What Is Centering Prayer?
My Discovery of Centering Prayer
I had always been attracted to silence. I just did not know what to do in the silence. In 2012 and 2013, I had read books by Carl McColman. In his books he shared that silence was powerful and transformational. I wanted to experience this transformation too, so I began to practice silence. I do not recall that his books mentioned a practice so I would just sit in silence. I did not know what I was doing. I would sit for one, two, and even three minutes. It was brutal; nevertheless, I persisted.
In late 2013 while I perused Amazon in search of a book to read, I stumbled upon Healing the Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots by Amos Smith. I purchased the kindle version and began to read. I quickly discovered that Amos practiced a form of silent prayer called Centering Prayer. I was intrigued. I had discovered a container for the silence. Previously I did not know what to do in the silence. I now had a practice, a method of how to sit in the silence.
I reached out to Amos and began to ask him questions about centering prayer. We began a back-and-forth email dialogue. I began to dabble in centering prayer. I also began to read other centering prayer books: Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault and Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating.
Thomas Keating recommended two, twenty-minute sits per day. On June 1, 2014, I decided to stop my experiments and jump in the centering prayer swimming pool. I am not sure what was so special about this date, but I decided to take Thomas Keating up on his centering prayer guidelines. I will discuss these guidelines a little further. I began to practice centering prayer as directed. I was hooked. This practice resonated with me. It was not difficult. I was ready!
What Is Centering Prayer?
In 1974, the method of centering prayer was discovered by Father William Meninger in a book called The Cloud of Unknowing. It was soon refined by Fathers Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington. Centering Prayer is a form of silent prayer, wordless prayer. It is both a practice and relationship with God.
I like to remind people that centering prayer is not just a meditation practice because it deepens our relationship with God. I also tell people not to eliminate their other prayer forms, keep them and allow centering prayer to complement and enrich their prayer life. Centering prayer attracts me because I do not have to worry about what I will say. I do not have to say anything. This will become clear as you read the centering prayer guidelines below.
Centering prayer is based upon Matthew 6:6: But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. During centering prayer, we shut the door to our senses and open the door to our spiritual faculties.
Centering prayer is a practice that opens us to contemplative prayer, the pure presence of God. God is deep within us, beyond our thoughts and emotions. Pulled from the Contemplative Outreach website here are the centering prayer guidelines:
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- 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.
- When engaged with your thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
The Sacred Word
How do you select your sacred word? If you are an auditory person, you might choose a one to three syllable word such as love, God, Jesus, or ocean. I quickly discovered that I am a visual person, so I use a sacred image. I visualize a Jesus icon as my sacred method when I engage my thoughts. Some people are physical people and like to use their breath. Lastly, others are fearful they might fall asleep during centering prayer, so they keep their eyes open and stare at a spot four to six feet in the distance.
Sometimes you do not need your sacred word and you naturally catch yourself when you engage your thoughts, and you bring yourself back to the present moment. The sacred word helps you to just be with God. It is like when you sit with a lover, a friend, or someone special. You do not always have to say any words. You like to be with this person. Words are not always needed.
The sacred word is not used as a mantra, it is used only when needed, when you engage your thoughts, as an anchor back to the present moment. When you sit and begin to plan what you will do after your sit, it is time to let go of this plotting and planning, interiorly recite your sacred word, and ever so gently let go of your sacred word too. It is used when you begin to think about what you did before your sit, perhaps a disagreement you had with a friend or your spouse. Again, you interiorly speak your sacred word and let go of all these thoughts. And then you let go of the sacred word too.
Pick the sacred method that works best for you: word, image, breath, glance. Just stick with the same method for the duration of your sit. If you discover you need to switch your word or image, do so for the next sit. You can also use your sacred method outside of centering prayer to bring yourself back to the present moment and to the task at hand. I often do this! The sacred word is like a reset button.
When Should You Practice Centering Prayer?
I suggest you make it the first thing you do to begin your day. I find it is the best way to start my day. By nature, I am a nervous and anxious person. Particularly on a Monday morning, I awake and immediately begin to think about the tasks that I will need to get done at work. I need this first sit! It reconnects me to God, to life. It calms me down. It reminds me that God is with me. It removes my fear. I only have fear because I have forgotten that God is within me and is a constant, ever-present presence.
