“The goal in Centering Prayer is not to stop thoughts altogether, but to develop a detached attitude toward them. Fighting your thoughts is useless; releasing them is blessed.”
– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer
The biggest insight that I’ve had in the last four years of teaching World Religions at HKIS is that most students are far more interested in spiritual practices than I’d ever imagined. I just did not think that the majority of grade 9 students would welcome meditation, making mandalas, walking a labyrinth or joining in with Hindu kirtan singing. However, every semester students have encouraged me to push a little further out – to try and make the content we study applicable to their daily lives. The main reason for this, I believe, is that spiritual practices are purpose-built to deal with our deepest personal needs. In its HKIS version, the biggest issue students at HKIS seem to face is the mental and emotional toll of a high-stakes education in the midst of an achievement-oriented Asian cultural setting.
Using a 10-question Q & A format, in this blog entry I share my own preferred spiritual practice, Centering Prayer, giving you the essentials to get this practice up and running.
Centering Prayer is an ancient form of Christian meditation. The goal of Centering Prayer is to have a more direct experience of God’s presence in your life. As my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault says in her introduction to Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, “Contemplative prayer is simply a wordless, trusting opening of self to the divine presence” ( 5, note 1).
2. I thought meditation was only something done by Hindus and Buddhists. Are you saying that Christians have meditated, too?
It’s very true that Eastern Religions have made meditation a centerpiece of their tradition, whereas Christianity has not. While the Bible never claims that Jesus ever practiced meditation, he did spend long hours in prayer that suggest a deep communion with God. Early Christian history offers more clear-cut evidence for meditative practice. From the 4th century on, a significant number of Christians felt called to leave conventional society and focus intently on their relationship with God through living a simple life of work and prayer. Some of these prayer traditions certainly included a contemplative dimension, or what we call meditation today. This is the rich tradition of Christian monasticism, such as the Benedictines and the Trappists, and down to the Quakers in American history.
3. How did you get involved with Centering Prayer, Mr. Schmidt?
The current Centering Prayer movement began in the 1970’s led by three Catholic monks, one of whom happened to be in Hong Kong a few years after I arrived at HKIS. In the mid-1990’s I met Father Basil Pennington, a charismatic Catholic monk who I always describe as a cross between Santa Claus and Moses. He had a long white beard and a head of thick snow-white hair, but between these two white swathes were rosy cheeks and twinkling blue eyes. He lived as a Trappist monk on Lantau in those years, and I went out to hear him repeatedly. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and a penetrating attention. When I spoke with him, I felt he cared deeply for me and my questions. He was the holiest Christian I had ever met. 4. Besides Father Pennington himself, what was so attractive about Centering Prayer?
The simple message of Father Pennington was that we can experience intimacy with God in a way that I had never heard about. Up until that time, I viewed a relationship with God as reading the Bible and having a quiet time, worshiping in church, and praying, which usually meant telling God what I wanted him to do for me.
Meanwhile, as a young religion teacher, I was learning a lot ABOUT the historical Jesus (see note 2), which motivated my service work that I’ve done here at HKIS. These were fabulous insights, but at the same time there was this slow hollowing out of my own personal awareness of God, a wearing away of an intimate sense of the sacred in my life.
So, Father Pennington’s message quickly resonated with me. He taught a simple method by which to re-establish personal intimacy with God.
5. So what’s the method?
It actually is quite easy to explain. Here are the three steps:
- Sit comfortably and open yourself to God, seeking a kind of “objectless awareness.”
- When any thought comes into your mind, which will happen frequently, simply let the thought go using the prayer word (see 3). That is, don’t invest any mental or emotional energy in the thought; instead, just let it go.
- Use a chosen prayer word (such as “peace,” “Jesus,” “return,” “love,”) as a way to give your consent to God’s activity at the center of your being. When you catch yourself thinking, use the prayer word to return to God’s presence (see note 3).
For most adults, the basic prescription is two 20-minute sittings per day. For you as young students, feel free to do a shorter time. Five minutes twice a day or ten minutes once a day is a good place to start. Adjust as you see fit. (To see one of the three monks, Thomas Keating, give a 7-minute video introduction to Centering Prayer, hit here.)
