Q: I would like clarification of what appears to be a contradiction in Thomas Keating’s teaching. On the one hand, he says that perceptions are thoughts and therefore, to be let go of in our Centering Prayer practice. On the other hand, he says, “It’s a sense of God’s presence, or peace. or there’s any number of ways in which this spiritual experience impresses itself upon us.” This sounds like we want to experience this as a part of resting in God. Yet, it sounds to me like perceptions. How do I distinguish between these? Or how should I respond in my prayer practice?
In my Centering Prayer, I sometimes “feel” myself being drawn deeper. When I let go of that “feeling”, I feel like I go even deeper. On occasion, I can get so still that I feel like my skin becomes hardened and perhaps like my body is full of cement. Am I letting myself going in the right direction and let myself stay in this place or should I keep letting go?
A: Thank you for your question, which gets to the heart of how we work with thoughts in Centering Prayer. You have essentially answered your own question. We are seeking a kind of transparency of our thoughts, or a sense of distance between our thoughts and our self, which is hard to talk about, but that we learn to feel as we go deeper with the prayer. During the prayer we let go of thoughts, perceptions, impressions, experiences, but all those things are still there as we pray. We experience them and process them even while we let go of them, without paying undue attention to them. We notice the sense of God’s presence and are impressed by it and yet at the same time let go of it during our practice.
The body sensations you are experiencing when you are centered in the practice and letting go of thoughts may guide you as you rest in God. The feeling of being immobilized during prayer may help you to rest in God. However, be ready for these body sensations to change and dissipate. They may be a temporary grace, useful guides for right now but not for very long. You can notice how you are feeling without focusing on the feelings, having experiences while continuing to let go of them. Be grateful for any guidance your body offers you about the practice while remaining detached from this bodily guidance.
Blessings on your deepening practice! It sounds like you are listening intently as your body and the Spirit guide you.