I also suggest that you add a second sit later in the day. My second sit is in the early afternoon right before my lunch. No matter how busy I am, I stop what I am doing and take this sit. Many people will argue that they do not have time for their sits. I will counter that you cannot afford to not take your sits. These sits have a way of giving you back time. I am always amazed at how productive I am the second half of the day as I look back on my day.
I challenge those who say they do not have time to sit, to try it for themselves and discover how it too will give them back time. Why does this happen? If you look at the guidelines, we use our sacred word to let go and open to the presence and actions of God within. Over time, we take this let-go posture with us into our non-centering prayer times. We let go of our racing thoughts and what feels like endless tasks that do not need to get done and can better hone in and focus on the tasks that require our immediate attention.
Let the ebbs and flows of life determine when is best for you to do your sits. If life changes, change when you do your sits. Place your sits when they best belong. For example, a few years ago, work was very hectic and stressful. I needed a third sit. I shortened each sit to thirteen minutes. My sits were as follows: first thing in the morning, right before lunch and then two to three hours after my second sit. When work calmed down, I removed my third sit and resumed my two sits per day.
Consent To God Within
What does it mean to consent to the presence and actions of God within? It means we give God permission to act in us. I think of it as a reverse prayer. I open to the presence and actions of God within and let God pray in me. How do I let God pray in me? I remove the barriers that allow Grace to flow. That is why we use our sacred word during centering prayer when we engage our thoughts.
My journey since beginning centering prayer has been and continues to be a consent to God within. I notice this consent as my website evolves and I move into new and exciting areas: my current book, forewords I have written for other authors, the chapter for this book, ideas for my second book, one-on-one coaching, speaking, and podcast interviews. I am excited to experience where the Spirit will nudge me next.
I also see it in the decisions I make with my wife for our children, our finances, our vacations, the things we will do and accomplish together. I love what Thomas Keating had to say about contemplative prayer: God can do anything in contemplative prayer. It is a great adventure. Open to the infinite and thus open to infinite possibility.
The Fruits of Centering Prayer
The contemplative Christian classic The Cloud of Unknowing teaches: Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. This means we enter centering prayer with no ulterior motives. We sit because we love God. That is it! We create a space for God to move as we say, “Here I am God. Do with me whatever you want.”
I think of centering prayer as a reverse prayer. God prays in me what I need for my non-centering prayer times. I have noticed many fruits as a result of my practice. I have an excitement for life that I did not have before I practiced centering prayer. Life is an incredible gift and I have learned to treasure and relish it.
I am a more confident person as I carry on my daily tasks. I receive inner nudges to get out of my comfort zone to try new things. I am more quickly able to connect to my inner peace and calm outside of centering prayer. I am a less reactive person which means I am more present and better able to listen to the person in front of me, give them the space they require and appreciate from me.
The letting-go posture during centering prayer comes with me into my non-centering parts of the day. I am able to let go of things that distract me and hone in on the things that I need to focus on and get done in my everyday life. This means I let go of the tasks that do not need to get done today!
I will mention one last fruit. God has changed for me. Rather, I should say my perception of God has changed. Prior to centering prayer, I thought of God as a man with a white beard, up in the sky, who looked down at me, judged me, critiqued me, and was not always happy with me and my performance. Now I think of God as an ever-present presence who unconditionally loves me.
The fruits of centering prayer are unique for each practitioner. God knows what you need. Your job is to let go, open to God, and receive them. I always enjoy hearing about the fruits others have noticed in their life as a result of their practice.
What else happens during centering prayer? Our bodies hold the tension of a lifetime. I hold tension in my jaw, stomach, and shoulders. I bet you can easily discover where you hold tension and stress in your body. Our minds hold onto repressed thoughts and emotions, some we know we repress and others we are not aware we have repressed until they start to come out during centering prayer.
Centering prayer is a safe place to let the tension in our bodies and the repressed thoughts in our minds escape. Some have experienced what feels like an overwhelming waterfall of thoughts and emotions. This is normal. It means your centering prayer practice is working. Keep at it! Thomas Keating referred to this as Divine Therapy, an unloading process. It is a time for God to heal and transform us. Our bodies and minds over time learn to relax. As the emotional baggage of a lifetime leaves us, the Holy Spirit rushes in to fill and occupy this new space.
