Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 9, Part II

The Unloading of the Unconscious

    Another point that is worth remembering. During the unloading process sometimes you may want to figure out where a particular smile, itch, pain, or strong feeling is coming from in your psyche and to identify it with some earlier period in your life. That's useless. The nature of the unloading process is that it does not focus on any particular event. It loosens up all the rubbish, so to speak, and the psychological refuse comes up as a kind of compost. It's like throwing out the garbage. You don't separate the egg shells from the orange peels. You just throw the whole thing out. Nobody is asking you to look through it or try to evaluate it. You just throw everything out together in one big garbage bag.

    It can also happen that external difficulties may arise in your life that have a direct connection with your spiritual growth. They are another way God uses to bring you to a deeper knowledge of yourself and to a greater compassion for your family, friends, and other people.

I think I've been using the prayer words as a way of resisting thoughts. I'm not sure what it means to sink into a disturbing emotion without holding on to it.

    One way to deal with intense restlessness, physical pain, or emotions, such as fear or anxiety, that arise at such times of unloading is to rest in the painful feeling for a minute or two and allow the pain itself to be your prayer word. In other words, one of the best ways of letting go of an emotion is simply to feel it. Painful emotions, even some physical pains, tend to disintegrate when fully accepted. Other manifestations of the unstressing experience may be an itch, tears, or laughter Some people have been known to have a fit of laughter in the middle of centering prayer. Perhaps there was a joke they heard long ago that they were unable to enjoy because of some defense mechanism, and they finally were humble enough or free enough to get the point. You may also find yourself dissolved in tears for no reason at all. An old grief that wasn't allowed expression at the proper time is at last being felt. Contemplative prayer has a way of completing everything unfinished in your life by allowing the emotions have an outlet in the form of moods or thoughts that seem but a jumble. This is the dynamic of purification. The intensity of feelings of fear, anxiety, or anger may have no relationship to your recent experience. Sitting through that kind of stuff is more useful than consoling experiences. The purpose of centering prayer is not to experience peace but to evacuate the unconscious obstacles to the permanent abiding state of union with God. Not contemplative prayer but the contemplative state is the purpose of our practice; not experiences, however exotic or reassuring, but the permanent and abiding awareness of God that comes through the mysterious restructuring of consciousness. At some point in your life, it could be in the middle of the night, on a subway, or in the midst of prayer, the necessary changes in the nervous system and psyche finally come to completion. That particular stage of the spiritual journey resolves itself, and you no longer have the problems that you had before. The restructuring of consciousness is the fruit of regular practice. That is why it makes no sense to aim at particular experiences. You can't even imagine a state of consciousness that you've never had before, so it is a waste of time and energy to anticipate it. The practice will eventually bring about the change of consciousness. The most significant happening at this stage of the journey is the calming of the affective system. You become free of emotional swings because the false self system on which they were based has at last been dismantled. The emotions then come through in their purity and are no longer upsetting. This is a marvelous release from inner turmoil.

    When you feel restless, agitated, or pained by some emotional experience, you can't spend the time better than by waiting it out. The temptation is great when you are suffering from a distressing emotion to try to push it away. However, by allowing your attention to move gently toward the emotion and by sinking into it, as though you were getting into a nice jacuzzi, you are embracing God in the feeling. Don't think, just feel the emotion.

    If you were blind and then got your sight back, even the ugliest things would be appreciated. Suppose you had no emotions and suddenly experienced one; even a disagreeable emotion would be thrilling. Actually, no emotion is really distressing; it is only the false self that interprets it as distressing. Emotional swings are gradually dissolved by the complete acceptance of them. To put this into practice, you must first recognize and identify the emotion: "Yes, I am angry, I am panicky, terrified, restless." Every feeling has some good. Since God is the ground of everything, we know that even the feeling of guilt, in a certain sense, is God. If you can embrace the painful feeling, whatever it is, as if it were God, you are uniting yourself with God, because anything that has reality has God as its foundation. "Letting go" is not a simple term; it is quite subtle and has important nuances-depending on what you are intending to let go of. When a thought is not disturbing, letting go means paying no attention to it. When a thought is disturbing, it won't go away so easily, so you have to let it go in some other way One way you can let it go is to sink into it and identify with it, out of love for God. This may not be possible at first, but try it and see what happens. The principal discipline of contemplative prayer is letting go.

    To sum up what I have said on this fifth kind of thought, contemplative prayer is part of a reality that is bigger than itself. It is part of the whole process of integration, which requires opening to God at the level of the unconscious. This releases a dynamic that will be peaceful at times, and at other times heavily laden with thoughts and emotion. Both experiences are part of the same process of integration and healing. Each kind of experience, therefore, should be accepted with the same peace, gratitude, and confidence in God. Both are necessary to complete the process of transformation.

    If you are suffering from a barrage of thoughts from the unconscious, you don't have to articulate the sacred word clearly in your imagination or keep repeating it in a frantic effort to stabilize your mind. You should think it as easily as you think any thought that comes to mind spontaneously. Do not resist any thought, do not hang on to any thought, do not react emotionally to any thought. This is the proper response to all five kinds of thoughts that come down the stream of consciousness.

