Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 6, Part II

The Ordinary Kinds of Thoughts

    There are all kinds of ways in which God speaks to us--through our thoughts or any one of our faculties. But keep in mind that God's first language is silence. Prepare yourself for silence in this prayer, and if other things happen, that is His problem, not yours. As soon as you make it your problem, you tend to desire something that is other than God. Pure faith will bring you closer to God than anything else. To be attached to an experience of God is not God; it is a thought. The time of centering prayer is the time to let go of all thoughts, even the best of thoughts. If they are really good, they will come back later.

What do you think of drugs as a means of inducing mystical experience?

    Some seem to find spiritual experience through certain psychedelic drugs. It's much more desirable, however, to have a built-in discipline than to depend on drugs, which don't always work as desired. Like certain powerful methods of Eastern meditation, drugs may release material from the unconscious before one is able to deal with it. Some people taking LSD had bad trips because they did not have the psychological preparation to handle what emerged from their unconscious as a result of the drug.

This afternoon I felt very heavy and tired.

    You will often notice an alternation between so-called good and bad periods of prayer. Try to give up those categories altogether.

One thought I had was, "What is the sense of all this? Get up and walk out." Of course, I did not go.

    Good. It was just another thought. No matter how much a thought may persecute you, all you have to do is let it go by. By fighting it, you stir up other thoughts.

I would like to clarify something I was wrestling with. In the past, I have worked determinedly to be centered. I have had a sense of pushing to concentrate versus quietly and gently centering in.

    You cannot do this prayer by will power. The more effort you put into it, the less well it goes. When you catch yourself trying hard, relax and let go. Introduce the sacred word gently, incredibly gently, as if you were laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton.

    Of course, when thoughts are flying at you like baseballs, you look around for some means to protect yourself. But swatting them out of the park is not the way to do it. You should honestly say, "Well, I am being pummeled with these thoughts," and put up with them, remembering that if you just wait, they will all pass by. Do not oppose violence with violence. This prayer is totally nonviolent. A sign of trying too hard is a feeling of tightness in the forehead or in the back of the neck. If you allow your attention to flow with that pain for a few moments, it usually goes away In other words, accept the fact that you have the pain. Rest in the presence of the pain. Pain has a way of dissolving every other thought. It brings the mind to a single point, which is also the purpose of the sacred word. When the pain subsides, you may need your sacred word again.

Throughout the first period of prayer there was a counseling session going on down the hall that was loud enough for me to catch bits and snatches. I felt like shouting the sacred word to overcome the noise.

    In that situation there is not much you can do but keep returning to the sacred word, yet always with the acceptance of the situation just as it is. Sometimes you cannot do anything but put up with the noise. Think that you are being refreshed at a deeper level, but you just can't enjoy it.

If at some distant future time, prayer should go beyond thirty minutes, or maybe even an hour, at some point your back may complain. Is that the time to say, "This is where the prayer should cease"? Or should you just keep going?

    Your prayer should normally finish before you develop a sore back. One generally has a sense when one's normal period of prayer is over. For some people this might come after twenty minutes. For others, after half an hour or longer. I doubt that you would go for more than an hour without sensing that your prayer was over But you are free to develop it to that point if you have the attraction and the grace to sustain it.

    A better way of prolonging prayer would be set up two periods of ordinary length back to back with a slow, meditative walk around the room for five to ten minutes in between. This would help to dispel the restlessness that may develop from sitting in one position for a long time.

    Length of time, however, is not an indicator of the value of one's prayer. The quality of prayer rather than its quantity is what matters. A single moment of divine union is more valuable than a long period of prayer during which you are constantly in and out of interior silence. It only takes a moment for God to enrich you. In that sense the waiting process is a preparation for moments of divine union. Union may occur for only an instant, yet you can be more enriched than someone spending an hour or two on lower forms of contemplative prayer without such a moment of absorption in God. Each of us has to figure out from practice and experimentation when our period of prayer is normally over. To prolong it simply because it is going well is not a good idea.

As I find myself going deeper, I get frightened and pull myself out of it. I am afraid I am going to stay down there. I do not know if the fear is psychological, physical, or spiritual.

    This is a common experience. When you get close to the edge of self forgetfulness, unless the divine attraction is strong and reassuring, you may experience fear. Our imagination represents the unknown as frightening. If you ignore it and take the plunge anyway, you will find that the water is delightful.

Last night I let myself go, but then I pulled myself out of it. I was so sorry afterward, and I did not know why I did it.

    Before you begin your prayer, say to God, "If You want to pull me over to the other side, go ahead." Then relax. When you submitted to an anesthetic for the first time, you did not know what would happen. If it had not been more or less forced on you, you probably would not have taken it. This prayer is the same sort of situation. You do not know what it is going to be like when you stop reflecting. But try it.

I was on the verge of a beautiful experience, but that fear was there, so I stopped. I do not know why I pulled myself out of it.

    Try not to reflect on the experience at all while it is happening; just let go.

Is there a way of doing this prayer too frequently so that you lapse into passivity?

