Or are you just really, really super obedient, so whenever the rabbi says, let’s do this, you do that? I’m sure that’s probably the case, that whatever the rabbi says, you just sort of do it instantly, right? Yeah, if you’re all shaking your head yes. I don’t believe any of you. But that’s okay. I’ve worked as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, and I know that whatever I say is not exactly what everybody does. So yeah, I’m over that.
Ilana Schwartzman: Also, I don’t think I’ve ever asked them to get all the way prostrate on the ground.
Kevin Ladd: Yeah. Okay. So anybody have any sort of initial thoughts? What is it? Does it do anything different to you?
Congregant: It makes you uncomfortable.
Kevin Ladd: Uncomfortable? Which one? Which one makes you uncomfortable?
Congregant: Well, the reality is during COVID, I was doing my best praying. I was sitting on a chair, I would have a t shirt on you know, depending on the weather, short pants – I was into it.
Kevin Ladd: Okay. And just sort of seated in one sort of location? So no up and down and moving around, just sort of stationary?
Congregant: I mean, there are some, some prayers that I stand up for out of respect. But in general, you know, I was seated. And engaged.
Kevin Ladd: Yeah, so you sort of found a sweet spot that was really working well. Good. Excellent. Others? Yeah, Nora.
Congregant: There’s also the part when you’re standing up, traditionally, there’s a kind of a swaying, that you kind of go with the rhythm. And in at least in an orthodox [tradition], there’s a praying, swaying, that goes with the prayer. It’s not just standing up straight and ramrod out of respect. There’s a motion that goes with it, and certain prayers have a certain rhythm that goes with it. And you can’t just stand straight with that movement.
Kevin Ladd: So it’s not just completely static. There’s some sort of a dynamic kind of activity there as well.
Kevin Ladd: Well, what we wanted to do was we wanted to utilize some scientific sort of principles to see what happens. And so we started digging into the science literature, saying, “Well, what are some of the differences that we can see scientifically, just without any reference to prayer whatsoever? Just what are the differences between when you’re standing up, versus sitting, versus laying down on the ground?”
And one of the first things, and one of the most powerful that I’ll share, from among many things, has to do with the position of the head. This was something that was really, really interesting. Often, when we sit down in particular, what do we do with our head during prayer? Aha, there it is. Randy’s got it. Yeah. Right. I mean, if somebody stands up in front of the assembly and says, “let us pray.” while everyone is seated, what happens? I mean, if you’re up front, you see this, and it’s this amazing sort of thing, because everybody in unison, right, all the heads go down.
Congregant: Recently, we had a service where it was a B’nei Mitzvah service a couple of weeks ago, where, instead of having the prayer books, I guess, due to COVID, we had everything projected on the wall. And I actually loved not looking down, I looked up and on the wall, I could also see the leaves changing colors outside the window. So it was interesting, you know. I was so aware of, first of all – my head is not down, I’m looking up and appreciating it from a different viewpoint.
Kevin Ladd: That’s really a nice segue, I’ll give you a quarter later for helping. (laughter) One of the things that we see that happens scientifically, is that when we bow our heads, it gets difficult to breathe. Think about what happens. As soon as you bow your head, you can’t breathe as much through your nose, or through your mouth, rather. And you tend to be able to only breathe through here, right? So it’s sort of restricting, it’s changing the breathing patterns. What happens when our heads go up, and they’re very high? Again, it sort of shuts off the ability to breathe effectively through this – and we end up breathing through our noses. When we’re just sort of looking straight forward, we tend more frequently to breathe through our mouths. Now, this is really interesting, because we’ve sort of got these three different kinds of head positions – two of which preference nasal breathing, and are actually pretty common when we think about sacred spaces. The first one is common with a sacred space, because we’ve, sort of, across traditions, across generations, we’ve learned to bow our head in reverence.
The second one, tipping the head back, is something that we have sort of learned from our architects. when we walk into many of our sacred spaces, one of the first things that we see is that we’ve got these high, open architectural spaces, and you walk into these different places, and your head goes back, and what do you say – “Wow!” right, although it’s hard to say “wow” because you can’t get your mouth open. But you end up breathing through your nose. If you’re just looking straight ahead, you tend to be more mouth breathing.
