Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Four Rs of Centering Prayer: Advice for Managing our Thoughts

The classic advice from Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault on managing our stream of thoughts in Centering Prayer is this:

Resist no thought.
Retain no thought.
React to no thought.
Return ever so gently to the sacred word.

These “Four R’s” are full of wisdom. They remind us of the core principle of centering prayer–the surrender of our thoughts and our return to the intention to sit in silence before God. We cannot control our thoughts. They may be beautiful; they may be embarrassing; they may be random. Regardless, when we recognize that they’ve grabbed our attention, we release them and return to the silence with our sacred word.

Resist no thought

Recognize that we spend most of our days lost in loops of thought. Our minds bounce endlessly from one thought to another. Buddhists call this the “monkey mind.” To practice centering prayer does not mean fighting against thinking. The goal is not to erase our minds. This is impossible. You will likely have hundreds if not thousands of thoughts during a centering prayer session. The key is recognizing when this happens and surrendering it. This leads to the next “R”.

Retain no thought. 

In centering prayer, we release our thoughts whenever we find ourselves paying attention to one. This is easy if it’s a random thought about dinner or about a bug buzzing in your ear. However, if you generate a helpful solution to a problem you’ve struggled with, it is harder to let go. But let go we must. Good or bad or neutral–we surrender each thought and return to the silence.

React to no thought

Thoughts are just thoughts. We have little control of what moves into our conscious mind. You may encounter beautiful thoughts or disturbing ones. A painful memory may emerge from the depths of your soul. You may get caught up in a fantasy. Regardless the practice centering prayer involves our commitment to make no judgments regarding our thoughts. Instead, we release them to God. 

Return ever so gently to the sacred word. 

The elegance of centering prayer is its simplicity. It’s all about our intention to spend time with God in silence. The sacred word serves as a means of breaking our attention to thoughts, words, images, and feelings so that we can return to the silence.

To learn more about centering prayer, check out this brief video introduction: Centering Prayer: the Basics

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Centering Prayer as Appreciation

Often my centering prayer sessions don’t seem to accomplish much. My mind continually bounces around. I rehearse past hurts. I think about my task list. I make plans for today’s meetings. I gain ideas for projects. I have little sense of the presence of God. In a word, I’m distracted.

Yet perhaps these are actually the best days. After all, centering prayer is not about me and my thoughts. It’s about entering a space outside of my control where I may encounter the living God. The sessions, when my brain interrupts incessantly, become opportunities to learn anew about surrender. In these moments I release whatever captures my attention and return to a posture of waiting. This may happen dozens of times in a 15–20 minute time of centering prayer. Yet each recitation of my prayer word serves as an occasion for training in faithfulness and love. 

Jesus' Model

When Jesus was hungry in the wilderness, the tempter pointed to the presence of an abundant number of stones (Matt 4:1–4). He suggested that Jesus use his power to turn them to bread. Jesus reminded the tempter, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Jesus’ hunger was real. He had just completed a forty day fast. Yet he released it by reciting Scripture as a way of moving away from temptation. 

The tempter then presents Jesus with two additional tests. As in the first scene, Jesus quotes Scripture and stays focused on God’s mission. It is no coincidence that angels appear and attend to Jesus’ needs (4:11). 

The Practice of Self-Denial and Surrender to Silence

Centering prayer teaches us a similar process of self-denial. Don’t mistake this for masochism or crass asceticism. God is not cruel. God is love. The greatest hindrance to our spiritual transformation is ourselves. The process of self-denial prepares us for the deep work that God desires to do in us. Jesus recognized this and modeled a way forward.

Our thoughts are the obstacles that distract us from the work God desires to do in us in solitude. But we must not fight our thoughts. This would be our work. Instead, we calmly use our prayer word “Jesus” to recenter.

A friend recently asked me if sessions full of distraction frustrated me. The truth of the matter is they do not at all frustrate me. Instead they are the days where I learn the most.

Don’t get me wrong. My soul loves the moments of deep contemplation where I become lost in God’s love. It is transformational to experience and receive God’s unconditional acceptance. It, however, is also transformational to learn continually the lessons taught by silent surrender.

On those days when I’m constantly lost in thought, I learn to focus on appreciation rather than expectation. I remember that centering prayer is not a tactic for engaging God. It is a way of being in which I consciously surrender in love and gratitude to God. I let go of all things that may hinder me including the expectation that I’ll encounter God during my time of prayer.

Releasing thoughts is an act of faith. I trust that God has my best interests at heart. Therefore, my future does not depend on avoiding being lost in a continuous stream of thoughts or even in my ability to recollect the thoughts I released in prayer. 

Appreciation and Growth

After such sessions, I’ve learned to appreciate the silence. By releasing the expectation of automatically encountering God in each session, I’ve found that growth happens. The prayer time is not about me after all. It is not a work. It is rest in the presence of God. Just as the biblical sabbath envisions life apart from work, centering prayer is an invitation to let go of all human busyness and activity to rest in God. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Amen.

If you are interested in learning more about centering prayer, here is an introductory video: