Centering Prayer

David Frenette on The Path of Centering Prayer

This is David Frenette, a disciple of Thomas Keating, talking about his experience of Centering Prayer on the Buddhist Geeks podcast (sadly discontinued).

Frenette, along with Bourgeault, is what you might call a "second generation" Centering Prayer teacher as he has studied under Keating.  Frenette has also published a book on the topic, called The Path of Centering Prayer.  

As seen with Frenette, there continues to be a link between Zen Buddhist practice and Centering Prayer.  Several people I have interacted with through this site share that same link. 


Cynthia Bourgeault on The Heart of Centering Prayer

Alright, following the St. John series, I'd like to post two talks about Centering Prayer, one from Cynthia Bourgeault and one from David Frenette.  In The Dark Night, St. John talks about a stage of spiritual development in which the soul must be exclusively passive.   He calls this moving from meditation (i.e. the use of discursive excercises including images, words, and "form") to contempletion, or "infused contemplation."  Thomas Keating sometimes talks about Centering Prayer as a way to prepare oneself for the gift of contemplation.  This is one way to understand Centering Prayer, but, as seen below, different authors have different ways of understading the practice.  

This is Cynthia Bourgeault giving a series of talks about "The Heart of Centering Prayer" (the title of her latest book) at Boston College School of Theology.  In Part 1, she tells the story of the beginning of the Centering Prayer movement (0:30), talks about her own experience of the prayer (9:30), and explains her primary paradigm – what she calls "developing non-dual consciousness" – for understanding what is happening during Centering Prayer (18:00).  Bourgeault is the first author to interpret Centering Prayer through this lens.  These are new ideas, and she adds a new set of vocabulary, to the movement. 

In Part 2, Cynthia discusses The Cloud of Unknowing, and its relation to Centering Prayer, in detail. 

Part 3 consists of discussions of apophatic vs. cataphatic practice (2:30), and the active vs. contemplative life (23:00) as seen in The Cloud of Unknowing. 

In Part 4, Cynthia talks briefly about the Divine Therapy and then does a Q & A.  


When I first read Cynthia Bourgeault's new book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, I thought she was distancing herself from the Christian tradition.  The way in which she speaks of Centering Prayer as a means of forming non-dual consciousness seemed to me to relativize the role of God, however you want to describe that term.  It seemed to me that, by emphasizing simply the practice of releasing thoughts, and how this discipline can affect our "operating system," she was turning Centering Prayer into an almost secular practice.  

After watching these lectures I think otherwise.  There are still pieces of her book that give me pause.  For instance, in the following quote she talks about "God being the sideshow":

"I was several years into the practice of Centering Prayer before I came to appreciate the cumulative effect of this patterning.  Like most beginners, I thought that the aim in Centering Prayer was to let go of my thoughts so that God could 'fill' me with his presence.  One day I suddenly realized that the God story was the sideshow and the letting go was the main event.  That was when the practice flipped for me, as I recognized that thoughts were not the obstacle; they were the raw material, as every opportunity to practice releasing that focal point for attention deepened the reservoir of 'free attention' within me and strengthened the signal of the homing beacon of my heart."

– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer

These statements seem to me to edge the practice away from being "God-centered."  And I do think that her book tends towards the esoteric.  But the way she carefully describes objectless awareness (a meditative state associated with Centering Prayer) as a place where "Divine awareness and our own awareness co-mingle as one diffuse field of inter-abiding" (Part 1 41:40) makes me think that she is still faithful to The Cloud of Unknowing and rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition.  

Overall, I think Bourgeault is brilliant, but re-framing the practice in terms of non-dual consciousness seems obscure and confusing.  Take, for instance, how she defines the term in her book:

"Imagine that there might be a different way of structuring the field of perception, an alternative way of wiring the brain that did not depend on that initial bifurcation of the perceptual field into inside and outside, subject and object.  Instead, one would grasp the entire pattern as a whole – holographically – through a perceptual modality quantitatively more immediate and sensate, working on vibrational resonance rather than mental abstraction.  Then one would indeed experience that signature sense of oneness – not, however, because one had broken into a whole new realm of spiritual experience, but because that tedious, 'translator' mechanism of the self-reflective brain has finally been superseded.  You see oneness because you see from oneness."