One of the interesting things that we know from that –again, totally outside of the religion and spirituality and prayer sort of motif – is that when we breathe through our nose, it actually cools the temperature of the brain and enhances things such as perceived happiness, sociability, the ability to solve problems, and creativity. When we’re breathing through the nose, the cavernous sinus, and the air comes up there, and it cools the temperature of the brain. When we breathe through the mouth, we don’t tend to have as cool of a head. Now, this goes right in with the idea of language and things that we have intuited across time. When you are really angry with somebody and you’re yelling at them, how are you breathing? Are you breathing through your nose? No. I mean, you’re sucking in large amounts of air. Why? Because you need to get a good voice to yell at somebody, right? So you, right, that’s the position of anger. And what do we call somebody who’s angry a lot of the time – a hothead. Uh huh. And somebody who operates really well under pressure? A cool-headed person.
Now, when we flip this over, one of the things that we see is that these different kinds of positions also preference different ways of breathing. And so when people are standing upright and erect, they tend to do more of the mouth breathing, and when they are down, either all the way to the floor or in sort of a more centralized position, they tend to be engaging in more nasal breathing. And our question then became, “How does this change the way in which they engage, especially in spontaneous prayers?” So not a scripted prayer, not something that’s a traditional kind of a set of words or a text, but just if you pray in these different positions.
And so we had people assigned randomly to these three different positions. And at the end of a period of time, we allowed them to pray as long as they wanted to. And at the end of the period of time, we had them write down their prayer, so that then we could look at the language that they used.
First interesting piece that came out of here, how long do you think people stayed in the prayer position? We didn’t tell them how long they had to stay. What do you think the average duration of — how long do people think was okay for their prayer? 20 seconds? What are you thinking, Randy?
Congregant: Are they prone or supine?
Kevin Ladd: Across all the different positions, just sort of the big sort of a constellation here – about four or five minutes. Five minutes, sort of on the top, three minutes on the bottom so about four is about how long they tended to stay. Pretty respectable length of a prayer. And if you look at a lot of the scripted sort of prayers, actually, they’re a lot shorter than that. And so it’s longer than a lot of the classic traditional prayers in which we engage. But it’s also not like a big, you know, like a revival meeting or something, right, where you’re going to pray for two hours.
So that was our first finding. The second finding, then, is to look at the language. And what we had hypothesized was that in the positions where you’re doing more nasal breathing, we were going to find different kinds of prayer, in particular, prayers that were more about self-reflection, and prayers that were more about emotionality in a positive sense. And we would find less prayers that had to do with sort of being more assertive, that were more demanding in some way, that had more “hot” kinds of emotions.
And by golly, if that’s not what came back to us. And what we discovered is that when people were standing, their prayers tended to be a lot more assertive kind of prayer. One might think of them almost like Job at the beginning, as opposed to at the end, where standing in sort of a shaking-the-fists-at-the-
Now, I’m talking in broad generalities, right, this is certainly not every individual person. It’s not every individual case or every individual time. But these are in general. And the nice part about that, from the scientist’s point of view, is that the use of the body, and what it is that we already knew about breathing and the effects that it has on our physiological states, mapped onto each other very nicely.
One piece that I would toss in that might be useful in terms of your own prayer practice – we had one person who was assigned to be in a standing position, she was a United Methodist pastor, and she was assigned to be in a standing position and to have her arms raised up over her head. And she came to us and she said, “Ah, I really don’t want to pray like that.” She says, “I know the kind of people who pray like that, and I’m not one of them. That’s not who I am. I’m not that sort of Pentecostal Holy Roller sort of kind of pray-er, with all this vibrant – “ said, that’s just me said, Well, you’ve been randomly assigned to this condition. It would be very helpful if you would please do this. And so finally she said, “Okay, I’ll try it.”
Now, knowing what you know, in about four minutes, and the different kinds of emotionality that come out, she really surprised us. After 25 minutes, she came out – and remember this is all you get to choose how long you want to stay there.
