In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
– Isaiah 30:15
In Session 3 we focused on the method of Centering Prayer and the four guidelines to establish a baseline for the beginning of a practice. If you already have an established practice, we hope you find it helpful to review the basic teaching. Now we will focus on the third guideline in a little more detail, “When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.”
Thoughts are inevitable, integral and a normal part of this prayer. Just as we are unable to stop our hearts from beating or our lungs from breathing, we will be unable to stop our brains from thinking. Remember that when we use the word “thoughts” we are using it as an umbrella term to mean any thought, feeling, emotion, body sensation or perception. Since Centering Prayer is a prayer of consent rather than of effort, we don’t try to stop our thoughts. It’s helpful for us to develop a friendly attitude towards thoughts and not resist them.
By returning to the sacred word, we are letting go of the thought and returning to our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. While we don’t repeat the sacred word over and over again like one would use a mantra, we don’t worry if we find ourselves returning to the sacred word many times. Fr. Thomas says in Open Mind, Open Heart, “This constant starting over with patience, calm, and acceptance trains us for the acceptance of the whole of life.”
Note that the guideline suggests that we return to the sacred word when engaged with our thoughts. It’s when we start thinking about our thoughts that we lose our intention. Fr. Thomas uses the metaphor of boats floating along the stream of consciousness. As long as the boats are coming and going, we have no need to return to the sacred word. However, when we find that we have gotten into one of the boats and been carried downstream, we renew our intention by returning to the sacred word. The sacred word helps us to detach from thoughts, not stop them from coming and going.
When we consent to God’s presence and action within, part of God’s action is the healing of the unconscious, or as Fr. Thomas calls it, interior purification. This is what we mean when we say thoughts are integral to this prayer. Fr. Thomas touched on this in the video segment on the “Pursuit of Happiness” when he talked about the healing of the energy centers and the emotional programs that flow out of them. We will discuss the healing work of the “Divine Therapist” in more detail in the “Models of the Human Condition” part of this course.
“The root of prayer is interior silence. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and feelings – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions. We do not resist them or suppress them. We accept them as they are and go beyond them, not by effort, but by letting them all go by. We open our awareness to the Ultimate Mystery whom we know by faith is closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing – closer than consciousness itself. The Ultimate Mystery is the ground in which our being is rooted, the Source from whom our life emerges at every moment.”
– Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart
– View the video excerpt “The Method of Centering Prayer, Guideline #3: Handling Thoughts.” It is about 14 mins. in length. Because thoughts so often become obstacles in our practice, some of the teaching in this video segment is repeated from previous and some is new. Remember, Guideline #3 states: “When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.”
Resources for Further Study:
You may wish to read Chapters 4, 6 and 7 in Open Mind, Open Heart (20th Anniversary Edition); Chapters 6, 8 and 9 in older editions.