I feel like she is essentially describing what a Buddhist would call the experience of "no-self" which can be achieved through vipassana meditation.  On top of this, I feel like this is a slightly different state than what she elsewhere describes as "attention of the heart":

"Perhaps the subtlest fruit of the practice is a gradually deepening capacity to abide in the state of 'attention of the heart,' as it's known in the Christianity of the East.  You might describe this as a stable state of mindfulness or 'witnessing presence,' but emanating from the heart, not the head, and thus free of intrusion from that heavy-handed mental 'inner observer' who seems to separate us from the immediacy of our lives.  The essence of this kind of attentiveness is perhaps best summed up in those words from the Song of Songs: 'I sleep, but my heart is awake.'  Once you get the hang of it, attention of the heart allows you to be fully present to God, but at the same time fully present to the situation at hand, giving and taking from the spontaneity of your own authentic, surrendered presence."

This, it seems to me, is equivalent not to "no-self" but to what a Zen Buddhist would call "Neither man nor circumstances are deprived."

Oh boy, this is quite confusing. 

This is why I prefer to simply think of Centering Prayer as opening yourself completely to the presence and action of God.  Transformation will happen in that process, and the way, or categories through which, you see that transformation may change over time.

When we start talking about how consciousness is changed when off the mat, maybe we can just let what happens happen.  


The Book of Privy Counseling: Thought Unified in Him Who is All

The Book of Privy Counseling is often packaged with The Cloud of Unknowing.  This short work is written by the same author as The Cloud, and represents his mature thought, after years of giving himself to the spiritual work.  

Chapter 1 of The Book of Privy Counseling could serve as a summation of the author's understanding of apophatic prayer.  

"When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do.  Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil.  Do not pray with words unless you are really drawn to this; or if you do pray with words, pay no attention to whether they are many or few.  Do not weigh them or their meaning.  Do not be concerned about what kind of prayers you use, for it is unimportant whether or not they are official liturgical prayers, psalms hymns, or anthems; whether you formulate them interiorly by thoughts, or express them aloud, in words.  See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God.  Leave it stripped of every particular idea about God (what he is like in himself or in his works) and keep only the simple awareness that he is as he is.  Let him be thus, I pray you, and force him not to be otherwise.  Search into him no further, but rest in this faith as on solid ground.  This awareness, stripped of ideas and deliberately bound and anchored in faith, shall leave your thought and affection in emptiness except for a naked thought and blind feeling of your own being.  It will feel as if your whole desire cried out to God and said:

   That which I am I offer to you, O Lord,
   without looking to any quality of your
   being but only to the fact that you
   are as you are; this, and nothing more.

Let that quiet darkness be your whole mind and like a mirror to you.  For I want your thought of self to be as naked and as simple as your thought of God, so that you may be spiritually united to him without any fragmentation and scattering of your mind.  He is your being, and in him, you are what you are, not only because he is the cause and being of all that exists, but because he is your cause and the deep center of your being.  Therefore, in this contemplative work think of your self and of him in the same way: that is, with the simple awareness that he is as he is, and that you are as you are.  In this way your thought will not be fragmented or scattered but unified in him who is all.

Yet keep in mind this distinction between yourself and him: he is your being but you are not his.  It is true that everything exists in him as in its source and ground of being, and that he exists in all things, as their cause and their being.  Yet a radical distinction remains: he alone is his own cause and his own being.  For as nothing can exist without him, so he cannot exist without himself.  He is his own being and the being of everything else.  Of him, alone may this be said; and thus he is wholly separate and distinct from every created thing.  And thus, also, he is one in all things and all things are one in him.  For I repeat: all things exist in him; he is the being of all.

And since this is so, let grace unite your thought and affection to him, while you strive to reject all minute inquiry into the particular qualities of your blind being or of his.  Leave your thought quite naked, your affection uninvolved, and your self simply as you are, so that grace may touch and nourish you with the experimental knowledge of God as he really is.  In this life, this experience will always remain dark and partial so that your longing desire for him will be ever newly enkindled."