6. How could something so simple be a powerful form of prayer? I don’t really understand it.
Cynthia explains it this way. We don’t experience God’s presence because we live in our heads all the time. We live our lives on autopilot, which means we are always weaving a story of ourselves around our past successes or our failures. We are desperate to establish a story of our identity – to know who we are and project that onto our social world. When we’re not building that story of ourselves, much of the rest of the time we’re obsessing about grades, AP exam scores, college recs, future majors and careers, to say nothing about being well-liked by our social circle, pleasing our families, and meeting Mr. or Mrs. Right. All of these preoccupations are focused on the future. So, whether it’s the past or the future, our thinking is dominated by our self-concern. We are addicted to thinking about ourselves, and we generally perceive and experience life’s circumstances, other people, and the world in terms relative to ourselves, our family, social group, ethnicity, country, etc.
By contrast, most religions teach that God is a living presence NOW, and divine energy and assistance are always available in the present moment. But the condition for experiencing this is that we also need to be living in the present, too. Given our state of mind, is it any surprise that we don’t having any abiding sense of God’s presence in our lives?!
Cynthia oftentimes uses a computer analogy to explain how this works. Her old typewriter can’t use the Internet. It would need a major system upgrade in order to do so. Likewise, you can’t experience this God-in-the-present without changing your operating system. Your whole life experience has conditioned you to focus on yourself in the past and future, establishing what she calls a subject-object duality in your perceptual field. That is, your life when lived on autopilot sees your happiness, your achievements, and your desires as most important – the subject of your story – and everything else outside of you as objects to meet those needs. No matter how smart or successful or even moral you are, you can’t experience that fullness without upgrading your operating system. The only way to get the upgrade is a deep subconscious change of your attention and intention. By letting go of the core of this subject-object duality, your thoughts, you are letting go of the old system and opening to a new sense of self, a new awareness, and a new way of being in the world.
The million dollar question! A bit of background . . . I did some Centering Prayer in the mid-1990’s off and on. I was intrigued, but I didn’t practice it faithfully and wasn’t sure whether it “worked” or not. Then I came across Cynthia’s work right after I finished my doctorate in 2010, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
But is it working? After 4 years of doing the practice (although sometimes I lose my consistency with being so busy at school), my answer is a tentative yes. For example, I used to have a lot of anger about the injustices I see in the world that comes from teaching Humanities I in Action, but in the last few years, I feel I’ve gained a spaciousness in which I’m not really angry any more. I also think I’ve gained greater insight into my own psyche – mostly how I do live my life on autopilot and with a scattered mind – and I’m learning how to work towards more openness to God and being more present to my students. Maybe the biggest sign that it’s working, though, is that my old feelings of quiet desperation that I was growing further and further from God have stopped. I’m excited to be on a path that I see now has worked for so many seekers for millennia.
But it’s still a burning question for me. Is it working? Am I gaining that intimacy with God that I want? Am I changing at a deep level? I can say the signs are favorable, but in all honesty, how does one really answer such questions? It’s very subjective. But my deeper intuition is clear, “Keep going! This is the right direction.”
8. What do you still struggle with?
I think I have this ingrained idea that I should have some kind of revelation that will convince me that I’m on the right path – and I’ve not had any dramatic “supernatural” experiences with Centering Prayer. Cynthia, however, says these are distractions. What’s important is shifting one’s perception. Or, as I said above, upgrading to a new view of reality. I do think that this is happening to me.
That being said, my subjective experience of Centering Prayer is quite humbling. I’m easily distracted most of the time, to the point that I don’t even think much of trying to become “skilled” at the prayer. As Cynthia advises, I’m taking the wager: if I put in the time, I’m hoping that I will be able to live out my faith as a Christian better.
Let me share one of my favorite passages from her writing, “In my own efforts to live the gospel I have found it is virtually impossible to reach and sustain that level of ‘perfect love’ without a practice of contemplative prayer . . . . Ordinary awareness always eventually betrays itself and returns to its usual postures of self-defense and self-justification” (17).” Later she explains, “Awakening – which in Jesus’ teaching boils down to the capacity to perceive and act in accordance with the higher laws of the Kingdom of Heaven – is a matter of piercing through the charade of the smaller self to develop a stable connection with the greater Self . . . . The role of meditation in service of the gospel becomes much clearer: it creates a bridge between these two levels of awareness, offering a consistent and reliable way of practicing the passage from small self to greater Self” (82).
