I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.” Zech 13:9
Centering prayer is a meditation practice that takes us into the realm of the heart where we connect in that “secret place” with God’s presence, the Holy Spirit. In the Bible this practice is called “waiting on God” or “being in the spirit”. It is the deepest form of prayer, the foundation on which faith rests, and an essential pillar for our walk with God and our spiritual, emotional and mental health. Waiting on God silently achieves two great things:
- It unlocks for us the world of the spirit, the spiritual dimension of life, and the incredible potential that God has placed inside of us with His own Spirit.
- It taps into the “heart, from which flow the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23) meaning that place within us that is the true source of our actions and motivations. It not only makes us aware of what motivates us, but it allows God the space to heal our false self, our negative emotions and the reasons we cling to what the Bible calls the “sinful nature”.
The reason many become discouraged with religion is because of the lack of these two spiritual realities – true access God’s power and reality, and true personal transformation beyond basic behavior changes. There are lost because religion often becomes a mental and philosophical exercise combined with rules and traditions that keeps people “in their minds” and does not teach them how to move into the heart which is the gateway to the spiritual realm. There are exceptions, but they are rare. Even the way prayer is taught is largely mental processing. By “staying in the mind”, religion leaves people under the control of their “false self” which is rooted in the thought patters of the mind and programed behavior habits. As a result, people remain unaware of negative motives, emotional scars and destructive driving forces that reside “deeper down” in the unconscious mind, remaining hidden.
In “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Peter Scazzero, a useful analogy is made to describe our lives as an iceberg. We are aware of the “iceberg tip” but 90% of the mass of the iceberg is below the ocean surface. That 90% drives our behavior, controls our happiness and determines our path in life. It also determines our experience of God (if we have any). The degree to which we experience transformation of the “dark side” of our nature influences how freely we experience God and His divine nature as a reality in our lives.
Centering prayer takes us below the surface and allows God, the Divine Therapist, to do a work of transformation. This is the “refiner’s fire” in our verse in Zech 13:9. In centering prayer we experience deep rest in silent stillness and are “melted” by God’s loving presence, so this begins to “loosen the grip” of our habitual thought patters. A process called “unloading” begins to occur – the healing of the inner man that is key to transformation, and our created destiny to be transformed into the image of Christ.
Thomas Keating describes the “false self” system that initially dominates our lives as the unhealthy need for control, for affirmation and security, or the “sinful nature” as the Bible describes it (think of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness or 1 John 2:16). Keating writes that the false self is an “obstacle to the free flow of grace in our minds, emotions and bodies…the consequences of emotional traumatic experiences from the earliest childhood are stored in our bodies and nervous systems in the form of tension, anxiety and various defense mechanisms...Centering prayer fosters the healing of these wounds. In psychoanalysis the patient relives traumatic experiences of the past and in doing so, integrates them into a healthy pattern of life. If you are faithful to the daily practice of centering prayer, these psychic wounds will be healed without your being retraumatized.”
Thomas Keating goes on to explain how the process of Divine Therapy in centering prayer is experienced: “with interior silence and the profound rest that this brings, these emotional blocks begin to soften up…the emotional residue in our unconscious emerges during prayer in the form of thoughts that have a certain urgency, energy and emotional charge to them. You don’t usually know from what particular source or sources they are coming. There is ordinarily just a jumble of thoughts and a vague or acute sense of uneasiness…After you have been doing this prayer for some months, you will experience the emergence of certain forceful and emotionally charged thoughts…that arise with force or that put you in a depressed mood for a few hours or days. Centering prayer has a way of completing everything unfinished in your life by allowing the emotions to have an outlet in the form of moods or thoughts that seem but a jumble. This is the dynamic of purification. The intensity of the feelings of fear, anxiety or anger may have no relationship to your recent experience.”
This is the “unloading” process of Divine Therapy. So how should we respond when it happens? In the same way as we deal with any distraction in centering prayer – we let it go. We use our sacred word as “shorthand” for a prayer, to re-affirm our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within us. And then we wait for the boat to “drift away” on the river of our inner man and the flow of God’s Spirit within.
However oftentimes when a great healing work is in progress it is difficult to simply “let go”. Here Keating has further advice, “One way to deal with intense restlessness, physical pain or emotions such as fear or anxiety that arise at such times of unloading is to rest in the painful feeling for a minute or two and allow the pain itself to be your prayer word. In other words, one of the best ways of letting go of an emotion is simply to feel it. Painful emotions, even some physical pains, tend to disintegrate when fully accepted…When you feel restless, agitated or pained by some emotional experience, you can’t spend the time better than by waiting it out. The temptation is great when you are suffering from a distressing emotion to try to push it away. However by allowing your attention to move gently toward the emotion and by sinking into it, as though you were getting into a nice jacuzzi, you are embracing God in the feeling. Don’t think, just feel the emotion.”
Two more points will complete our discussion on Divine Therapy:
When a negative part of your inner man is being healed by God as we have discussed, it is easy to think that something is going wrong in your prayer, that you are doing it incorrectly. Here Keating encourages us, “when the unloading of the unconscious begins in earnest, many people feel that they are going backwards, that centering prayer is just impossible for them because all they experience when they start to pray is an unending flow of distractions…Their number and nature have no ill effect whatever on the genuineness of your prayer…Centering prayer is not on the level of thinking. It is consenting with your will to God’s presence in pure faith. You are acting on the spiritual level of you being…The purpose of centering prayer is not to experience peace but to evacuate the unconscious obstacles to the permanent abiding state of union with God.”
Lastly, a great benefit of transformation in centering prayer is that you don’t need to psychoanalyze yourself by re-living past trauma, or even trying to understand it. Here Keating writes, “During the unloading process sometimes you may want to figure out where a particular smile, itch, pain or strong feeling is coming from in you psyche and to identify it with some earlier period in your life. That’s useless. The nature of the unloading process is that it does not focus on any particular event. It loosens up all the rubbish, so to speak, and the psychological refuse comes up as a kind of compost. It’s like throwing out the garbage. You don’t separate the egg shells from the orange peels. You just throw the whole thing out. Nobody is asking you to look through it to try to evaluate it. You just throw everything out in one big garbage bag.”
This is the 6th 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.