A Beginner’s Look at Centering Prayer

The Heart of Centering PrayerThe directions were simple: when you have a thought, let it go. Cynthia Bourgeault calls Centering Prayer “a pathway of return” (The Heart of Centering Prayer, 19). When a thought arises, don’t resist, don’t hold on to it, don’t react to it. Just return to “your original intention which was to maintain that bare, formless openness (19)” to the Infinite. Oh, I thought, I can do that!

Little did I know. Literally, little did I know.

I first happened on Centering Prayer five years ago in a course at the Center for Action and Contemplation. I didn’t know Cynthia Bourgeault but I’d followed and trusted Richard Rohr, so I dove in. I was attracted to the course because my mind frequently resembles a monkey on steroids, and in theory anyway, I knew it would be better to stop following it around. For a long time, I’d been longing for a deeper connection with the Infinite, and clearly, that was not the monkey’s goal. I’d have to strengthen other muscles to get where I wanted to go.

Each person’s experience in Centering Prayer is unique. Though mine can often feel like a wrestling match, I appreciate the discipline and simplicity that shows the way toward the Infinite and at the same time, mirrors back to me the way I am in the world, how I relate and what I really believe.

Early on, I actually gave myself headaches trying to hold on to the nanoseconds of emptiness. I’d tighten my brow and hold my breath so I could ward off the next thought. Ouch. In my efforts to succeed, I discovered that I made deals. Okay, that was just a little thought. We’ll let that lapse go and not call it a failure. Just start over.

Always there was analysis, my critical inner voice, worry about getting it right, fear that it was all up to me—a terrible burden as well as stupendous arrogance—and the frustration and disappointment when another 20 minutes passed and I still had not held on to the silence. I was trying to create my own brand of perfection to present to the Infinite.

Ironically, there was, in my system, little room at all for the Infinite. I’d not only lost track of those simple directions—if you have a thought, just let it go. I’d taken those directions and tried to go them one better. I would not just let go of a thought. I’d obliterate thinking!

When I eventually revisited the original lessons from Cynthia, I heard what I couldn’t hear, and didn’t know I couldn’t hear, at the beginning. In her directions were gentleness, long-suffering, and the expectation of continuous return in spite of the ego monkey’s antics. I am finally realizing that the point is the letting go and the gentle and persistent return to Infinite space. There’s no need for heroics. No overcoming distractions. Just. Let. It. Go.

Depending on the day, I come to Centering Prayer in states ranging from accepting and compassionate to impatient and judgmental. I’m more likely now to let go—which I have to do a lot—with less drama.

In my everyday life, the fruits of Centering Prayer are showing up. When defensive reactions arise with their knee-jerk volatility, I can feel their dissonance and recognize how they disrupt my presence and connectedness. I also find my basic assumptions about me, life, and spiritual realities are shifting. I haven’t consciously engineered these shifts. They’re not ethical choices I’ve made to be a better person. They are subtle core realignments to a True North that ripple though me. They feel less like changes and more like restorations.

Most wonderfully, this practice of letting go has made it a bit easier to slip out of my linear mind into a bigger mind tuned to the Infinite in my daily life. Return implies relationship. For me, Centering Prayer has been relationship practice with everything and with the All. It has been a demanding and generous teacher.

Emma Mellon, PhD, has been involved with the Wisdom Community since 2020. She is an author of several books of non-fiction and is interested in articulating the processes of spiritual growth in the Wisdom tradition. She lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.

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6 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Look at Centering Prayer

  1. Thank you, Emma. It’s wondrous and mysterious how “results” come in ways and forms that make our original “goals” seem tied to the place we are leaving.

    1. Bill, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s always so good to know others are traveling the same road!

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