Lesson 18: How do I cope with all that thoughts?
This is the third lesson on centering prayer. In this lesson, we will mainly focus on the second and third guidelines for this way of praying.
18.1 Placid and attentive
The second directive reads like this:
2. Sit down, relax, quieten down, and connect with your desire to be in God’s presence. Then introduce the sacred word.
After choosing your sacred word (best is to stick with a word for a while, this moment of choice does not return each time) you sit down relaxed. Find a manner and a place that suits you and where you can be at ease. You could also lie down, but chances are you will get so relaxed you fall asleep. Try to sit in a way that expresses both stillness and vigilance.
Recognize why you are going to take the time for centering prayer: not to tick a box on your (prayer)list, but because you long to spend time in God’s presence. He’s already there. Always. The time you’re spending now expresses your intention to acknowledge that God is here and He is engaged in your life, even when imperceivable to you. You can say a short prayer if you want, for example, “Holy Spirit, lead me in this time of prayer and silence.”
And now you introduce your sacred word. All that means is to “say” your sacred word in your mind (with your head and your heart). Softly. Without much emphasis. Like putting a tiny down feather on a pillow (a well-liked expression among practitioners of centering prayer).
18.2 Thoughts and other stimuli
The third directive reads like this:
3. Each time you find yourself distracted by thoughts or other stimuli, softly return to your sacred word, again and again.
This is, in essence, the primary rule. This is what happens over and over. Because new thoughts keep coming up all the time, and other stimuli that divert your attention. You start thinking about something that just happened, about something you should not forget, your nose itches, you hear a noise outside. And so on. It is good to emphasize this: it’s completely normal and natural, there will always be various thoughts and stimuli to “take you away” from the reason you sat down in the first place. Specifically: to respond to your desire to be attentively present in God’s attentive presence.
It is useful to further delineate these ’thoughts and other stimuli’. One can distinguish five categories:
1. The usual wanderings of our imagination: these are all those thoughts that arise as a result of activities that we have done or will be doing, or because of sounds we hear in the background, and so on.
2. Attractive thoughts: these are emotionally charged thoughts (either pleasant or unpleasant) which tend to be captivating and can engross you completely.
3. Insights: in silence you can gain sudden insights; a breakthrough in a problem you were working on, or beautiful and meaningful thoughts about God, about the Bible and about Jesus.
4. Self-reflection: you start thinking about the progress you are making with centering prayer, about why you are really doing this, or you might think: today this is going really well (or not at all). Or thoughts crop up about the way you feel, whether you experience peace and tranquility or not. Or possibly: ‘Should I choose a different sacred word though?’
5. Clearing the subconscious: we all carry experiences and memories with us that have faded into the background, stored deep in our subconscious. In the silence of the centering prayer those experiences come to the fore and demand attention.
18.3 Return gently
In all these cases this one rule applies: Come back to your prayer word, gently and without judgment. You are not meant to follow these thoughts or pay attention to these stimuli when they present themselves. That is the core of centering prayer: always going back to the intention of being in God’s presence. The time for centering prayer is not the time to reflect on things that have happened, not the time to gain fascinating insights and deliberate them, not the time to go through your schedule for the day to come, not the time to have a discussion in your head with people you might be angry with. Of course there are other times when this is permitted, just not during centering prayer.
That becomes even more clear when we list the things not to do during the centering prayer:
- Don’t resist your thoughts: this would require your attention and let these thoughts get a hold of you.
- Don’t retain on to those thoughts: they would only distract us from our intention.
- Don’t react emotionally to those thoughts: try to let go of emotional susceptibility.
- Return each time softly and gently to your sacred word that expresses your active desire to be in God’s presence.
It’s easy to remember, four times an R: Resist no thought, Retain no thought, React emotionally to no thought. The only thing you do is: Return to your sacred word.
All those thoughts and distractions will be there again and again. Centering prayer is thus a constant exercise in letting go: letting go of the thoughts and stimuli that present themselves, leaving them for what they are, so they do not hold any power over you. All that remains is your active desire to be in God’s presence and to open up to His renewing activity within you.
Addition: Thomas Keating, a video
1. The above, I suspect, offers many new insights and information. What do you find most insightful? What really helps you?
2. Learning to let go is a very important aspect of centering prayer. How could learning to let go during prayer benefit you in your everyday life?
You can now choose any exercise you’d like to do with lectio divina, the Jesus prayer, or the centering prayer. If you wish to do lectio divina, you can choose a text from the selection, and decide the time you want to spend using the timer.
Choose your ’timer’:
There is a beautiful Taizé song that might help you to find rest and peace, Mon âme se repose (In God alone). If you like, you can first listen with your full attention to this hymn. The melody of this song is the melody you hear in the timer!
This time a quote from Karin Seethaler, taken from a book she wrote about the power of contemplation and finding healing in the silence. It falls in line with the experience of doing lectio divina together with others (online or offline). She talks about the value of walking together on the ‘inner path’ in which lectio divina, the Jesus prayer, and centering prayer, for example, play an important role.
To notice that one is not alone on one’s inner path is a valuable experience. Shared experiences strengthen the personal process and offer support in difficult times to carry on. Keeping silent and meditating together are experienced as sources of strength, just like sharing together. The presence of Christ can in fellowship be uniquely experienced.