While I yearn for more noticeable personal growth, I find the diagnosis of the basic problem, solution, and the promise of change all highly compelling and in line, even if in a holographic way, with my own experience. In the end, Cynthia’s teachings just make so much sense to me! I read her books and listen to her speaking over and over again. Again, that’s my deeper intuition that I’m on the right track.
I’m also encouraged, too, by how many students say that they have benefited from even small amounts of meditation in class or in the Spiritual Practices project. At this point, I’m still very energized to continue my experiment with spiritual practices in general and with Centering Prayer in particular.
9. Some people seem to take to meditation quite naturally, while others of us can’t calm our minds. What do you say to those of us who really struggle with mental hyperactivity?
First, I’m with you! My mind is hyperactive, too. Yet Cynthia claims that this prayer works far below your conscious mind. All the Centering Prayer teachers state that you cannot judge the value of a prayer period by how you experience it; you can only judge it by its long-term fruits. Ask yourself: am I becoming a bit more patient, reflective, or loving?
Second, I have to share the legendary story told by Father Pennington and Cynthia. Here’s how Cynthia tells the story: “In one of the very earliest training workshops, led by Thomas Keating, a nun tried out her first twenty-minute taste of Centering Prayer and then lamented, ‘Oh, Father Keating, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.’ ‘How lovely!’ responded Thomas Keating without missing a beat. ‘Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!'” (23-24).
Here is the unique aspect of Centering Prayer: it is a surrender method. From a Christian viewpoint, this is an imitation of Jesus, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied (kenosis in Greek) himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Paul begins this passage by saying, “Have this mind among yourselves” (2:5). To have the mind of Christ, then, is not to grasp, but to empty (kenosis) oneself.
Over and over in Centering Prayer you are simply letting go of your thoughts, patterning into your being an opening beyond your egoic operating system to another way of thinking and being. This letting go is reiterated in “The Four Rs:”
Resist no thought
Retain no thought
React to no thought
Return to the sacred word (39-40).
Cynthia repeatedly explains that it’s not that thoughts are bad. This is what the mind does – and it’s a great tool. Thoughts will come, and we are not to fight them. Let them come. Just don’t invest your mental or emotional energy into them. The down side of thoughts is that they pull us to the surface, while the divine presence wants to change us at the level of our intention, our heart, our subconscious mind, which is a very deep process. As Richard Rohr writes, a life of goodness begins at the subconscious, not the conscious, level.
10. Why do Christian meditation? Why not just do Buddhist meditation?
I greatly respect the Buddhist tradition and have been challenged by its teachings in my own spiritual life. I’ve also personally grown a lot through my two trips to Bhutan where people practice their faith in a way that I’ve never seen before. I also take my World Religions students to a Zen monastery every semester where we do meditation, chanting, and prostrations.
However, the bottom line for me, if I can put it so simply, is that I really like being a Christian. I continue to find Jesus’ teachings to be an inexhaustible source of insight and inspiration, and it fits the family and faith culture in which I was raised. For me, Centering Prayer offers me the whole package. I can remain true to the Christian faith that I was raised with, yet feel free to draw upon and incorporate truths that have been found within wisdom traditions around the globe. It seems like a win-win-win all the way around!
Our central image at the 4-day silent retreat led by Cynthia on the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers that I attended in New Zealand in May, 2015. The scroll reads, “Light the divine fire within yourself.”
So, to conclude, I hope that this little primer on Centering Prayer has been useful to you as a student. My wish for my Christian students is that you realize that you don’t need to leave your home faith tradition in order to practice meditation, a phenomenon that continues to grow rapidly far from its roots in Asia. On the other hand, if you are not a Christian, it seems that Cynthia’s teachings are quite compelling to people of various faith traditions, and you can practice this prayer whether you are a Christian or not. Regardless of your starting point, if you do take the wager and give it try, please let me know what you think. Good luck!
- All page numbers come from Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.
