The foundations and practice of centering prayer

That’s from a spiritual perspective. But meditation is also practiced by atheists or those that simply aren’t conscious of any spiritual or divine element who also see tremendous benefits to the brain, to health, for stress management, for creativity and much more.

So my job in the this course is not only to teach you the practice itself but to try to show you the iceberg below the surface of the water that exists, and in the case of centering prayer, a Christian meditation practice, this iceberg is God. The practice is the small surface expression of a miraculous work that God is doing inside of you as you persevere.

In the weeks ahead, I’m going to spend time describing the iceberg below the surface and since this is a Christian form of meditation, the way we’re going to examine the work that God does inside of you during centering prayer is contained in five core teachings of Christ, or if you prefer, five core doctrines of the Christian faith. The sad thing is that many lifelong Christians have been taught these core teachings but they don’t practically and actually experience the reality of these in their lives. They mentally assent to these truth but fail to be transform by them. Centering prayer is one way to move from a surface knowledge to real experience.

The five underpinning teachings of Christ that describe the work of God during centering prayer are briefly described below. We rely on these, and believe in their reality, as we pursue this practice.

  1. The indwelling presence of God. Centering prayer relies on the belief that God in the form of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – dwells inside of us. For this reason, a great deal of effort and activity is not necessary. Rather openness, consent and surrender immediately provide us with access and an experience of God.
  2. The spiritual nature of man. Jesus taught that men and women, in their deepest nature, are spiritual beings and that the presence of God regenerates and dwells in human vessels. Centering prayer works at the level of the spirit rather than the mind. It touches what the Bible calls the “heart”. And the language of the heart (the spirit) are not thoughts and concepts. The language heart is love, faith and hope. And these are expressed in stillness and surrender. The heart is the “secret place” described in the Bible where the nature of man intertwines with the nature of God. It is the place where “deep calls to deep”. God’s idea is that our hearts govern our lives and control our minds. But modern man, disconnected from God, tries to control his life with his anxious thoughts. Living in the realm of the spirit is “abiding in Christ” or “walking in the Holy Spirit” and it’s how we are designed to live in union with God. But that is like learning to swim when we have walked all of our lives on dry ground – it takes faith and a regular practice like centering prayer.
  3. The idea of the false self and the true self – the sinful nature and the Christ nature within us. Christ taught that our earthy lives are a journey of transformation from our fallen nature which is our “false self” because it does not reflect the image of our Creator. This false self or “sinful nature” is a set of programs that were established within our minds at a young age and are entrenched in thought patters and neural pathways, seeking happiness in the pursuit of affirmation, security and control. God recognizes that this is not who we really are. Instead, at the deeper level of our spiritual nature, Christ dwells along with the nature and character of God. This is our true self. The spiritual journey is a process of transformation as the “true self”, our spiritual nature, gradually replaces the “false self” in our attitudes, actions, relationships and pursuits. Centering prayer is a direct connection with our “Christ nature” because it seeks stillness from the noisy thought patterns of our fallen nature, and choses instead to be present in the “Christ nature.”
  4. The practice of surrender and consent that is demonstrated by Christ’s passion. Christ’s sacrificial life and his willing surrender to death were a redemptive act that tore open the veil of heaven for all of mankind to access God, for the “Spirit of God to be poured out on all mankind”. But his passion, His life, are also an example of how we should live, or rather how we should learn to die. He taught that “if you seek to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life you will save it,” and “unless a grain of seed dies it cannot bear fruit.” What this means is “repentance” or turning away from our misguided pursuits for affirmation, security and control, from looking for love in the wrong places, and instead turning to God’s presence for our happiness, peace and fulfillment. Another way of expressing the idea the “turning away” that “repentance” implies is “consent” or “surrender” to what God is offering us. Centering prayer is a daily work-out of surrendering our false pursuits of happiness as these are expressed in thoughts that interrupt our connection with God’s presence.
  5. The truth of grace and God’s love towards mankind. Jesus revealed God in a radical way that had never before been understood within the Hebrew religion – as a good Father. He personally experienced God as “Abba” or “Daddy” in Hebrew, and He introduced his followers to God as being their Abba too. God is loving. Unimaginably loving. He is generous and He is good. Unimaginably so. And He’s gracious and kind. He constantly gives us what we don’t deserve. “Grace” is the idea of unmerited generosity flowing from God towards us. It surpasses the idea of “karma” that implies we get what we deserve. Jesus revealed God in a manner that transcends self-help type religious practices that are premised on karma.

Let’s recap the practice itself as described in Thomas Keating’s four guidelines for centering prayer (see https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/centering-prayer-method/):

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. 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.
  3. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

I’d add to these guidelines a couple of practical points:

  1. The minimum recommended time is 2x 20 minutes a day. That’s the tipping point for the rewiring to occur fast enough that you begin to outweigh the impact of your mind working in many ways against this transforming spirit for the rest of the day.
  2. Try to do your first session at the beginning of your day before you get onto the hamster wheel, and try to do your 2nd session before dinner.
  3. Have a straight spine when you do it.
  4. Your job is just to “sit down” – that’s all that you have to do. Just do it. It’s not about whether you’re doing it right. It’s about whether you’re doing it. This is by definition such a receptive practice and it’s demonstrating reliance on God, that if you just give God the time, He takes it and does a great work.
  5. Judge the centering prayer practice not not by how you feel during the session itself – because often its hard work just continually putting aside thoughts – but by how your life is experienced during your regular time and particularly after a few months of the practice.

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