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Centering Prayer

Discussion in 'Mind, Body & Spirit' started by Montana Keith, Mar 4, 2009.

  1. Montana Keith

    Montana Keith Member

    Centering Prayer
    A few weeks ago a type of meditative practice from the Christian tradition came into my awareness. I imagine that many of you are already aware of this practice and are practitioners of it. For those of you who are like me and have never heard of “centering prayer” before, this information might be of interest.

    “Centering prayer” comes from the Christian contemplative tradition. It is also inspired by writings of major contributors to the Christian contemplative heritage including John Cassian, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.

    Centering Prayer Guidelines
    I. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating)

    1. The sacred word expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

    2. The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer to the Holy Spirit. Use a word of one or two syllables, such as: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen. Other possibilities include: Love, Listen, Peace, Mercy, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust.

    3. Instead of a sacred word, a simple inward glance toward the Divine Presence, or noticing one’s breath may be more suitable for some persons. The same guidelines apply to these symbols as to the sacred word.

    4. The sacred word is sacred not because of its inherent meaning, but because of the meaning we give it as the expression of our intention to consent.

    5. Having chosen a sacred word, we do not change it during the prayer period because that would be engaging thoughts.

    II. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

    1. “Sitting comfortably” means relatively comfortably so as not to encourage sleep during the time of prayer.

    2. Whatever sitting position we choose, we keep the back straight.

    3. We close our eyes as a symbol of letting go of what is going on around and within us.

    4. We introduce the sacred word inwardly as gently as laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton.

    5. Should we fall asleep upon awakening we continue the prayer.

    III. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

    1. “Thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception, including body sensations, sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concepts, commentaries, and spiritual experiences.

    2. Thoughts are an inevitable, integral and normal part of Centering Prayer.

    3. By “returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word” a minimum of effort is indicated. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of Centering Prayer.

    4. During the course of Centering Prayer, the sacred word may become vague or disappear.

    IV. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

    1. The additional 2 minutes enables us to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.

    2. If this prayer is done in a group, the leader may slowly recite a prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer, while the others listen.

    Keith: I am currently having very positive experiences combining “centering prayer” with LifeFlow technology. If any of what I’ve shared here resonates with you, I suggest that you might want to read Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault.
  2. Edwin

    Edwin Member

    Looks like a meditation excercise like any other to me Keith !

    To me it seems a good way to introduce meditation to those who think that, since meditation wasn't "invented" by Christians, it is the work of the devil or something.
    But in essence it is just a way towards enlightenment like any other.

    Good of you to share tho !
  3. John

    John Member

    Thanks for sharing Montana and highlighting that we can use a meaningful spititual Christian word as a "meditation mantra" to find "peace" and calmness
  4. Montana Keith

    Montana Keith Member

    Attention and Intention

    Edwin & John,
    Thanks for your comments. We are blessed to have so many excellent techniques, processes, and teachers to assist us in awakening. I'm always amazed at the wonderful posts I read on this forum. I hope both of you have a GREAT weekend.

    Here's some addtional information on centering prayer and how it compares to other meditation practices. Take care. --Keith :)

    Attention and Intention
    Generally speaking, the various methodologies of meditation can be divided into three main groups: concentrative methods, awareness methods, and surrender methods. Centering prayers belongs to this last (and least common) category.

    Concentrative methods, which are probably the most universal and time-honored, rely on the principle of attention. In this type of meditation, the mind is given a simple task to focus its attention on—or more accurately, in. Depending on the tradition, this might involve counting one’s breaths, bringing attention to and then holding it on a particular area of the body (such as an arm or a leg); or, most commonly reciting a mantra either aloud or silently.