- Excerpt from my blog entry, “My Journey of Social Conscience:”
Summer Study with Dr. William Herzog, Dean of Colgate Divinity School (1998)
While I continued to develop more service opportunities at HKIS, I also spent a lot of time trying to make sense of my own worldview, a vital part of my social conscience journey. One summer I took a course with New Testament scholar William Herzog that helped me to crystallize a lot of my reading and experiences. In this course, entitled “Jesus and the Justice of the Reign of God,” I came to see Jesus as one whose deep personal relationship with his Father and his burning love for others propelled him into the social and political realities of his day. By studying the socio-political environment of 1st century Galilee, I could sense Jesus’ compassion for the farmers whose hand-to-mouth existence was caused by draconian Roman tax overseers and co-conspiratorial Jewish landowners. Jesus’ prophetic messages came alive as I re-envisioned his Spirit-filled acts as bold announcements that there was a better way to live than the structured inequalities of 1st century Jewish society. Seeing Jesus in his socio-historical context helped me understand that living in the world and living in the Spirit were not antithetical, but instead were complementary and even necessary dynamics of a true Christian life.
Jesus’ example, then, became analogous to my own life. Now I had not only permission, but, better yet, a calling, to bring my own inner spiritual journey to bear not just in my religion classes, but into a holistic journey of discovery in which in-class study and out-of-class experiences were all part of making sense of the world. Following Jesus meant understanding contemporary socio-political realities as he did. While Jesus understood the invisible power structure governing his homeland, at the same time he also possessed a spiritual vision that seemed to transcend social injustice. In Matthew 25 Jesus said, “If you have done [service] to the least of my brothers, you have done it unto me.” Serving the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, and the victimized was serving God directly. I considered the mystical possibility that perhaps through my service work I could most tangibly sense the presence of God.
3 – Father Pennington describes the method in these three steps in his booket The Way Back Home: An Introduction to Centering Prayer.
“Sit relaxed and quiet.
- Be in faith and love to God, who dwells in the center of your being.
- Take up a love word and let it be gently present, supporting your being to God in faith-filled love.
- Whenever you become aware of anything else, simply, gently, return to the Lord with the use of the prayer word.
At the end of your prayer time let the Our Father (or some other prayer) pray itself within you” (19).
I’ve written some other blogs that involve Centering Prayer.
- My Educational Philosophy
- Spiritual Retreat with Cynthia in Assisi
- Centering Prayer and the Call to Wisdom: A Personal Reflection
- Necessity of Spiritual Practice in Social Conscience Education
- The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere: Visionary Images of Christian Education (includes a 12-minute interview with Cynthia)
- Upgrade Your Egoic Operating System: A Conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia’s teacher, Father Thomas Keating, makes this insightful comment:
“The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from Him. If we get rid of that thought, our troubles will be greatly reduced. We fail to believe that we are always with God and that He is part of every reality. The present moment, every object we see, our inmost nature are all rooted in Him. But we hesitate to believe this until our personal experience gives us confidence to believe in it. This involves the gradual development of intimacy with God [through contemplative prayer]. God constantly speaks to us through each other as well as within. The interior experience of God’s presence activates our capacity to experience Him in everything else—in people, in events, in nature. We may enjoy union with God in any experience of the external senses as well as in prayer.”
Excerpted from Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, 44.
“A Seamless Whole”
Friday, February 17, 2017
Guest writer Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer.
The fruits of Centering Prayer are found in daily life. Do not look for signs that this prayer is working for you in your subjective experiences during the prayer period. The place to look for results is in what happens after you get up from your meditation cushion.
Perhaps the subtlest fruit of the practice of Centering Prayer (and the most delicious!) is a gradually deepening capacity to abide in the state of “attention of the heart,” as it’s known in the Christianity of the East. You might describe this as a stable state of mindfulness or “witnessing presence,” but emanating from the heart, not the head, and thus free of intrusion from that heavy-handed mental “inner observer” who seems to separate us from the immediacy of our lives. Once you get the hang of it, attention of the heart allows you to be fully present to God, and at the same time fully present to the situation at hand, giving and taking from the spontaneity of your own authentic, surrendered presence.
As this capacity grows in you, it gradually takes shape as a felt center of gravity within you, the place where the pendulum of your being naturally comes to rest. It’s not so much a place you pay attention to as a place you pay attention from.
As I see it, the purpose of Centering Prayer is to deepen your relationship with God (and at the same time with your own deepest self) in that bandwidth of formless, objectless awareness that is the foundation of nondual consciousness. There you discover that you, God, and the world “out there” are not separate entities, but flow together seamlessly in an unbreakable dynamism of self-giving love, which is the true nature of reality and the ground of everything. In that space you discover the meaning of Thomas Keating’s famous statement: “The notion that God is absent is the fundamental illusion of the human condition.”
