Guidelines from Contemplative Outreach and Thomas Keating
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
(You can download the Centering Prayer Application by Contemplative Outreach at the App Store)
Eight Lessons on the Practice of Centering Prayer excerpted from The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice by Cynthia Bourgeault.
1. Getting Re(oriented) – Centering Prayer consists of learning to withdraw attention from our thoughts in order to rest in a gentle, open attentiveness to divine reality itself. This releasing of thoughts is known as “consenting to the action and presence of God” within. A thought is defined as anything that brings your attention to a focal point. It can be an idea, but it can also be a vision, a memory, an emotion, or even an itch. If it captures your attention, it is a thought and the basic instruction is to simply let it go, gently releasing it from the grip of your attention. Centering Prayer is a pathway of return in which every time the mind is released from engagement with a specific idea or impression, we move from a smaller and more constricted state of consciousness into that open, diffuse awareness in which our presence to divine reality makes itself known along a whole different pathway of perception. (The real work of Centering Prayer is to lay inner foundations for a completely different kind of spiritual attentiveness)
2. Intention is Everything – Unlike traditional methods of meditation, which do furnish an object for your attention, whether it be by repeating a mantra, following your breath, or watching your thoughts arise to a focal point. The intention is to be totally open to God, totally available all the way down to that inner most point of your being; deeper than your thinking, deeper than your feelings, deeper than your memories or desires, deeper than your usual psychological sense of yourself. You continually withdraw your attention from anything that brings it to a focal point and return again and again to your underlying intention to consent to the action and presence of God within. Please understand that your mind is accustomed to cognitively focus on one idea or thought after another and that experiencing multiple thoughts or images during your practice of Centering Prayer is completely normal.
3. Choosing a Sacred Word – As you begin your practice, you will want to choose a sacred word such as God or Love or Presence, etc. You will continue to use this same sacred word throughout your practice of Centering Prayer. Most people pick a single word or a short phrase. As you consider choosing a sacred word remember that it represents your intention to consent to the presence and action of God within you. Pick a word that draws you back this divine presence.
4. The Mechanics of Sitting – Despite past training in meditation, centering prayer is not an out of body experience. Your body is a vital part of your whole being, so it deserves to be treated with respect and dignity as sit both inwardly and outwardly. In Centering Prayer, the goal is to keep the body relaxed but alert, not calling attention to itself but also not allowing it to fall asleep. It is important to have your back as straight as possible and your head balanced on your shoulders, not allowing the shoulders to droop down, or be scrunched up with tension. Imagine you are sitting in a choir during choir practice staying present and attentive allowing your energy to circulate freely within you. Be gentle with your body, if you need to prop yourself up to support your back or sit in an overstuffed chair to cushion aching muscles please give yourself permission to do that.
5. Putting it All Together – You begin by sitting down in your chair or prayer stool or cushion, close your eyes, and begin breathing in and breathing out. You may collect yourself around your intention by reading a verse of scripture or offering a short prayer such as “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The centering prayer actually begins when you start to say your sacred word, offering it silently, gently and at first steadily as a symbol of your willingness to consent to the presence and action of God during the prayer time.
6. Handling Thoughts during Centering Prayer – The main practice of Centering Prayer involves releasing thoughts, images, and sensations, not trying to stop thoughts from occurring or focusing on having a blank mind. Fighting your thoughts is useless, but it is possible to develop a detached attitude toward the thoughts. One analogy shared by Thomas Keating is that you are beside a river and you observe different boats of various sizes float down the river and out of sight. In introductory workshops on centering prayer they teach the four “r’s” Resist no thought. Retain no thought. React to no thought. Return ever so gently to the sacred word.
7. Putting on the Mind of Christ – Philippians 2: 6-11 – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”
8. The Fruits of Centering Prayer – To begin, do not look for results or experiences during the prayer period of 20 minutes or you will be disappointed. The place to look for results is what happens after you complete the period of prayer and go about your day. Over time, the gentle releasing motion that you have been practicing in Centering Prayer works its way into your system, many people notice a greater spaciousness and flexibility in their daily life. It will also have a positive impact on your personal relationships. Many practitioners also reported improved health. The process of releasing also seems to help with the healing of the unconscious mind where old wounds and traumas are stored.