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When Strivings Cease: Centering Prayer, Who We Are, and What We Do

Jeff Jennings

Why does our constant striving only serve to make us more exhausted, disconnected, anxious, and depressed?

Staff Psychologist, University of Virginia
August 4, 2014

The study of mindfulness and its psychotherapeutic benefits has exploded.

If you’re paying any attention to popular psychology, productivity, or behavior modifciation programs, there always seems to be a new book, a new treatment, or several new journal articles on the subject. Mindfulness has been integrated into several treatment models, and its effectiveness is touted as a valuable treatment component for a number of various mental health issues, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse

And that’s just to name a few.

If this is the “third wave” of behavior therapy, it is gaining a momentum of tsunamic proportions that is reaching far beyond the boundaries of a single theoretical perspective.

People Are Still Spiritual

The rise of mindfulness’s prominence is not surprising. Despite psychology’s best effort for much of its history to define reality in purely materialistic terms (reducing everything once thought to be non-physical to physical processes), for the average person the belief in something more than the material world simply will not go away. Surveys continue to reveal the majority of people living in the United States as well as in many other countries around their world still hold to some belief in either God, gods, or at least some reality beyond what we can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear.

Centering Prayer is not the absence of thought, but rather the intentional letting go of thoughts, which dominate our conscious experience.

We’ve seen a rising interest in spirituality (however loosely defined) in recent years, without the trappings of formal religion. People want to feel spiritual without being religious, and this is exactly what mindfulness has to offer—a type of spiritual practice detached from religious dogma, structure, requirements, and commitment. Of course, not everyone who embraces mindfulness would define it as a spiritual practice, but its widespread popularity seems to be satisfying a basic soul hunger nevertheless.

Mindfulness and Contemplative Prayer

Now, to be clear, I am not knocking the practice of mindfulness and its efficacy. I too have drank the kool-aid, and I am quick to offer it up to clients for whom it would benefit given their presenting symptoms. From my perspective, it can easily be adapted to both non-religious and religious clients alike. However, as I sat through an eight-week, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program last year developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, I could not help but note the striking similarities it had to Christian contemplative practices, particularly centering prayer. I am not, of course, the first person to note or write about these similarities, but what surprises me when I review the literature is how little attention people have given mindfulness within discussions about the integration of Christianity and psychology.
Christianity has a rich contemplative tradition that traces back to the desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries, and arguably the apostle Paul himself (what else could be said of his three years spent in the desert), from which to draw a wellspring of contemplative practices deeply rooted in Christian orthodoxy.

Instead, we have again seemed content to allow the field of secular psychology to take the lead on research and then “adapt” or “accommodate” their treatment models to a Christian perspective for our Christian clients. Is this really what we mean by integration?

The field of positive psychology is showing the scientific community that the fundamental virtues good religion has been teaching us for centuries—things like forgiveness, gratitude, and altruism—are indeed good for our general health and overall well-being. The point here is that many of the basic tenets of the Christian faith—love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, mercy; the things we know to work for life and relationships—are not, with a few notable exceptions, being offered up to the field of psychology in a language they understand or respect.

Instead of being innovators offering the world the wealth of our understanding of human nature and the mechanisms that can heal people’s brokenness, we appear satisfied to be followers of the current trends in research and figure out ways these can be religiously accommodated to Christian clients.

I fear this same trend is occurring in regard to the current explosion of mindfulness-based treatments. Integrationists are offering their Christian clients the wisdom of the world in a way that is digestible and congruent with their beliefs, but they may not be offering them the full wellspring of their own tradition. We have become good consumers of research, as well we should be in a field dictated by empirically-supported treatments, but perhaps in the process we’ve lost the importance of being good consumers of our own heritage.

Enter Centering Prayer

A group of Cistercian monks realized this issue in the early 1970s. Young people during this time had been leaving the church in droves for the seemingly deeper spirituality of the East. Practices such as Transcendental Meditation (TM) became hugely popular. The monks were well-versed in the Christian contemplative tradition of the desert Fathers and Mothers, but the majority of laity, and even priests and ministers, were either unaware of it or viewed it as too austere and spiritually esoteric to be applicable to the common believer.

These monks, led by William Meninger, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating, sought to create an accessible Christian practice grounded in the tradition of contemplative spirituality that was teachable and practical for the general public. It was Meninger (at least by his account) who discovered a form of prayer that met this goal in a dusty, old, and unheralded book tucked away in the monastery’s library.

