Placing Your Attention IN

Q: I have been doing Centering Prayer for 6+months now, and have hit a bit of a road block. In reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Heart of  Centering Prayer, and after a few days of intense Centering Prayer, I am now unsure about a particular aspect of Centering Prayer. I know that I am not to make any attachments or focus on anything, even if it is ‚Äúgood”, but Cynthia talks about heartfulness and feeling the warmth of the heart and I am not sure if this is to be felt during Centering Prayer, or if it is totally separate and a part of non-duality/the cloud of unknowing, outside of Centering Prayer? And if I don‚Äôt focus on my heart or my breath (which connects me to the heart easily), I feel that everything is happening in my head or my mind, which may be how it is supposed to be, I am not sure.

When I give attention and warmth to my heart during Centering Prayer, I am able to keep my mind from wondering and it is like a “wellspring” inside of me that I enjoy. It is odd though because I can separate my mind and the thoughts from the warm feeling of my heart and I am still able to keep my mind clear. I know that each thought is an opportunity to strengthen this “third eye” muscle, but when I don’t focus on my heart, I can get lost in thoughts for a minute or two at a time, and as soon as I let the thought go, there is a pestering, incessant voice that comes right back in. When I focus on the heart, that voice is still there, but it is very, very quiet and I am able to see it and let it go very easily, or I don’t even notice it is there.

The reason I expand on this a little bit is to give you more context for my question and situation. I am having a difficult time in my Centering Prayer practice with this lack of clarity in the focus and aim of the practice. I would appreciate your insight or passing this message on to the right person.

I appreciate all that Contemplative Outreach does!!!!

A: The folks in the Contemplative Outreach office have passed your email on to me. Here’s my take on your insightful query…

Yes, I’d reiterate that during Centering Prayer you are not to focus your attention ON anything…not your heart, not the warm feeling in your heart, not the pleasurable experience of the warm feelings in your heart. In the strict understanding of the method of Centering Prayer, whatever you focus your attention on becomes a thought, and all thoughts must be let go.

But there is a subtle difference between placing your attention ON and placing your attention IN. When you place your attention ON something, it is as if you put it under a spotlight (or as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing states, as the bullseye of a target.) But when you place your attention IN, you are working with the property of SENSATION rather than THINKING; you are simply allowing that felt-sense of warmth to be there, and your attention to float gently within it: not staring at it directly, but allowing it to enfold you.

It’s a subtle difference, but once you get the hang of it, it reconfigures your whole understanding of attention and prayer. And I think you are actually on the threshold of getting the hang of it. Your statement about it being a “wellspring” within you is exactly on target, as is your observation that you can separate your mind and thoughts from it and still keep the mind clear. This is so because you are perceiving directly through sensation, an underutilized faculty in the West that most theological commentaries gloss right over.

Attention-based practices are traditional and certainly effective in reducing wandering mind, but Centering Prayer is leading you into a whole (literally) different mode of perception. So while I can understand how you might be feeling some confusion about whether to pay attention to this warm feeling in your heart, or simply let it go, I’d say, let it be; dwell in it as it presents itself as a felt-sense, but don’t THINK about it, or do anything to aggravate or force-feed it. It’s simply the natural transition zone as you heart begins to come online as an organ of spiritual perception.

Just sit, follow the guidelines as best you can, let go of all objects of  thought … and let the rest fill in. You are in God’s hands, safely snuggled.

All best,
Cynthia Bourgeault