Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 9, Part I

The Unloading of the Unconscious

    A fifth kind of thought arises from the fact that through the regular practice of contemplative prayer the dynamism of interior purification is set in motion. This dynamism is a kind of divine psychotherapy, organically designed for each of us, to empty out our unconscious and free us from the obstacles to the free flow of grace in our minds, emotions, and bodies.

    Empirical evidence seems to be growing that the consequences of traumatic emotional experiences from earliest childhood are stored in our bodies and nervous systems in the form of tension, anxiety, and various defense mechanisms. Ordinary rest and sleep do not get rid of them. But in interior silence and the profound rest that this brings to the whole organism, these emotional blocks begin to soften up and the natural capacity of the human organism to throw off things that are harmful starts to evacuate them. The psyche as well as the body has its way of evacuating material that is harmful to its health. The emotional junk in our unconscious emerges during prayer in the form of thoughts that have a certain urgency, energy, and emotional charge to them. You don't usually know from what particular source or sources they are coming. There is ordinarily just a jumble of thoughts and a vague or acute sense of uneasiness. Simply putting up with them and not fighting them is the best way to release them.

    As the deep peace flowing from contemplative prayer releases our emotional blocks, insights into the dark side of our personality emerge and multiply. We blissfully imagine that we do good to our families, friends, and business or professional associates for the best of reasons, but when this dynamism begins to operate in us, our so-called good intentions look like a pile of dirty dishrags. We perceive that we are not as generous as we had believed. This happens because the divine light is shining brighter in our hearts. Divine love, by its very nature, accuses us of our innate selfishness.

    Suppose we were in a dimly lit room. The place might look fairly clean. But install a hundred bulbs of a thousand watts each, and put the whole room under a magnifying glass. The place would begin to crawl with all kind of strange and wonderful little creatures. It would be all you could do to stay there. So it is with our interior. When God turns up the voltage, our motivation begins to take on a wholly different character, and we reach out with great sincerity for the mercy of God and for His forgiveness. That is why trust in God is so important. Without trust we are likely to run away or say, "There must be some better way of going to God."

    Self knowledge in the Christian ascetical tradition is insight into our hidden motivation, into emotional needs and demands that are percolating inside of us and influencing our thinking, feeling, and activity without our being fully aware of them. To give an example: When I was an abbot, which is a father image in a monastery, I was struck by the fact that some of the younger members of the community were unconsciously treating me as their real father I could see that they were working out emotional hassles with authority figures from their early childhood. They were not relating to me as me. When you withdraw from your ordinary flow of superficial thoughts on a regular daily basis, you get a sharper perspective on your motivation, and you begin to see that the value systems by which you have always lived have their roots in prerational attitudes that have never been honestly and fully confronted. We all have neurotic tendencies. When you practice contemplative prayer on a regular basis, your natural resources for psychic health begin to revive and you see the false value systems that are damaging your life. The emotional programs of early childhood that are buried in your unconscious begin to emerge into clear and stark awareness.

    If in your psyche there are obstacles to opening yourself to God, divine love begins to show you what these are. If you let go of them, you will gradually unfold in the presence of God and enjoy His Presence. The inner dynamism of contemplative prayer leads naturally to the transformation of your whole personality Its purpose is not limited to your moral improvement. It brings about a change in your way of perceiving and responding to reality This process involves a structural change of consciousness.

    As you experience the reassurance that comes from interior peace, you have more courage to face the dark side of your personality and to accept yourself as you are. Every human being has the incredible potential to become divine, but at the same time each of us has to contend with the historical evolution of our nature from lower forms of consciousness. There is a tendency in human nature to reach out for more life, more happiness, more of God; but there are also self-destructive tendencies that want to go back to the unconscious and instinctual behavior of the beasts. Even though we know that there is no happiness in such regression, that aspect of the human condition is always lurking within us. Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, "Barbarism is not behind us but beneath us." In other words, violence and the other instinctual drives remain as seeds that can develop, if unchecked, into all kinds of evil.

    We have to come to grips with these tendencies in order for the fullness of grace to flow through us. Contemplative prayer fosters the healing of these wounds. In psychoanalysis the patient relives traumatic experiences of the past and in doing so, integrates them into a healthy pattern of life. If you are faithful to the daily practice of contemplative prayer, these psychic wounds will be healed without your being retraumatized. After you have been doing this prayer for some months, you will experience the emergence of certain forceful and emotionally charged thoughts. They don't normally reveal some traumatic experience in early life or some unresolved problem in your present life. They simply emerge as thoughts that arise with a certain force or that put you in a depressed mood for a few hours or days. Such thoughts are of great value from the perspective of human growth even though you may feel persecuted by them during the whole time of prayer.

    When the unloading of the unconscious begins in earnest, many people feel that they are going backwards, that contemplative prayer is just impossible for them because all they experience when they start to pray is an unending flow of distractions. Actually, there are no distractions in contemplative prayer unless you really want to be distracted or if you get up and leave. Hence, it doesn't matter how many thoughts you have. Their number and nature have no effect whatever on the genuineness of your prayer If your prayer were on the level of thinking, thoughts that were extraneous to your reflections would indeed be distracting. But contemplative prayer is not on the level of thinking. It is consenting with your will to God's Presence in pure faith.

    Emotionally charged thoughts are the chief way that the unconscious has of expelling chunks of emotional junk. In this way, without your perceiving it, a great many emotional conflicts that are hidden in your unconscious and affecting your decisions more than you realize are being resolved. As a consequence, over a period of time you will feel a greater sense of well-being and inner freedom. The very thoughts that you lament while in prayer are freeing the psyche from the damage that has accumulated in your nervous system over a lifetime. In this prayer both thoughts and silence have an important role to play.

    To use a clumsy simile, in tenement houses where the garbage collection is unreliable, some tenants use the bathroom to store the garbage: If you want to take a bath, the first thing you have to do is empty out the junk. A similar procedure holds in this prayer When we commit ourselves to the spiritual journey, the first thing the Spirit does is start removing the emotional junk inside of us. He wishes to fill us completely and to transform our entire body-spirit organism into a flexible instrument of divine love. But as long as we have obstacles in us, some of which we are not even aware, he can't fill us to capacity In his love and zeal he begins to clean out the tub. One means by which he does this is by means of the passive purification initiated by the dynamic of contemplative prayer.

    Centering prayer, insofar as it puts us at God's disposal, is a kind of request that He take our purification in hand. It takes courage to face up to the process of self knowledge, but it is the only way of getting in touch with our true identity and ultimately with our true Self. When you feel bored, restless, and that anything would be better than just sitting still and being battered by thoughts, stay there anyhow. It's like being out in the rain without an umbrella and getting drenched to the skin. There is no use groaning because you didn't bring your umbrella. The best approach is simply to be willing to be doused by the torrent of your thoughts. Say, "I am going to get wet," and enjoy the rain. Before you reflect on whether a particular period of prayer is going well, you are having a good period of prayer. After you reflect, it is not so good. If you are drenched with thoughts and can't do anything about it, acquiesce to the fact that that's the way it is for today. The less you wiggle and scream, the sooner the work can be done. Tomorrow or a few days from now will be better. The capacity to accept what comes down the stream of consciousness is an essential part of the discipline. Cultivate a neutral attitude toward the psychological content of your prayer. Then it won't bother you whether you have thoughts. Offer your powerlessness to God and wait peacefully in His Presence. All thoughts pass if you wait long enough.

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.