Centering Prayer, TM, and Emotional Struggle

As I continue building the Centering Prayer and TM pages for the site, I am struck by a couple things.  First, I think it's really interesting to see how people bring their own paradigms to the experience of TM.  Some people seem to talk about it strictly as a relaxation technique.  Some speak about their own creativity being tapped and released.  Some experience physical health benefits and see it as a way to a better physical condition.  And some interpret their experience in terms of spirituality or religion and their connection to God – however they want to define that word. 

Another thing I am struck by is the lack of any talk in TM about emotional struggles that may stem from periods of deep meditation.  Everything is framed in positives.  If there is a spiritual journey involved in TM, it seems to be a straight incline up to "bliss-consciousness."  That sounds nice.

In Centering Prayer, and in the Christian contemplative tradition as a whole, the spiritual journey is one of ups and downs, filled with many sunny days, but also "dark nights."  It is a painful process for the soul to become unattached to all that is not God.  A trial by fire.  Listen to how several authors in the Centering Prayer movement talk about the struggles involved in the practice:

"I call this third moment in the circular movement of Centering Prayer 'the unloading of the unconscious.'  'Unloading' refers to the experience of psychological nausea that occurs in the form of bombardment of thoughts and feelings that surge into our awareness without any relationship to the immediate past.  That lack of connection with the source of painful thoughts or feelings is what identifies them as coming from our unconscious...Having carried this emotional pain for twenty or thirty years (or longer), the evacuation process may be extremely painful..."

– Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God


"...we are used to thinking of spiritual transformation as an ascent.  The effects of a spiritual practice, we expect, are to make us calmer, more able to cope, more filled with equanimity.

The Divine Therapy model, however, suggests a different scenario: that the ascent is inextricably bound to a descent into the ground of our own psyche (this would be the principle of kenosis viewed from a psychological standpoint).  Thus, periods of psychological ferment and destabilization are signs that the journey is progressing, not that it is a failure.  As a practice of meditational prayer loosens repressed material in the unconscious, the initial fruits of spiritual practice may not be the expected peace and enlightenment, but destabilization and the emergence into consciousness of considerable pain.

One woman in our group in Maine experienced this process particularly vividly.  After only a few weeks of regular practice of Centering Prayer, she found herself increasingly tense and irritable, and frequently went home from meditation to pick a fight with her husband.  She was tempted to quit, but with the encouragement of the group she stayed on and cooperated with the process.  What was happening (rather quickly in her case) was that a brittle control – keeping everything at a superficial level of "niceness" – collapsed almost immediately in the face of her immersion into contemplative silence.  She found herself fact to face with a deep guilt about what was in fact her second marriage and a terror that God would punish her and her husband with cancer.  Needless to say, "resting" in such a God was not a tranquil experience!  But with a good deal of courage she has been able to face these feelings, work through them, and re-establish a relationship with both her husband and God on a deeper, freer level.

In my own practice of this prayer, I have learned by repeated experience that the "reward" for a period of committed sitting is often the emergence of a patch of pain long buried and several days of emotional turmoil.  Keating calls it "the archaeological dig."  As trust grows in God and practice becomes more stable, we penetrate deeper and deeper down to the bedrock of pain, the origin of our personal false self.  The results are often personally horrifying, but again, says Keating, this does not mean that the spiritual journey is a failure, but that it is doing its job."

– Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening


"...we should expect recurring difficult periods as he leads us into deeper and deeper freedom through a more thoroughgoing purification."

– Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form


"The whole process is an ongoing interior purification, indeed a kind of purgatory.  First when one begins to practice this kind of prayer regularly it may seem peaceful, but after a while, as the unconscious begins to unload, one is bombarded with thoughts to such an extend that one may think the practice is a complete failure and definitely not meant for you.  This is where it is tempting to give up and revert to more 'meaningful' kinds of prayer.  This following passage from The Cloud sounds a lot like this interior work of purification, although it is not couched in such direct terms:

How wonderfully is a man's love transformed by the interior experience of this nothingness and this nowhere.  The first time he looks upon it, the sins of his whole life rise up before him.

At times the sight is as terrible as a glimpse of hell and he is tempted to despair of ever being healed and relieved of his sore burden.  Many arrive at this juncture in the interior life but the terrible, comfortless agony they experience facing themselves drives them back to thoughts of worldly pleasures.

He who patiently abides in this darkness will be comforted and feel again a confidence about his destiny, for gradually he will see his past sins healed by grace...Slowly he begins to realize that the suffering he endures is really not hell at all, but his purgatory.

And finally there will come a moment when he experiences such peace and repose in that darkness that he thinks surely it must be God himself.

The problem, of course, is trying to get people not to give up too soon, when the going gets really tough.  When our imagination seems to have so much going on in it and the very use of the sacred word seems completely futile, we may feel we couldn't possibly be praying.  This could indeed be the 'hell' that the author of The Cloud describes above.  For those who are able to persevere, however, the reward is the healing of so many of these pains.  Nevertheless, it certainly does take commitment to the journey."

 – Murchadh O' Madagain, Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious


Personally, my initial experience of Centering Prayer was like finding a whole new way to view reality.  It was unbelievable.  I remember thinking the exact words: If I practiced this twice a day, I would be invincible.  But since the initial experience, there have certainly been ups and downs.  Even when I am very consistent in my practice (and my own consistency comes and goes), it certainly doesn't always give me days filled with love, joy, and peace.  Sometimes, in fact, I seem to experience more anxiety/worry/"darkness" than I had before.  

According to those who have been on the path far longer than I, this is the shape of the journey.

I have yet to find anyone from the TM community talk in these types of terms (psychological anxiety, "dark nights," etc.), but it would be interesting to hear the perspectives of those who practice TM about this.