Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 8, Part III

The More Subtle Kinds of Thoughts

    Please keep in mind that the method of centering is only one form of prayer and doesn't exclude other forms of prayer at other times. It is like Jacob's ladder in the Old Testament. After his vision of the Lord in the form of an angel who wrestled with him all night, Jacob fell asleep. He saw a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending. The ladder represents different levels of consciousness or of faith. We should communicate with God on every level of our being: with our lips, our bodies, our imaginations, our emotions, our minds, our intuitive faculties, and our silence. Centering prayer is only one rung of the ladder. It is a way of giving God a chance to speak to us. While our spontaneous chats with God are good, there is a level that is even better. As in human friendship, there is a conversational level. But as friendship grows more intimate, the level of communion develops, where the two can sit together and say nothing. If they say nothing, does that mean they are not finding deep enjoyment in the relationship? There are obviously different ways and different levels of expressing one's relationship with another person and with God. God clearly deals with us in a personal way. This prayer adds a dimension to one' s relationship with God that is more intimate than the other levels. There is nothing wrong with vocal prayer, but it isn't t the only way or the most profound way of praying.

Could it be that the one who practices contemplative prayer for long stretches of time every day might develop some form of illness?

    If you had a lot of time for prayer and were in a particularly consoling period in your development, prayer could be so delightful that you might try to prolong it as much as possible. But to be consoled is not the object of contemplative prayer. Teresa of Avila made fun of certain nuns in her convents who practiced so much of this kind of prayer that they became sick. The reason was that by remaining in interior silence for seven or eight hours a day, and perhaps longer, their senses became so withdrawn from their ordinary occupations that they probably experienced what we call today sensory deprivation. When we spend a great deal of time in interior silence, the metabolism goes down, which means that less blood is going to the brain. This is fine for a limited period of time such as during a retreat, but if you keep it up day after day, you may get spaced-out. If you continue this practice for more than a week, you need supervision. Everything has to be done with discretion. Generally people overdo discretion on the side of making sure they do nothing that might injure their health. But there are some people who do the opposite, and they may need to be restrained.

Is there any value in prolonging the time of contemplative prayer?

    To do it more than twice a day may hasten the process of self knowledge As a result, you may get insights into things from your past that you have not previously faced or handled. It is characteristic of the human condition to avoid seeing our own hang-ups. The development of contemplative prayer from this point of view is a process of liberation from everything that prevents us from being completely honest with ourselves. The more confidence you have in God, the more you can face the truth about yourself. You can only face up to who you really are in the presence of someone you trust. If you trust God, you know that no matter what you have done or not done, He is going to go on loving you. As a matter of fact, He always knew the dark side of your character and He is now letting you in on the secret like a friend confiding to a friend. Insights of self knowledge, instead of upsetting you, bring a sense of freedom. They lead you to the point where you can ask yourself, "Why think of myself at all?" Then you have the freedom to think how wonderful God is and you care little what have to you.

It seems paradoxical that at some point during the prayer you become aware of the fact that you are not thinking at all. What do you do with that?

    If you are actually not thinking, there is not even the thought that you are not thinking. There is just pure awareness, and that is the proximate goal of contemplative prayer. The ultimate goal, of course, is to integrate your whole being with its active and passive, masculine and feminine, expressing and receptive aspects. If you begin to be aware of the fact that you are not thinking at all and can just not think that thought, you have it made. There is only a short step from that point to divine union. Of course, you eventually will be thrown out of that delicious silence and your mind will start wandering again. As soon as you notice that you are coming out of interior silence, go back with the gentlest kind of attention to the Presence. The thought of not having a thought is the last preserve of self reflection. If you can get beyond self reflection, allow yourself to be self forgetful, and let go of the compulsion to keep track of where you are, you will move into deeper peace and freedom. There is a conviction deep inside of us that if we ever stop reflecting on ourselves, we will disintegrate or suffer some similar fate. That is not true. If we ever stop reflecting on ourselves, we will move into perfect peace.

I know when to use the sacred word, but I do not know when not to use it.

    There is a state of no-thinking and that is where we want to go. It is elusive because of our inveterate tendency to reflect. This innate tendency to be aware of oneself is the last stronghold of self-centeredness. Anthony of Egypt is noted for this famous saying: "Perfect prayer is not to know that you are praying." What I have just described is the state of mind that Anthony is talking about. When you are in perfect prayer, the Spirit is praying in you. The surrender of the false self to God is death to the false self. This is the experience that Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus when he said, "You have to be reborn." (John 3:3) One has to die before one can be reborn. Nicodemus replied, "How can someone go back into the womb?" Jesus continued, "You do not understand what I am talking about. I am talking about the Spirit and I am speaking spiritually The wind blows where it will, and you do not know where it is coming from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." In other words, to be moved by the Spirit is an entirely new way of being in the world.

I have been using the prayer of centering for over a year, but I have clung to the sacred word like a drowning man clinging to a tire. At one of the prayer periods today, the tire was getting in my way, so I threw it away I thought that maybe that was a step forward.

    By all means, throw away your life preserver. It's preserving the wrong life. The false self must die if you are to be reborn and live by the Spirit.

As a person becomes more advanced in prayer, will he or she have more need of spiritual direction?

    There are times when spiritual direction can be very helpful by way of encouragement and support. In contemplative prayer, every now and then you run into heavy weather. As you go deeper into the unconscious through interior silence, you may hit something like an oil well and up will come a whole stream of stuff. You may have a period of several months or years when it is rough going. These are the periods that John of the Cross calls "dark nights." In such situations, one needs reassurance. For some people, these periods of trial are tougher than they are for others. They need reassurance, and then a spiritual director can be a great help. But if the director does not have experience of this kind of prayer, he or she can do more harm than good.

    Sometimes all you need is to wait and not lose heart. When that oil well runs dry, you will move to a new depth. Or again, it is like being in an elevator that gets stuck between floors. You just have to wait until whatever it is that is an obstacle has been removed.

    A spiritual director should be someone who has enough experience to be able to perceive with some degree of certitude where you are on the spiritual path. A director can usually discern this from the kind of life that people are leading. If they are obviously seeking God but are having problems that make them think that they ate the worst sinners that ever existed, the director has to know how to say, "Forget it! You are the luckiest person on earth!" When you are in the dark night of purification, you are a very poor judge of your own case. One of the trials you have to expect is being unable to find anyone who can help you. God may arrange it that way so that you have to put all your trust in Him.

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