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Agnostic Adventures with Centering Prayer
"Who put the bop in the bopshubopshubop, who put the ram in the ramalamadingdong ... " Those were the typical contents of my brain during my sporadic attempts at meditation until metastatic cancer and two good friends convinced me to try again. One friend was dedicated to the practice of Zen meditation, the other to Centering Prayer.
Our weekly ritual of quietly sitting together followed by a new-to-me practice of "toning" a succession of notes, quickly moved from awkward self-consciousness to a treasured respite from chemotherapy and medical tests. Yet even after a couple months I still felt uncertain of what I was doing. At my friend's urging, I took my questions to a spiritual director experienced in Centering Prayer.
How does one pray if there is no faith in God? How do I stop the constant chatter? What is supposed to happen? Can one do Centering Prayer and not be a Christian?
Ever on the look-out for dogma and proselytizing, I was instead met with kind humor, respect for my beliefs, statements of personal faith that demanded nothing of me, and then simple guidelines for how to try a practice of Centering Prayer.
As usual, some of my many questions could only be answered through my own experiences and willingness to jump deeper into unknown territory. Despite a long discomfort with all organized religions, I had a fairly solid view of myself as a spiritually-based person. While I could not honestly pray to God or even a "higher power," at certain times I did have a strong sense of spirit around and within. Over many years I had gained a hard-won faith in these feelings and experiences that I could label in no other way. These I could bring to Centering Prayer.
Over two decades I had sporadically tried meditations and visualizations for clarity, healing or calm. I would seek words, images or sensations to help me find perspective but focus and patience remained elusive. Centering Prayer was also slippery going for me at first, especially the effort to just be still. Without these little messages I sometimes felt adrift, like I wasn't doing anything. Though it was comforting and companionable to do Centering Prayer with my friends once a week, I often forgot to do in it on my own in the midst of nausea, pain and the haze of fatigue.
Somewhere, somehow in the repeated practice of just opening to the presence of spirit week after week came a slow metamorphosis that I am only beginning to recognize. In the eight months I have been doing Centering Prayer, I shifted from thinking of it as something I really should find the time for, to recognizing a time almost every day when I just need to be still. Sometimes I began sitting in "prayer mode" before I consciously even considered finding the time for it.
Initially, I chose a simple word to begin the process of Centering Prayer. "Connect" hardly sounds holy or all that inspirational but it signified to me my willingness to open and invite in spirit. I thought of it as a way to feel less alone in all I was going through but eventually it also came to mean a willingness to drop my illusion of being a "solo-agent" in the universe. This word required a surrender of life-long doubt and cynicism firmly lodged within my intellect and the gradual shift to a deeper, more visceral type of knowing more difficult to trust. The more I stopped trying to decide what I believed in and prayed for, and the longer I just sat, the less my doubts and questions seemed to matter. Now when I sit, instead of working to release my thoughts, feelings, worries, etc., I just simply consent to being present with something larger. I often feel like I am sinking within and expanding outward almost simultaneously, and feel a slightly prickly sensation at the top of my head.
At first, upon seeking to "connect," I would often get an elaborate image of sitting within the exposed roots of a gigantic tree, with a small river running beneath me. That was replaced by just sitting cradled in two large hands. Now there are few images and more of a feeling of being surrounded by a stillness that is full and comforting rather than stark and empty. My inner, ironic disk jockey from the 1950's still surfaces at times. My fears and pain have not all magically disappeared but there have been subtle shifts. I can't claim great epiphanies from Centering Prayer, only a feeling of being more open to expanding possibilities, more at home in a larger universe.
Postscript: Janet died about a month after she wrote this article.
"Centering Prayer … is the perfect preparation for death. ...
"… [T]he gift of death seems to be a process of transformation. … What’s dying is not the deepest self, but our dependence and over-identification with the mental ego and its projects, and … our roles in life. The dying process in this perspective would be the culmination [of] the whole development of the spiritual journey in which the total surrender into God involves the gift of life itself, as we know it."
- Thomas Keating in The Gift of Life: Death & Dying, Life & Living series