Centering Prayer meets Tree


I was annoyed. My back was still giving me angry twinges despite everything I had done for it over the past weeks—pampering it, not pampering it, ignoring it, talking to it, medicating, hocus-pocusing, stretching, relaxing, strengthening. And then my sewing machine was acting up, turning a creative project of making doll clothes into a chore.

It was midafternoon and I realized that I had not yet done my daily Centering Prayer meditation. Rather than sit at my desk, as I have been doing since I started the practice two months ago, I made myself get up and walk into the woods to my special tree. My mood improves whenever I spend time with the tree, though for some reason I am always reluctant to test this proposition. I had not paid a visit to the tree for several months.

Rather than sit on the cold ground at the base of the tree I perched on the branch scar that juts from the trunk several inches off the ground. Immediately my mind became a blank slate.

I don’t know how to draw the line between excessive self-awareness, which nullifies the point of Centering Prayer, and true appreciation of the experience that this kind of meditation can bring. The prayer is an opening, an invitation, and sometimes things happen because of that opening.

Up to now the happenings have been subtle changes in my daily life and how I respond to events: an emerging sense of both purpose and contentment with the present and what comes, a deeper patience with myself and with other people. I haven’t experienced much, or expected much experience, during the meditation itself. The point is to be open, to train yourself to let go of everything the mind brings up, including expectations. The only palpable result I have noticed during the meditation has been an easy, calm, blank peace.

For a number of years, as I have written before, I have experienced this particular tree as a prayer companion, a meditation preparer, an energy field that somehow connects with me. But I had not been to the tree since starting a Centering Prayer practice. The difference this time was palpable.

What happened that afternoon at the tree was too powerful to ignore. The sense of peace was so strong that it vibrated in my core. The interval between distracting thoughts was so long it was as if the thought-manufacturing part of my mind did not exist. My earlier irritation not only dropped away; it receded so far that it seemed as if I would never feel that way again. After 20 minutes I walked back to the house elated and refreshed.

This experience was not qualitatively different from what has happened to me at the tree before. The difference was quantitative. I was far more sensitive and receptive to it than I had been before practicing Centering Prayer. The daily meditation had trained my sensibilities, opened me to this visceral experience of an unseen and indescribable reality, this tree—these trees—and my connection to them. It was as clear a before-and-after experiment as I could have engineered if I had thought about it (my tree experiences before the Centering Prayer practice and now). I didn’t think about it. I didn’t expect it. And it was therefore all the more remarkable.

And then, just as I was thinking this kind of experience was particular to the tree, something similar happened in church yesterday. I was more present, more aware, more moved by everything that unfurled in the worship service and my encounters with the community. In the beauty of a sanctuary adorned for Advent, my attention was riveted, my sensors tuned high. It was like church in HD.

A central purpose of Centering Prayer, as Cynthia Bourgeault describes it in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, is to learn to use “those more subtle perceptivities of spiritual awareness—the “spiritual senses,” as they’re known—to see and taste the presence of the divine as it moves fully in and out of everything.”  I think it’s working.

Download silence

It is hard to believe my meditation practice is only 10 days old. Already I can’t do without it. It is a necessary part of my day.

It is not easier and easier to do, however. In fact, it continues to be difficult to empty my mind of everything for more than a few seconds at a time. But the difficulty is also a delight, as Cynthia Bourgeault, author of Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, suggests, because each act of letting go brings a tiny tingling of the tummy, the opening-out of the solar plexus that signals rightness, ease, harmony. This is a way of knowing that the active mind can block out.

The catch is that if I focus on that reward or any other experience of the meditation—the swirling blues and greens that I eventually see when my eyes are shut and I have sunk to the place of no words; the ease of deep breath; or any other sense of myself—I am already back to nonmeditating mind. In Centering Prayer one must let go of these experiences, too. But the rhythm of experiencing and releasing is a kind of breathing; the knowing and the not-knowing, in and out like waves on the beach.

At the end, indeed, I feel washed, washed up like driftwood with all its rough edges worn away; smooth, easy, able to move through the day with fewer stops and starts and resistances and reactions.