She stayed in her prayer position for 25 minutes. That’s a long time. And so we said, “Okay, tell us what’s going on. Are you not expecting this?” And what she said was, “After about 30 seconds, my arms really started to hurt.”
She said, “Because just holding them up like that I’m not used to it, the back of my arms are burning, and my back is hurting, and the lower back is aching, right? It was really painful after just about 30 seconds here. And by the time I got to two minutes, it was really hurting.”
And she said, “And about at the two or three minute mark, it struck me that I knew who these people were who prayed like this, and I didn’t want anything to do with that, because it was a certain type of theological orientation. And that was just not me.”
She said, “But then suddenly, at about that three minute mark, I recognized the amount of effort that it took for those people to engage in their prayer. And suddenly, it occurred to me that those people that I didn’t want to be anything like – they were willing to do a lot more for their spiritual development than I was.”
And she said, “That really struck me.” And she said, “By golly, if they can do this, I can too. And I can undergo a little bit of effort, and put something more into my prayer life than a place in which I am just physically comfortable all the time.” That, to me, was an incredibly powerful sort of a moment. And it was something that she took away from this research project with her, that literally changed the way in which she engaged prayer, so that she knew where it was that she was comfortable, but she also had this epiphany that said, “Sometimes when I’m praying, maybe I don’t need to be comfortable. Maybe I need to be uncomfortable, maybe that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
And that was a really very visceral sort of experience for her. And something then that she took back to the rest of the assembly and shared with them as well, and said, “Let’s try some of this, as a group of people together. Sometimes we’ll do this stuff that’s really comfortable for all of us. And sometimes we’re going to try some stuff that isn’t as comfortable.” And that became a really powerful sort of a moment.
That’s sort of an overview of the sort of material that we’ve worked with in terms of the entire body. I’d like to shift our attention next to the eyes. What do you do with your eyes? When you pray? Anything?
Congregant: Are you talking about reading the prayer or just thinking of praying in your head?
Kevin Ladd: Okay, good point. Part of it could be that you’re actually reading texts. So your eyes are following text. Yep. If they’re not following text, what are you doing with your eyes? Jen mentioned that she was looking around at some things. Lauren?
Congregant: A lot of times you close them.
Kevin Ladd: Sometimes you close them, okay.
Congregant: I look up at first. I look up, and then I kind of close my eyes when I’m really focusing.
Kevin Ladd: Yeah, when we focus, we tend to sort of close our eyes in many cases.
One of the things that we wondered was how it is that the information that comes in our eyes, if we happen to keep our eyes open in different times and places, how it is that we use our eyes to frame the world in terms of what’s spiritually important to us. What is it that we pick up in the world around us that informs how it is that we pray, or what it is that we see that then leads us to say “I should pray about this,” or “I should pray about that,” instead of something else.
And so what we did was we engaged in some projects using what’s called an eye- tracking machine. An eye-tracking machine uses a laser to lock on to a person’s eyes as they watch a computer screen. This isn’t kind of like a burning sort of a laser, right this is just a tracking one so no harm was done to any people in the study. So we’ve got them with these lasers locked on the pupil of their eye, and it follows exactly where their eye is going on a computer screen. And then we showed them a whole variety of different pictures. We’ve got a databank of about 5,000 or 6,000 different kinds of pictures. And so everybody gets to see some different things.
And as we look across people, here’s what we discovered. What we saw was that people, when they have a prayer need at that particular moment in their lives that is very much about themselves – sort of that kind of drawing-in kind of prayer. They’re looking for some kind of peace and some sort of meditative, restful kind of a state. In that sort of a situation, when people are looking at things, what they prefer to see on the screen, and what they really focus in on, are things that are close up. So if we give people a choice on the screen – they can either look at a picture that’s a close-up image of a person, or they can look at an image of a group of people that’s more of a big landscape – their eyes tend to go to the close-up picture.
Other people whose prayer life at the moment might be for things like global peace, or world hunger, sorts of issues, if they’ve got the same sort of an option, they tend to spend more time looking at the big landscape.
