A layman’s introduction to centering prayer

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with meditation (with the scales tipping much toward the hate side). I’ve tried following my breath, focusing on mantras, visualization, and more.

Every time, it’s the same cycle: Three days of enthusiasm followed by a botched session and then a missed session and finally a feeling of utter failure and the realization of how non-spiritual I am.

I remember getting so frustrated as thoughts consumed my brain space while meditating. Here I was thinking about how much I used to like Hot Pockets when I should have been inching towards nirvana. Get. Out. Of. My. Head. Gaaah!!

But there’s something about quietude that draws me toward it. And being as big of a fanboy of Richard Rohr as I am made me look up Contemplative/Centering Prayer to see what it’s all about.

That’s when I found some videos and books by another likable monk, Thomas Keating, who seems to be the go-to guy when it comes to all things about Centering Prayer.

Now, just to set the tone up front, I don’t intend for this post to be a comprehensive guide but merely my personal introduction and beginner-level account of doing it this last year or so.

So, what is Contemplative Prayer?

According to Keating’s Contemplative Outreach, here’s how they define* Contemplative Prayer…

Centering Prayer is a receptive method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.

I like to put it this way… As for most of us, when we think of prayer, we think about petitionary prayer. This is when we ask for things. We’re doing the talking and God (or whatever you call it — I’ll be using the G-word in this post), we imagine, is doing the listening.

There’s also confessionary prayer where we say out loud all the stuff we feel bad for and ask for forgiveness. Again, we’re doing the talking.

Centering Prayer, on the other hand, is where we do the listening and we invite God to do the talking. This is very hard for us, especially in our westernized culture of Christianity that’s based on thinking, talking, expressing, holy rolling, and pontificating. We don’t do very well just sitting there in long stretches of silence wrestling with layer upon layer of internal chatter waiting to be spoken to by something that we’re not really even sure how to define (it’s not like we get a call or a text or anything).

But this is why I like it. Because it’s hard. In fact, as you’ll soon see, it’s supposed to be hard. If it’s not hard, you’re likely not doing it. I found this encouraging. Unlike the previous types of meditation where I felt like a failure for not ‘doing it right’, with this, I feel like I’m on track due to how bad I suck at it. More on this soon…

Why do Centering Prayer?

After doing it fairly regularly (though not daily as I’d like to) for a year or so, here’s what I’ve gotten out of it:

To tell you the truth, I don’t often feel awesome when I’m doing it. I feel like a stumbling, bumbling westerner trying to meditate (which I am). It’s AFTERWARDS that I notice the ‘effects’ of it during my daily life.

Keating says that what happens is our value systems slowly and silently get replaced with God’s. As crazy as this sounds, it’s exactly what I’m experiencing to be true. I find my values shifting and strengthening in more healthy directions. I find myself doing things that the previous me would have never done. I hold my life more gently. I feel more peaceful and present with people I was previously nervous around.

Essentially, I feel as though something else (God?) is directing my life. Like she’s rewiring things even I didn’t know needed to be rewired. This is so different (and, in my opinion, far more refreshing) than the popular visualization type meditation where we’re trying to make certain things happen.

In Centering Prayer, as you’ll soon see, all we’re doing is giving things up. Letting them go. When something bright and shiny that we want comes into awareness — that new client, new car, new zip code, new golf swing, new bank balance, etc. — we return to the silence (via our ‘sacred word’ as you’ll soon see) and let it go. We give it up to the ‘Lawd (sorry, preaching over here).

So, how do you do Centering Prayer, you may be asking? Well, you can take an hour or so to watch these videos, but since you’re reading this, I’ll describe the bare-bones guidelines below as they’re quite simple (however, with most simple-but-powerful things, there’s a profound underlying depth and complexity to them that can be discussed forever)…

Oh, a quick disclaimer is appropriate here. If you’re wondering if you have to be religious or Christian in order to do this, the answer is no. If you dig mindfulness of any sort and are at least open to a smattering of Christian language and framing, anyone can do this regardless of religion or non-religion. I mean, if you want to.

Guidelines for Centering Prayer

Know that these are called guidelines for a reason. They’re not hard-and-fast rules. Centering prayer is a relationship you’re entering with the divine, not a technique. These guidelines are meant to be held loosely and danced with.

