Toward evidence-based spiritual therapeutics: a randomized controlled trial of Hesychastic prayer
September 1, 2022 - August 31, 2024
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Director: Michael FergusonInstitution: The Brigham and Women's Hospital, Inc.
Co-Director: Brendan CaseInstitution: Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University
Extensive clinical research in recent decades has shown that meditation and mindfulness practices offer significant psychological benefits to many people, and these spiritual practices are now widely employed in secularized forms in clinical and therapeutic settings. By contrast, there have been relatively few efforts to rigorously assess corresponding practices in theistic traditions. This project from a team led by Michael Ferguson and Brendan Case at The Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) seeks to correct this imbalance by conducting a randomized controlled trial of the effects of Hesychastic prayer (also known as the Jesus Prayer) on the wellbeing of a nationally representative sample of self-identified Christians.
In Greek, the word “hesychasm” means “rest.” The Hesychastic prayer is a simple form of contemplative prayer with origins in the Orthodox Christian tradition in which the practitioner repeats the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” This prayer remains widespread in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and has also grown in popularity in Western churches due to a rediscovery of monastic and Christian contemplative traditional practices.
Participants in the study will be randomly assigned to one of four groups: the Jesus prayer condition; an active control group that will practice anapanasati meditation, a breathing-based form of mindfulness meditation; an active "default prayer" control group; or a passive wait-list control group. Those in active conditions will receive a 10-minute instructional audio recording, created in collaboration with experts in hesychasm or mindfulness, and will be asked to engage in their assigned practice for 20 minutes three times per week for six weeks, with daily email or text message reminders for that period. Participants will also be asked to take weekly notes of their experience, and a subset of participants from each group will also take part in in-depth interviews following the trial's conclusion in order to develop deeper insights about user engagement and the experience of the practice.
Instructional recordings for Hesychastic prayer and mindfulness interventions from the study for public use are expected to be outputs of this project. The project also hopes to contribute to the creation of a Spiritual Therapeutics Continuing Medical Education course at BWH; the recognition of contemplative prayer as a clinical intervention; and the creation of a laboratory for Neurospirituality based at BWH.
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