What this suggests to us is people’s way of literally framing and looking at the world is connected to what it is that they’re thinking about, in terms of their religious practices of praying. This is something we already knew from a lot of advertising, right? If you look at a website, you’ve got a lot of people who spend a lot of money doing eye-tracking studies of how to lay out websites in order to pull you in, so that you’ll follow through on that PayPal transfer.
What we were interested in is what happens when we take that knowledge and bring it in. Is there something about our religion or spirituality that also frames the world and tells us what’s important? And the answer is yes. The things that we pray about are the things that we tend to orient ourselves toward.
Now, if we go back to that example of the United Methodist pastor, one of the things that that represents is the comfortable place for us. To look at the things that we already think and believe are important to us. That’s our comfort zone. Of course we’re going to zero in on those things. From the perspective of a spiritual director, or as someone who’s looking to grow in their spiritual discipline of prayer, what does that suggest? It suggests doing the opposite, doesn’t it?
And so if we’re comfortable in our prayer life at the moment, with the more sort of drawn-in stuff focusing in on the close up sort of images, one of the things that can move us to a different place spiritually, is by intentionally recognizing, “My preference is here, and so I’m going to subvert that preference, and I’m going to sort of go to that space that makes me a little bit more uncomfortable. And I’m literally going to look at the landscape.” And if my preference is naturally to look in these big, broad places, and my prayers are typically very big and bold sorts of prayers, what happens if I bring that down, and instead of looking at everything, what if I really go deep on a particular kind of a topic?
And so using these sorts of images becomes a way that we can help people to guide their own spiritual development. And it’s one of those things where if you have people look through a book and say, “Okay, look at these 40 different images, and whatever images you really like, we want you to rip them out of the book. And for the next three weeks, or four weeks, while you engage in prayer, what we want you to look at are the pictures that made you more uncomfortable that you weren’t automatically at home with, and try to understand what it might be that you can learn through your prayer practice that’s coming to you in this way that you didn’t automatically look at — things that you may not have considered.
And so what we’re doing here is we’re using sort of this scientific understanding of how it is that we know the body works, and how it is that sensation and perception sort of focuses in on the things that we’re comfortable with. And then we use that to flip it around and say, How can this become a tool for growth and development in our spiritual lives? Again, sort of looking for what’s comfortable, and then looking for the parts that are challenging. Because there are some points as you read through the scriptures. There are some points that you see there — that what God is calling the people to do, is to be comfortable, to rest, to relax, to have peace.
But then there’s a whole bunch of other times when that’s exactly what God is not calling people to do, isn’t it? And God is saying, “Step out, go someplace new. Take a journey into something that might be uncomfortable. And let’s see how the relationship and your own spirituality develop.” That’s sort of what we like to do in our place.
Now, the third thing that I wanted to talk to you about is: we’ve talked about the whole body, we’ve talked about the eyes, now we want to talk about the feet. You would be really super impressed right now if I put my foot up here beside my ear, wouldn’t you. That was many, many years ago (laughs).
What I wanted to talk to you next about were labyrinths. And this is something that we talked with Geoff, on some previous times, as well as some of these other things. Does anyone know what a labyrinth is?
A labyrinth is sort of a meandering path, that is what we refer to as “unicursal.” It means there’s one path that leads us in toward a central point. And then you turn around and you follow that path straight back out.
In order to make this a little more clear, I asked people to gather some utensils, so that we can do a little bit of this together. And what we’ll do is I’m going to see how well this works, if I can draw things backwards and upside down. And if the camera will focus on it. This I’m not so sure about. Cameras and zoom and focusing are not always so reliable. So I’ll make it as big as I can here. What I’d like you to do on your paper is first make a vertical line, and then a horizontal line. Let’s see if we can get this guy to focus here.
So we’re going to have eight different points here on our little drawing. And now we’re going to play connect the dots. Are you ready? We’re going to connect point 2 to point 3, and now we’re going to connect point 1 to point 5, and then we’re going to connect point 4 to point 8, a big, long, swooping sort of a thing. Be sure you don’t get your lines too close together there. Keep them – okay? You’re seeing the pattern, huh?