Contemplative prayer is no longer a luxury; it is an absolute necessity. Up to now, many have thought of contemplation as a devotional, wellness, or personal transformation practice. We’re not just doing our meditation to chill out and get right with the world. We are trying to bring to bear a structure of perception, a system of consciousness, that allows us to empathize and relate to each other without fear, judgment, demonization, or division.
Contemplation is a nonnegotiable. If we want our world to come to oneness, each one of us must take on the responsibility of bringing the mind into the heart so we can become contemplatives not in lifestyle only, but in a complete revisioning and cleansing of the lens of perception. People at the nondual level are much more useful, flexible, versatile, attuned cosmic servants.
Awakening to Oneness
Monday, February 20, 2017
We begin in ego consciousness, imagining that the union with God we seek is far off. After all, ego consciousness is the subjective perception of being a separate self that has to find God, who is perceived as being other than one’s self. But as ego consciousness yields and gives way to meditative awareness, we begin to recognize the surprising nearness of God.
God is already here, all about us and within us—the very source, ground, and fulfillment of our being. But subject to the limitations of ego, we tend not to experience the divine mystery of who we are, created in the image and likeness of God. We do not directly realize the God-given Godly nature of ourselves in our nothingness without God. This is why we meditate: that we might awaken to God’s presence all about us and within, as Saint Augustine phrased it, closer to us than we are to ourselves.
To practice meditation as an act of faith is to open ourselves to the endlessly reassuring realization that our very being and the very being of everyone and everything around us is the generosity of God. God is creating us in the present moment, loving us into being, such that our very presence is the manifested presence of God. We meditate that we might awaken to this unitive mystery, not just in meditation, but in every moment of our lives.
This is how Jesus lived. Whether he gazed at a child on his lap or a leper wanting to be healed; whether he looked at a prostitute or his own mother; whether he witnessed the joy of a wedding feast or the sorrow of loved ones weeping at the burial of a loved one; whether he observed his own disciples or his executioners—Jesus saw God. We meditate that we might learn, with God’s grace, to see God in all that we see.
Saint Paul writes, “In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Our oneness with Christ deepens in a lifelong process of conversion in which Christ’s mind and our mind become one mind, one way of seeing and being in the world. The faithful practice of meditation is a way of learning to follow the Spirit’s prompting along this self-transforming path.
In Christian terms, meditative experience offers the least resistance to the Spirit of God within us, who, with unutterable groaning, yearns that we might awaken to eternal oneness with God. As our resistance to God’s quiet persistence diminishes, our experience of ourselves as other than Christ dissolves into realized oneness with Christ. Little by little or all at once, we come to that point of blessedness and freedom in which we can say, along with Paul, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). That is, for me to live is for me to be that oneness with God that Christ embodies and proclaims.
“Contemplation as Letting Go”
Friday, September 2, 2016
It’s really hard to “sell” contemplation because it’s precisely like selling nothing. For Americans, contemplative prayer is counter-intuitive. Even worse, it is, at least for me, a daily practice of assured failure! If you are into success, you will give up quite early on. Contemplation is largely teaching you how to let go—how to let go of your attachment to your self-image, your expectations, your very ideas. Every such “set up” is a resentment waiting to happen. So maybe we are just redefining success as foundational happiness and contentment.
As you gradually learn to let go, you learn how to rest in what some call “the eternal now,” a kind of present satisfaction with the present as it is. You don’t need to manipulate or change the moment in order to be happy. What is starts being enough to make you happy, although to get there, you must be tested many times by your anger and fear about what is not. I must be honest with you here. Contemplation trains you how to let go of what you think is success, so you can find the ultimate success of simple happiness.
I’m going to say something that maybe will sound like heresy, but I’m offering you a “pearl of great price.” De facto “salvation” has little to do with belief systems, belonging to the right group, or correct ritual practice. It has everything to do with living right here, right now, and knowing a beautiful and fully accepting God is this very moment giving to you. All you can do is sit down at the banquet and eat. If you can enjoy heaven now, you are totally prepared and ready for heaven later.