    A mantra is a word or short phrase of sacred origin and intent, used to collect the mind and invoke the divine presence. Some classic mantras, or course, include the great “Om padme” and “Gate, gate para gate” of the Eastern traditions, and the “La ilaha ill Allahu” (“there is nothing but God”) of Islamic tradition. But prayer with a mantra is also well attested in the Christian tradition, including the Jesus prayer of the Christian Orthodox, the rosary, and the “Maranatha”—“Come, Lord”—recommended by John Main as the foundational mantra of Christian Meditation. Some traditions (such as those reflected in Transcendental Meditation) consider the vibration of the mantra to be as important as its content, and a mantra will be specifically assigned by the teacher in order to resonate with certain aspects of the student’s inner being. This aspect seems to be far less emphasized in Christian teaching.

    Whatever the method, the mantra provides a touchstone for the attention. Rather than allowing the mind to wander, it is anchored steadily and constantly in the simple repetition of the task. The mind stays alert and present while the deeper waters of one’s being are refreshed in the numinous presence which the mantra itself invokes.

    Awareness methods are much favored in Buddhist practice, particularly in Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. In awareness meditation, one aligns oneself with an inner observer and simply watches the play of energy as thoughts and emotions rise, take form, and dissipate. If an angry thought emerges, rather than getting tangled up in it one simply watches—or perhaps labels it, “thinking, thinking” or “angry thinking, angry thinking.” In awareness practice one learns to separate radically from one’s psychological being (or ordinary awareness) and to sink deep roots into the field of consciousness itself. The fruits of this type of meditation tend to be laser-like clarity and a fierce, unshakable presence.

    A surrender method is even simpler. One does not even watch or label the thought as it comes up, takes form, and dissipates. As soon as it emerges into consciousness, one simply lets it go. The power of this form of meditation does not reside in a particular clarity of the mind or even in presence, but entirely in the gesture of release itself. Thomas Keating likes to characterize it as a prayer “not of attention, but of intention.”

    (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault, pp. 20-21)
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2009
  5. Montana Keith

    Montana Keith Member

    The Art of Letting Go

    Here is some further information on centering prayer that I thought some of you might find useful. Take care. --Keith :)

    The Art of Letting Go
    The goal in Centering Prayer is not to stop the thoughts, but simply to develop a detached attitude toward them. As long as they are coming and going of their own accord, there is no need to be constantly repeating your Sacred Word. The Word is only used to help you jump off the boat and swim back down to our little diver’s rock once your realize you’ve been caught.

    In introductory Centering Prayer workshops this gentle, laissez-faire attitude toward the thoughts is reinforced through a simple formula called “The Four Rs”:

    Resist no thought

    Retain no thought

    React to no thought

    Return to the sacred word

    Resist no thought means just that. According to scientific research, the stream of consciousness is constantly moving along, and without specialized training it is nearly impossible for most people to keep their mind on a single thought for more than two minutes. The good news in this is that by the time a thought emerges into consciousness, it’s already on the way out! If you don’t feed it with commentary or reaction, it will soon enough move on of its own accord.

    Retain no thought is the other side of the same coin: “You catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go.” It is the willingness to “do the deal,” as I described in the last chapter: to let go of any thought promptly and without reluctance.

    React to no thought means to let go of the thought without internal commentary or self-criticism, which so often merely results in turning an innocent thought into an emotionally charged scenario. “What, I’m still getting snagged on self-reflection!” or “How could such a violent thought have emerged from me? What kind of monster am I, anyway?” An emotionally charged thought is a lot harder to let go than a simple woolgathering or daydream.

    Return to the sacred word means simply to say your word again (or allow it to say itself) as a symbol of your willingness to release whatever the particular thought may be and return to your state of open awareness. Thomas Keating emphasizes that this release should be extremely gentle; in fact, Centering Prayer trainees learn this last “R” phrase as “return ever-so-gently to your sacred word.”