Night is a different story, however. The practice has revved up my dream life, which had been literally dormant for some time. The dreams have not been poetic; they have been scatological. I have dreamed for several nights running about excrement. Maybe that, too, is about cleansing. It may also be, as the Jungians would suggest, about creativity. Shit is the human being’s first and most basic product. Whatever it signifies, I accept the Dreamgiver’s sense of humor.

Here is something I learned after my first few sessions of Centering Prayer: you need a timer. No sense guessing when 20 minutes might be up or depending on how you feel to decide when to stop. That invites normal-mind activity, which is what you want to get away from

I debated setting the microwave timer but that didn’t seem very spiritual. I thought, I need something that sounds like chimes or a Tibetan bowl. Surely some spiritual marketer has thought of this?

Enso Asari Meditation Timer/Travel Alarm, $59

Well of course they have. I went online and searched “meditation timer.” You can buy timers with chimes, gongs, and singing-bowl tones. You can spend a lot of money on timers shaped like pyramids, circles, spirals, and portable alarm clocks. Practical mystic that I am, I was taken with one of the cheaper ones—at $59!—that doubles as a travel clock and alarm. I’d like it in Sage Green, please.

But here is another option. You can go to a couple of sites and download timed silence. This one  gives you a choice of audio files that consist of various lengths of silence. A bell is rung once at the start and three times at the end.

It’s free, as silence should be. Download some now for yourself.

Centering Prayer

I am beginning a regular meditation practice. I have circled around meditation for a long time, like a cat looking for just the right napping position. Now I have settled on something. I should have asked for help before on doing this but perhaps not. The right teacher comes along at the right time.

My way of asking for help on this, not just meditation but spiritual practice in general, was to sign on with a spiritual director. Spiritual direction, too, is something I’ve considered before, but I wasn’t ready for it. I don’t know why. I wasn’t ready and now suddenly I am ready, with urgency and hunger. In our first session, my spiritual director, proving herself to be the right teacher at the right time, directed me to a meditation practice and a book that describes it. I sped through the book in a few sittings. Sometimes the right book comes along, like the right teacher. This week the book has also been my teacher.

The book is Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault (Cowley 2004). There is a whole Centering Prayer movement but I had only a vague notion of what Centering Prayer might be (wrong, it turned out).

I find that I already know much of this. I’ve learned it on my own, from other sources and my own experience. At the same time I have so much to learn and unlearn that it’s funny. I’ve tried to write about a lot of stuff that I have only vaguely understood and here I find Bourgeault calmly explaining everything and putting it together. The right book at the right time makes sense of something you recognize but haven’t fully understood.

Here is what I have experienced before.

  1. There are different kinds of meditation but the only kind I have been drawn to has been a quest for the state of emptiness, a kind of dreamy state of not holding on to thoughts and feelings.
  2. In dealing with psychological pain, anger, and fears—as well as the vicissitudes of life—I have experienced the profound power of letting go.
  3. I have noticed a feeling in my body, right around the solar plexus, that signals that somehow I am on the right track, whether it is in meditation or my daily life.
  4. I’m regrounding in Christianity and increasingly relating my spirituality to Jesus as well as the Christian community.

With these four kinds of experiences as background, I am taking to Centering Prayer like a duck to water because it puts them all together. The method is simple: 20 minutes of clearing your mind and opening to the Divine. You use a word to gently bring yourself back to center every time your attention gets hooked on a thought or emotion. It’s an exercise in repeatedly letting go.

Simple but not easy, but I won’t explain how or why just yet. I have, after all, done it (under that name) only half a dozen times! And really, Bourgeault is the very readable, scholarly authority.

If you are not familiar with Centering Prayer you may suspect, as I did, that it is called prayer instead of meditation so Christians will think it is ok, not borrowed from some other tradition. I don’t mind such borrowing at all but Bourgeault makes a good case that this particular form of meditation embodies the spirit of Jesus’s instructions on the self-emptying life, of being in God as God is in us. The theology is intriguing, a theology of the heart, not the head. That is, you don’t have to “believe” in Jesus or a “Christian God” in order to set out on this path. Just like you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice Zen meditation. You just set out and see where Spirit takes you.

I may report now and then on what happens in my life as a result of this practice although—of course!—the practice is not oriented to results. Results are just another thing that you get to release.

Still. May I hope for transformation?

Archives for this blog  February 2011–September 2012 are located here.