Book Notes – Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening

Posted: January 29, 2014 by Todd in Books
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centering prayer

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening

Cynthia Bourgeault – 2004, Cowley Publications

Finished January, 2013.


Bourgeault’s motivations for writing book.  Worth skipping on a re-read.
Part I: The Method of Centering Prayer
Chapter 1: Contemplative Prayer and Centering Prayer
“Prayer is not a request for God’s favors.”
“Silence is God’s first language” – St. John of the Cross
Basic Instructions: Whenever a thought comes into your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that open, silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or phrase, known as a “sacred word,” such as “abba” (Jesus’ own word for God) or “peace” or “be still” to help you let go of the thought promptly and cleanly. [more…]
Chapter 2: Deeper Silence, Deeper Self
Free silence – allow your thoughts to float where it will.
Meditation – a deliberate effort to restrain the wandering of the mind.
“ninety percent of the trick in successfully establishing a practice lies in wanting to do it in the first place. 154-155”
The practice of silence is universal to all spiritual traditions that attempt to transform.
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Ordinary Awareness – self-reflexive consciousness; “egoic thinking,” “monkey mind”
Spiritual Awareness – perceives through an intuitive grasp of the whole and an innate sense of belonging. It’s something like sounding the note G on the piano and instantly hearing the D and the B that surround it and make it a chord. 200-201
Divine Awareness – That space within us that is God, “which is never at our disposal”
“At first when you begin a practice of meditation, it feels like a place you go to….But as the practice becomes more and more established in you so that this inner sanctuary begins to flow out into your life, it becomes more and more a place you come from.”  249-251
Chapter 3: The Method of Centering Prayer
Three methods of meditative practices: concentrative, awareness, surrender.  Centering prayer is a surrender method.
A surrender method is even simpler. One does not even watch or label the thought as it comes up, takes form, and dissipates. As soon as it emerges into consciousness, one simply lets it go. The power of this form of meditation does not reside in a particular clarity of the mind or even in presence, but entirely in the gesture of release itself. Thomas Keating likes to characterize it as a prayer “not of attention, but of intention.” (289-292)
“If you catch yourst’lf thinking, you let the thought go.”
A sacred word can/should be used to mark your release of a thought.
Chapter 4: Handling Thoughts During Prayer Time
Cataphatic – with images, faculties
Apophatic – without images or faculties
“thought is used in the broadest possible context. A thought is not just a mental idea; it can also be an emotion, a memory, an interior dialogue or commentary-or just as easily, a physical stimulation like the buzz of a neon light overhead, an itchy nose, or a sudden pain in your hack. A thought is anything that pulls you out of open, undifferentiated awareness…it pulls you out of the apophatic back into the cataphatic” (457-460)
“And as long as they’re simply passing by, that’s fine. You don’t have to do anything to prevent their coming and going. The temptation, however, is to get interested in a particular boat, swim up to the surface of the river, and climb on hoard.” (466-468)
Five Types of Boats
  1. Woolgathering or “ordinary thoughts” – “vague, meandering, often whimsical thoughts that pop into your head”
  2. Attractive thoughts – “These are thoughts that come with an emotional hook in them.”
  3. Insights, illuminations, and intercessions – good, helpful, “spiritual” content you’re likely to want to capture and remember
  4. Self Reflection – the mind reflects on itself, e.g., “Is this a thought that I’m thinking?”
  5. Thoughts from the Unconscious – thought used in the broadest possible way; unformed thoughts from within
 Related to #4 – “the cataphatic cannot watch the apophatic”
The Four R’s
  1. Resist no thought – don’t try not to think, just let the thoughts go by
  2. Retain no thought – as thoughts arise, let them go
  3. React to no thought – let go without self-criticism
  4. Return to the sacred word – say your word as a symbol of release
Chapter 5: Spiritual Non-Possessiveness
See #3 – “Insights, Illuminations, and Intercessions” above
Jesus advocates a “spiritual non-possessiveness,” which is like a “mind that clings to nothing.”  We have a tendency towards “spiritual materialism” – this is the temptation during apophatic practice to receive insights, illuminations, and intercessions.  You can’t do apophatic practice with spiritual materialism.
Two helps in leaving “spiritual materialism:”
  1. “Disciplining the Imagination” – Say “no” to the imagination (all temptation arises through it)
  2. “Moving Beyond the Experience/Experiencer Dualism” – Give up yourself – not for a smaller portion of self, but to crucify your whole self and throw your entire being into the hope of the resurrection
“the last attachment must be broken: the attachment to having itself.” (604-605)
“As long as it feels to us as if apophatic prayer is simply sitting there in darkness, we will not be able to directly experience why it is virtuous to do so, and the temptation to hang on to “juicy” thoughts will remain.” (613-615)
