by Father Thomas Keating
Contemplative prayer is a way of tuning in to a fuller level of reality that is always present and in which we are invited to participate. Some discipline is required to reduce the obstacles to this expanded awareness. One way is to slow down the speed at which our ordinary thoughts come down the stream of consciousness. lf this can be done, space begins to appear between the thoughts, enabling an awareness of the reality upon which they are resting.
In this discussion of centering prayer, I am not exploring methods that help to calm the body, mind and nervous system, such as breathing, yoga, and jogging . Such methods are fine for relaxation, but what we are concerned with is the faith relationship. This relationship is expressed by taking the time to open oneself to God every day, by taking God seriously enough to make a heavy date with Him, so to speak--a date that one would not think of breathing. Since this kind of prayer doesn't require thinking, we can keep our engagement even when we are sick.
The fundamental disposition in centering prayer is opening to God. Christian practice can be summed up by the word patience. In the New Testament patience means waiting for God for any length of time, not going away, and not giving in to boredom or discouragement. It is the disposition of the servant in the Gospel who waited even though the master of the house delayed his return till well after midnight. When the master finally came home, he put the servant in charge of his whole household. If you wait, God will manifest Himself. Of course, you may have a long wait.
I find this practice gets me nowhere. Is it good to try to make the faculties a blank?
Please don't try to make your faculties a blank. There should always be a gentle, spiritual activity present, expressed either by thinking the sacred word or by the simple awareness that you are present to God. The experience of emptiness is the presence of your intention in a very subtle way. You cannot maintain that experience of emptiness unless your intention is at work. It may seem like no work because it is so simple. At the same time, this method of prayer takes time to learn and you need not worry about experiencing what you may interpret as a blank once in a while. This prayer is a way of resting in God. If you notice that you have a blank, that's a thought; merely return to the sacred word.
What do you do when you realize you have been dozing?
If you doze off, don't give it a second thought. A child in the arms of a parent drifts off to sleep occasionally, but the parent isn't disturbed by that so long as the child is happily resting there and opens its eyes once in a while.
I was surprised by how fast the time went. Was it really twenty minutes?
Yes. When the time goes fast, it is a sign that you were not doing much thinking. I'm not saying it is a sign of good prayer. It is unwise to judge a prayer period on the basis of your psychological experience. Sometimes you may be bombarded with thoughts all during the time of prayer; yet it could be a very useful period of prayer. Your attention might have been much deeper than it seemed. In any case, you cannot make a valid judgment about how things are going on the basis of a single period of prayer. Instead, you must look for the fruit in your ordinary daily life, after a month or two. If you are becoming more patient with others, more at ease with yourself, if you shout less often or less loudly at the children, feel less hurt if the family complains about your cooking--all these are signs that another set of values is beginning to operate in you.
If you have no thoughts at all during centering prayer, you then have no awareness of time. Such an experience reveals the relativity of our sense of time. Our period of prayer, however, will not always seem short. Sometimes it will seem very long. The alternation between tranquility and the struggle with thoughts is part of a process, a refining of the intuitive faculties so that they can be attentive to this deeper level in a more and more stable fashion.
If you're drowsy or very tired, do you have fewer thoughts?
In general, yes, so long as you don't start dreaming! In the monastery we get up at 3:00 A.M., and one is often a little groggy at that hour of the morning. This seems to be part of our particular method, to be so tired that we just can't think. After working hard all day, one may have the same experience in the evening. That can be a help as long as you are alert enough to stay awake and not succumb to the pleasure of drowsing. But don't feel bad if you do fall asleep. You may need a little extra rest.
On the other hand, try to pick a time when you are most likely to be alert so you have a fuller experience of centering prayer rather than nodding your way through it. If you fall asleep, when you awake continue to center for a few minutes so that you don't feel that your prayer was a complete washout for the day. The kind of activity in which you are engaged in this prayer is so simple that it is easy to fall asleep unless you do the modest action that is required, which is to stay alert. Thinking the sacred wordi is one way of doing this. Jesus said, "Watch and pray." This is what we are doing in centering prayer. Watching is just enough activity to stay alert. Praying is opening to God.