When I came out of prayer, I found I had been crying, but I wasn't sad. I didn't perceive myself as being sad during any part of the meditation.

    You might be consoled to know that Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, wept almost continuously. This was his characteristic response to the goodness of God. Similarly, there are times when we can't say anything, think anything, or feel anything. The only response is to dissolve in the presence of God's incredible goodness.

    Tears may express joy as well as sorrow They may also indicate the release of a whole bundle of emotions that can't find expression in any other way. In prayer if tears come, treat them as a gift, a response to God's goodness, which is both painful and joyful at the same time. joy can be so great that it is painful.

    It is good not to make too much of any experience or insight during prayer itself. Afterward you can reflect on it, but during prayer if you notice tears falling, lips smiling, eyes twitching; itches, and pains--treat them like any other thought and let them all go by. Gently return to the sacred word. This prayer is an apprenticeship in letting go of our dependency on thinking in order to know God in interior silence. The obstacles to getting there have to be unloaded in one way or another. Thoughts, moods, or feelings of depression that might last for several days are ways the Psyche has of evacuating the undigested emotional material of a lifetime. When these pass, your psychological insides will feel much better It's like being nauseated; it is disagreeable while your dinner is coming up, but afterwards you feel great.

    Of course, if a physical pain lasts throughout the whole period of prayer, you may actually have some pathology and need to see a doctor. But often it is just an emotional knot rooted in your physiology that is unwinding, and it takes the form of a brief pain, tears, or laughter I know people who were overcome by laughter in their prayer, I guess they hit something in the unconscious they never thought was funny before and finally got the joke. Through the deepening of one's trust in God, one is able to acknowledge the dark places in one's personality according to one's own natural rhythm. A good therapist will not bring up painful insights until he or she sees that the patient is ready to face them. God is the same way. As humility and trust deepen, you can acknowledge the dark side of your personality more easily. Eventually you will reach the center of your human poverty and powerlessness and feel happy to be there. Then you enter into the freedom of God's creative action because there is no longer any selfish or possessive attitude toward your personality or talents. You are completely at God's disposal. Interior freedom is the goal of this prayer Not freedom to do what you like, but freedom to do what God likes--freedom to be your true Self and to be transformed in Christ.

There seems to be a dimension in the prayer of quiet that is healing. At least that is my experience. Some people do not have too much to heal. But if there are big scars, the prayer of quiet seems to be a very soothing ointment for these wounds.

    Yes, that is one important effect. John of the Cross taught that interior silence is the place where the Spirit secretly anoints the soul and heals our deepest wounds.

Does the healing extend to the body as well as the soul?

    Illnesses that are largely psychosomatic can certainly be healed by bringing peace to ones emotional life.

I was thinking that God has a way of concealing His work in us from our own eyes, leaving us with something like St. Paul's thorn of the flesh, to keep us humble.

    Contemplative prayer doesn't establish people in glory, that's for sure, but it helps them to bear infirmities such as you mentioned. If certain types of people have too much success in their prayer, they may need a little tug to bring them down to earth once in a while.

    The method of centering prayer is only an entrance into contemplative prayer. As one's experience of the latter develops, it becomes more difficult to speak about because it doesn't enter into the ordinary experience of the psychic life as such. Imagine the rays of the sun in a pool of water. The sun's rays are united to the water, yet at the same time they are quite distinct from it. They are coming from a different place. Similarly, one's experience of God in contemplative prayer is not easy to make distinctions about. The less you can say about it, the more likely it is present. It is in all and through all. And so it kind of falls out of sight.

    The beginning of anything is always striking, but as you get used to it or when it becomes a part of you, you begin to take it for granted. It no longer stirs up the emotional dust that it did when it was a new experience. The same thing happens at the beginning of the spiritual journey. For some people, contemplative prayer can be very mysterious indeed. They themselves can't say anything about what they experience except that it is real for them. The kind of infirmities that you mention, which are obvious both to them and to others, are a wonderful means of hiding them from themselves as well as from others. God loves to hide the holiness of His friends, especially from themselves.

As people grow in the prayer life, do they still experience an alternation of thoughts and contemplative moments?

    As the unconscious empties out, the fruits of an integrated human nature and the resulting free flow of grace will manifest themselves by a significant change of attitude. The union that one discovers in contemplative prayer will not be reserved to that time. Moments of silence will overtake you in the course of daily life. Reality will tend to become more transparent. Its divine Source will shine through it.

    When everything in the unconscious is emptied out, the kinds of thoughts that were passing by in the beginning will no longer exist. There is an end to the process of purification. Then the awareness of union with God will be continuous because there will be no obstacle in our conscious or unconscious life to interfere with it. There is nothing wrong with reality. The problem is with us, who cannot relate to it properly because of the obstacles in us. When all the obstacles are emptied out, the light of God's presence will illumine our spirit all the time, even when we are immersed in activity. Instead of being overwhelmed by externals, the true Self, now in union with God, will dominate them.

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