by Father Thomas Keating
Chapter 10, Part I
The method of centering prayer is a way of reducing the ordinary obstacles to contemplation and preparing the human faculties to cooperate with this gift. It is an attempt to present the teaching of earlier times in an updated format and to put a certain order and regularity into it. It is not meant to replace all other kinds of prayer. But it puts the other kinds of prayer into a new perspective. During the time of prayer it centers one's attention on God's presence within. At other times one's attention moves outward to discover His presence everywhere else. Centering prayer is not an end in itself, but a beginning. It is not done for the sake of having an experience, but for the sake of its positive fruits in one's life.
The method of centering prayer is designed to turn off the ordinary flow of thoughts, that reinforces our habitual way of thinking of ourselves and of looking at the world. It is like turning a radio from long wave to short wave. You may be used to a long wave set and the stations it picks up but if you want to hear stations from far away, you have to turn to the other wavelength. In similar fashion, if you turn off your ordinary thinking and emotional patterns, you open yourself to a new world of reality.
To do this systematically, take up a comfortable position that will enable you to sit still. Close your eyes. Half of the world disappears for we generally think most about what we see. In order to slow down the usual flow of thoughts, think just one thought. For this purpose choose a word of one or two syllables with which you feel comfortable.
A general loving look toward God may be better suited to the disposition of some persons. But the same procedures are followed as in the use of the sacred word. The word is a sacred word because it is the symbol of your intention to open yourself to the mystery of God's presence beyond thoughts, images and emotions. It is chosen not for its content but for its intent. It is merely a pointer that expresses the direction of your inward movement toward the presence of God.
To start, introduce the sacred word in your imagination as gently as if you were laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton. Keep thinking the sacred word in whatever form it arises. It is not meant to be repeated continuously The word can flatten out, become vague or just an impulse of the will, or even disappear. Accept it in whatever form it arises.
When you become aware that you are thinking some other thought, return to the sacred word as the expression of your intent. The effectiveness of this prayer does not depend on how distinctly you say the sacred word or how often, but rather on the gentleness with which you introduce it into your imagination in the beginning and the promptness with which you return to it when you are hooked on some other thought.
Thoughts are an inevitable part of centering prayer: Our ordinary thoughts are like boats sitting on a river so closely packed together that we cannot see the river that is holding them up. A "thought" in the context of this prayer is any perception that crosses the inner screen of consciousness. We are normally aware of one object after another passing across the inner screen of consciousness: images, memories, feelings, external impressions. When we slow down that flow for a little while, space begins to appear between the boats. Up comes the reality on which they are floating.
The prayer of centering is a method of directing your attention from the particular to the general, from the concrete to the formless. At first you are preoccupied by the boats that are going by. You become interested in seeing what is on them. But just let them all go by. If you catch yourself becoming interested in them, return to the sacred word as the expression of the movement of your whole being toward God present within you.
The sacred word is a simple thought that you are thinking at ever deepening levels of perception. That's why you accept the sacred word in whatever form it arises within you. The word on your lips is exterior and has no part in this form of prayer. The thought in your imagination is interior; the word as an impulse of your will is more interior still. Only when you pass beyond the word into pure awareness is the process of interiorization complete. That is what Mary of Bethany was doing at the feet of Jesus. She was going beyond the words she was hearing to the Person who was speaking and entering into union with Him. This is what we are doing as we sit in centering prayer interiorizing the sacred word. We are going beyond the sacred word into union with that to which it points--the Ultimate Mystery; the Presence of God, beyond any perception that we can form of Him.
Various kinds of thoughts may come down the stream of consciousness when we start to quiet our mind. The appropriate response to each one varies according to the thought.
1. The woolgathering of the imagination. The most obvious thoughts are the superficial ones that the imagination grinds out because of its natural propensity for perpetual motion. It is important just to accept them and not to pay any undue attention to them. Such thoughts are like the noise in the street floating through the window of an apartment where two people are carrying on a conversation. Their attention is firmly directed to each other, but they cannot avoid hearing the street noise. Sometimes they reach a point where they don't notice it at all. At other times the honking of horns may distract them momentarily The only reasonable attitude is to put up with the noise and pay as little attention to it as possible. In this way they give as much of their undivided attention to each other as circumstances allow.
2. Thoughts with an emotional attraction to them. The second kind of thought occurs when you get interested in something that is happening in the street. A brawl breaks out and attracts your curiosity. This is the kind of thought that calls for some reaction. Returning gently to the sacred word is a means of getting back to the general loving attention you were offering to God. It is important not to be annoyed with yourself if you get involved with these interesting thoughts. Any annoyance that you give in to is another thought, and will take you farther away from the interior silence that is the proximate goal of this prayer.
3. Insights, and psychological breakthroughs. A third kind of thought arises as we sink into deep peace and interior silence. Something in our minds goes fishing. What seem to be brilliant theological insights and marvelous psychological breakthroughs, like tasty bait, are dangled in front of our mind's eye and we think, "I must take a moment to make sure I grasp this fantastic insight!" If you acquiesce to a thought of this nature long enough to fix it in your memory you will be drawn out of the deep, refreshing waters of interior silence. Any deliberate thought brings you out.
A very intimate kind of self-denial is necessary in this prayer. It is not just an experience of refreshment--a sort of spiritual happy hour--though this can be a side-effect. It involves the denial of what we are most attached to, namely, our own inmost thoughts and feelings and the source from which they come, the false self.
This kind of asceticism goes to the roots of our attachment to the emotional programming of the false self. It is a thorough and delightful kind of self-denial, which does not have to be afflictive to be effective. The question is how to choose the most useful and appropriate kind of self-denial and how to work at it.
Continued next week . . .
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.