Q: From a prisoner in minimum isolation: “I have been working on Centering Prayer. It started off easy. For about three months it was happening with no mental or physical resistance. Now my mind is twirling with racing thoughts. And my body won’t stop moving. Please give me a few pointers or helps for it. I already have the guidelines. They were enough at first. Now, though, what do I do after the guidelines stop working for me? Is it okay to venture outside the ordinary way to do Centering Prayer? My experiences so far have been peaceful. As of late, though, very miserable.”
A: What you are describing is totally normal–so many of go through this! After a couple of months of Centering Prayer, practicing over and over letting go to God, some of our defenses loosen up a bit and material comes out of the unconscious. Often called “unloading of the unconscious”, this can appear as tears, anger, fears, anxiety, etc. The unconscious material may be old and there is no need to try and figure out what it is all about, or give a story to it.
You have also discovered a treasure – you are noticing the connection between the body and mind as your anxiety is reflected both in the physical restlessness and your racing thoughts. This can be an important part of your prayer, noticing tensions that come up in your body and releasing them as “thoughts”; which are anything that distracts you from your intention to remain present to God’s presence and action.
An important thing to keep an eye out for is any physical or mental bracing you might be feeling as you find the anxiety coming up during your prayer. This bracing too is a thought (again a very normal one!); and rather than making the uncomfortable feelings go away, usually just propagates the issue. Thomas Keating offered some advice on this in his book Open Mind, Open Heart:
“One way to deal with intense restlessness, physical pain, or emotions such as fear or anxiety that arise at such times of unloading is to rest in the painful feeling for a minute or two and allow the pain itself to be your prayer word. In other words, one of the best ways of letting go of an emotion is simply to feel it. Painful emotions, even some physical pains, tend to disintegrate when fully accepted.”
Rather than pushing it away, see if you can abide with the difficulty you are feeling: notice it in your body, and surround it with curious, gentle, exploring attention. By giving yourself a chance to sink into it a bit, you develop a different relationship with pain, with anything that comes up for you, and with being human, imperfect as we are. This is part of consenting to God’s presence and action in your prayer, exactly as you find yourself in it. There is such grace that comes in the midst of this, and it deepens your trust that God holds you through absolutely all of it. And of course you are familiar with the guidelines: when you find that you can, you gently offer your sacred word and let go. With the more intense feelings, sinking into them first can make all the difference.
I know this might be hard to see, but this is a tender time in your Centering Prayer, a deepening of your relationship with God. You are learning to strengthen your muscle of letting go as you practice over and over within your prayer. Sometimes when the prayer seems pleasant we may be subtly holding onto that, and onto ideas of who we are and of who we think God might be. The practice we get with the more uncomfortable thoughts, which we know we want to release, helps us to strengthen this muscle. This affects our whole life.
And there is another, more subtle but very important things that arises out of this. As we practice letting go even in the midst of difficult unloading, the energy that we unconsciously use to hold things in is released, and we have more interior freedom, and more energy to live life. Ultimately, our prayer is an offering to God and to the world; subtly increasing the fruits of the spirit, permeating all around in many ways, seen and unseen.
I pray that you find strength and encouragement to continue and persevere in this precious journey, remembering that it is not we who pray, but the Spirit prays within us. Please feel free to write if you have further questions.
Joy Andrews Hayter