Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 6, Part III

The Ordinary Kinds of Thoughts

Is the attitude that we develop in our ordinary life-style of letting go of certain things a way of preparing ourselves for prayer in a tangible, practical way, so that it will be easier to let go of the thoughts when we are at prayer?

    There is a reciprocal interaction between your activity during the day and your prayer, and vice versa. They mutually support one another.

How can you pray in deep silence and peace when you are very upset about something?

    In such circumstances you cannot hope to pray in silence without some kind of buffer zone. You may have to run around the block, do physical exercises, or some suitable reading. Otherwise, as soon as you sit down and try to be quiet, you will think that you are sitting under Niagara Falls instead of beside the stream of consciousness. You have to give yourself a chance to quiet down before you start to pray. Moreover, some trials are so big that they knock you flat on your face and no matter what means you take to quiet down, you will not be able to settle into interior silence. Giving yourself the usual time to pray, however, will help you to accept the problem and the emotional storm.

Why do you limit the periods of prayer to half an hour in the group?

    It seems to be the normal period for prolonged attention. Longer than that might discourage people from starting or continuing. Yet it needs to be long enough to establish the sense of interior silence.

    There is a great value in praying at the same time every day and for the same length of time. This will give you a stable reservoir of silence. Dividing the day between two equal periods of deep prayer gives the Maximum opportunity for your reservoir of silence to affect the whole day.

    The more activity in which you find yourself, the more you will need your times of prayer. Excessive activity has a way of becoming a drain. It also has a mysterious fascination. Like a treadmill or merry-go-round, it is hard to get off. Regular prayer is a real discipline. To interrupt what you are doing in order to pray can be difficult. You need to be convinced that your time of prayer is more important than any other activity apart from some urgent call of charity. You will be surprised that things you have to do fall into place and get accomplished more quickly You will be able to see the proportionate value of your activities and what should be done first.

Why twice a day and not one longer period?

    Twice a day keeps you closer to the reservoir of silence. If you get too far away from the reservoir, it is like being on the end of the water line after everybody has taken what they want from the reservoir. When you turn on the faucet, you only get a few drops. To prevent that from happening, keep the pressure up. You need to keep filling your reservoir until you eventually strike an artesian well. Then the water is always flowing.

    Contemplative prayer is a preparation for action, for action that emerges from the inspiration of the Spirit in the silencing of our own agitation, desires and hang-ups. Such silence gives God the maximum opportunity to speak.

During prayer is it all right to reflect on what is happening or is it better to let it go?

    During this prayer it is not appropriate to reflect on what is happening. We should completely suspend judgment during this prayer. Afterwards it may be helpful to reflect on it. As you gain experience, you have to keep integrating your prayer into the rest of your life of faith. That requires some form of conceptualization. At the same time, you do not have to analyze your prayer to gain its benefits. It is just as well not to watch what is happening. If you are getting good fruit from it, you will spontaneously notice it. In fact, other people will say, "You do not seem to be as agitated as you used to be." There may be a certain gentleness in you that was not noticed before. You yourself may perceive that, while you used to feel like slugging somebody when you became angry, now you can be satisfied with administering a mild rebuke.

    Contemplative prayer fosters a whole different attitude toward one's feelings; it puts them in a different frame of reference. Most extreme feelings come from a sense of insecurity, especially when we feel threatened. But when you are being constantly reaffirmed by the presence of God in deep silence, you are not afraid of being contradicted or imposed upon. You might be humble enough m learn something from insults and humiliations without being overwhelmed by feelings of self-depreciation or revenge. Negative feelings toward oneself tend to be prevalent in our culture due to the low self image people develop in early childhood, possibly because of our highly competitive society Anyone who does not win feels that he is no good in this culture, whereas in the quiet of deep prayer, you are a new person, or rather, you are you.

What happens if, because it is consoling, you prolong centering prayer for hours?

    If you overdo anything, it is bound to have some bad side effects. Too much joy as well as too much sorrow is fatiguing. The purpose of this prayer is not more prayer or more silence, but the integration of prayer and silence with activity. Consolation of a spiritual kind is so satisfying that it can be a trap. That is why by limiting contemplative prayer to a certain period of time, you have a common sense measure for what is reasonably good for you without running the risk of spiritual gluttony. It is a precious gift to come close to interior silence. Its beauty is so incomparable that it changes ones perception of what beauty is. If you are experiencing this fairly frequently, you gain strength to meet opposition and contradiction. Interior silence is one of the most strengthening and affirming of human experiences. There is nothing more affirming, in fact, than the experience of God's presence. That revelation says as nothing else can, "You are a good person. I created you and I love you." Divine love brings us into being in the fullest sense of the word. It heals the negative feelings we have about ourselves.

I am afraid that I will stop breathing during the prayer time. I feel most secure when I am getting into my body rhythm. I pay attention to that and am afraid to let it go for too long.