The book, written by an anonymous fourteenth-century mystic, was entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. It was an expansion on a practice known as “pure prayer” which dated back to the writings of John Cassian in the fourth century, and in it Meninger found a way to teach a basic form of contemplative spirituality to retreatants at the monastery. Eventually, the practice came to be called Centering Prayer based on a term used by Thomas Merton.

How to Practice Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer as a method is fairly simple, but the simplest of practices can sometimes be the most challenging and daunting.

1. Choose a sacred word.

It begins by choosing a sacred word, usually only one or two syllables in length, which represents God’s being and presence within you. It might be a name for God with which you most intimately relate such as Abba, Father, Jesus, or love, for example. The point is to choose a word that draws you into the very presence of God when you say it as a way of showing your consent to his presence and action in your life.

2. Sit in quiet.

The next step is to sit in a quiet place, free of distractions, where you can be relatively undisturbed for approximately 20 minutes. Sitting comfortably, but with your back erect, you begin the prayer by closing your eyes and silently repeating your sacred word until coming to a place of rest.

3. Be still. For 20 whole minutes.

Once you feel yourself sufficiently centered, you gently let go of the sacred word and allow yourself to just be in the presence of the Beloved. I tend to think of this as what it means to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, NIV). Now, 20 minutes is a long time to “be still” if you are not use to this sort of thing, and it will not take very long for your mind to start wandering. You will quickly become distracted by thoughts, feelings, images, memories, or reflections of some kind. As these arise, rather than resist them, just acknowledge them and allow them to gently pass from your mind as though each one is like an object floating down a river that you are observing from the riverbank. However, if you find yourself floating down that river, or in other words find yourself engaged in a thought, gently return to your sacred word, repeating it softly a few times until you are again centered on God’s presence.

It’s Not the Absence of Thought

It’s important to note that Centering Prayer is not the absence of thought, but rather the intentional letting go of thoughts, which dominate our conscious experience. At the end of the 20 minutes, usually marked by a soft timer or bell, allow yourself to just sit quietly for a couple of extra minutes. Some people also like to recite a short prayer, such as the Lord’s Prayer, as a way of transitioning back into daily life.

The Point of Centering Prayer 

What matters with Centering Prayer is not what happens during the prayer, but its effects on us beyond the prayer.

The purpose of Centering Prayer is ultimately to cultivate a deeper relationship with God through a greater awareness of his presence in every moment of our lives. It teaches us to remain present with God, and return to his presence at any time, in any place, and under any circumstance, “for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, NIV). This is the state of our true reality. Centering Prayer helps us to awaken to this reality, which is so easily whisked away by a racing mind and a racing culture.

When Strivings Cease

Perhaps more important than the what of Centering Prayer is the how. The New American Standard Bible translates the beginning of Psalm 46:10 as “cease striving.” We live in a world where our worth is defined by what we do. More specifically, in our culture it is defined by what we achieve. We constantly strive to prove our worth through our words and actions in a myriad of ways (e.g. career, school, money, power, religion) only to feel more exhausted, disconnected, anxious, and depressed.

When nothing we do seems to be working, we engage in numerous self-improvement projects. We might even try to become more “spiritual” by volunteering more at church, getting more involved, and increasing our time in prayer and reading Scripture.

I’m not suggesting these are bad things, but often our activity to fix the problem only perpetuates the disease. The disease is the fundamental belief that it is up to us, and we are the ones in control.

Centering Prayer is an intentional letting go of our standard ways of striving, being, thinking, and doing. It is a willingness to just be in the presence of God without having to fill up the space with word or thought, trusting that you are perfectly loved just as you are without having to add anything else. In short, it is allowing God to be God and acknowledging that you are not. Moreover, it requires a radical trust that who and what you are—not what you do—is sufficient.

Centering Prayer for the Church

Some Christians object to Centering Prayer, believing it to be eastern meditation with a Christian label slapped onto it. However, this ignores the rich tradition of contemplative spirituality within the Christian tradition. This mentality also shows just how Westernized our understanding of God and prayer has become in our culture.

Despite Centering Prayer’s similarities to some Eastern meditation techniques, there is ample support for this method of prayer within orthodox Christianity. Additionally (as William Meninger shared with me while on a retreat) Centering Prayer may be similar in technique, but the intention is very different.

I believe the Church as a whole has begun to recapture some of the mystical heritage that was lost after the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, but many are still either unaware or skeptical of it. With the current popularity of mindfulness, my hope is that the Church and Christian psychotherapy will look deeper into its own heritage to find the powerful tools of transformation.

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