Welcoming the Body, Stilling the Mind, Opening the Heart
Incarnating Breath, Gesture, Chant
“The contemplative dimension is the heart and soul of every religion. It initiates the movement into higher states of consciousness. The great wisdom teachings of the Vedas, Upanishads, Buddhist Sutras, Old and New testaments, and the Koran-to name a few of the best known-bear witness to this truth.”
This is the initial thought Fr. Thomas Keating chose to begin his writings in Manifesting God.
Knowing Fr. Thomas’ immense respect for universal wisdom, his mind and heart always open to the Ultimate Reality, could we say that the teachings and practices from other wisdom traditions have the potential to enhance, enrich, and prepare us for the practice of Centering Prayer? Is there something we can do differently to encourage the qualities of eagerness and wonder in approaching our practice of Centering Prayer? Can we appropriately apply vestibules from other respected teachings to deepen our experience of Centering Prayer? Over the last 15 years, many long-term practitioners and those new to Centering Prayer have attended the intensive retreat, Sacred Pathways into Centering Prayer and affirmed for themselves the benefits of these vestibules.
Sourcing Vestibules to Centering Prayer
The Vedas and Upanishads, referenced by Fr. Thomas, talk about steps to prepare for contemplative practice. They teach us not from the standpoint of another belief system but about multi-dimensional aspects of our humanity we all possess. What are these dimensions and how do they function to help us in preparing for Centering Prayer?
The Vedas and Upanishads teach about the dimensions of the human system known as the Pancha Maya. There are five dimensions in total. They begin with the most external (gross) and move inward to the most internal (subtle). The first dimension is the physical body, next the energetic, then the mind, then our intelligence — also called the deeper mind –and finally the emotions. In preparing these separate yet interrelated aspects of ourselves, the practice of Centering Prayer can penetrate our human system deeper and with greater ease, creating a wider gateway into the experience of contemplation. These tools act to purify the blockages or knots in the human system, be they physical, energetic, mental or emotional. As Fr. Thomas writes in Intimacy with God, "Jesus teaching in the gospels is clear. 'Clean the inside of the cup first and then worry about the outside.'"
The practice of these contemplative tools as vestibules has been considered by long-term Centering Prayer practitioners to accelerate what Fr. Thomas calls “divine therapy” in a gentle and safe manner.
The Contemplative Tools As Vestibules
What are these tools that aid in preparing for Centering Prayer and what do they impact? Gentle physical movements are preformed to reduce tension in the body.
Breathing techniques are used to change the energetic aspect of ourselves. Conscious breathing will also have a profound, quieting and clarifying effect on the mind. Chant is introduced to focus the mind and cultivate a positive emotional and devotional state. Touch or gesture, using our own hands, may bring awareness to parts of the body beneficial to a prayerful state. Silent recitation, inspired by active prayer, is used to maintain our awareness on the Divine throughout the day when not in Centering Prayer.
The vestibules as align with and magnify what Fr. Thomas suggests in Open Mind Open Heart, “We begin our prayer by disposing our body. Let it be relaxed and calm, but inwardly alert.” The experience of Centering Prayer practitioners over the years using The Five-Dimensional Approach testifies that not only the body but the breath, mind and emotions become calm and alert.
Adapting Yoga for Centering Prayer
The great majority of yoga classes in the west have primarily been presented as a form of exercise seen most often as a stretching class, a vigorous workout or stress reduction. These are all worthwhile pursuits and I have practiced yoga for each of these reasons. Fr. Thomas writes in, Open Mind Open Heart, “If you have just had an argument with someone or received bad news, you will need a little preparation for prayer. Reading Scripture, walking or jogging around the block, or doing yoga exercises may help to calm your emotional turmoil.”
After being introduced to Centering Prayer in 2000, I found that a more contemplative application of yoga was enormously helpful in preparing for Centering Prayer. And so evolved over the last 18 years the “vestibules” to Centering Prayer that we now offer today as preparation for prayer during these retreats.
What is Unique About These Vestibules
One of the unique components of the retreat are the original chants taught step-by-step, which are now used by several Centering Prayer practitioners and chapters prior to sitting in prayer. These were introduced during the national conference in Austin with the release of the CD, Doorway to Devotion A Contemplative Entry Into Christian Prayer.
The retreat and the contemplative tools, including the composition of new chants, continue to evolve as my experience and the experience of retreatants reveals something new, something discovered. It is also true that inspiration comes during the retreats and a new vestibule is introduced in the moment.
Fr. Thomas’ writing inspired one of the more recent chants, introduced in San Antonio in 2018. God is love, all who live in love, live in God. God lives in me.
This retreat is a holistic multi-dimensional approach to Centering Prayer. It draws as its inspiration the words from Scripture, “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with your mind and with your strength.” It introduces the wisdom of safe and simple body movement, conscious breathing, Christian chant and gesture as a way to create receptivity in the body, breath, mind and heart. These contemplative tools are used as vestibules to prepare you for the practice of Centering Prayer. They are systematically taught to deepen your retreat experience. In addition to the teaching and experience of the vestibules there are three hours of Centering Prayer. There are also supportive handouts given that enable you to continue utilizing the vestibules on your return home.
Any activity benefits from being planned and carefully prepared, whether it’s getting ready for a vacation, going to the grocery store with a list, or having friends for dinner. The same can be said for prayer. With little additional time and effort, those vestibules calm the mind, cultivate alertness and inspire reverence in our quest for a deeper relationship with the Divine.
For more information or to register for this six days intensive retreat, “Sacred Pathways into Centering Prayer ~ Incarnating Breath, Gesture, Chant”, click here: cosa-contemplativeoutreach.org or contact me directly at 505-231-0550.