Ready to dance? Okay, here we go…

Before anything: Sit your ass down (for 25 minutes)

If you can get your ass into a sitting position and a timer set for 25 minutes, you’re already winning. I bought a meditation cushion, but your couch, favorite chair, 5-gallon bucket, or park bench is fine. Before I jump into details, here’s a quick outline of how I lay my session out:

  1. First 2 minutes: Get settled, itch my nose a bunch, do some deep breathing, and whatever else I need to do to get mo’ still.
  2. Next 20 minutes: Meditate/pray (which we’ll get into below)
  3. Final 2–3 minutes: Come back into the room and reflect. I say the ‘Our Father’ really slowly for a couple minutes, but you can do whatever.

Guideline 1 (Opening):

Before you start, you’ll want to choose a ‘sacred word’. This word acts as the anchoring symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within you.

Now, this isn’t a chant. We don’t repeat it over and over again. Just when we catch ourselves getting tangled up in our thinking.

When you bring your mind to your sacred word during prayer, you express your intention to be in the presence. You yield to it. We’re becoming conscious of the divine presence that moves in us and has always been doing so as we’ve been focusing on other seemingly more important things (not so much).

Your sacred word should consist of 1 or 2 (or 3) syllables that you feel comfy with and that express your intention to be with God during this time and open to the divine action.

Suggestions: One of the sacred names of God, Jesus, or Mary (Lord, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Jesu, Chira, or Jeshua) are fine. Amen is a good go-to. Even secular words like Love, Yes, or Peace are fine if the more religious words are too loaded for you.

It doesn’t really matter what word it is. You make the word sacred, not its inherent meaning. Your will/intention sacralizes this sound as an appropriate expression of your intention to be open to the movement of the divine within you.

When you settle on a word, stick with it the entire time (it’s even nice to stay with it for days, weeks, or more so it sews itself into your psyche).

Just so you know, if there is a goal here, it’s to stop thinking (which is tricky because if you stay focused on that goal while praying, you’ll thereby be thinking, which defeats your purpose). This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have thoughts. You’ll definitely have thoughts, you just won’t be thinking about them (go ahead and read this sentence again).

Does your brain hurt yet? Mine too. Let’s move on…

Guideline 2: Consent

Sitting comfortably with eyes closed and with your sacred word at the ready, briefly and silently introduce your sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

You’ll sit comfortably so you won’t have to think about how uncomfortable your body is. You’ll close your eyes (both inner and outer) to let go of your interior/exterior worlds (we’re getting woo-woo here, you still with me?).

Don’t get hung up on the meaning of your sacred word. If it’s too emotionally charged, pick another one. The more neutral, the better.

You’re knocking on the door here, so to speak. But you’re not the one to open it. It’s locked from the inside and you’re on the outside. Your only role is to wait.

Guideline 3: Return

If you’re like me, about 2.765 seconds into your Centering Prayer session, you’ll become distracted and engaged in a thought. This is my favorite part of this form of prayer/meditation. When this happened with the other types of meditation I tried, I’d realize I was doing it wrong. I took on a violent attitude towards my thinking and struggled hard against them so as to keep them from coming up. As you know, this is futile and only leads to more thinking.

But here in Centering Prayer, when we find ourselves engaged in thinking, we see it as a divine opportunity. An opportunity to return to our sacred word and thereby giving consent to the action of the divine presence within.

Take note here that the sacred word isn’t meant to forcefully stop your thinking. It’s not a bulldozer. This is a totally nonviolent prayer. Thoughts are integral to this process because they’re coming from your unconscious. The emergence of them is a necessary part of the healing process. As Keating would put it, by allowing thoughts to surface, they can be healed by the holy spirit. Centering prayer involves the whole of life, not just the blissed-out, enlightened ones. All of it can, will, and should show up while you’re in prayer.

Return to the sacred word with the intention of consenting to the silence within and smile as they wander out of consciousness.

It’s like you’re talking to a friend when you hear a car wreck outside. You head to the window and stare at the wreckage for a minute (it was only a fender bender), and now the appropriate thing to do is turn your attention back to your friend that you’re having a sacred conversation with.

Guideline 4: Closing

At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. You could say the Our Father really slowly if you’re into that kind of thing — it’s what I do. Or you could recite a favorite poem, quote, or even just sit there as you slowly come back into the room.

Now, try it yourself

Seriously, anyone can do this form of prayer. That’s why I like it so much. It doesn’t depend on me being a super spiritual and mindful person (which I’m truly not even though I seem like it on the internet).

All it depends on is the notion that God (who/whatever this is) swirling around inside you (as well as each and every one of us) and if we continually submit to its presence and action, we soon find that life takes on a new level of softness, quietude, brilliance, and grace that seems foreign to our previous life.