    Your breathing may get shallow, but when you need oxygen you will breathe automatically. The body has its own good sense, and if your breathing is getting too shallow, your body will just take a deep breath. It happens in sleep; it will happen in prayer. There is a correlation between thinking and breathing. As the breath gets shallow, thoughts diminish. But as soon as you start thinking, breathing increases too.

I have heard that if you fast, meditation is enhanced. I guess that it's a matter of training yourself.

    The ability to fast is peculiar to each person. What is recommended is that one not do centering on a full stomach. The tendency of this prayer is to reduce the metabolism. A consequence of this is that the bodily processes like digestion slow down. Wait an hour and a half after a full meal. Do not practice just before going to bed. You may experience a surge of energy that might keep you awake for a few hours.

    For some, fasting will enhance the experience of centering prayer. It might have the opposite effect on others. If your hunger is so intense that it preoccupies you during the time of prayer, fasting is counterproductive The principle to follow during centering prayer is to try to forget the body. Simplicity of life, not extremes, fits in better with this kind of practice.

It helps to have the group for moral support. Is it better to center together or alone?

    There is moral and psychological support in a group. That's why it is a help to have a support group that meets regularly once a week. On the other hand, some prefer to do it alone because they don't have to adjust to what other people are doing. Both experiences are valuable.

When I find that I am not thinking about anything, I find myself thinking about my breathing.

    The best way to handle that is to accept it and to pay no attention. It is as if you were walking down the street to church and someone started to walk beside you. Just keep going, pay no attention to this uninvited companion, and you will wind up where you want to go. Say "yes" to everything that happens. In that way there is a better chance that the obsessive image will go by. A reaction of annoyance or of pleasure intensifies a particular thought.

    All thoughts that come down the stream of consciousness are subject to time because they are moving objects, and every object has to go by. If you just wait and do not do anything about them, they will all pass by. But if you try to do something with them or to get away from them, you are stuck with them and you will start going downstream along with them. Then you will have to start over again.

    Let thoughts come, let them go. No annoyance, no expectation. This is a very delicate kind of self-denial, but it is more valuable than bodily austerities, which tend to fix one's attention on oneself. Waiting for God without going away, giving the usual time to prayer, and putting up with what goes on in the imagination are the most effective practices for acquiring true devotion. The observance of them will lead to a complete change of heart.

It seems that there are times when you are aware of something around you. The sacred word becomes a reality and you can't make yourself repeat it. This state is not like ordinary waking consciousness, but it doesn't feel like sleep either because there is some plane of awareness.

    That is the awareness we're trying to awaken. It might be called spiritual attentiveness. This deep attention is aware of external factors, but they don't make any impression on it because we are captivated by a mysterious inward attention. It's like conversing with someone you love. You may not be saying anything special, but you are wrapped up in that person. If you are eating together in a restaurant, the waitresses may be coming and going, but if you are engaged in an interesting conversation, you don't even notice what they are doing. A waitress can even put down the check and you won't notice that it is the end of the meal or that everyone has left the place and it is time to go. This prayer is not a conversation in. words, but an exchange of hearts. It is a higher level of communication than other levels of prayer and tends to integrate these lower levels into itself.

I found myself dealing with certain kinds of resistance to God. I was half aware of those resistances that I found happening spontaneously. Is it proper to use this period of prayer as a time to wrestle with oneself or God?

    When one is inwardly quiet, some of the conflicts that are hidden by the ordinary flow of thoughts begin to come into focus. Normally I would not wrestle with them at this time but would let them go by. The time to reflect on them is after you come out of prayer. The value of contemplative prayer is that it's a total immersion in that aspect of our relationship to God that happens to be the most important--the cultivation of interior silence. Psychological problems may come into focus as a result of periods of great peace, and a breakthrough may emerge. But generally such insights are a trick to get you to think of something. "Anything but silence" is the response of the false self to this kind of prayer. Interior silence goes totally contrary to all the inclinations of the false self. That is why you have to lure it into being still for a little while. However, there may be some special insight into a conflict that you feel inspired to work through right away Feel free to make an exception. But if it happens too often, you might be making a mistake.

Today I had an experience of having thoughts come and go without being concerned about them, as I usually am. I am still groping for a balance between using the sacred word and just resting in the presence. There were a few brief moments of simple presence without my doing anything. Then I would ask myself, should I use the word now?

    When you are in deep interior silence, any thought acts on you as tasty bait acts on a fish resting in the deep waters of a lake. If you bite, out you go! Try not to have any expectation. That is not easy. It comes as a result of the habit of letting every thought go by. Eventually you do not care what is coming downstream because it is going by anyway, whether it is pleasurable or painful. I might add that the practice of this prayer will make the events of life easier to handle because you will be able to let them come and go also. Centering prayer is a training in letting go.

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