Monday, September 21, 2009

Centering Prayer

I first encountered Centering Prayer over a decade ago. At that time, I was reconnecting with the church of my childhood and a Christianity from which I had felt estranged for years.

I was discussing this process with a friend who had spent time living among the Trappist monks at their monastery in Snowmass. When I shared my wish to blend my newly reclaimed Christianity with my love of Eastern meditative traditions, he told me of Father Thomas Keating’s work resurrecting the tradition of contemplative prayer, a form of Christian meditation.

I was enthralled. I knew my meditative experiences were authentic and knew, too, that something profound and true brought me to Christianity. The possibility that these two paths could merge into one resonated immediately. I bought Keating’s book Open Mind, Open Heart and was on my way.

Centering Prayer and Eastern meditative traditions have many elements in common. In both, attention is focused to allow a slowing of the usual thoughts that parade endlessly through a busy mind. In Centering Prayer, however, the intent is to consciously open to the Holy Spirit. Keating clarifies that this method is “not concentrative, but receptive” and aims at “the surrender of one’s whole being to God.”

This form of meditation “presupposes a personal relationship” with the Divine. While such a relationship is a component of other traditions as well, the idea of a personal connection stands at the forefront of Centering Prayer.

As a symbol of the intention to open to “the mystery of God’s presence beyond thoughts, images, and emotions,” one begins by choosing a sacred word to act as a focal point for the mind. Since this word only directs the attention toward God, it is not held tightly or repeated continuously, but is returned to whenever attention wavers or thoughts return.

To capture the essence of Centering Prayer, an experiential telling may be helpful. And so, I close my laptop and rise from my desk, walk slowly to my meditation chair, and sit. I set my timer so as to be less tempted to check the clock as the minutes pass by.

My breath finds a steady rhythm. I welcome my sacred word into my awareness, gently repeating it with each in~breath. Consciously I open to the Holy Spirit.

A soothing warmth soon fills my chest, though I sometimes have no particular physical sensation. I repeat my word until it naturally evaporates. I am receptive and still.

Soon thoughts arise~~of squash bought at the farmer’s market this morning and needing an onion to cook with it for a meal tomorrow. I realize the tangent and return gently and without judgment to my sacred word, repeating it in sync with my breath until it fades away once more.

The sensation in my chest wanes, but a sweetness of experience continues. My breath becomes soft and feather~light.

My left shoulder begins to ache. I reposition it, relax tense muscles. My sacred word rides the wave of my breath again until it quietly drops away.

I begin crafting an inscription for a book I will give a dear friend tomorrow. I reorient myself, word and breath together once more.

Father Keating describes Centering Prayer as bringing us “the experience of resting in the Spirit.” This is certainly how it feels to me in this moment.

My timer chimes. I bow my head in gratitude and return to my desk refreshed.

I certainly wouldn't attempt to prove that I have felt the touch of the Holy Spirit during these times. I know only that something good has occurred. And I trust that.

May we all touch something good in the coming days.


Loanne Marie

Monday, September 7, 2009

Welcoming the Day

We gather in the parking lot, breath visible vapor swirling in the pre~dawn air. Jagged peaks rise on all sides, silhouetted against a lighter sky that still holds stars and the brighter shimmer of a few planets.

A tiny Vietnamese woman, dressed in the plain brown robes of her lineage, leads us through gentle stretches as our numbers steadily swell. At the appointed time, she stops, places palms together, bows to us; we bow in return. She moves slowly through the throng we have become, and is joined by several other brown-clad monks and nuns.

We fall in behind them, matching our pace to their slow one. Inhale with one paired step~~right and left. Exhale with the next. Inhale. Exhale. Step by slow step.

And so begins this morning’s walking meditation. My friend and I have journeyed north to attend this 5~day meditation retreat. This is our first morning.

We traverse the adjoining parking lot. The only sounds are shoes brushing blacktop, the calls of a few just~waking birds, an occasional cough. We cross the narrow drive, merge onto the footpath that circumnavigates the large field. Sky gradually lightens as we walk. Stars recede, and mountainsides gain depth and texture.

Those in front, far ahead now given the narrowing of the path, come to a standstill. It takes several steps, however, before this stillness passes as a wave through our slender line. Finally, we stop, too. I look up, see the sun’s light touching the craggy tors surrounding us. And then I turn and look behind.

A silent line of folks stretches far back into the dim light, most having not yet left the parking lot. I didn’t realize there were so many of us! What is it about this long slender cord of humanity~~walking peacefully, silently, and with full awareness~~that brings tears to my eyes? I don’t fully understand it, know only that wonder fills me.

Our slow progression begins anew. We round the far end of the field and tears spring again. Another graceful line walks slowly, mindfully, silently toward us. Remembering only now that another group was to begin at a different location, I realize that I had only seen half our total before.

There must be nearly a thousand of us! Yet, I realize now that it is not the sheer number of participants that touches me so. It is our coming together, this gentle walking in harmony and in gratitude, that brings me awe.

We meet at the center of the field. Our two separate lines spontaneously dissolve, individual streams flowing into a common sea. We sit.

Outer stillness moves ever more deeply inside. Mountain air fills our lungs, flows out. A bell chimes. We breathe. Sunlight creeps down mountainside. Breathe. Birdsong rises. Breathe. A fresh morning breeze stirs hair, brushes skin. Breathe.

A small bird dips suddenly, darts here and there among us just two feet above the ground, flies off again. And still, we breathe.

In the experience of this morning, we are not separate beings. Belief in individual drops of water and distinct streams gives way. We recognize that we are, in truth, one sea.

The bell chimes again. We rise and bow~~to one another, to the beauty of the world surrounding us, to the sea itself that both buoys and suffuses us. Our slow pace resumes as we move toward the meditation hall. Inhale with one paired step, exhale with the next. Inhale. Exhale. Step by slow step.

Our day has begun.

Loanne Marie