Someone recently asked me about my spiritual practices. I practice several forms of prayer and meditation, but one of my favorites is “centering prayer”. Although called “prayer”, centering prayer does not involve speaking at all. There is no petitioning or list of requests. It is closer to what most people would think of as “meditation”.
It is, in fact, very similar to many eastern forms of meditation, although it was actually derived from a long history of Christian mystical tradition – largely forgotten and neglected. The fact is that mystics of all religions tend to encounter many of the same inner experiences. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton discovered that he was able to share many experiences with his Buddhist friends regarding meditation and contemplation.
Most modern Christians aren’t familiar with what “contemplation” means in the ancient Christian mystical texts. It does not mean simply “thinking” about spiritual topics. Contemplation is a special spiritual state in which the soul opens itself to union with God.
Father Thomas Keating is the one largely responsible for reviving the practice of centering prayer in recent years.
There are a number of resources online that can teach you centering prayer, but here is a brief outline of how to begin.
First, you will select a word that will be used as a focus of the prayer, to represent your intention to approach God. Popular choices include “God”, “Jesus”, “Peace”, “Abba”, “Love”, “Being” etc. Any word that is meaningful to you will do, and you can change your word if you need to, but it helps to settle down on a single word, as soon as you can in your prayer practice, as your mind will learn to associate the word you choose with the state of contemplative prayer.
Once you select the word, you close your eyes, focus on feeling peace and love toward God, and begin your prayer by directing your attention to your chosen word. When you notice that your thoughts have drifted off, you gently return your focus to the chosen word.
It’s important to understand that you don’t repeat the word over and over. It is not a mantra.. It is simply a symbol of your intention to approach God. You return your focus to it only when you notice that your attention is wandering. And it is important to be gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself up when you find that your attention has wandered. Gently return your focus to your chosen word, and once your attention is centered, let the word fade into silence and open yourself to that silence.
It’s not necessary to assume any particular physical posture for centering prayer. Most people prefer to pray in a seated position. It’s probably better not to attempt centering prayer while lying down, as it will be too easy to fall asleep.
Try to work up to at least 20 minutes of prayer, and devote the last two minutes to simply resting in silence, slowly coming back to your normal state of mind, but trying to bring the silence with you into your waking life.
Below is a short video introduction to centering pray from Father Thomas Keating, the most well-known modern instructor in the practice.