And now let’s connect six all the way around, and I’m going to run into the top of my board there, and back all the way around down and bring it up to seven. And what you’ve just done is you’ve created your own finger labyrinth.
Now, you’ve got the recording there if you want to jot down that pattern on another piece of paper. Now that you know sort of what you’re aiming for, you can go and start making it a little bit more beautiful and all that sort of stuff.
The point of the labyrinth, then, is that you can use these — you might even make this a little bit longer, so you’ve sort of got a nice little entrance and kind of a place here. What you can do next is you can use this as a portable little meditation tool for yourself, right? This is fundamentally just what the big ones look like, except that the big ones just keep getting larger and larger, right. And if we have it a little different, they’re called seed patterns. If we use a slightly different seed pattern, we can just keep making these things bigger and bigger and bigger, as big as you want to make it in your house or your yard. First time I did this, I actually went out and drew these on the street, but then discovered that wasn’t so good because people actually started walking on them, that created some issues, so I didn’t do that again.
Here’s the deal. With the labyrinth, there are basically three kinds of places that we talk to people about. One is the entrance, one is the center, and the other is the exit. [There are] three sort of movements that are involved here with the labyrinth. And what we talk about these, when we’re using them, particularly as a spiritual discipline tool, is the idea that the labyrinth invites us to do three things: first, it invites us to come and to walk from the entrance toward the center, as we reflect on what it is that we bring with us to the moment. What is the spiritual question, what is the spiritual desire that we have with us at that moment? And as we walk to ruminate on that, and to think about what it is that brings us to this moment.
And then for the second movement, if you will – it’s actually a non-movement. It’s standing in the center, just being in the presence, and sitting with or standing with that problem. And considering what it is to be in that moment, in that place, at that time. And the third movement, then, is to take whatever it is that that moment has taught to us, and to walk back out along exactly the same path, retracing our steps, but thinking about how it is that we can now go forward, back out and rejoin our daily lives to rejoin the world with a different sensibility about the nature of our journey.
In essence, these labyrinths form small, miniature pilgrimages, right? These are ways in which we can do this on a regular basis. And so our question for people was to find out what happens when you approach a labyrinth, with regard to the kinds of prayers that you’re going to be focusing on, what kinds of issues what kinds of problems do people tend to bring with them, and what happens to their emotional state compared to how they start, in relation to how they end. Is there a change in emotionality? Do the positives get higher? Do the negatives get lower?
What we discovered at the end — and we tested about 150 or 200 people in the labyrinth-walking exercise. And what we discovered was: after people had walked the labyrinth, they came out and they reported much stronger positive emotions, and they reported lower amounts of negative emotions. Now that sort of sounds, on its surface, like it was a good thing, doesn’t it? More positive, less negative – who wouldn’t take that in their bank account?
So that looks pretty good. But from the scientific perspective, we’re curious. We say, “Well, is it anything about the labyrinth? Or is it just about walking?” And so we had another group of people just walk a straight line, as though we had uncoiled this labyrinth, and we measured out how many feet it was, and we just had them walk that many feet. Just once back, out and once back, same sort of a thing, right? A going out and then coming back. Their positive emotions went up and their negative emotions went down.
Then we had a third group of people just sit still in a chair – as long as they wanted to. Their positive emotions went up and their negative emotions went down. We had a fourth group of people, and we just turned them loose in a big space. It was sort of like a gymnasium in most cases, a big sort of a hall where people had, you know, no obstruction. We just said, “Walk around wherever you want to, for as long as you want to, just engaging in your practice of prayer.” And their positive emotions went up and their negative emotions went down.
So what we discovered at the end of this was that the labyrinth didn’t really do anything unique. It was all about doing something related to prayer for a particular sort of amount of time. When you were explicitly focused on the prayer practice, positive emotions went up, and negative emotions went down. It wasn’t, however, the end of the story. Because in a very bizarre sort of a twist, we had people, after they had done their different walking piece or their sitting piece, who would stay after we were finished with the experiment for the day. And this was an experiment that we ran for about two years, in order to collect [data from] about 600 people. And we collected some data in Ohio, some in Indiana, some in Illinois – and much to the sadness of the students, we even collected a bunch of data in Florida during spring break. (At the churches, not on the beaches, no beach labyrinths for them. Although I have actually drawn a labyrinth on a beach, but that’s another story).
What we discovered across this is that people would wait until our research team had finished for the day, and then they would come back to us and say, “I didn’t have a chance to walk the labyrinth. Could I walk the labyrinth?” And we said “Oh, but there’s nothing really special about the labyrinth, the positives go up, the negatives go down. It’s just like all the rest” – they say “No. Labyrinth is different.” I said, “No, it’s not”. And they said, “Yes, it is.” Who am I to argue? What we discovered from this is that objectively, from a purely scientific perspective, there was no discernible difference. It was just about doing the exercise. And yet from a subjective point of view, what the labyrinth represented was a unique kind of spiritual tool that called people to want to engage it.
And from a perspective of leadership and spiritual development, this is really the key, is that we know that the prayer practice is useful and it helps the positives go up and the negatives go down. But what is much harder is just like with a physician getting somebody to take their heart medication. What’s the number-one problem? Patient compliance. They don’t do it. And so if the labyrinth represents a tool that calls people and draws them in, what happens over a long period of time, is that people actually go back to it and they do it. And then on a longer term basis, they feel those positives going up and the negatives going down. It’s not just sort of a one-off sort of a thing. So it’s not just at a particular moment of worship at one moment during the week. But instead, they’ll go back to it on a Tuesday or on a Thursday or Wednesday morning, and they walk the labyrinth, and what are they doing? They’re engaging with a more regular kind of experience of entering into, sitting with, and coming back out into the world with the benefits of their prayer exercise. And so, no science-y sort of a thing there, but it’s about getting people to actually do the project. And that’s something that’s much more enjoyable.
And so across these three things, what we have to offer here for you this evening, are these three different sorts of thoughts about how it is that we can find what it is that’s sort of comfortable for us, and how we can relish that, and that science has shown us these different ways in which this works. But there are also ways that science then suggests that if we want to, we can seek to develop our spiritual lives, and to change those, by intentionally seeking out the different sort of components that make us slightly uncomfortable. Not radically uncomfortable, but at least slightly uncomfortable. Taking us out of the place where we think that we know all of the answers about what this experience is like, and finding the new places, sort of those cutting-edge kinds of moments.
And so I hope this has been useful to you in terms of thinking about the whole body and the positions, the eyes, and what it is that we focus on, and what we tend to see and what it is that we might not see. And then using the entire body to actually walk ourselves through these labyrinths.
There’s so many other really fascinating things about labyrinths. We’ve used them, for instance, for weddings — with two entrances. So the two people come in from different sides. They go around and around and around until they meet at the center, and then they leave on a common path. We’ve used them in conflict resolution, so that people again come together until they meet. Sometimes they go out together, sometimes they agree to go back out by themselves. But they’ve had a meeting where they’ve actually talked to each other. So there’s lots and lots of really fascinating uses for this that we’re exploring. We’ve talked with people – we know that, for instance, I’ve got colleagues on aircraft carriers, who are using labyrinths in military contexts to help the different individuals who are in those situations to try to find their center and regain who it is that they are under those terms. We know that they’re being used in prisons, in retirement centers, in a whole variety of different things. We’re really interested in some rehabilitation kinds of things, where a caregiver and a care receiver go through the labyrinth together, maybe using a wheelchair and somebody pushing and somebody else walking with you. We’ve used them in a local cancer recovery place. Lots and lots and lots of different sorts of applications.
Lori Yanowitz: So I’m going to thank you, Dr. Ladd. This was, I think, very informative, and what a wonderful way to end our series. Tonight was wonderful, and I want to thank Rabbi Mitelman for giving us this grant – he and his organization. And so thank you, and hopefully, Dr. Ladd, we will see you again for another program.
Kevin Ladd: All right, very good.
Lori Yanowitz: Thank you very much, everyone.
Kevin Ladd: Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here. Much appreciated.
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