The Heart of Centering Prayer

A Christian Contemplative Practice

By Cynthia Bourgeault

Cynthia Bourgeault is leading an upcoming retreat at the Garrison Institute entitled “Centering Prayer and Nondual Awakening” on March 24 – 29, 2017. The below is an edited excerpt from her new book, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. 

Learning Centering Prayer begins with unlearning most of what you think meditation is all about.

  • Centering Prayer is not about attaining a state of bliss, peace, or stillness.
  • It’s not about developing “single-pointed concentration.”
  • It’s not about establishing a steady “I am” or witnessing presence.
  • It’s not about reducing stress or improving physical or emotional wellness (although these are indeed common side effects).
  • It’s not about receiving messages from God.

What is it about, then?

Basically, the method of Centering Prayer consists in learning to withdraw attention from our thoughts—those incessant creations of our busy minds—in order to rest in a gentle, open attentiveness to divine reality itself. This gentle releasing of thoughts is known in Centering Prayer teaching as “consenting to the presence and action of God.” It is not hard to do, but it is hard—at first—to value.

In Centering Prayer, a thought is defined as anything that brings your attention to a focal point. It can be an idea, but it can also be a vision, a memory, an emotion, or even an itch on your nose. If it captures your attention, it’s a thought, and the basic instruction is simply to let it go, gently releasing it from the grip of your attention. If another thought pops right back up to take its place, that’s quite all right; let it go, too.

So am I saying that in Centering Prayer you meditate by simply letting go of one thought after another? That can certainly be our subjective experience of the practice, and that fact is exactly the frustration expressed by an early practitioner of this prayer in a story now quite famous in the annals of Centering Prayer. In one of the very earliest training workshops led by Fr. Thomas Keating, a nun tried out her first twenty-minute taste of Centering Prayer and then lamented, “Oh, Father Thomas, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes I’ve had ten thousand thoughts!”

“How lovely,” responded Thomas Keating, without missing a beat. “Ten thousand opportunities to return to God.”

This simple story captures the essence of Centering Prayer. It is quintessentially a pathway of return in which every time the mind is released from engagement with a specific idea or impression, we move from a smaller and more constricted state of consciousness into that open, diffuse awareness in which our presence to divine reality makes itself known along a whole different pathway of perception. That’s what the author of the fourteenth century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing may have had in mind when he said, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.” “Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to suffuse one’s entire being.

It’s a little bit like learning to see in the dark. Our normal daytime vision relies primarily on the cones: photoreceptors in the eye, which are highly attuned to light, to sharp focus, and to acute differentiation. As the daylight fades, we rely more and more on our rods, which perceive peripherally, taking in the whole pattern through the loom and subtle presence of the landscape. I have always considered it a fine piece of synchronicity that the normal length of time required for our day vision to give way to night vision—twenty minutes—is exactly the length of time recommended for a period of Centering Prayer.

In the language of Contemplative Outreach, the membership network founded by Thomas Keating to promote the practice of Centering Prayer, this letting go of thoughts is seen as “consenting to the presence and action of God.” It carries that core sense of “Not my will but thine be done, O Lord,” the words uttered by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. Every time we’re willing to let go of our engagement with a thought, no matter how captivating, and return to that simple, open-ended awareness, we are participating—in solidarity with Christ—in that great gesture of self-surrender through which the world was redeemed. This traditional devotional understanding may or may not appeal to you, but there is also some very interesting confirmation emerging from recent neuroscience to suggest that learning to let go of what we’re clinging to, mentally as well as emotionally, does indeed catalyze some revolutionary—and evolutionary—changes in our neural wiring.

When I’ve talked with people who report difficulty in getting a practice of Centering Prayer off the ground, in virtually every case the problem turns out to be that they’re overcomplicating it. The challenge in Centering Prayer is not because it’s difficult but because it’s so very, very simple. Ten thousand opportunities to return to God. If you can just keep that in your head, the rest of the picture will gradually fill in.

The immediate implications of this simplicity are as follows: First, as you sit down to do this practice, you don’t need to focus on pushing away thoughts or keeping them from emerging in the first place. The work of Centering Prayer is not done on the “front end,” in your ability to access and sustain a state of openness or stillness. The work is done on the “back end,” in the exact moment when you realize that you’ve gotten engaged with a thought and are willing to let the thought go. It’s your willingness—plus the subtle, but real shift in the energy field of your attention when you release it from its object—that does the trick.

Second, this means that Centering Prayer is a total “win/win” practice. Whatever happens to you during a meditation period is just fine. If you settle down on your chair or prayer stool and immediately fall into twenty minutes of deep stillness, great! You’ve had a profound spiritual rest. If you sit there and every minute of the twenty minutes feels like twenty minutes, your mind dogged with thoughts, but you’re still doing the best you can to let them go, that’s fine, too! You’ve gotten a great aerobic workout for your “muscle” of consent.

The real work of Centering Prayer is to lay the inner foundations for an entirely different kind of spiritual attentiveness. It doesn’t work with that sharp clarity of the mind prized in so many meditational paths, nor with a forceful single-pointedness of the will. Instead, Centering Prayer opens up attention of the heart. It will gradually lead you into a whole new reality, which some have likened to “putting on the mind of Christ.”

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest and writer. She has been a long-time advocate of Centering Prayer and has worked closely with fellow teachers and colleagues including Thomas Keating, Bruno Barnhart, and Richard Rohr. She is the author, most recently, of The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice.

Image courtesy of unsplash.com

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