Have you ever heard about centering prayer? It’s the kind of prayer that emphasizes inner peace and opening ourselves to God by letting go of any thoughts that come to mind and carry us away. I have a love-hate relationship with this prayer form, and I thought that for all the prayer geeks out there my experience could help you decide whether to practice it or not.
In short, I’d say it’s a very powerful form of prayer worth your time. If you can handle the psychological transformations that a centering prayer may induce, go for it. To know whether you’d be able to cope with the changes it brings, I would say begin to practice it very cautiously and gradually.
But let’s start from the beginning, and I will tell you why I recommend centering prayer with caution. I learned about centering prayer somewhere around 2014 from the book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2004) by Cynthia Bourgeault. The book is quite good; it will introduce you to the basic history, theology, and psychology of centering prayer. For all those theology geeks out there, I somewhat disagree with the way the author grounds centering prayer in negative theology (a method of theology that focuses on what God is not rather than what God is), tracing it back to The Cloud of Unknowing (a mediaeval mystical book that emphasizes contemplative prayer based on negative theology). Not only that, Bourgeault attempts to pin centering prayer on kenosis (God’s self-emptying, a theology developed from Phil. 2:7), but that comes out a bit forced. Unlike centering prayer, kenosis requires an active involvement and is other-centered, outward-oriented, and self-sacrificial.
But my critical remarks do not make the book less important. In fact, it’s one of the best introductory books written in defense of centering prayer because it doesn’t drown you in theological technicalities.
The gist of centering prayer, as Bourgeault presents it, is to be aware of the thoughts that occupy us daily and then develop the habit of detachment during our practice. You can use an anchoring word (called a sacred word) to bring yourself back to the detached observation when a particular thought carries you away. But in due time, even a detached observation may go. Think of centering prayer as a discipline in which you turn your mind into a neutral channel that allows all thoughts to pass through it without letting any of them clog the channel. Below are a few quotes from Bourgeault’s book that will give you a glimpse into this prayer form. After that, I will share my own experience with centering prayer.
“One does not even watch or label the thought as it comes up, takes form, and dissipates. As soon as it emerges into consciousness, one simply lets it go. The power of this form of meditation does not reside in a particular clarity of the mind or even in presence, but entirely in the gesture of release itself” (page 21).
“But what’s different in Centering Prayer is that it bypasses focused attention and works directly with intention itself. … Because there is no specific focus for the attention and no demand for a strong ‘I am Here’ presence, the prayer has a certain fluid or even dreamy quality to it” (page 21).
“Unlike the more concentrative forms of meditation, no effort is made to try to hold the mind firmly and unwaveringly to its goal. Instead, Centering Prayer proposes a simple and elegant solution to the problem of monkey mind. If the term is not too crass, you might think of it in terms of a little ‘deal’ you make with yourself. The deal is this: if you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go” (page 23, emphasis in original).
“The goal in Centering Prayer is not to stop the thoughts, but simply to develop a detached attitude toward them. As long as they are coming and going of their own accord, there is no need to be constantly repeating your Sacred Word. … In introductory Centering Prayer workshops this … attitude toward the thoughts is reinforced through a simple formula called ‘The Four Rs’: Resist no thought[,] Retain no thought[,] React to no thought[,] Return to the sacred word” (page 39–40).
As you can see, centering prayer is a bit unusual for the traditional discipline of Christian prayer. However, it does have similar precedents in Christian mysticism, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, known as hesychastic prayer. Bourgeault also notes parallels in Lectio Divina. So centering prayer is not alien to Christian thought despite the fact that it was influenced by Buddhist meditation.
Now that being said, if you want to practice centering prayer, I would encourage you to tread lightly on this unfamiliar territory. I have seen people who had a positive experience with centering prayer, but it can also be negative. You need to realize that if you keep practicing it, at some point it will reach deep into your suppressed self or thoughts, and they will float up to your consciousness. Bourgeault recognizes this possibility when she writes that “the tight repressive bands that the egoic mind keeps wrapped around these shadow places within you begin to loosen up, and some of the trapped material can release itself, most in tears.” In and of itself, to let go of suppressed thoughts or pain is not bad, but some of them may well hurt or confuse you. I think this is a stage that you need to pass in order to move deeper but, man, is it difficult and dangerous.
What Bourgeault does not take into account or does not tell us is that when you open your deeper self for all kinds of thoughts to come and go, you also make yourself quite vulnerable to possessive thoughts, ideas, or other supernatural (negative) phenomena that with a single blow may damage your psyche. I know I’m risking being called paranoid or fundamentalist, but hear me out — if you don’t like what I say, don’t believe me; that’s fine. Just practice centering prayer cautiously; that’s all I’m suggesting. So a careful approach to centering prayer is necessary, especially as you practice for some time and want to go deeper. In the beginning, you may struggle a lot with how to apply it properly, but as you detach yourself, observe your thoughts, and let them go, unusual, sometimes quite disturbing thoughts will begin to pop into your consciousness and occasionally jolt you out of your quiet and dreamy prayer.
I’m informing you about it because I practiced centering prayer aggressively and had to give it up at some point due to such jolting experiences. A few years ago I did centering prayer every day for at least forty minutes (the advised time for beginners is less than that). I’m planning to resume it again, but I learned my lesson. I had two disturbing experiences during centering prayer, one of which I’m willing to share. This is a bit weird and ridiculous, but the power of the experience was in its sudden and aggressive nature. Now, if you have any familiarity with centering prayer, you know that during the prayer you relax, your usual guards are down, your eyes are closed; and in a somewhat dreamy state, you observe the flood of thoughts that come to your mind, then disappear to give way to new ones.
One day during a prayer, out of the blue a soccer ball appeared in my mind seconds before hitting my face. It was flying and revolving fast. As it was about to hit my face, the image jolted me out. I sat up and tried to calm down. The whole image was so sudden, fast, and (compared to the other thoughts before that one) so out of order that I was shocked. Before that, all my thoughts coming and going were normal, daily thoughts I could relate to. But a soccer ball? What the heck?! I have never taken any serious interest in soccer though I played in high school and had a positive experience. When I was very, very young, maybe ten or earlier, a player accidentally hit me with a soccer ball during a game (I was only an observer on the sideline), and I fell. Maybe that’s where the thought originated from, but nevertheless it was a very minor incident. Even then, I’m not willing to see flying balls of every negative, suppressed, and forgotten memory pop into my mind in such out-of-place fashion.
The second experience turned out to be much more serious, and after consulting a friend, I stopped practicing centering prayer. I guess my experiences show the power of this prayer. Perhaps, I was not able to move beyond a necessary stage and open myself up to God unreservedly. That’s why I want to try it again but with more caution.
That said, I want to conclude this blog post with three statements.
One, if you want to deepen your prayer life and open the depths of yourself to God, try centering prayer.
Two, centering prayer is powerful and may have an unexpected effect on you, so study it before practicing and take it slowly.
Three, don’t forget to take a break whenever you think that this specific form of prayer is challenging you. Rest, reflect upon your experiences, and come back later.
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