Perhaps another metaphor will make this clearer. In A Sunlit Absence, Martin Laird, OSA—a brilliant teacher of contemplation at Villanova University—illustrates contemplation as an act of letting go and allowing ourselves to be sculpted into a masterpiece:
According to ancient theory of art, the practice of sculpting has less to do with fashioning a figure of one’s choosing than with being able to see in the stone the figure waiting to be liberated. The sculptor imposes nothing but only frees what is held captive in stone. The practice of contemplation is something like this. It does not work by means of addition or acquisition, but by release, chiseling away thought-shackled illusions of separation from God. . . . Contemplative practice proceeds by way of the engaged receptivity of release, of prying loose, of letting go of the need to have our life circumstances be a certain way in order for us to live or pray or be deeply happy. . . . With enough of this stone removed, the chiseling becomes a quiet excavation of the present moment. What emerges from the chiseled and richly veined poverty of the present moment? The emerging figure is our life as Christ (Phil. 1:21; Col. 3:3-4). 
“Rise Up Rooted Like Trees”
Sunday, August 28, 2016
In my work with men’s initiation, I’ve found that all great spiritual wisdom, all true soul wisdom, can be found in nature. I do believe that’s true. St. Francis didn’t learn by only reading Bibles and books, but by observing the natural world, which we call “the first Bible” (see Romans 1:20).
When you sit quietly and for extended times in nature, you see that everything changes. If you stay longer, you see that everything dies or erodes. Nothing stays in the same shape or form for long. Plants and animals seem to accept this dying. All of the natural world seems to accept the change of seasons. Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. It learns gravity’s fall, as it were. Only one species resists this natural movement: humans—you and me. The very freedom that can lead us into intimacy with an utterly free God who invites our cooperation and participation also allows us to resist, oppose, or deny Love. We are free to cling to our own egoic resources, to climb instead of to descend. But we must fall if we are ever to fly.
Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”  In our consumer culture, religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behavior. Yet authentic spirituality is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing, or succeeding—all of which tend to pander to the ego. It is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need anyway, although we don’t know that ahead of time. On the mental level, it is more “the shedding of thoughts,” as the Desert Fathers called it, than piling on more thoughts.
Monday, August 29, 2016
Meaty spirituality must first of all teach us freedom from the self, from my own self as a reference point for everything or anything. This is the necessary Copernican Revolution wherein we change reference points. Copernicus discovered that Earth is not the center of the universe. Now we have to discover that we are not the center of any universe either. We are not finally a meaningful reference point. Although we do have to start with self at the center to build a necessary “ego structure,” we then must move beyond it. The big and full world does not circle around me or you. Yet so many refuse to undergo this foundational enlightenment.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. Each time you take another breath, realize that God is choosing you again and again—and yet again (Ephesians 1:4. 9-11). We have nothing to work up to or even learn. We do, however, need to unlearn some things, and most especially we must let go of any thought that we have ever been separate from God.
To become aware of God’s presence in our lives, we have to accept what is often difficult, particularly for people in what appears to be a success-driven culture. We have to accept that human culture is in a mass hypnotic trance. Plato already said this, as most religions do at the higher levels. We are sleep-walkers, “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Wisdom teachers from many traditions have recognized that we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.
That’s what religion is for, to help us let go of illusions and pretenses so we can be more and more present to what actually is. That’s why the Buddha and Jesus both say with one voice, “Be awake.” Jesus talks about “staying watchful” (Matthew 25:13, Luke 12:37, Mark 13:33-37), and “Buddha” literally means “I am awake” in Sanskrit. Jesus says further, “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Luke 11:34).
We have to learn to see what is already here. Such a simple directive is hard for us to understand. We want to attain some concrete information or achieve an improved morality or learn some behavior that will make us into superior beings. We have a “merit badge” mentality. We worship success. We believe that we get what we deserve, what we work hard for, and what we are worthy of. It’s hard for Western people to think in any other way. But any expectation of merit or reward actually keeps us from the transformative experience called grace.
Experiencing radical grace is like living in a different world. It’s not a world in which I labor to get God to notice me and like me. It’s not a world in which I strive for spiritual success. It’s not a cosmic game of crime and punishment. Unfortunately, many of the world’s religions at the lower levels do teach that, even if indirectly. Many religious people are afraid of gratuity. Instead, we want God for the sake of social order, and we want religion for the sake of social controls. God cannot be seen through such a small and dirty lens.
