by Father Thomas Keating
Chapter 10, Part II
4. Self-reflection. As you settle into deep peace and freedom from particular thoughts, a desire to reflect on what is happening may arise. You may think, "At last I am getting some place!" or, "This feeling is just great!" or, "If only I could make a mental note of how I got here so that I can get back to it whenever I want!" These are examples of the fourth kind of thought. You are being offered a choice between reflecting on what is going on and letting go of the experience. If you let go, you go into deeper interior silence. If you reflect, you come out and have to start over There will be a lot of starting over.
Reflection is one step back from experience. It is a photograph of reality. As soon as you start to reflect on an experience, it is over. Reflection on joy is an attempt to possess it. Then it is lost. The tendency to reflect is one of the hardest things to handle in contemplative prayer. We want to savor the moment of pure joy, pure experience, pure awareness. We want to reflect on moments of deep peace or union in order to remember how we got there and thus how to get back. But if you can let this temptation go by and return to the sacred word, you will pass to a new level of freedom, a more refined joy.
The presence of God is like the air we breathe. You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.
This prayer is communion with the Spirit of God, who is Charity, pure gift. Our possessive instinct wants to hang on for dear life to what is pleasant--and nothing is more delightful than the divine Presence; it brings such a deep sense of security and tranquility. The Presence of God does not respond to greed. It is totally available, but on condition that we accept it freely and do not try to possess it.
This method of prayer is a learning of self-surrender. It teaches us through our many mistakes not to be possessive but to let go. If, in this prayer, you can get over the inveterate habit of reflecting on what is going on, if you can have peace and not think about having it, then you will have learned how to do it.
5. Interior Purification. Any form of meditation or prayer that transcends thinking sets off the dynamic of interior purification. This dynamic is God's school of psychotherapy. It enables the organism to release deep rooted tension in the form of thoughts. Generally, thoughts that result from this therapy arise without one's knowing where they come from or why. They introduce themselves with a certain force or emotional charge. One may feel intense anger, sorrow or fear without any relation to the recent past. Once again, the best way to handle them is to return to the sacred word.
Through this process, the undigested psychological material of a lifetime is gradually evacuated, the emotional investment of early childhood in programs for happiness based on instinctual drives is dismantled, and the false self gives way to the true self.
Once you grasp the fact that thoughts are not only inevitable, but an integral part of the process of healing and growth initiated by God, you are able to take a positive view of them. Instead of looking upon them as painful distractions, you see them in a broader perspective that includes both interior silence and thoughts--thoughts that you do not want, but which, are just as valuable for the purple of purification, as moments of profound tranquility.
As you quiet down and go deeper, you may reach a place where the sacred word disappears altogether and there are no thoughts. This is often experienced as a suspension of consciousness, a space. The next thing you are aware of is the thought, "Where was I? There was no sacred word and I wasn't thinking." Or you may experience it as a place outside of time. Time is the measure of motion. If the ordinary flow of thoughts is reduced to where there are few or no successive thoughts, the time of prayer passes like a snap of the fingers.
The experience of interior silence or "resting in God" is beyond thinking, images, and emotions. This awareness tells you that the core of your being is eternal and indestructible and that you as a person are loved by God and share his divine life. Many people habitually enjoy the clear experience of interior silence during prayer. Others habitually experience calm and tranquility along with a trickle of thoughts at the same time. Still others rarely have such experiences. In whatever form or degree interior silence occurs, it is to be accepted but not desired, for the feeling of desire would be a thought.
Take everything that happens during the periods of centering prayer peacefully and gratefully, without putting a judgment on anything. Even if you should have an overwhelming experience of God, this is not the time to think about it. Let the thoughts come and go. The basic principle for handling thoughts in this prayer is this: Resist no thought, hang on to no thought, react emotionally to no thought. Whatever image, feeling, reflection, or experience attracts your attention, return to the sacred word.
Don't judge centering prayer on the basis of how many thoughts come or how much peace you enjoy. The only way to judge this prayer is by its long-range fruits: whether in daily life you enjoy greater peace, humility and charity. Having come to deep interior silence, you begin to relate to others beyond the superficial aspects of social status, race, nationality, religion, and personal characteristics.
To know God in this way is to perceive a new dimension to all reality. The ripe fruit of contemplative prayer is to bring back into the humdrum routines of daily life not just the thought of God, but the spontaneous awareness of His abiding Presence in, through, and beyond everything. HE WHO IS--the infinite, incomprehensible, and ineffable One--is the God of pure faith. In this prayer we confront the most fundamental human question: "Who are you, Lord?"--and wait for the answer.
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.