    (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault, pp. 39-40)
  6. WeeHoo

    WeeHoo Member


    Keith, reading your posts on centering prayer has brought back wonderful memories for me. My parents, who were very devout Catholics, began using Centering Prayer way back in the 1960s. I remember my dad sitting in the living room in a high-backed chair, meditating early in the morning. Makes me smile! Thanks so much for the posts. Thomas Keaton is a terrific speaker/author and I'm glad to be reminded of him. Off to the bookstore!
  7. Montana Keith

    Montana Keith Member

    Thanks for your comments. I'm glad they brought to mind pleasant memories of your own parents and the religious tradition in which you were raised. Life is often so surprising to me--so different from my own expectations when they are held too closely.

    I am so grateful I am discovering beneficial traditions from religious traditions different from the one in which I was raised. I wish you well this day. --Keith :)
  8. Montana Keith

    Montana Keith Member

    Will-Power vs. Desire Power

    The meditative practice of “centering prayer” combined with LifeFlow technology is continuing to be extremely beneficial to me. Old limiting beliefs are starting to loosen up and break free. Through my studying—I read a lot—and my experiences, I am starting to live my life in new ways. Certain words I’ve read and heard while going through “The Sedona Method” Sedona Method (official site) The Secret self-help program; self-improvement technique are resonating with me deeply—words of putting my “desires” out there in the universe and then somehow “letting go” of striving and “wanting.” And yet to somehow remaining open and receptive to “having” through accepting things “effortlessly” or “hootlessly” are beckoning and calling to me. It’s kind of like going ahead and planting a seed, i.e., the desire. However, once it is planted you don’t keep digging it up to see how it’s growing. You simply have faith in the process.

    Over the last few weeks, Byron Katie and the process of “meditative self-inquiry” she has developed called “The Work,” The Work of Byron Katie is proving useful to me. One of the “Universal Beliefs” she lists that I can so strongly relate to is:

    “I have to work hard.”

    Stated in many forms, this is a limiting “universal belief” that if something—be that something raising children, marriage, making a livelihood, or whatever—isn’t hard—isn’t a struggle—then you somehow aren’t paying the price and aren’t deserving.

    And yet a spiritual teacher whom I admire greatly once said:

    Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (Matthew 6:25-34)

    Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

    Of the many books I’ve read over the years, some of the ones that have resonated—and that continue to resonate—with me most profoundly are “The Betty Book” series by Stewart Edward White. These books tell of Mr. White’s and his wife “Betty’s” development in consciousness. The following is an excerpt I’d like to share:

    Will-Power vs. Desire-Power

    BETTY: (after a pause) They are showing me the great secret of will-power. I can see it work over and over again. It's a process of making pleasurable your will-power. The minute you make it pleasurable, combining with the heart solvent, it starts working, like a chemical affinity, lending warmer vitality to your object, making it work itself naturally....

    I don't see much of this strain and duty and uninspired effort around, this heaviness of work which all of us go through to accomplish things. We weren't meant to work with heaviness; it's a discordant condition. Work should be just fun. What a pity that the tradition of work has become so painful!

    INVISIBLE: We want to substitute in your minds for the stiff words "will-power" the same idea in terms of natural exuberance. You think highly of will-power because it accomplishes certain obvious results of self-propulsion. But look how hard you run in tennis, or walk in fishing or doing something you like. That is another sort of self-propulsion; easier, because you are in harmony with what you are doing. That harmony isn't generally recognized as part of the lifting force; yet it is so much more effective a way than this painful will-power business. One [desire-power] is done with your united being; and the other [will-power] in spite of your divided being.


    BETTY: I feet so loose-jointed and full of play! As though I were tiptoeing up to a joke on somebody, with all the jolly and exquisite painstaking you can so readily and easily put into a joke. In an instant I'll shout and laugh with the sheer gleeful exhilaration of it!

    INVISIBLE: Such occasions are natural whole moments of ideal combination that you inadvertently hit upon. Anything would be possible to you in these moments. It doesn't matter what your object may be, playing games or the business of life, this combination is the secret of man's fullest possibility.

    (pause) . . .