Thursday, September 1, 2016
All great spirituality is about letting go. I say this as an absolute statement. Francis of Assisi profoundly understood that. He let go of his life in the upper class and joyfully lived in solidarity with those at the bottom, the sick and the poor. But you and I have grown up with a capitalist worldview, not a Franciscan worldview. That doesn’t make us bad or entirely wrong. But it has blinded our spiritual seeing. We tend to think that more is naturally better. Spiritual wisdom reveals that less is more. Jesus taught this, and the holy ones live it. I want to invite you to experience the liberating power of this perennial discovery.
The Gospel, truly interpreted, wants everybody to win, to live in a world of freedom and joy. There is an alternative to our consumer, commodity, market mentality. We might call it the personal, relational, or being mode. It is a worldview in which all of us can succeed on some real level. It isn’t a win/lose model where only a few win and most lose. It’s a win/win worldview, but only if we’re willing to let go of our need to be the primary or exclusive winner. The trouble with the dominance of the competitive model is that it needs lots of losers so that one can be declared the best. Maybe this is good for the market, but it is bad for the soul.
As a Divine creation, you have an intrinsic meaning, an irreplaceable worth. Once you can fully accept that inherent dignity in yourself, your happiness is henceforth an inside job, and you will naturally hand it on to others too, because the Source is now infinite and you are finally connected to your Source.
“Prayer as Surrender”
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
One must fully recognize that mystics like Francis and Clare lived from a place of conscious, chosen, and loving union with God; such union was realized by surrendering to it, not by achieving it. Surrender to Another, participation with Another, and divine union are finally the same thing. Once we have experienced this union, we look out at reality from a much fuller Reality that now has eyes beyond and larger than our own. This is precisely what it means to “live in Christ” (en Christo), to pray “through Christ,” or to do anything “in the name of God,” phrases with which Christians are quite familiar.
Such a letting go of our own small vantage point is the core of what we mean by conversion, but also what we mean by Franciscan “poverty.” Poverty is not just a life of simplicity, humility, restraint, or even lack. Poverty is when we recognize that myself—by itself—is powerless and ineffective. John’s Gospel puts it quite strongly when it says that a branch that does not abide in Jesus “is withered and useless” (John 15:6). The transformed self, living in union, no longer lives in shame or denial of its weakness, but even lives with rejoicing because it does not need to pretend that it is any more than it actually is—which is now more than enough!
After the sixteenth century, the Poor Clares only learned the older tradition of the prayer of quiet through their own desire and through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26). As far as I know, contemplation was no longer systematically taught anywhere. By the time I joined the Franciscan Order, our elders gave us the scaffolding (telling us to “say” the Office, “attend” the Mass), but seldom the substance of prayer. “Fighting distractions” is an impossible goal (“Don’t think of an elephant”); it sent us on the wrong course toward willful concentration instead of the willing prayer of receptivity (e.g., Mary’s “Let it be,” Luke 1:38). Almost all thinking is obsessive, but no one taught us that. I am sad to say that many of my contemporaries just gave up, either by formally leaving, or worse, by staying and no longer even trying.
The “how” of letting go is so counter to ego consciousness that it has to be directly taught, and it can only be taught by people who know the obstacles and have experienced surrender as the path to overcoming them. The contemplative mind, which is really prayer itself, is not subject to a mere passing on of objective information. It must be practiced and learned, just like playing the piano or basketball. I do suspect that the Poor Clares’ overwhelming emphasis on poverty and letting go gave them a head start in understanding prayer as surrender more than a performance that somehow pleased God. They were already experts in self-emptying (kenosis) and letting go. In other words, “poverty” (inner non-acquisition) is first of all for the sake of prayer, never an end in itself.
“Practice: Praying Unceasingly”
For Jesus, prayer seems to be a matter of waiting in love, returning to love, and trusting that love is the bottom stream of reality. Prayer isn’t primarily words; it’s a place, an attitude, a stance. That’s why Paul could say, “Pray always” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We can pray unceasingly if we find the stream and know how to wade in the waters. The stream will flow through us, and all we have to do is consciously stay there. Paul says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).