A Word on Thoughts
During centering prayer, do not judge your thoughts. Observe them and then gently let them go. Even outside of centering prayer our minds race. We tell ourselves things that are just not true. “I am too young to try that.” “I am too old to do that.” “I do not have the proper skillset to take on this task.” On and on the thoughts go. Centering prayer helps us cultivate the ability to be the observer of our thoughts. We can then decide to let go of the thoughts that do not serve us and hone in and focus on the ones that best serve us. This is true freedom!
Your True Self
Centering prayer connects you to your true self: the person God wishes you to be. During centering prayer, we let go of all thoughts and emotions and open to the presence and actions of God within. We connect to our true self. We then get up from our sits and take our true self actions.
Let me share how it works for me. I am a big believer in affirmations. An affirmation is a single sentence statement of what I want to accomplish. I have affirmations jotted down in various areas of my life: spiritual, family, career, personal, and financial. I consider them my true self affirmations. I like to read them to God as I begin my centering prayer practice. I then let them go. I let them brew with God. I like to think of it as I partner with God on them.
I also have what I call my “true-self affirmation barometer.” This is how it works. A true-self affirmation will continue to be worked on if I have an inner peace and excitement about it, even if it makes me nervous because it is outside of my comfort zone, and it does not harm me or others. If it does not pass this test, I tweak it or eliminate it.
I sit with God and then I get up from my sits and walk with God. It is a constant partnership. God is a powerful presence as part of this process. God is behind me and nudges me forward, God holds my hand and walks with me, God is a few steps ahead of me and encourages me to keep my forward progress, and God is within me and provides me with inner peace and wisdom for my daily tasks.
What is a Mini Sit?
A mini sit is a shorter sit and is done when needed. I do not like to go to my primary care doctor. It makes me nervous. I usually arrive a few minutes early. I take a five-minute sit before I walk in. This sit calms me down for the visit.
At work, if I have to make a presentation to management or my client, I do the same thing. I take a short sit of one to five minutes before the presentation. Again, this sit calms me down, reconnects me to God. It reminds me that I do not need to be afraid because God is with me.
Let me share one more example. I go to the chiropractor once per month. Before I see the doctor, I lie on a table that has a roller under my back. The roller loosens up my body from my neck to my lower back. I spend ten minutes on this table. What do I do during this time? You guessed it. I practice centering prayer for ten minutes.
Let me end with how to begin a centering prayer practice. Make a decision to start. Do it first before you begin your day. Take baby steps if needed. Start with five minutes and work your way up to twenty minutes. Add a second sit. Again, take baby steps if you must.(If you start with one or two minutes or three or four, that is fine. Just start.) Start with five minutes and work your way up to twenty minutes. Dig deep in this well. Let God heal and transform you.
Add bookends to your practice. These are things you will do before and after your practice. It is nice to have structure around your practice. Here are my current bookends: I read my true-self affirmations to God that I mentioned earlier and let them go to God as I begin my centering prayer sit. After my sit I read for five to ten minutes from a book that I currently enjoy. I then get up from my sit and begin my day if it’s my first sit or resume my day if it’s my second sit. You will figure out what bookends make sense for you.
Find an online group to practice with. You can find groups in the United States and internationally at the Contemplative Outreach site. It is always nice to sit in silence with others and then share with others in community.
Go on a one day, weekend, or longer retreat. You will go deeper in your practice, learn from others, and develop friendships along the way.
The most important thing is to do your sit. If you miss your sit, do not beat yourself up. Show up for your next sit. God unconditionally loves you and patiently waits for you to show up for your next sit. I once heard Fr. William Meninger say at a retreat I attended in 2016, “God is going to love you and that is it!”
Questions For Discussion and Reflection
- What, if anything, can be special about silence? What can silence teach us?
- What fruits have you experienced as a result of your silent prayer practice?
- When will it be best for you to practice silent prayer?
- What thoughts do you feed yourself that are harmful and not true?
- Who is your true self? Do you let this person come out and play?
Submitted by Rich Lewis, Author of Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self Through Centering Prayer
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