Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two
To begin this second week exploring Thomas Keating’s final poems, I offer a basic overview of the stages of spiritual development that Thomas so authentically modeled in his life and teaching. (Sunday)
All emotional drama has dropped out, since there is no longer a fixed point of selfhood to be “happy” or “unhappy” about a situation. Time no longer rushes on into the future, but rests comfortably in a more spacious now. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Monday)
When there is no fixed point of reference to “take it home to,” to make it about “my experience of “I AM,” then there is only the bare “I AM.” —Cynthia Bourgeault (Tuesday)
The contemplative state enables one to rest and act at the same time because one is rooted in the source of both rest and action. —Thomas Keating (Wednesday)
We are neither isolated nor helpless but immersed in a great web of belonging in which divine intelligence and compassion are always at our disposal if our courage does not fail us. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Thursday)
The only path forward for the survival of our species and perhaps even our planet is a path of nonviolence, of contemplation and action prioritizing justice and solidarity, an affirmation of Oneness and the interconnectedness of all things, which science confirms, and spirituality has always known on its deepest level. (Friday)
Practice: Centering Prayer
Both Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault have made great contributions to the Christian contemplative tradition, perhaps most significantly through their dedication to the practice and teaching of Centering Prayer. To close this week, Cynthia offers further instructions on Centering Prayer.
Since [Centering Prayer] works entirely with “intention, not attention” (as Thomas Keating repeatedly emphasizes), there is no focal point for the attention, not even the breath or a mantra. Practitioners must learn early how to maintain their attention in (or more often, return it to) that inner, undifferentiated state. Anything that serves as an object for the attention, no matter how pious or holy—a vision, intercessory prayer, an itch on your nose—is considered in this practice to be a “thought” and must be let go of. As practitioners gradually learn the art of withdrawing energy from all objects of attention, they are at the same time (and largely unbeknownst to themselves) developing an inner capacity to distinguish by feel the difference between attention in and attention on. Letting go is first and foremost a gesture—a subtle inner drop and release—and every opportunity to practice it strengthens the patterning. . . .
Like most beginners, I thought that the aim in Centering Prayer was to let go of my thoughts so that God could “fill” me with [God’s] presence. One day I suddenly realized that the God story was the sideshow and the letting go was the main event. That was when the practice flipped for me, as I recognized that thoughts were not the obstacle; they were the raw material, as every opportunity to practice releasing that focal point for attention deepened the reservoir of “free attention” within me and strengthened the signal of the homing beacon of my heart.
Sooner or later a tipping point is reached . . . when the strength of this signal becomes stronger than the attraction exerted by the thoughts. When a thought arises at the surface of the mind, a countering pull from the depths becomes so strong that letting go is effortless; in fact, it is impossible to do otherwise. At about this time, typically, one also begins to experience this “tug” outside of the prayer period itself, as events of daily life offer themselves as reminders of (rather than distractions from) the deeper yearning of the heart. . . .
[Centering Prayer’s] great strength as a practice is that it begins to build (or quicken) within a person a new center of gravity through which that traditional cul-de-sac of most witnessing practice—the mind spying on itself—can be surmounted by a new ability to remain rooted in being through sensation, not reflection. This is a huge milestone. It begins to approximate the capacity for that ancient desideratum of the Song of Songs: “I sleep, but my heart is awake” [5:2]. All that now remains is to transpose the usual seat of one’s identity from the narrative self to this native ground of witnessing presence.
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala Publications: 2016), 87–88, 89–90.
For Further Study:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace
Thomas Keating, Consenting to God as God Is (Lantern Books: 2016). From Keating’s introduction: “This book is addressed primarily to people with some personal experience of the spiritual journey and especially to those engaged in some form of contemplative service.”
Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: ©1994, 2009).
Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, 20th anniversary ed. (Continuum: 2006).
Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey (Shambhala Publications: 1984, ©1982).
Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009).
Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2015).
Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer, Thomas Keating and others (Lantern Books: 2008).