Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 8, Part II

The More Subtle Kinds of Thoughts

    The third kind of thought, if consented to, prevents you from entering into your own deep space. That is why no matter how glamorous the thought or how many problems it seems to solve, you should forget it. You can always think about bright ideas later in the day, and then it may be fruitful to do so. In this prayer we are cultivating purity of motivation. In the Christian path, motivation is everything. When there are no obstacles in ourselves to receiving the light, the light that is always shining will shine in us. As long as we are under the influence of the false self and its ego trips, we have the shades drawn. Unfortunately, the false self doesn't just drop dead upon request. We can't just say, "That's the end of it." and expect it to disappear The false self is extremely subtle. Without God's special help, we could never escape from it. In addition, the trials that come our way would flatten us.

    The attitude that reinforces the false self more than anything else is our instinct to possess something, including our own thoughts and feelings. This instinct has to be relinquished. Most of us are starved for spiritual experience. When it begins to happen, everything in us reaches out for it. We can't help ourselves at first. As we learn through bitter experience that grasping for spiritual experience gets us thrown out on the bank, it dawns on us that this is not the way to proceed. If we can let go of our clinging attitude toward this deep peace, we will move into a refined joy and an inner freedom where spiritual experience no longer looms so large. We can have all we want of divine consolation if we don't try to possess it. As soon as we want to possess it, it is gone. We have to accept God as He is, without trying to possess Him. Whatever we experience of Him must be allowed to pass by like every other thought that comes down our stream of consciousness. Once we know that our destination lies beyond any kind of spiritual experience, we realize that it is useless to hang on to anything along the way. Then we won't settle down under a palm tree in some oasis along the route. An oasis is refreshing, but it is not the purpose of the journey If we keep going, even if we are only stumbling or crawling along, we wilt come to the interior freedom that is the ripe fruit of docility to the Spirit.

    The third kind of thought occurs when we enter into deep peace, and the inclination to reach out for bright ideas lures us out of the quiet depths. The sacred word is not a mantra in the strict sense of the word. We do not keep saying it until we drill it into our unconscious. It is rather a condition, an atmosphere that we set up, that allows us to surrender to the attractive force of the divine Presence within us. Spiritual consolation is a radiance of that Presence. It is not the Presence of God as such. In this life we cannot know God directly and still live. To know Him directly is what the next life is all about. The closest way to know Him in this life is by pure faith, which is beyond thinking, feeling, and self reflection. Pure faith is experienced best when there is no psychological experience of God. God is beyond sensible or conceptual experience. The state of pure faith is beyond anything we can imagine. We simply look around and realize that the divine Presence is everywhere. It just is. We have opened ourselves wide enough to be aware of what is without being able to say what it is.

    The fourth kind of thought also takes place when we are in deep, all encompassing peace, empty of thoughts and images. A mysterious fullness, a kind of luminous darkness, seems to surround us and penetrate our consciousness. We enjoy deep calm even though we are dimly aware of the ordinary flow of unwanted thoughts. They are especially distressing at such a time because we know if we get hooked on one of them, we are going to be carried out of that peace. We don't even want to return to the sacred word. We don't want to do anything except allow ourselves to be bathed in the light and love that seem to be tenderly anointing our inmost being. It is as if God planted a great big kiss in the middle of our spirit and all the wounds, doubts, and guilt-feelings were all healed at the same moment. The experience of being loved by the Ultimate Mystery banishes every fear. It convinces us that all the mistakes we have made and all the sins we have committed are completely forgiven and forgotten.

    Meanwhile, into that silence, into that state of no-thinking, no-reflection, and ineffable peace, comes the thought: "At last, I'm getting somewhere!" Or, "This peace is just great!" Or, "lf only l could take a moment to remember how I got into this space so that tomorrow I can return to it without delay," Out you go, as fast as lightening, right onto the bank. And then you say, "Oh, God! What did I do wrong?"

How do you let God act in this prayer?

    It's difficult to let God act under all circumstances. Letting go and not reflecting on what you are doing is the correct way to conduct yourself in this prayer. The method doesn't consist in how you sit or in the length of time you give, but in how you handle the thoughts that arise. I think it can be said that the essential point of all the great spiritual disciplines that the world religions have evolved is the letting go of thoughts. Everything else is subsidiary to that. The goal is to integrate and unify the various levels of one's being and to surrender that integrated and unified being to God.

Are you ever aware of God during contemplative prayer, or is it only afterwards that you can know that God was there? How is it possible to be aware of something and not reflect on it?

    You can be aware of the undifferentiated presence of God and not have any explicit reflection about it. Pure awareness is the immediacy of experience. Our training and education have programmed us for reflection. But one can be so absorbed in an experience that one does not reflect. Have you ever enjoyed something so much that you didn't have time to think of what you were enjoying?

Yes, but I guess you would feel the enjoyment.

    Of course. Just don't reflect on the feeling. If you do, you reduce the experience to something that you can understand, and God isn't something you can understand. The awareness of God is shot through with awe, reverence, love, and delight all at once.

    We are made for happiness and there is nothing wrong in reaching out for it. Unfortunately, most of us are so deprived of happiness that as soon as it comes along, we reach out for it with all our strength and try to hang on to it for dear life. That is the mistake. The best way to receive it is to give it away If you give everything back to God, you will always be empty, and when you are empty, there is more room for God.

    The experience of God usually comes as something you feel you have experienced before. God is so well suited to us that any experience of Him is a feeling of completion or well-being. What was lacking in us seems to be somehow mysteriously restored. This experience awakens confidence, peace, joy, and reverence all at the same time. Of course, the next thing that occurs to us is: "This is great! How am I going to hang on to it?" That's the normal human reaction. But experience teaches that that is exactly the worst thing to do. The innate tendency to hang on, to possess, is the biggest obstacle to union with God. The reason we are possessive is that we feel separated from God. The feeling of separation is our ordinary psychological experience of the human condition. This misapprehension is the cause of our efforts to look for happiness down every path that we can possibly envision when actually it is right under our noses. We just don't know how to perceive it. Since the security that we should have as beings united with God is missing, we reach out to bolster up our fragile self image with whatever possessions or power symbols we can lay hold of. In returning to God, we take the reverse path, which is to let go of all that we want to possess. Since nothing is more desirable or delightful than the feeling of God's presence, that, too, has to be a thought we are willing to let go of.

    Trying to hang on to God's presence is like trying to hang on to the air. You can't carve out a piece of it and hide it in your top bureau drawer. Similarly, you can't carve out a piece of the presence of God and hide it in the closet or store it in the refrigerator until the next period of prayer. This prayer is an exercise in letting go of everything. As it develops, it will help you to let go of things and events that arise outside the time of prayer This doesn't mean that you do not use the good things of this world. It is only the clinging or addiction to things that reduces the free flow of God's grace and that hinders the enjoyment of His Presence.

Do thoughts always keep coming? It seems like I'm able to maintain a feeling of peace for a time. Then all of a sudden the thoughts roll in again. Is that always the way it happens?

    To be in and out of peace is normal in every period of prayer, although there might be some periods that are uniformly quiet throughout. But in that case you are likely to find that the next time you pray, you will be filled with what airline pilots call turbulence, and you will be bounced around quite a bit by persistent and disturbing thoughts. This is not a disaster but something one has to accept. The alternation between peace and thought-barrage is an important part of the process. They are two sides of the same coin.

Continued . . .

More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating.  It is offered in our Bookstore.