Q: I have used the CD series, “Contemplative Prayer” from Sounds True, along with reading many of Father Keating’s books. When I tried Centering Prayer, my mind was filled with thoughts ALL the time. So I found that all I could do was use the [sacred] word throughout the entire time – 20 to 30 minutes. So, I listened to the two sessions of the course on CD again and reread most of the books. Tried again and once again my brain was never still. Are there people for whom God is saying “no” to meditation? This is a practice which I think would be very useful for me. I have prayed to God for direction, trusting the answer. Are there people for whom contemplative prayer will not work?
Joy: Thanks so much for writing. I am particularly touched, as I read your question, by your trust in God. This is a wonderful foundation for your Centering Prayer! In our Centering Prayer practice all of us have thoughts. And especially when we are newer to the prayer, we often wrestle with what to do with them.
Thoughts, as defined in this method, are not just ideas or images, but can include strong emotions or body sensations–a thought is anything in our practice that temporarily distracts us from our intention to surrender, or consent, to God. And I’m sure you recall from the basic Centering Prayer instructions that the sacred word (or glance, or breath) is a symbol of our intention to consent to God’s presence and action. When we find ourselves caught up in thoughts this is an opportunity, and even an invitation, to recall our intention. Each time we re-introduce our sacred word, this remembrance of our intention is the heart of the practice, and not a failure at all! As we repeat this during the many opportunities presented us during our practice we are building our muscles of trust and of faith, which you already have and will serve you well.
I notice in your description that the main thought you have been wrestling with is the idea that your brain should be still; that you should not be having thoughts. But thoughts are normal, inevitable, and even integral to the practice. They will come and go, and our instructions are to let them go. As we hear that instruction it might sound like an action, or we could interpret it as needing to push them away. But it is less active than that, which is why Father Keating often talked about gently letting them go, like a feather falling onto soft cotton. It may be helpful to conceive of it more as letting them be, or letting them pass.
It is also helpful to stay attuned with our bodies: I have noticed that any time my body starts clenching up, for example in the face or shoulders or belly, it is often associated with a thought, however subtle. So physical relaxation, in a posture in which we can remain alert, is also important in this prayer. You may even notice that as you relax and let go, your sense of awareness may sink deeper into the center of your body. Supplemental or preliminary practices that bring us into our bodies such as yoga, mindful walking, and even Lectio Divina can help us to ground ourselves during Centering Prayer. One of my favorites is chanting, with awareness of my body as a resonating chamber as I sing sacred words.
It sounds like your desire for a quiet brain during your Centering Prayer may also at times be accompanied by frustration, confusion or disappointment as well. I’m wondering if you can let go of all of this, let it all be. Can you invite all of it to sit with you, to be with you, in God’s presence, exactly as you are in any given moment? This includes even the part of you that doubts you are doing it right, or that thinks it needs to “try”.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t say that there are people for whom Centering Prayer or other meditation practices will not “work” — but these practices take patience, which is a beautiful quality to build. God’s love and mercy are beyond circumstance, and beyond anything we can try to do. And these are always being offered, awaiting our consent.
I hope this is helpful. Please write again if you have more questions. Blessings on your journey!