Q: Can you tell me similarities or differences between what happens in 'The Jesus Prayer' where the mind moves into the heart leading to the Hesychast experience, and Centering Prayer? Are there different benefits? Are different parts of the brain utilized? How might the life of the practitioner of each method be different, i.e. spiritual differences?
A: Wonderful question. First of all, what do you mean by the Jesus Prayer? If you are continuing to pray the whole prayer (Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner) then because of the length of the prayer, the movement into the heart is slower, i.e., the mind has too many words to focus on or repeat. If you speak of the Jesus prayer as simply ‘Jesus' or ‘Jesus mercy’, then that movement is quicker. It is a question of using a concentrative form of prayer or a receptive form. The receptive form is more open to let go and be. Centering prayer is a prayer of consent, using a simple symbol or word, and therefore moves more quickly to the heart. If your Jesus prayer is simply, 'Jesus' then you have a simplicity similar to Centering Prayer.
In the end – eventually - the benefits are the same in both. As far as the effect on the brain, all I am aware of at this time is that a concentrative form of prayer affects a different part of the brain than a receptive form of prayer. At our annual conference a few years ago, a presentation was made in this regard (see this CD for a recording of that conference).
If one is foolish enough to measure the spiritual benefits, my belief is that Centering Prayer speeds up the ability to let things go and be aware of the presence of God on a much deeper level. Just my observation over time.
Whatever you do, be disciplined and do it each day, persevere and you will experience the fruits outside of your prayer time.
-Blessings, Fr. Carl