The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 1

This will be the last post in The Cloud of Unknowing series.  Coming from a Christian background, this is one of the first books that led me down the contemplative path.  I personally believe that this is one of the profound works of contemplative thought in world history and highly recommend getting a copy to dig into it further.  See the Centering Prayer page for more on The Cloud of Unknowing and its relationship to the Centering Prayer movement.

To end this series, here is a lecture on The Cloud given by Father Dennis Billy from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.  

The Cloud of Unknowing: No Moderation

In many forms of modern contemplative practice, moderation is suggested.  In the Centering Prayer movement, leaders suggest two, twenty minute sessions per day.  The same recommendation seems to be present in the TM and Zen communities.  The idea is to encourage regular practice, not irregular, long sessions.  

Some of the concern, at least from Centering Prayer teachers, is that longer sessions may lead to an overload of intense psychological material being released from the subconscious.  For this reason, if a new practitioner wishes to dig deeper, many of these teachers will suggest a ten day retreat in the presence of experienced leaders, who may be able to lead someone through this experience in a safe way.

It is somewhat ironic that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing shows little concern for moderation in prayer.  In fact, he encourages none at all.  In the following exerpt, the author encourages "the middle path" in virtually all areas of life, but in the work of contemplative love, he wishes it would never cease.

"Now if you ask me what sort of moderation you should observe in the contemplative work, I will tell you: none at all.  In everything else, such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, moderation is the rule.  Avoid extremes of heat and cold; guard against too much and too little in reading, prayer, or social involvement.  In all these things, I say again, keep to the middle path.  But in love take no measure.  Indeed, I wish that you had never to cease from this work of love.

But as a matter of fact, you must realize that in this life it will be impossible to continue in this work with the same intensity all the time.  Sickness, afflictions of body and mind, and countless other necessities of nature will often leave you indisposed and keep you from its heights.  Yet, at the same time, I counsel you to remain at it always either in earnest, or, as it were, playfully.  What I mean is that through desire you can remain with it even when other things intervene.  For the love of God, then, avoid illness as much as possible so that you are not responsible for unnecessary infirmity.

I am serious when I say that this work demands a relaxed, healthy, and vigorous disposition of both body and spirit.  For the love of God, discipline yourself in body and spirit so that you preserve your health as long as you can.  But if, despite your best efforts, illness overtakes you, be patient in bearing it and humbly wait for God's mercy.  This is enough.  Indeed, your patience in sickness and affliction may often be more pleasing to God than tender feelings of devotion in times of health."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 41

Again, the author commands his student to "beat relentlessly" on the cloud, so that he may experience the healing of God.

"And so stand firmly and avoid pitfalls, keep to the path you are on.  Let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God.  Pierce that cloud with the keen shaft of your love, spurn the thought of anything less than God, and do not give up this work for anything.  For the contemplative work of love by itself will eventually heal you of all the roots of sin.  Fast as much as you like, watch far into the night, rise long before dawn, discipline your body, and if it were permitted – which it is not – put out your eyes, tear out your tongue, plug up your ears and nose, and cut off your limbs; yes, chastise your body with every discipline and you would still gain nothing.  The desire and tendency toward sin would remain in your heart.

What is more, if you wept in constant sorrow for your sins and Christ's Passion and pondered unceasingly on the joys of heaven, do you think it would do you any good?  Much good, I am sure.  You would profit no doubt and grow in grace, but in comparison with the blind stirring of love, all this is very little.  For the contemplative work of love is the best part, belonging to Mary.  It is perfectly complete by itself while all these disciplines and exercises are of little value without it.  

The work of love not only heals the roots of sin, but nurtures practical goodness.  When it is authentic you will be sensitive to every need and respond with generosity unspoiled by selfish intent.  Anything you attempt to do without this love will certainly be imperfect, for it is sure to be marred by ulterior motives.  Genuine goodness is a matter of habitually acting and responding appropriately to each situation, as it arises, move always my the desire to please God."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 12


The Cloud of Unknowing: Let That Mysterious Grace Move

In this excerpt, the spiritual director uses the image of being wood to a carpenter.  The idea is that the practitioner of Centering Prayer is passive.  The goal is not to "do something," but to let something be done in you.  To let that mysterious grace move.