Centering prayer is not so much an exercise of attention as intention. It may take a while to grasp this distinction. You do not attend to any particular thought content. Rather, you intend to go to your inmost being, where you believe God dwells. You are opening to Him by pure faith, not by means of concepts or feelings. It is like knocking gently on a door. You are not pounding on the door with your faculty as if to say, "Open in the name of the law! I demand that you let me in!" You can't force this door. It opens from the other side. What you are saying by means of the sacred word is, "Here I am, waiting." It's a waiting game to the nth degree. Nothing flashy is going to happen, or, if it does, you should gently return to the sacred word as if nothing had happened. Even if you have a vision or hear infused words, you should return to the sacred word. This is the essence of the method.
The mood I was in was one of expectation. Then I found myself thinking about the fact that I was expecting something to happen.
Have no expectation in this prayer. It's an exercise of effortlessness, of letting go. To try is a thought. That's why I say: "Return to the sacred word as easily as possible"; or, "gently place the sacred word in your awareness." To struggle is to want to achieve something. That is to aim at the future, whereas this method of prayer is designed to bring you into the present. Expectations also refer to the future; hence they, too, are thoughts.
Emptying the mind of its customary routines of thinking is a process that we can only initiate, like taking the stopper out of a bath tub. The water goes down by itself. You don't have to push the water out of the tub. You simply allow it to run out. You are doing something similar in this prayer. Allow your ordinary train of thoughts to flow out of you. Waiting without expectation is sufficient activity
What about feelings? Are you supposed to let them go too?
Yes. They are thoughts in the context of this prayer. A perception of any kind whatsoever is a thought. Even the reflection that one isn't having a thought is a thought. Centering prayer is an exercise of letting all perceptions pass by, not by giving them a shove or by getting angry at them, but by letting them go. This enables you gradually to develop a spiritual attentiveness that is peaceful, quiet, and absorbing.
Is the deeper attention a function of less thought?
Yes. You may even have no thoughts. Then you are at the deepest point that you can go. At that moment there is no sense of time. Time is the measure of things going by. When nothing is going by, there is an experience of timelessness. And it is delightful.
What should we do about external noise?
The best remedy for a sound that you can't control is to let go of your resistance to it and let it happen. External things are not obstacles to prayer. It is just that we think they are. By fully accepting external distractions that you can't do anything about, you may get a breakthrough into the realization that you can be in the middle of all the noise on earth and still experience this deeper attentiveness. Take a positive view of external difficulties. The only thing about which to take a negative view is skipping your daily time for prayer. That's the only no-no. Even if your prayer time seems fraught with noise and you feel like a total failure, just keep doing it.
Is it really possible for people who run around all day to be contemplatives?
Yes. This is not to say that by doing nothing but running around all day people will become contemplatives. On the other hand, you only have to be a human being to be eligible to become a contemplative. It's true that there are certain life styles that are more conducive to the development of a contemplative attitude, but this method works well if you stay with it.
Can you say to people with whom you are traveling, "I'm going to do my meditation now?"
Sure. They might be happy to have a few minutes of quiet themselves.
I am conscious of trying to let thoughts pass, but what happens is that I work with images of my perception of God. They tend to be visual. Is that also a thought that should be discarded?
Any kind of image is a thought in the context of this prayer. Any perception that arises from any one of the senses or from the imagination, memory, or reason is a thought. Hence, whatever the perception may be, let it go. Everything that registers on the stream of consciousness will eventually go by, including the thought of self. It is just a question of allowing every thought to go. Keep your attention on the river rather than on what is passing along its surface.
My way of focusing on God has usually been through an image. If I remove that image, I have trouble understanding what it is that I should focus on. Is my attention simply on the word that I am repeating?
Your attention should not be directed to any particular thought, including the sacred word. The sacred word is only a means of re-establishing your intention of opening to the true Self and to God, who is at the center of it. It is not necessary to keep repeating the sacred word. Interior silence is something that one naturally likes to experience. You don't have to force anything. By forcing, you introduce another thought, and any thought is enough to prevent you from going where you want to go.
Some people find it easier to transcend with a visual image rather than with a word. If you prefer some kind of visual image, choose one that is general and not detailed; for example, turn your inward gaze toward God as if you are looking at someone you love.
As you were speaking, it occurred to me that I use images to stop myself from a free fall.
Some people, when they are quiet, feel themselves on the edge of a cliff But don't worry There is no danger of falling. The imagination is perplexed by the unknown. It is so used to images, so plugged into them, that to disengage it from its habitual way of thinking is quite a job. It will take practice to feel comfortable with this prayer.
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.