I’m a long-time Alanon member, finding in that 12-step program a spiritual recipe that allows me to stay in healthy relationship with an alcoholic loved-one. Step 11 in particular has been critical to the maintenance of my own serenity.
Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
To put Step 11 into practice I experimented with various meditation and contemplative techniques that I had learned in church, in my yoga classes, and through my own investigation – particularly in Zen meditation. I found that while attention-focused meditation practices made me feel more peaceful, clear-thinking and alert, in other words, “10% happier”, I was missing the deeper connection with God for which I was praying and hoping. I was still having trouble discerning God's will from my will.
To experience a deep connection to God is the whole point of Patanjali's eight limb yoga path for spiritual growth, and it is in the seventh limb, dhyana, that I have found one of the most profound intersections of my Christian faith and yoga. Dhyana is typically taught as meditation, but it is much more than that: dhyana is the release of our ego-centric self to uncover our essential nature held deep in ancient memory: that we are beloved children of God.
In contrast to the 6th yoga limb of dharana-focused attention, dhyana is practiced with intention - the intention of opening oneself up to God and inviting God to work within. In my explorations of various meditation techniques I have found that Centering Prayer best moves me along the yoga limb of dhyana. Episcopal Priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault describes Centering Prayer, as “transcendence of ego-self and awakening of the heart.” She goes on further to explain that Centering Prayer is a meditation technique that is used to become “totally open” to God.
…”totally available, all the way down to that innermost point of your being; deeper than your thinking, deeper than your feelings, deeper than your memories and desires, deeper than your usual psychological sense of yourself.”
Sounds like dhyana to me.
In her book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, Bourgeault outlines the technique:
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your willingness 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 or distractions, invoke your sacred word to gently release back to your intention to be open to God.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
Bourgeault goes on to explain that when compared to other meditation techniques that use mantra or chanting to block distractions and thoughts, the power of Centering Prayer lies not in trying to prevent thoughts from occurring up front, but rather in the use of our sacred word at the “back end” to release our attention from thought and return to our intention of being present to God. It is the practice of releasing from ego, of admitting that we are human, that we don’t know it all, that there is something wiser and more powerful and loving beyond us and deeply within us: thy will, not my will.
Much has been written on the powerful spiritual growth that may accompany a daily practice of Centering Prayer and I highly recommend to you David Frenette's book The Path of Centering Prayer as well as Bourgeault’s book, mentioned above. I extend a special invitation to explore Centering Prayer to those who have found other meditation techniques to be elusive and frustrating. Again, the Centering Prayer practice is not to prevent mind-thought, instead it is the practice of RELEASE from our ego-driven internal narrative that distracts us, and obscures our relationship with God. In other words, in Centering Prayer one doesn't try to block thoughts, rather one invokes the sacred word only when its needed to release engagement in them--releasing judgment, commentary, and evaluation to just let the distraction flow by so that you may stay centered in your intention to be open to God's presence.
A story about Fr. Thomas Keating (a Trappist monk and one of a group of three monastics credited with resurrecting the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer in the 20th century) best illustrates this point. In frustration and embarrassment, a new student confessed to Thomas Keating her "failure" in Centering Prayer, relating that during the prayer period she had "ten thousand thoughts." Keating is purported to have responded, "How wonderful! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God."
My own experience is that when I began practicing Centering Prayer my thoughts were so incessant that my sacred word, which is repeated only when entangled in a thought, seemed more like a mantra or chant (which in other meditation traditions is repeated continually) so often was I invoking it. The key is to be patient and non-judgmental about how intrusive and distracting your thoughts are when first learning the technique. Each time you release a distraction and return to your intention to be open to God's work in your life you are practicing Centering Prayer as well as the yoga practice of dhyana. Ten thousand opportunities! How cool is that?!
I found that like other forms of meditation, Centering Prayer not only nourishes the soul, but on a more mundane level is a way of exercising the mind's muscle, and with practice it becomes easier--distracting thoughts become less insistent and the space between them lengthens. Viewed as a brain-muscle exerciser, it doesn't surprise me that neuro-science studies today show a regular practice of meditation (including Centering Prayer) improves memory and concentration, along with reducing stress and increasing feelings of well-being.
Twenty minutes twice per day is the usual recommendation for Centering Prayer, as it is widely recognized in the meditation community that we humans usually need about 15 minutes to settle our busy brains. But set a shorter time when you are learning the technique, and then gradually add time. I find a practice of Hatha yoga before Centering Prayer invariably makes the prayer period easier--my thoughts less distracting and gentler.
The traditional Hatha yoga sequence with meditation is:
Asana (to settle the body),
Savasana (to rest),
Pranayama (to encourage the Spirit to flow), and
Meditation/Centering Prayer (to release to God).
Eventually, with the regular practice of Centering Prayer, you will find your ability to sit in silence with your intention of opening to God’s presence for longer and longer periods of time. The need to invoke your sacred word drops away as you surrender "my will" to "thy will", nurtured and sustained not by the narrative of your fragile ego-self but by the deep love of God that flows within you and throughout all creation.
For more information on Centering Prayer go to www.centeringprayer.com