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Centering Prayer

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Guest writer Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer.

“Centering Prayer is not done with attention but with intention,” Thomas Keating repeatedly reminds us. Unlike other methods of meditation, Centering Prayer does not furnish an object for your attention—whether it be repeating a mantra, following your breath, or watching your thoughts as they arise. Rather, you simply withdraw your attention from anything that brings it to a focal point and return again and again to your underlying intention—what The Cloud of Unknowing calls your “naked intent direct to God.”

In Centering Prayer, then, everything begins with and keeps returning to intention. What am I really up to in this prayer? What is my aim?

It is difficult, admittedly, to put words around an experience that is deeply personal and intuitive. But in general, you’re in the right ballpark if your intention is “to be totally open to God”: totally available, all the way down to that innermost point of your being; deeper than your thinking, deeper than your feelings, deeper than your memories and desires, deeper than your usual psychological sense of yourself. Ultimately, what will go on in this prayer is “in secret” (the words that Jesus used in his instructions on prayer in Mathew 6:6): hidden even from yourself, in that inmost sanctuary of your being—where your life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

The sacred word in Centering Prayer serves as a placeholder for your intention. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a little piece of red string tied around your finger to remind yourself of your willingness to “do the deal.” Unlike a mantra, you don’t repeat it constantly; you only use it when you realize you’ve gotten tangled up in a thought. Then it helps gently and quickly to clear the mental debris and return you to that bare, open awareness.

Gateway to Silence:
Return to God.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016), 17-20.

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