“The mind controlled by the spirit is life and peace” Romans 8:6
In centering prayer we’re not “emptying the mind” nor are we trying to “stop thinking”. Our goal is to connect with God in the deepest part of our being, at the level of our spirit, or the heart as its otherwise known. What this requires is not engaging in thoughts, not being carried away by them, but rather staying in the undivided desire to meet God. The purpose to this is to develop a “mind controlled by the spirit”, rather than the other way around.
There are three reasons we avoid engaging in thoughts during centering prayer:
- We’ve discussed in past sessions the neurological benefits that are described in abundant scientific research: time spent in “alpha mode” is healthy for the brain, improves neuroplasticity, unlocks creativity and generally improves both “left brain” and “right brain” functions.
- More profoundly, we want to access the deeper level of our being, the spirit or “heart” where God dwells and where He communicates directly. Thomas Keating explains that our heart, our spirit, or our consciousness is like a river that is “our participation in God’s being. It is that part of us on which all of our other faculties rest, but we are ordinarily unaware of it because we are absorbed by what is passing along on the surface of the river. [The river] is spiritual and limitless because it is our participation in God’s being.” The river is our spirit and the place of meeting God’s Holy Spirit. Our intention for 20-30 minutes of centering prayer is to stay in the river, to be aware of how our inner being merges and unites with God’s divine nature, how as 2 Peter 1 describes, we “participate in the divine nature“. We’re joining the Psalmist in his pursuit “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (Ps 42:7).
- We want to slowly come out of the control of our mind so that we can instead live with our mind under the control of our spirit, which is connected to the Holy Spirit. This is the goal Paul describes in Romans 8:6 “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace”. During the centering prayer time, we deliberately avoid engaging in thoughts as a maturing (and healing process) so that the spirit can take pre-eminence in over our minds.
There are three keys to dealing with thoughts that arise during centering prayer.
- Intention. We use our sacred word to remind ourselves of our intention to be in the river of God, and to stay there, connecting with His Holy Spirit. With the sacred word we’re praying “Lord I consent to your presence and action in my life” and we’re waiting for Him to answer that prayer. In response to thoughts, we remember our intention of staying at the deeper “spirit to Spirit level”, the “deep calls to deep” level of Ps 42:6, rather than to the “shallows” of the mind.
- Patience. At first, thoughts can be very loud and distracting but if we’re patient and just let them go, they will float away down the stream of consciousness. Shedding a particular thought gets easier as we’re patient during our time of centering prayer – the boat just floats away on the river as you ignore it. Also, while we will always have many thoughts, these seem less “loud” over time because we’re developing a discipline and a skill with regular practice, and are re-wiring our inner world.
- Gentleness. We should not get angry and irritated with thoughts or with ourselves for engaging in thoughts. Accept yourself as you are (as God does) and simply approach it with a light smile and attitude of “there you go again”. Thomas Keating Open Heart, Open Mind page 46 writes, “The best response to the ordinary wanderings of the imagination is to ignore them; not however with a feeling of annoyance or anxiety, but with one of acceptance and peace. Every response to God, whatever it is, must begin with the acceptance of reality as it actually is in the moment. Since it is part of our nature to have wanderings of the imagination, however much you may want to be quiet, accept the fact that thoughts are certain to come. The solution is not to try to make the mind a blank. That is not what interior silence is.“
Three types of thoughts typically arise during centering prayer, and the approach to all of these is exactly the same: let them go, try not to engage in them.
- General wanderings of the imagination. During centering prayer, we slip into and out of interior silence. Thomas Keating has an analogy of moments of silence being like a balloon about to settle down, but then a gust of wind blows it up again. Then we should patiently let go of the thought and try again. After some time of continuing the practice we will find that there is a pull towards the silence from the inner man, an increased desire for God’s presence, and we feel a bit of a loss when pulled away by thoughts.
- Emotionally charged thoughts. These are not like ordinary wanderings of the imagination because they trigger emotions, either positive or negative, and contain a “hook” that attracts us to engage. The reason for the emotion is because the thought has “touched a nerve” into a broken or dysfunctional area in the unconscious. Now we’re beginning to touch on one of the powerful by-products of centering prayer called “divine therapy” where, as discussed in the previous session, God’s refining work allows the “metal of our hearts” to melt so that impurities float to the surface. We’ll devote a whole session to examining “divine therapy” in centering prayer.
- Wonderful thoughts about God. We also get revelations, insights, memory of scripture verses, visions and the like during centering prayer. For these, the guidelines of centering prayer seem counter-intuitive because these thoughts we also must “let go”. We don’t engage our minds even in wonderful thoughts because we’re wanting to stay at the “spirit to Spirit” level, not to come to the shallows of the mind. It useful to remember that your mind is a shallower level of your being and that God’s default is to communicate with us “Spirit to spirit” so that mental images, thoughts and concepts are just our mind’s interpretation of what God is saying and doing within us. Realize also that if God is speaking to us, His Word will return and “bubble up” to our minds at another time during the day.
This is the 5th session of an eight-week introductory course to centering prayer and Christian meditation. Most sessions are recorded live from a group that meets each Saturday morning in a boardroom in Houston, Texas, with video-call participants from Africa, Europe and elsewhere in the US. Access the other introductory sessions here.