I come back to this image often.

"...become increasingly faithful to this work until it becomes your whole life.  

To put it more simply, let that mysterious grace move in your spirit as it will and follow it wherever it leads you.  Let it be the active doer and you the passive receiver.  Do not meddle with it (as if you could possibly improve on grace), but let it be for fear you spoil it entirely.  Your part is to be as wood to a carpenter or a home to a dweller.  Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here.  Be content to feel this mysterious grace sweetly awaken in the depths of your spirit.  Forget everything but God and fix on him your naked desire, your longing stripped of all self-interest."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 34


The Cloud of Unknowing: A Cloud of Forgetting

In this excerpt, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing instructs the practitioner that he must put a cloud of forgetting between himself and all created things.  That is to say, during this type of prayer, no thought is welcomed or indulged.  The author is describing apophatic prayer – what is sometimes conceptualized as "resting in God." 

"If you wish to enter into this cloud, to be at home in it, and to take up the contemplative work of love as I urge you to, there is something else you must do.  Just as the cloud of unknowing lies above you, between you and your God, so you must fashion a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and every created thing.  The cloud of unknowing will perhaps leave you with the feeling that you are far from God.  But no, if it is authentic, only the absence of a cloud of forgetting keeps you from him now.  Every time I say "all creatures," I refer not only to every created thing but also to all their circumstances and activities.  I make no exception.  You are to concern yourself with no creature whether material or spiritual nor with their situation and doings whether good or ill.  To put it briefly, during this work you must abandon them all beneath the cloud of forgetting.

For although at certain times and in certain circumstances it is necessary and useful to dwell on the particular situation and activity of people and things, during this work it is almost useless.  Thinking and remembering are forms of spiritual understanding in which the eye of the spirit is opened and closed upon things as the eye of a marksman is on his target.  But I tell you that everything you dwell upon during this work becomes an obstacle to union with God.  For if your mind is cluttered with these concerns there is no room for him.

Yes, and with all due reverence, I go so far as to say that it is equally useless to think you can nourish your contemplative work by considering God's attributes, his kindness or his dignity; or by thinking about our Lady, the angels, or the saints; or about the joys of heaven, wonderful as these will be.  I believe that this kind of activity is no longer any use to you.  Of course, it is laudable to reflect upon God's kindness and to love and praise him for it; yet it is far better to let your mind rest in the awareness of him in his naked existence and to love and praise him for what he is in himself."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 5

The Cloud of Unknowing: Contemplative Work of the Spirit

The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work, written by a spiritual director from the Catholic contemplative tradition in the 14th Century.  In it, the author describes a type of prayer in which one strives to reject all thought, hoping to experience and be healed by God in stillness of mind.  The author calls this state, one in which all thoughts are rejected and the mind is stilled, the cloud of unknowing.  He believes that encountering God in this way is the way to a changed spirit and character, and, ultimately, to union with God.  The modern Centering Prayer movement is based on the method of prayer found in this book.

Here, the author describes this "contemplative work of the spirit":

"This is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.  Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.  Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God's creatures or their affairs whether in general or particular.  Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.

What I am describing here is the contemplative work of the spirit.  It is this which gives God the greatest delight.  For when you fix your love on him, forgetting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and hasten to assist you in every way – though the devils will rage and ceaselessly conspire to thwart you.  Your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work; and, of course, your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together.  Yet for all of this, when God's grace arouses you to enthusiasm, it becomes the lightest sort of work there is and the one most willingly done.  Without his grace, however, it is very difficult and almost, I should say, quite beyond you.

And so diligently persevere until you feel the joy in it.  For in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing.  You will seem to know nothing and to feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. Try as you might, this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God.  You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love.  But learn to be at home in this darkness.  Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him who you love.  For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and this cloud.  But if you strive to fix your love on him forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin, I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself."

– The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 3


Thomas Keating's False Self

In his various discussions of Centering Prayer, Thomas Keating often uses the term "False Self."  This term has also been used by other writers including Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, etc.  Each author uses the term in a slightly different way.

