What’s happening to you in centering prayer?
You’re connecting directly to God at the level of the heart, in your spirit nature. Your mind is not involved because you have chosen this very direct path to God that does not involve thoughts and concepts. As Thomas Merton said, “God’s presence does not depend on your thoughts of Him, because He is always there.” God presence is the gift that has already been given. As Jesus said and Joel the prophet had predicted, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all mankind. God’s presence is inside us and nothing more needs to be done for us to experience this.
Thoughts and concepts about God are useful if they fire up our desire to connect with God. Then they are a handrail to us accessing God. But they are not the experience of God itself and religion has often confused learning theology with knowing God. The former is a Pty to the latter but it’s not the same thing. Imagine yourself sitting with the Bible or a devotional book. You read something about God and your mind understands it. You notice that your heart is stirred and a flame of hunger for God ignites to make you desire what you’ve read. Then you close your eyes and experience God. That’s Christian meditation, or “prayer in secret.”
The Bible says, “If anyone calls on the name of the Lord he will be saved.” Calling on God is the most basic posture of a human being – it’s our deepest need and our deepest cry. Augustine wrote, “You created us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” God is our life source. In centering prayer we’re calling on God – opening ourselves up, consenting to God’s presence and action within you.
Now as we call on God and give time for Him to respond, not blocking him out with a jumble of thoughts and activities, He does a million powerful things inside of us. He infuses His presence into our lives. We may feel peace and rest from that. The body and the brain rest, and the soul is refreshed.
Also God pours His love into our hearts when we encounter His presence – “He has poured His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom He has given to us” (Romans 5:5). There’s a warmth that comes as we connect with God that heals a thousand pains and along with this there’s a growing sense of faith and trust that arises towards God because of this core of love that we experience. This is true growth in faith and it can’t be studied or developed by thinking concepts about God, even if they are completely true. It happens by actual experience.
Most of the things God does in the realm of the heart – in the silence of centering prayer – are not grasped because they’re happening at a level of the spirit and the mind can’t crystallize them. You have a sense about them and you know something is going on, but you can’t define it exactly. This is why the space of God’s presence has been described as the “cloud of unknowing.”
One major thing that’s happening in centering prayer (or any any heart level experience of God’s presence) is that God is loosening the grip of the false self on you and enabling your true self to begin asserting control of your life. You’ve taken the proverbial “lid off the can of worms”, of a lifetime of buried pain, frustration and trauma, and one by one God begins to pull these “worms” out.
What is the false self? The Bible calls it the “sinful nature” or the “old man” and it is basically your unhealthy pursuit of happiness, of looking for love in the wrong places. Human beings in their “fallen state” pursue happiness from one of three energy centers – the unhealthy pursuit of control and independence, the unhealthy pursuit of affirmation and esteem, or the unhealthy pursuit of security or comfort.
These three unhealthy energy centers are trying to meet the valid needs of identity, worth and security that are deeply embedded in human beings. But they’re trying to replace fake goods with what only God can do for us. Only God’s living presence and friendship can address our need for identity, worth and security. Our identity is meant to be who God defines us to be, our worth because God values us and our security because God loves and protects us.
But life begins and travels on a rocky road. From the first moments of life, one or more of these three basic needs get violated. Perhaps as a baby we didn’t feel safe or loved. Or perhaps a few years later our attempts to express ourselves, our identity, was squashed by an insensitive parent. And so two things happen as these violations occur – first we began to use up a lot of energy to compensate for that unmet need in pursuing it with even more fervor, and second those efforts became automatic programs of subconscious ongoing drive that develop a hidden motivation or energy center within us. We are not aware of them. They’re imprinted in our thought patters and neurological pathways and so they begin to define who we are as people – the basis for the human ego.
We have these subconscious drives pressing us to find happiness and the problem is that we’re competing with others who are doing the same; we’re trying to gain at the expense of other. Seven billion other people are running around the planet also trying to get their needs met in a misguided selfish way. Our subconscious programs are not interested in helping or loving others, but in getting something for ourselves. The Bible calls these hidden drives the “sinful nature” because they lead to sin such as lying, stealing, killing or whatever it takes to get our needs met when other people stand in the way.
These three components are the “sinful nature” – the unhealthy pursuit of control, the unhealthy pursuit of affirmation and esteem and the unhealthy pursuit of security and comfort are illustrated in the three temptations of Christ described in Matthew 4. Satan tempted Jesus three times and His response was to show how God met His fundamental needs rather than these counterfeits.
The false self is not who we truly are. We still have an identity that is created by God, a value defined by God and a closeness to God who watches over us to protects and provide for us. And we have God’s presence resident inside of us – Christ’s nature. The divine plan is for this “true self”, the “Christ nature” to awaken and begin to assert its control over our every aspect of our lives – our desires, our reactions to pressure, our relationships, our outlook on the future, our health, our sleep and every other conceivable element of our nature. That’s the purpose of the spiritual journey and the goal of true religion.
This process is awakened by the centering prayer practice because we’re calling out to God as the core of our being, consenting to His presence and action within us. Centering prayer brings rest, love, peace and introduction into a friendship with God and that causes previously suppressed subconscious emotional “baggage” to begin rising into our awareness. Awareness is the first key step towards transformation. Next comes a point of decision where we can choose an alternative path to happiness through God’s presence instead of this tired old program that has ruled our inner world. That decision point is called “repentance” in the Bible – its a choice to pursue happiness in an alternative direction, in God’s presence and love. Practically in centering prayer this occurs through the refusal to expend energy dwelling on thoughts that are rooted in the false self, and to choose God’s presence and action by coming back to our sacred word. At times, this “unloading” process becomes intense and this is difficult but wonderful because it is a prelude to an exciting transformation that the Holy Spirit is orchestrating in our inner nature.