Part II: The Tradition of Centering Prayer
Chapter 6: Centering Prayer and Christian Tradition
Contemplative outreach is a membership organization supporting centering prayer.
There isn’t clear, unequivocal support for centering prayer within the Christian tradition or in Jesus.  There is more support for apophatic practices, but still cataphatic is much stronger within the tradition.  Centering prayer, however, is a clear, innovative outgrowth of the tradition and not merely out of left field.
Chapter 7: The Loss and Recovery of the Christian Contemplative Tradition
There is a “ladder” bias in spirituality that sees things as continual progress with increasing value.  Bourgeault sees the lectio as “stations” rather than “stages.”
Acquired vs Infused consciousness – you “earn” acquired consciousness, God draws you into infused conscousness
“it did not take too long for these sequential steps of prayer to he further separated out into different types of prayer, and finally into types of prayer suitable for certain types of people. More and more the thrust was to see contcmplatio no longer as the ground of prayer but as its highly rarified apex.”  797-799
“the yearning to fall to center is itself the result of a force of gravity already drawing us to center, and this gravity is God.”  (852-853)
“The eye with which you seek God is the eve with which God seeks you,” as Meister Eckhart put it.” (854)
“It is this consciousness itself that is the attained state of contemplation, and it is neither infused nor acquired, because it was never absent-only unrecognized.” (875-876)
Chapter 8: The Theology of Centering Prayer
Centering prayer is a “dying to self.”
“Jesus’ well-loved Kingdom of Heaven is none other than this: life lived from the perspective of an attained spiritual awareness. (921-922)
Kenotic love is the “core gesture” through which meaning and purpose is conveyed.  Centering prayer “most purely approximates meditational kenosis.”
Part III: The Psychology of Centering Prayer
Chapter 9: The Divine Therapy
Thomas Keating came up with the analogy/model of “divine therapy.”  Bourgeault likes it, but says it has some holes, which she addresses in chapter 10.
“If the spirit’s role is to he strong, the psyche’s is to he vulnerable.” (1073-1074)
Chapter 10: From Healing to Holiness
“Given this gray area in the teaching it seems best simply to reiterate the traditional understanding in schools of inner work. While healing is an important aspect of the journey toward holiness, the healthy ego must never be mistaken for the true self. It does not somehow evolve into the true self.”  (1114-1115)
We shouldn’t regard the “false self” as a disease, but rather a shadow side that is part of our whole creation.
To focus too much on “therapy” is to focus on “healing” and not the basic practice of centering prayer.
Chapter 11: Attention of the Heart
3 routes of “putting the mind in the heart:” (Simeon the New Theologian)
  1. Concentration of affectivity (movement from meditatio to oratio) – relies heavily on the cataphatic
  2. Self-examination and the collecting of thoughts – remains in head; evil enters through the heart
  3. Attention of the heart (centering prayer)
A handy guide to the purposes of various contemplative practices:
Concentrative and awareness practices aim at clarity of mind.
Surrender methods arrive at purity of heart.
Bourgeault claims there is a physiological “drop” and “lift” that accompanies Centering Prayer.  Full discussion at 1277.
Chapter 12: Working with an Inner Observer
An inner observer is aware of “being” or of the entire river flowing past.  Don’t observe the observer of being.  It is attention not to the cataphatic, but the apophatic.  I’m not sure I fully comprehended this material.
Chapter 13: The Welcoming Prayer
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[Todd: There was a great insight in the “welcome prayer” of the Centering prayer book.  There is actually a space where some intentional intervention can help – the sliver of space between “thought” and “passion.”  Where a temptation arises and where the amygdala takes over.  Can centering prayer really awaken me to the unseen grasp of the lizard brain?]

“It occurs during the nanosecond between that first gathering sense of “frustration” and the moment you actually put the full weight of your being into your frustration,” (1438)
“Centering Prayer is really a letting go of identification, a releasing of a ‘thought’ before it becomes a ‘passion.'” (1445-1446)
“The Welcoming Prayer works in active life with exactly the same place that Centering Prayer works in meditation: that slim window of opportunity before ‘thoughts’ proceed to ‘passions.'” (1464-1465)
“Rather than simply letting go of the thought, as is done in Centering Prayer itself and in many schools of inner work, it actually “rides” the gathering storm of emotional and physical energy that has already started to build by the time a person becomes conscious of frustration.” (1467-1468)
Three step process to take advantage of 5A:
1. Focus and Sink In (don’t repress, be aware and capture emotion)
2. Welcome (welcome, anger; welcome, pain…, paradoxical embrace of the shadow, not an embrace of the thing itself, but its accompanying feelings)
3. Let Go (don’t do too quick; wave farewell as the emotion recedes)
Chapter 14: Centering Prayer and Christian Life
Epilogue: The Way of the Heart

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