Of course the ego resists such surrender and emptiness. So we need a little practice. In contemplative prayer we consciously open ourselves to being prayed through. Again and again we are humbled, observing our incessant and scattered stream of consciousness. Simply watching our thoughts helps us detach from them rather than be identified with them. Again and again we have the opportunity to let go, to sink into the deeper stream of Presence. For a moment or two we are “praying unceasingly.” It takes a lifetime of practice to remain in this flow more and more.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:38-39 
We are already in union with God! There is an absolute, eternal union between God and the soul of everything. At the deepest level, you and I are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) and “the whole creation . . . is being brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The problem is that Western religion has not taught us this. Our ego over-emphasizes our individuality and separateness from God and others, and, as I said a few weeks ago, we limited God’s redemption to the human species—and not very many individuals within that species!
Daily contemplative prayer helps you rediscover your inherent union and learn how to abide in Presence, trusting that you are already good and safe in God. You don’t have to worry about your little private, separate, insecure self. I am one with you and you are one with your neighbor and you are one with God. That’s the Gospel! That’s the whole point of communion or Eucharist; we partake of the bread and the wine until it convinces us that we are in communion. It seems easier for God to convince bread and wine of its identity than to convince us.
You’re not here to save your soul. That’s already been done once and for all—in Christ, through Christ, with Christ, and as Christ (see Ephesians 1:3-14). By God’s love, mercy, and grace, we are already the Body of Christ: the one universal body that has existed since the beginning of time. You and I are here for just a few decades, dancing on the stage of life, perhaps taking our autonomous self far too seriously. That little and clearly imperfect self just cannot believe it could be a child of God. I hope the Gospel frees you to live inside of a life that is larger than you and cannot be taken from you. It is the very life of God which cannot be destroyed.
As Thomas Merton wrote in his journal, “We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we already are.” 
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Being conscious or aware means:
- I drop to a level deeper than the passing show.
- I become the calm seer of my dramas.
- I watch myself compassionately from a little distance, almost as if “myself” is someone else.
- I dis-identify with my own emotional noise and no longer let it pull me here and there, up and down.
- I stop thinking about this or that and collapse into pure or “objectless awareness” of nothing in particular. I don’t get there; I fall there.
At first, it does not feel like “me.” It is unfamiliar territory because up to now I thought that my thinking was “me,” yet now my thinking has ceased. I believe this is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching on “losing oneself to find oneself” (see Luke 9:24).
This new and broader sense of “me” gradually, over time, begins to feel like my deepest and truest self; it seems solid and unchanging. At this point, God, consciousness, I, silent emptiness, and fullness all start to feel like the same wonderful thing! This is what spiritual teachers mean by growth in holiness.
This deeper self is what most traditions refer to as “the soul” or the True Self and what psychology might call “the collective unconscious.” When I live here I am somehow “shared” and participating in something Larger. I am not doing it; it is being done to me, with me, through me, and as me! Paradoxically, this pure consciousness is usually described as the “unconscious” because, in a sense, I am not at home here at all, and I am surely not in control. So you see why we fight it.
Monday, February 13, 2017
For nearly thirty years now, the following four guidelines have successfully introduced tens of thousands of people worldwide to Centering Prayer
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
- When engaged with your thoughts [including body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections], return ever so gently to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. 
Father Thomas Keating suggests praying for twenty minutes twice a day.
So are we really saying that in Centering Prayer you meditate by simply letting go of one thought after another? That can certainly be our subjective experience of the practice, and this is exactly the frustration expressed by an early practitioner. In one of the very earliest training workshops led by Keating himself, a nun tried out her first twenty-minute taste of Centering Prayer and then lamented, “Oh, Father Thomas, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes I’ve had ten thousand thoughts!”
“How lovely,” responded Keating, without missing a beat. “Ten thousand opportunities to return to God.”
This simple story captures the essence of Centering Prayer. It is quintessentially a pathway of return in which every time the mind is released from engagement with a specific idea or impression, we move from a smaller and more constricted consciousness into that open, diffuse awareness in which our presence to divine reality makes itself known along a whole different pathway of perception.
That’s what the anonymous author of the fourteenth century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing may have had in mind when he wrote, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.”  “Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to pervade one’s entire being.
Out of my own three decades of experience in Centering Prayer, I believe that this “love” indeed has nothing to do with emotions or feelings in the usual sense of the word. It is rather the author’s nearest equivalent term to describe what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart.
And he is indeed correct in calling it “love” because the energetic bandwidth in which the heart works is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. Imagine! Centuries ahead of his time, the author is groping for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perceptivity.