Wednesday, April 22, 2009

About Centering Prayer

Yesterday my quilting buddy, Kim (have you visited her wonderful blog on faith and quilting, An Oft Traveled Road?) sent me a comment asking about meditation. I replied to her in a rather long email, but then there was another question/comment about it this morning from Altar Ego (the gifted chef and scrapbooking priest who does the Reverent Irreverence blog ), so I thought perhaps I should just take a minute and put my reply in this blog.

First of all, I am not an expert. I have been trying various meditative practices -- counting breaths, reciting mantras, releasing thought bubbles, all that stuff -- since the 70's, with little to no success. Which doesn't mean those practices don't work, it just means that none of them seemed to "work" (whatever that means) for me. So I get that anxiety you feel about embarking on meditation.

I discovered Centering Prayer again (actually I had been introduced to it back in 91, but it didn't register at the time) about seven years ago, and only managed to get it to a regular daily practice after about 3 years of struggling AND I still only do it once a day. SO I AM NOT AN EXPERT! (Can I say that any louder?)

But Cynthia Bourgeault IS an expert, and here's what she has to say about the subject:

"We spend so much of our adult energies thinking, planning, worrying, trying to get ahead or stay afloat, that we lose touch with that natural intimacy with God deep within us. The gift of silence gradually recedes in the face of the demands of daily life, so that when we do re-encounter contemplative prayer as adults, it may seem like a strange and inaccessible inner terrain. With some effort, we can stop the outer noise. Silent walks in the woods, Lenten and Advent quiet days at the local church, or a retreat at a monastery are wonderful ways of doing just that. But stopping the inner noise is another matter. Even when the outer world has been wrestled into silence, we still go right on talking, worrying, arguing with ourselves, daydreaming, fantasizing. To encounter those deeper reaches of our being, where our own life is constantly flowing out of and back into the divine life, what first seems to be needed is some sort of an interior on/off switch to tone down the inner talking as well.

That's probably the simplest way to picture what Centering Prayer is...It's very, very simple. You sit, either in a chair or on a prayer stool or mat, and allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists. Whenever a thought comes into your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that open, silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or phrase, known as a "sacred word," such as "abba" (Jesus' own word for God) or "peace" or "be still" to help you let go of the thought promptly and cleanly. You do this practice for twenty minutes, a bit longer if you'd like, then you simply get up and move on with your life."

Basically, Centering Prayer is a commitment to sit for 20 minutes and open your heart to God, sort of creating a space at the center of your being. Every time a thought comes in (which you can expect to be pretty much all the time) and you're actually aware that you moved away from your intention to create a space for God, you just release the thought and return to your center. I do it every morning, right after my morning coffee, and the way I make time for it is I just get up half an hour earlier than I used to. When I first started the only place I could do it other than with the Centering Prayer group at my church (those are great, by the way) was on the ferry: it's almost exactly 20 minutes between the departure announcement and the arrival announcement, and I love to sit up in the Quiet Rooms at the top of the boat.

I probably like CP -- anxious, controlling person that I am -- because there's kind of no way to fail? Thomas Keating, the founder of CP (though it's based on this 14th century text called The Cloud of Unknowing) is frequently quoted as saying -- to the nun who complained that a thousand thoughts intruded on her meditation time -- "Lucky you! a thousand opportunities to let go and return to God!" Which I interpret to mean there's no shame in distraction: just notice, and bring yourself back to center; it's all good.

For me, at least, I've found there are lots of benefits to this practice:

1. You're practicing letting go, which means that over time you get better at letting go of things in real life as well...

2. You're creating time to listen to God. It's entirely possible that your mind may quiet down enough that you'll actually hear God speak.

3. (This, I think, is the part that scares people) You get to watch your own thought processes, get to know yourself a little better, understand your own motivations and weaknesses a little better. This is not always fun, but over time you come to realize you're not alone in there: you begin to feel more compassionate with yourself, and with others as well; there's a softening that happens.

4. There's a good chance you'll actually be still and calm once in a while -- kind of a lovely floating period, not awake, not asleep, not thinking; kind of a stasis, like the seal in this picture. These brief moments of stillness -- even if they only last for that little nanosecond between thoughts about the dishes in the sink and thoughts about your irritating housemate or your next creative project -- can be amazingly soothing, can make your days go better, and I really think they bless all of creation.

I heartily recommend, if you're interested or intrigued, that you read Cynthia Bourgeault's book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (from which I just quoted), as it's a very thorough and readable explanation, easy to turn back to when you get stalled along the way. It also does a better job than I can of explaining how it is that this practice brings you closer to Jesus -- assuming you want to go there, which I didn't when I started (!); and it contains lots of other useful explanations and instructions as well as a marvelous list of additional resources at the back.

So there you have it. And in the immortal words of that old Alka-Seltzer commercial: Try it! You'll like it!


Jan said...

I, too, heartily recommend Cynthia Bourgeault's book on centering prayer! It is also one of the best books I've found about the false self and true self.

Anonymous said...

Ordered the book. Feeling less anxious. You are SO reliable! Thank you.

Unknown said...

Well put; your explanation makes it sound much more attractive than most of what I've read about it. I still find it much harder than it sounds! I guess that's no surprise, though, when you read Cynthia and really hear what Fr. Keating said to that student.

painterofblue said...

This is synchronicity! I just discovered centering prayer this week and have been watching Thomas Keating on youtube discussing it!

Great post. Thanks.

altar ego said...

Thank you! Now the trick will be to find those 20 minutes when either a dog or a spouse doesn't intrude!

Diane Walker said...

Ah, yes, the dog/spouse/cat/child problem. The child problem is solved by getting up before they do (not a problem now except when they're home from college). I feed and water the dog and take him out before I meditate; he's learned to settle down. I feed the cats, too, and put one out; the other one seems to understand what I'm doing and leave me alone. Spouse is trickier, but also trainable -- it just takes time...