Q: I have been practicing Centering Prayer for some time. Around two months ago during this prayer I had a strange experience. I felt some powerful force/energy entering my body from the outside and filling my body like air filling a balloon. This energy seemed completely neutral and impersonal. After a short time it accumulated in my hands with great force and the experience was over. It was intense but pleasant. Since then, I usually encounter this energy in a variety of ways in silent prayer. I would describe it as a magnet, or a certain heaviness in the air that engulfs me from the outside, flowing through the body from above or below. Thomas Keating in one of his books describes a similar experience and calls it the presence of God, which I find difficult to agree with. I understand that one should rather not pay attention to such experiences, but it is difficult to ignore it completely. I may add that I have been praying regularly for three years. Two of those years seem to be some kind of a dark night which still lasts and feels like it will never end. Can you maybe help me understand this situation?
A: Thanks for sharing how your Centering Prayer practice is going. I commend you for sticking with it, whatever may be coming up (or not!). As you know, all kinds of things can come into awareness when we sit. It sounds like the energy field around and within your body may be loosening up, or it could be something else. To understand what that energy is, would take someone deeply rooted in the practice sitting down in meditation with you to experience it with you and talk with you about it. But what it actually is, is not important. Just as with any sensation, thought, emotion–as you know, we just let it go. This is subtly different from ignoring it; it’s more like an acknowledgment of our humanness – we are going to have thoughts, sensations, emotions, energy movements. We let them be and don’t get caught up in them, or try to analyze them. There is no need to have reasons, or a story.
It’s also good to notice our subtle attachments to what comes up. Sometimes when I find myself caught up in a thought, story, or emotion, I know that my Centering Prayer practice tells me to let go, but I just want to hold on a bit and experience it some more. That type of desire is very normal, and we continue to work with it in our prayer. It’s nice to have something feel pleasant, especially when things have felt dark for a while, but as you nailed it in your description, you know it’s not something to hold onto. I’m just confirming what you know in your heart: giving those movements more than just a quiet “hello” and letting them be, integrating them within our embodied experience, would be a distraction from the prayer.
I would ask yourself the question: can you let go more deeply of these energy movements, and just be? To “just being,” as Thomas Keating said in his beautiful poem, “Stillness”:
Our true nature is stillness,
The Source from which we come.
It manifests within us
As a rising tide of silence,
A flowing stream of peacefulness,
A limitless ocean of calm,
Or just sheer stillness.
The deep listening of pure contemplation
Is the path to stillness.
All words disappear into It,
And all creation awakens to the delight of
In the first half of the poem Keating describes what people might consider as desirable in our practice: peacefulness, calm, a rising tide of silence (or energy!). But in the second half he calls us to pure stillness, to just being; raw in the presence of God. The thing about that raw presence of God is, sometimes it does feel like nothing. Nothing that you or I could ever do, could produce God’s love. There is nothing that we are doing in this prayer; we are letting go to God’s doing. And often, God’s doing may feel like nothing we are used to being aware of, and we might not notice it at all. In a dark night that may be part of what’s going on –we’ve been looking, consciously or unconsciously, for something specific to find as evidence of God’s presence. You say that what you read from Thomas Keating implies that something like this movement of energy you’ve been experiencing might even be God’s presence. You are right to be suspicious of that, at least insofar as thinking that the energy might be God’s, but little else in your experience might be. As Martin Laird says, “God does not know how to be absent.” And God will always be so much more than we could ever describe or experience.
I applaud you for asking yourself what this is. This work you are undertaking – of writing this question, of looking into what’s really going on, and perhaps looking at your own internal desires, or emotional programs for happiness, is crucial. The better you can see these things in action, the better chance you have to let them go. And I encourage you to look into your willingness to BE LESS; to continue to let go and make room, and consent to the presence and action of God, whatever that may be. And your intention to do this in your heart is the most crucial part of the practice, not any sense of energy or anything else you might experience.
I hope this is helpful to you. Feel free to write to us again if more questions come up.
Blessings on your journey.
Joy Hayters Andrew