I’ve been fortunate. I have faced only one serious controversy in my ministry, but it was a doozy. In that “five-month moment” members were excited; members were exiting. Members were moving closer toward the center; members were moving out from the center. Letters to the Editor in the local paper, almost daily, were verbalizing “Yes! —Thumbs up!” while others declared, “No!—Thumbs down!” Telephone calls came in to the church office ranging from “Pass on my support” to “Pass on my disbelief, disdain, disagreement!”
“We have backed into a whirlwind,” was the feeling I named, but more than a passing feeling, it was the reality. All the signs of anxiety in the “family” were present: lots of blaming, “it’s your fault” . . . polarizing, taking sides . . . reacting like billiard balls bouncing off each other . . . and the urgent pressure to get through this, find some quick-fix, to “do something, Mahan” to lower the stress. The church was either splintering or splitting. I did not know which at the time.
There was outer chaos. There was inner chaos. I tried praying. I tried stress-reducing practices. I tried physical exercising. But none of these took me deep enough, down to some calmer center beneath the surface turbulence. The “monkey mind,” as the Buddhists smilingly name it, was unstoppable with thoughts, feeling and worries, like monkeys, jumping freely from tree to tree in my mind. The inner talking seemed endless.
A miracle happened. That’s a large word I seldom use, but this time it fits. I received in the mail a gift from a distant Sunday School teacher, a distance, in fact, of thirty-eight years. John had read about our controversy in the Nashville Banner. His miracle gift was Open Mind, Open Heart by Father Thomas Keating, with the inscription, “Thought this may be useful during these stressful days.” And it was, so much so that it inaugurated in me a new way of praying. Centering Prayer became a re-frame that mattered, a new perspective, and even more, a new practice. Mostly I look to books for insights, those “aha” moments that turn up the lights and illuminate a situation. Not this time. This book was different. It offered a practice.
This method of praying is an addition, not a replacement to my habitual ways of praying since youth, that is, with words, thoughts and feelings in prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, intercession, confession and petition. Other examples would be prayerful readings of the 23rd Psalm, praying with others the Lord’s Prayer, and, of course, the multiple hymns of praise and prayer. This use of words, thoughts, reason, memory, imagination, feelings and will is called kataphatic prayer.
This re-frame, introduced by John’s gift of Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart, is apophatic prayer. It’s about subtraction, not addition, about emptying, not filling, about relinquishing, not attaching. This way of praying bypasses faculties of the mind through a process of simply letting go of these thoughts and feelings as they surface. These thoughts, worries, plans, regrets—like monkeys—need taming, lest they consume all of our attention, each time taking us out of the present.
“Simply letting go,” noted in the last paragraph, is deceptive. On one hand, this method is simple; on the other hand, it remains my most challenging discipline.
The simple part is explaining the practice. You sit or stop, acknowledge rising thoughts into your awareness, then release the thoughts as they hold your attention, gently letting them go, sinking down into an non-anxious space of grace and trust—“resting in God,” in Keating’s words.
The hard part is doing the practice. We learn quickly how busy our minds are. External silence may be a challenge but internal silence seems an impossibility. The thoughts and feelings keep coming. Keating recommends this repetitive practice for twenty to thirty minutes once or twice a day: over and over, letting go, dis-identifying with the “monkeys” and returning to our deepest, given identity as being—being loved, being beloved, being love, light, being salt, being centered, being Christ-Spirit within. Actually, it’s inter-being we come to deep within, being profoundly interconnected, in communion, in relationship with others, all sentient beings, earth and Spirit. It’s an inner chamber where everything becomes more still, paradoxically both empty and full.
This additional gesture offers another way of practicing. Stop for a moment, take one of your hands, tighten it around a pencil or pen, grasping the object as firmly as possible. Then, release your grip, open your hand fully. Feel the freedom from the tension. Similarly, we grasp thoughts, then they grasp us, taking us away from the present moment. This prayer’s intention is to free us, at least loosen us a bit, from our grasping, opening us more fully our receptivity to the moment, sometimes to the Spirit’s leading in the moment.
In his poem, The Swan, Rilke captures this gesture. He pictures the swan lumbering awkwardly “as if in ropes through what is not done,” then, letting himself down into the water “which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him . . . [he being] pleased to be carried.” Centering Prayer invites that very movement of relinquishing our awkward pacing, letting ourselves down into the currents of grace, and knowing the pleasure and freedom of being carried.
Understand that the goal is not to eliminate the “monkeys,” as if we could. Obviously, my thoughts and feelings are making possible this essay. And at times these thoughts become anxious, “jumping from tree to tree.” But this is the gift from this method of praying: these busy thoughts need not take captive our attention, kidnap our creativity, subvert our calmness, or overwhelm and paralyze our responses. This regular practice of release and surrender—over time—patterns incrementally this gesture of release and surrender into our behavior, forming new neuronal pathways in the brain. A muscle develops, an inner, spiritual muscle of acknowledging and letting go that strengthens with practice over time.
Thomas Keating tells the story of a nun who was being trained in this method. After trying for twenty minutes, she lamented, “Oh, Father Keating, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.” His quick response: “How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!” This story makes the point: returning even ten thousand times speaks to our willingness and desire to transcend our busy mind, allowing a way of being beyond thoughts and words. The nun, we could say, was experiencing a vigorous aerobic workout of her muscle of surrender.
Cynthia Bourgeault, who has written in my judgment the finest book on Centering Prayer, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, calls this prayer “‘boot camp in Gethsemane,’ for it practices over and over, thought by thought, the basic gesture of Jesus’ night of struggle in the garden: ‘Not my will be done, Oh Lord, but thine.’” She adds, “It’s like putting a stick in the spoke of your wheels of thinking.”
Let’s go back to those few months of controversy in 1992. Return with me to the timely gift of Keating’s book. My desperate need led me to try it, to give this “letting go” practice a try. At first, it could take me only two or three feet beneath the turbulent surface waters. Not far, but far enough to taste its promise of a more calm center in the midst of the swirling anxieties around me and within me.
I remind you this is a practice. Think how much learning a language or playing the piano requires repetitive practice, some say as much as 90% practice and 10% innate skill. While presenting this method I don’t want to present myself as anything but who I am—a beginner. But each practicing can be a mini-vacation from my over-functioning ego.
During these years I have added a step that includes more of my body in the process. This counter-intuitive response welcomes the anxious thoughts and honors the “triggering event” that “pushes our buttons.” As I have noted, first is acknowledging the “monkeys.” But next, I seek to locate the emotion in my body, feel it, experience the anger or fear or frustration, or even praise, as fully as possible. Only then do I release it, allowing the letting of go to include all of me—body, mind, and spirit. (Full prostrations, the total surrender of the body to the supporting floor, is for me Centering Prayer acted out, embodied.)
Bourgeault, in her book, presents this Welcoming Prayer as a way of carrying this practice into daily life. Not limited to private times of twenty minutes or so, this welcoming practice during a given day can potentially break the cycle of re-activity that usually accompanies “triggering events.”
Centering Prayer has gifted me in ways that other spiritual practices have gifted you. It has been for me a primary way to keep finding the center outside of ego and stake there my deepest identity. Over and over this practice invites the return to my core, being “rooted and grounded in Love,” a Love that seeks incarnation in my particular person as it does in yours. This method of “taming the monkeys” opens the inner space, reveals the roots, grounds me in Shalom’s summons that sends me back into the fray.
Much of the time, like the nun, I fail. The “monkeys” are too active to tame. But over the years I have come to notice within me a stronger muscle of release and surrender, enough for it to be a re-frame that has mattered.