In essence, Centering Prayer is a meditation/prayer method by which we learn to withdraw our attention from the relentless steam of thoughts which fills our mind so that we can rest in the presence of God. This allows us to deeply consent to His presence and action within.
The starting point is our intention. We adopt an intention to be totally, nakedly, present and open to God within: beyond our thoughts, our emotions, our history, our theology and even our usual sense of self.
A typical Centering Prayer session will last for 20 minutes. Two sessions per day are recommended – one first thing after waking and the second, say, just before dinner. Don’t do a session just before bed or you may find it hard to sleep. However, if you only have time for one session, start with that.
Here’s what we do:
- Find a quiet place to sit in a relaxed and alert posture. Close your eyes.
- Begin by saying a short prayer which expresses your intention to be nakedly present and open to God within.
- And then just remain in that state.
- After a short time (usually only seconds), you will notice that, despite your best intention, you are caught up in thinking. That’s fine and totally expected.
- As soon as you notice that this has happened, you let the thoughts go and come back into that open state of presence to God within.
- Of course, the same will happen again – and again and again, hundreds of times during the session. You may only be in that state of open presence to God for a nanosecond in between. Again, that’s absolutely fine. And the same rule applies, you let the thoughts go. Surprisingly, this rule even applies to thoughts/revelations/visions from God: the point of Centering Prayer is not to ‘hear’ from God but to practice surrender. If He’s got something to say to you, then He’ll make that clear outside the session.
- That’s basically the method of Centering Prayer!
- However, there is a further refinement. In Centering Prayer, this release of thoughts is accomplished with the help of what is known as a sacred word. This a word of your choosing which crisply captures your intention. It might be religious: e.g. Jesus, Father, Abba or it might be more descriptive: e.g. yes, surrender, peace. Choose your sacred word before the session and stick with it over time. And don’t change it mid-session.
- Note that you don’t use the sacred word is a mantra (a mantra is a word you constantly repeat in meditation as a touchstone of attention). Rather, you use it as a placeholder of your intention: a kind of gentle reminder to waive goodbye to your thoughts and come back into that state of open presence.
- After 20 minutes (use a gentle alarm to remind you when the time is up), gently return to normal consciousness over a minute or so.
- Refrain from making any judgements about the session. Doing the practice is the point. If you have completed a session, that’s success, regardless of how you perceive its quality.
When you first begin this practice, it will feel like you are constantly noticing that you are thinking and letting the thoughts go, over and over and over again. That’s expected. However, over time, you will find that the periods of spacious presence increase.
Regardless, do not try to stop your thoughts or blank your mind (that’s impossible). The letting go motion is the whole point, so having the thoughts over and over gives you heaps of practice in this regard.
What you are doing is patterning kenosis (surrender) – thought by thought – deep within your being. And after a while, this patterning will start to have noticeable effects in your daily life. Your heart-based operating system will awaken. And you’ll gradually find it easier to remain centred and connected to God deep within you. And this changes everything!
- Cynthia Bourgeault, “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening” (Cowley Publications, 2004)
- Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice” (Shambhala, Boulder, 2016)
Tim Watkinson, August 2021