The Method

Centering Prayer

The Method
Monday, February 13, 2017

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

For nearly thirty years now, the following four guidelines have successfully introduced tens of thousands of people worldwide to Centering Prayer:

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. 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.
  3. When engaged with your thoughts [including body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections], return ever so gently to the sacred word.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. [1]

Father Thomas Keating suggests praying for twenty minutes twice a day.

So are we really 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 this is exactly the frustration expressed by an early practitioner. In one of the very earliest training workshops led by Keating himself, 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 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 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 anonymous author of the fourteenth century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing may have had in mind when he wrote, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.” [2] “Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to pervade one’s entire being.

Out of my own three decades of experience in Centering Prayer, I believe that this “love” indeed has nothing to do with emotions or feelings in the usual sense of the word. It is rather the author’s nearest equivalent term to describe what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart.

And he is indeed correct in calling it “love” because the energetic bandwidth in which the heart works is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. Imagine! Centuries ahead of his time, the author is groping for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perceptivity.

Gateway to Silence:
Return to God.

References:
[1] Thomas Keating, “The Method of Centering Prayer: The Prayer of Consent,” Contemplative Outreach, http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/centering-prayer.
[2] The Cloud of Unknowing, introductory commentary and translation by Ira Progoff (New York: Delta Books, 1957), 72.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016), 14, 28-29, 120, 123.

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