For Keating, the False Self is created when we experience emotional trauma throughout our lives.  As we experience wounding in areas of our core psychological needs (for Keating, these needs are summarized in the categories of power/control, esteem/affection, and security/survival), we develop attachments to people, places, and situations that bring us comfort, and aversions to people, places, and situations that lead to discomfort in the light of these wounds. 

This collection of attachments and aversions results in what Keating calls "emotional programs for happiness."

A young child overhears his father saying, "I wish he was more like his brother," which attacks his core psychological need for esteem/affection.  The incident then becomes buried in the boy's subconscious.  He may not even remember the incident in adulthood, but, on a subconscious level, part of him continues to want to imitate his brother to achieve his father's affection.  The "emotional program for happiness" of "needing to be like my brother" becomes a deep part of who he is.  As a result, he develops attachments to things that make him more like his brother, and aversions to things that make him different.  These attachments and aversions, at least in part, continue to drive his behavior throughout life.

On this model, each human being has a host of emotional programs for happiness running at the same time, each based on our unique traumas.  These programs create anxieties as we interact with the world, and may even conflict with each other.  

For Keating, the False Self is our wounded self; and our self that searches for things in the world to help us deal with those wounds. 

The solution, for Keating, is experiencing the "Divine Therapy" through Centering Prayer.  As we get deeper into our practice and become more open to the presence of God, these incidents are released from the subconscious and we eventually become healed of our traumas.  Keating calls this the Archaeological Dig.  The result might be what Keating would call our True Self, our healed sense of self that has our core needs fulfilled through the presence of God.  

For more on Keating and Centering Prayer, check out the Centering Prayer page of the site.  

Thomas Keating and the Divine Therapy

Thomas Keating has a very influential psychological model through which he interprets Centering Prayer.  He calls it "The Divine Therapy."

In this model, during Centering Prayer, God takes a role similar to a psychotherapist.  Over time, as we experience deep rest in the presence of God, we begin to encounter emotional traumas that we have been holding within.  As this material from our unconscious is "released," we are able to address these incidents with God's help.  Here, Keating describes the process by which he believes we can become "purified":

"The second purpose of the Divine Therapy is the process of purification.  In the ongoing course of the treatment, we are gradually made aware of the dark side of our personality and of the repressed emotional trauma of a lifetime.  To state the issue in another way, we are made aware over time of whatever in us is opposed to the image and likeness of God in which we were created.  The affirmation of our basic goodness, as sublime as it truly is, is only half the story.  At the same time as these affirmations are going on, the Divine Therapist, proportionate to our desire to be healed of our false selves, is taking away the support systems that keep the false self firmly in place.  

Through external circumstances, but mostly through reducing our attachment to our emotional programs for happiness and our over-identification with our group, God regularly interrupts these delightful spiritual consolations with lengthy periods in which we confront the emotional wounds of a lifetime.  Thus, in daily life we are likely to perceive how we project our frustrating emotions on other people so that we don't have to feel them ourselves.  Or again we may indulge in various kinds of compensatory activity in which we try to manipulate other people or events to hide from ourselves painful emotional traumas that we may have been subjected to in early life and from which we are continuously running away through one means or another.  

The Divine Therapy, through the intensification of our experience of God and the deep rest that occurs from spiritual consolation, loosens up the residue of the painful emotional traumas.  In early childhood, in order to escape emotional pain, we are likely to repress these traumas into the unconscious.  God gently, but with incomparable skill, brings these emotional wounds and painful truths about ourselves to our attention both during prayer and in the course of daily life.  

The Divine Therapeutic process normally takes years to negotiate.  It is something like an archeological dig."

– Thomas Keating, On Divine Therapy

Thus Keating believes that through the ongoing practice of Centering Prayer we can become healed of our emotional wounds.

For more on Centering Prayer, Keating, and the Divine Therapy, see the Centering Prayer page.  The following is also some brief audio of Keating.  Much of his recorded work has also been made available for free on the Contemplative Outreach Youtube Channel.  

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.