Thomas Keating emphasizes that Centering Prayer is not an exercise in concentrating, or focusing one's attention on something (such as a mantra), but rather is concerned with intention. The participant's sole goal is to "consent to God's presence and action during the time of prayer." Centering Prayer is more akin to the very ancient practice of heychasm as understood in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, in which the participant seeks the presence of God directly aided by the Jesus Prayer.
Basil Pennington, one of the best known proponents of the centering prayer technique, set out these guidelines for centering prayer:
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
- Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you (i.e. "Jesus", "Lord," "God," "Savior," "Abba," "Divine," "Grace" "Shalom," "Spirit," "Love," etc.).
- Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you. (Thomas Keating advises that the word remain unspoken.
- Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.
he first thing you need to know centering prater is is not an event, a quick fix or a fast track.. It is a discipline, a potential lifetime spiritual practice. You cannot experience the benefits of centering prayer over night or by trying it once.
Step 1: Create an environment that is conducive to contemplation
The first thing you need to do to practice centering prayer is to find or create a place where you can be comfortable sitting in silence for at least 15 minutes (20 minutes is ideal). When you become more acclimated to the practice you may go longer than 15 minutes, but that’s a good goal to start with.
Perhaps the best thing you can do for this is to wear comfortable clothing. I prefer either sweatpants or loosely-knit pants that don’t bunch up or press against my waist when I sit. I also have a firm pillow to sit on. I prefer to spend my prayer time sitting on the floor, though sitting in a chair is acceptable.
For some people, especially people with poor circulation or other physical problems, it may be impossible to sit comfortably on the floor for 15 minutes. That’s totally ok! The most important thing is to be able to sit in such a way that you can be relaxed and comfortable, but also alert.
It is very important that you be able to make your space as quiet as possible and minimize potentially-distracting sense input. I live in an inner-city neighborhood and have two cats, so I understand that can sometimes be difficult. Just do the best you can. Eventually you will learn how to focus despite noises you can’t control. I will admit that I have not yet figured out how to retain focus well when a cat licks my toes while I’m deep in prayer.
A lightly-scented candle or incense may help create a helpful atmosphere. If it helps with your focus then go for it. Sometimes it’s helpful for me; sometimes it isn’t.
2. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and regulate your breathing
I prefer sit on a prayer mat on the floor with my legs crossed. The lotus or half-lotus position, Make sure your back is straight but not rigid, with your hips and shoulders in line. If you’re in a chair, keep your feet flat on the floor.
You may want to set a timer. Again, I recommend at least 15 minutes to start, though if you want you can certainly do it longer. When you’re just getting started, it’s probably better to do it for a shorter time, but consistently. 15 minutes for three days is better than 45 minutes one day and zero for two.
You don’t need to “count” your breathing or anything like that; just breathe naturally. As you become more relaxed and ready your breathing will naturally deepen. I like to touch my tongue to the roof of my mouth, just behind my top two teeth, and breathe in and out evenly through my nose and mouth together. You may try that, or you may be more comfortable breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, or some other way. It’s entirely up to you and your own comfort. It is better to use both your nose and mouth than only one of the two.
Step 3: pick a word or short phrase for focus
You should pick a word or short phrase to repeat in your mind as your breathing begins to deepen. This can be a bit from scripture, or perhaps something that helps you think of God being close to you.
Many choose to repeat the word Abba, reasoning that if it worked for Jesus then it’s good enough for them. The specific word or phrase doesn’t matter as long as it helps you center yourself and recognize the presence of God about, around, and within you.
Eventually you will come to the point where you no longer need to consciously speak the word or phrase in your mind; you will have internalized it. At that point, you can wordlessly invite God to search your heart and begin the work of healing. When you find yourself distracted by outside things or your own doubts and fears, take up your word/phrase again to find your bearings and return to your internal place of peace.
Step 4: repeat this for 15 minutes or more
Do not become frustrated if you have difficulty focusing. It will come! Don’t try to push out your thoughts or struggle against them. Continue breathing and praying your word/phrase and allow thoughts to come and go.
If you feel frustration or condemnation, know that God is with you and will not allow evil to overcome you. It could be that through your thoughts God is showing you something. On a few occasions, a recurring thought has come to me during times of centering prayer that have been directly related to things God was working to change in me. Let them be, accept the fact of their existence, and keep allowing God to illumine your inner self.
Step 5: regain awareness of the world
After 15 minutes or however long you have decided to spend praying, open your eyes and slowly regain a sense of awareness of the world around you. Look around, taking in the colors, sights, and sounds. Notice the presence of God around you, and realize that it goes with you wherever you are.
You may need to stretch a bit after spending so long sitting in one place. Let thoughts come back without fighting against them, and begin to transition into whatever you need to do next. You might want to say another prayer to wrap up the time, such as the Lord’s Prayer or a personal prayer. I like to say either the Lord’s Prayer or the Collect for Purity from the Book of Common Prayer.