    INVISIBLE: Concentration is a word appropriate to the mind. Discard it. Get the fuller idea of it in the sense of naturally, and easily, without tension, gathering and holding yourself in harmony with the strength of the higher consciousness. There is a great difference between this and the nervous restricted force of mental concentration on a thing you seek with your own strength alone. Get the two ideas: keep them apart. Holding yourself in harmony is what lets in the higher power, makes the process a natural one, without strain. The other idea, of concentration, shuts out all but what you have in hand.

    Concentration is a dangerous word. So is will-power. Both of these are centered in the mind, whereas this greater power is definitely divorced from the mind. Mind is the planning organ; but that which carries out the plans is the real executive. This force is to will-power what will-power is to the mind.

    BETTY: I don't know yet what that real executive of you is called. I can only sense it without being able to bring it back: an upholding, progressing force occupying the complete circuit of my vision. It expands so far beyond, that I have lost even the speck I called will-power. What is this big thing? If I only had another steppingstone to it beside will-power, another known symbol! That one doesn't go any distance: I can't get there with it.

    INVISIBLE: There is always a contracted and an expanded form of everything. Will-power is the contracted form of this higher thing. You can step into it from willpower without contracting if you think of it more as DESIRE-POWER. Will-power is in spite of your desires; doubling the pressure.

    (As found in Chapter II “Natural Resources” of Stewart Edward White’s 1939 book Across the Unknown.)
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2009
  9. Simon Whitney

    Simon Whitney Member

    Centering Prayer Origins

    What I don't understand is why Keating acknowledged that Centering Prayer was an amalgamation of Christian meditation with techniques from Eastern Religions in 1978:

    "We should not hesitate to take the fruit of the age old wisdom of the East and “capture” it for Christ. Indeed, those of us who are in ministry should make the necessary effort to acquaint ourselves with as many of these Eastern techniques as possible… Many Christians who take their prayer life seriously have been greatly helped by Yoga, Zen, TM and similar practices, especially where they have been initiated by reliable teachers and have a solidly developed Christian faith to find inner form and meaning to the resulting experiences”. (Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington, Finding Grace at the Center. pp. 5-6) Published 1978

    The historical roots of Centering Prayer reach back to St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where I was Abbott from 1961 to 1981. This was during the time of the first wave of the renewal of religious life after the Second Vatican Council, where many questions were raised for the first time and interreligious dialogue was encouraged by the Holy See. Several of us at Spencer became acquainted with groups from other spiritual traditions who resided in our area. We invited several spiritual teachers from the Eastern religions as well as some ecumenically skilled Catholic theologians to visit and speak with us. Fr Thomas Merton was still alive at this time and writing extensively about his researches and exchanges in interreligious dialogue. He was one of the most articulate pioneers from the Christian side in the dialogue among world religions.

    In a similar spirit we entertained a Zen master who wished to visit our monastery. We invited him to speak to the community and later to give a sesshin (a week long intensive retreat). For nine years after that, he held sesshins once or twice a year at a nearby retreat house. During those years I had the privilege of making several sesshins with him. On the occasion of his first sesshin held in our monastery, he put on the Cistercian habit and ate with us in the refectory. We have a picture of him on his seventieth birthday eating a piece of cake while sitting in the half lotus position.

    We were also exposed to the Hindu tradition through Transcendental Meditation. Paul Marechal, a former monk of Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, a daughter monastery, had become a TM teacher and offered to instruct us in this practice. Many in the community wanted to experience it.

    Exposure to these traditions, as well as conversations with visitors to our monastery who had benefitted from them, naturally raised many questions in my mind as I tried to harmonise the wisdom of the East with the contemplative tradition on Christianity that I had been studying and trying to practice for thirty years."

    Then in 1993 Keating responds to the Church's warnings about amalgamating Eastern Techniques into Christian Prayer by saying:

    "Having noted this affirmation of the value of Eastern practices when rightly integrated into Christian faith, may I point out that Centering Prayer is the one contemporary from of contemplative practice that does not
    make use of any of these techniques."

    Seems a little confusing.

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