Q: I have a question regarding the sacred word. Before coming to Centering Prayer I had been practicing Transcendental Meditation. As long as I maintain the intention of Centering Prayer, and include the prayers before and after the session, would it be okay to continue using the TM mantra as my sacred word? It is short and is meant to assist in going beyond thought and find the Divine in very ground of your being. The prayers before and after set the intention squarely on the Christian path.
A: Thank you so much for your thoughtful question. There are many different meditation practices, with different views, methods and fruits. Centering Prayer is a unique path, different from most other forms of meditation, in that it helps us practice letting go to God. This changes our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with the world around us, helping us to “put on the mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5, 1 Cor 2:16).
I understand that you want to follow the Centering Prayer method, and you are parsing how it might correspond with your previous practice of transcendental meditation (TM), at least the mantra. I am not personally familiar with TM, but from the reading I found, the mantra is “repeated … to focus one’s concentration” during the practice. I’m sure you have learned that in Centering Prayer the sacred word is not repeated, but gently introduced only when you find you are caught up in a train of thought. We are not aiming to get rid of thoughts, but to keep returning to our intention to consent to God’s presence and action. As Thomas Keating wrote in Invitation to Love,
“The sacred word comes from the heart and reverberates in the imagination only momentarily, whereas a mantra or a concentrative process is designed to slow down the flow of thoughts. The primary function of the sacred word is not to push thoughts away or to thin them out. It is rather to express our intention to love God, to be in God’s presence, and to submit to the Spirit’s action during the time of prayer.” (Keating, Invitation to Love (1994) p. 68)
The sacred word is simply a symbol of our intention, a loving gesture in God’s direction, and it holds no power on its own for bringing us beyond thought, or doing anything at all. All the “doing” in Centering Prayer is by the Spirit, and very often not even seen by us, especially with our usual ways of seeing. In Centering Prayer we simply rest in God’s presence, without expectation of any particular state of silence or peace. Our Centering Prayer practice may sometimes feel rocky or busy, but for me that’s what makes it so portable to the rest of life: it meets us where we are, and helps us learn to trust in God no matter what our circumstances or state of mind. Sometimes the moment of returning, with the sacred word or breath or glance, feels like an offering to me: of all that I am, exactly as I am in that moment, thoughts and all. This offering includes my physical being in a visceral, embodied release, of letting go and consenting to God.
Compared with meditation practices that may hone our focus or concentration, Centering Prayer is one of surrender, deeply steeped in the intention to grow closer in our relationship to God. Each act of surrender builds this relationship of trust. In Centering Prayer we are not trying to focus on anything, or to get rid of thoughts. Rather, we let go to a subtle mystery underneath them, held by the One who loves us into being with each breath.
So to answer your question, in general most any word will do, but ideally it is fresh, without reference to much in our past, and without any expectation. I just wonder, given that you have used the mantra according to the TM guidelines, whether it is the best word for your Centering Prayer practice. How it would be for you to try a new, simple word, and stay with it for a few weeks? I pray that the Holy Spirit continue to guide you, and flourish you in God’s love. Please let us know if you have more questions.
Joy Andrews Hayter