    Only if you do it for more than five or six hours a day over a long period of time. I do not think three or four hours a day would have any adverse effects at all. Many could pray longer if they built up to it gradually over a period of several months. If you are doing it correctly, you may notice in your activity an increase of energy rather than passivity That is because you are being freed from a lot of emotional hang-ups that used to exhaust you.

    That your superficial faculties are aware of a lot of boats and debris coming down the stream of consciousness does not mean that your other faculties, intellect, and will, are not deeply recollected in God. You may be painfully aware of unwanted thoughts going by and wish they were not there. At the same time you may be aware that something inside of you is absorbed by a mysterious presence that is completely intangible, refined, and delicate. The reason is that your psyche is developing the expanded awareness that I spoke of before, which is able to attend to two planes of reality at the same time, one superficial and the other profound. If you are wrapped up in superficial thoughts or are upset because you have such thoughts, you will not experience the deeper level. There are other times, however, when you will not experience the deeper level, no matter how open you are to it, because of the noise of the imagination or memory.

    If the time goes quickly during prayer, that is a sign you were deeply absorbed, perhaps much more than you realized. When there are no objects going by in your imagination, the sense of time is disrupted. If there are no objects going by, there is an experience of timelessness. You are fully aware, yet not of time. Time is a projection of self. When there is no thought, you are free of time. This gives you an intuition into the fact that when the body slips away from the spirit, no great change is going to take place. In deep prayer you do not think about the body anyway. The prospect of dying is not so threatening because you have experienced a preview of what it might be like for the spirit to be separated from the body, and it is delightful.

During prayer I sometimes have a happy-go-lucky feeling that I find most enjoyable.

    You should not take prayer too seriously There is something playful about God. You only have to look at a penguin or certain other animals to realize that He likes to play little jokes on creatures. The playfulness of God is a profound part of reality. It warns us to not take ourselves too seriously, to realize that God created us with a certain sense of humor

Does my guardian angel know what goes on in my centering prayer?

    Not unless you tell him! Angels and devils cannot perceive what you are doing in contemplative prayer if it is deep enough. They can only know what is in your imagination and memory, and they can add material to these faculties. But when you are in deep interior silence, what is happening there is God's secret. Only He knows what goes on in the depths of the soul. Some people think that if you quiet the mind, you open yourself up to diabolical forces. But according to John of the Cross, you are never safer than when you are absorbed in God's presence, beyond thoughts and feelings, for there the demons cannot touch you. It is only when you come out of interior silence that they can badger you with temptations. That is why one of the best ways of handling temptations is to slip into the same attitude you take during contemplative prayer. This is what David means when he sings of God in the Psalms as "my refuge, my strength, my rock, my strong fortress, my high tower, my rampart!"1 We do not have to be afraid of opening ourselves to unknown dangers by practicing contemplative prayer No one can join us at that level except He who is deeper than that level, the God who dwells within us and out of whose creative love we emerge at every moment.

During my period of prayer today, there was a thought that kept coming back. After my prayer was over, it came back again. It was a selfish thought. I brought it to the chapel and prayed before the Lord. I made a gift of it to Him and then I felt very good. I felt as thought it was a splinter getting in my way and I had just taken it out. Is there an advantage in taking such things to the Lord in prayer when you can talk to Him like that?

    By all means follow your attraction. We should go to God with great freedom. I emphasize contemplative prayer because it is an area that has been neglected in recent centuries. The time that you devote to interior silence is not meant to be in conflict with other forms of prayer.

In the beginning of centering; I used to find it very difficult not to break out into vocal prayer if I felt I was not getting somewhere, but now I understand that as you try to empty yourself; you make room for the Spirit to come in and pray in the innermost recesses of your being. This has helped me to put out thoughts. l see there is no need for me to try to pray in words, but that I should relax and let Him come in to pray.

    Prayer is not designed to change God but to change us. The faster we let that happen, the better our prayer is going to be. But once we have gotten interested in God and have begun to seek Him, the best thing to do is to be silent in prayer and to let Him complete the process. Isn't that the great significance of the Blessed Virgin Mary? She could not possibly forget God. She was prayer in her very being and in every one of her actions.

    What is the great thing that Our Lady has done for us? She brought the Word of God into the world, or rather let Him come into the world though her. It is not so much what we do but what we are that allows Christ to live in the world. When the presence of God emerges from our inmost being into our faculties, whether we walk down the street or drink a cup of soup, divine life is pouring into the world. The effectiveness of every action depends on the source from which it springs. If it is coming out of the false self, it is severely limited. If it is coming out of a person who is immersed in God, it is extremely effective. The contemplative state, like the vocation of Our Lady, brings Christ into the world.

I would like to clarify something about using contemplative prayer in times of temptation, stress, or difficulty. I have difficulty with the idea of using prayer to bring me peace. Isn't that a selfish motive?

    The principle I had in mind in suggesting slipping into contemplative prayer was to calm your thoughts and feelings, when they are getting hooked on some temptation, by practicing the same kind of letting go that you do during contemplative prayer. Temptation can be treated like any thought that comes down the stream of consciousness. If you let it go by, that is sufficient resistance. If you are unable to do that, you have to exercise other forms of resistance.

Continued . . .

. Cf. Paatma 17, 27, 30, 45, 58, 61, 70, 90.

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