Centering Prayer

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In this video Fr. Thomas Keating talks about the foundations of Centering Prayer, a contemporary form of an ancient practice of Christian contemplative practice.  

Points to note. Fr. Thomas says first and foremost (in the Christian path), it is a relationship, not a method. The key is the relationship with God within not a technique per se. But as he says, there are certain things that facilitate the relationship.  

And within that facilitation--principle #3: when engaged with thoughts ever so gently return to the word.

This video expands on the point:

This is one of the hardest things (I think) to pick up concerning Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is not a concentrative method--it's not about focusing one's attention on a single focus.  The sacred word is not a mantra (as in say a prayer bead practice).  In Centering Prayer a person keeps his/her attention in a more receptive state.

Westerners have a very hard time learning meditation. There are so many thoughts and people give up because of the inernal noise. But I love Fr. Thomas' line about having a "jolly attitude" towards one's thoughts. Centering Prayer is an other-powered form of spiritual practice--it is the Spirit within (The Other) that does the work and one cooperates with that process. So the key point is the intention to be fully in the presence and action of God.  Thoughts, feelings, sensations are all part of it.  Fr. Thomas' point about distractions at the end is really powerful.  


Update I: In the first video, Fr. Thomas talks about the four principles of Centering Prayer but only desccibes the first three: 1. choosing a sacred word as the symbol of one's intention to consent to God's presence and action, 2. sitting comfortably with eyes closed slowly introduce the sacred word, 3. when engaged with your thoughts, ever so gently return to the word. The fourth is: at the end of the prayer period remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. 

Update II: A cool variation on Centering Prayer is to use one's breath rather than a sacred word as the symbol of one's intention to consent to God's present and action. More here from the wonderful David Frenette.  

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  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 30 November 2011 19:03 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I came across this article on centering prayer recently, really found it helpful, thought I'd share it here.

  • Comment Link Sarah Olson Friday, 02 December 2011 17:51 posted by Sarah Olson

    Thanks Chris. I've been exploring centering prayer for maybe the last year or so, and really appreciate your introducing it here. It is challenging in a way - the lack of 'doing', the lack of a technique, and instead sitting in presence and receptivity. I read a blurb by Cynthia Bourgeualt (sp?) that describes CP as all about Intention, rather than Attention (as you said in your piece). Interesting, and a really big shift from other meditative practices I've done.

    I'm wondering - and I think we may have started this conversation previously - where do you place this practice in terms of the 3 faces of spirit?... It has some qualities of 'I-am-ness', and sometimes I do experience presence as a beloved 'other', but I think once you described it as a non-dual practice? Maybe just an academic question, but I'm a bit curious to get your take on this.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 05 December 2011 18:03 posted by Chris Dierkes

    @Trev, thanks for the link.


    The point about intention versus attention is really crucial. It's different for folks. To make the point, there is a classic attention-based practice of Christian mysticism called The Jesus Prayer from the Desert tradition of Egypt, Syria, Greece:

    A contemporary Western form of it is called Christian Meditation.

    Both use a mantra invocation--by focusing only on the word/words, attention becomes single focused. My recent rosary piece is more in this tradition.

    But again Centering Prayer it's waaaayyyy different. It's hard for people not to treat the sacred word in Centering Prayer like a mantra I think. The sacred word represents the intention of turning to/being with God. Eventually the turning/being with occurs with or without the word.

    Now the question about 3 Faces of God is an interesting one. It doesn't neatly fit (seems to me). On the one hand it definitely has a 1st person element as one goes within but is also 2nd person as its a devotional practice. So 1.5 Face?

    What may help clear that up is a look at the states. Centering Prayer is a Christian practice (along with the Jesus Prayer) which goes through subtle into early/mid causal.

    The end point for both Centering and Jesus Prayer (in grace) is the experience of The Cloud of Unknowing--a temporary loss of self-consciousness in super-consciousness. Called in India, nirvikalpi samadhi. Or as Dionysius said, the light becomes so bright it darkens. Dazzling darkness he called it. (Dazzling darkness sounds like a great album name for an Olson Sisters joint incidentally :).

    But the two (the soul and God) remain substantially different even though in the state one does not feel this difference. In the main, this is where Christian mysticism has historically stopped--for fear of equating the individual with God.

    Now there's some argument as to whether individuals experience went further and whether their framework wouldn't allow them to be more honest about their experience. Would be interesting to hear Cynthia or Thomas talk about that. In terms of the official framework it's still has direction: starting in one position and moving into new relationship.

    On some level, the frameworks are only so helpful of course.

    Though if you read Meister Eckhart for example, his "method" is radically different than the ones mentioned. His cannot really be described as prayer so much as inquiry. I think that's what allows his process to deepen into the Witness and beyond.

    Is that helpful? Did it make any sense?

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 05 December 2011 18:10 posted by Chris Dierkes

    I should add that I think Cynthia B. and I have a disagreement on this latter point I made (causal v. nondual, relative vs. Absolute). I'm not entirely--we had a short conversation about it when she was here last year and I think we disagreed.

    In other words, my understanding was she was pushing more strongly for CP as nondual. Like I said it was a short convo and we didn't get all the way through it so that might not be an accurate portrayal of her view.

  • Comment Link Sarah Olson Friday, 09 December 2011 18:25 posted by Sarah Olson

    Sorry for dropping this thread! Got busy.

    Yes, it does make sense what you wrote - I especially appreciate the reminder that these frameworks are only so helpful, and that it is the practice itself that informs and teaches us. I remember hearing a dialogue on the 3 faces of spirit where Ken Wilber describes how you can take one approach (First, second or third person practice) 'all the way up' (or in). I hear this in your response, and it is a beautiful, and helpful reminder.

    Thanks and love. Off to sit :)

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