Mindfulness practice can be a useful compliment to spiritual practice. They both involve developing our sensitivity to what is going on beneath the surface of our usual hurried days. If you are part of a praying religion then centering prayer, or what is sometimes called contemplative prayer, is one way that you might be able to combine prayer and mindfulness together. It is not prayer in the traditional sense, and it is not mindfulness in the traditional sense either, but is instead a hybrid of the two. Because of that combination it may take some practice and experimentation for you to figure out if this method is helpful to you. There is potential here though to connect to your own faith and experience it on a deeper level.
Centering prayer is based on Christian traditions and ideas. Some trace centering prayer back to the earliest Church Fathers and their meditations in the deserts of their day. Centering prayer has also been connected to a Christian book titled The Cloud of Unknowing, perhaps published for the first time in the 14th century by an anonymous monk.
More recently, Thomas Merton spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about the idea of Christian contemplation. Most of his books were published from the 1950s up through the 1970s. Many of his ideas may have influenced the more modern understanding of Christian mindfulness and contemplative prayer. Currently, Thomas Keating, another monk who is not to be confused with Thomas Merton above, is considered one of the vanguards and authorities on Christian contemplation. He is connected to the Contemplative Outreach which works to discuss centering prayer and related ideas. The practice of centering prayer, as it will be laid out below, is based on the guidelines created by Thomas Keating and this group.
The main idea of Christian contemplation is to experience God more fully and more directly, not only through studying and thought but through direct experience. Centering prayer is one of the methods that was developed to help people better open themselves up to that direct experiencing. Centering Prayer is taught using four basic steps. Below I present the four steps, as well as a few notes on each step to help you understand it a little better, especially in the larger context of mindfulness practice.
The Four Guidelines Click on each to reveal notes...
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
This can be basically any word that carries spiritual significance to you, including one of the names of God or a spiritual principle such as "grace" or "love." The word itself is meant to be a tool to calm the mind by giving the mind something to focus on.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and then silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God's presence and action within.
This is not meant to be a meditation on the word itself. Instead, you repeat the word in your mind with gentle repetition until the word almost begins to lose its meaning. The word occupies the mind and so calms the mind, allowing other parts of your being to open. This is the essence of religious chanting.
3. When engaged with your thoughts, return gently to the sacred word.
This refers to any time when you find yourself thinking about anything outside of that word you are gently repeating to yourself. It is when you become distracted, and we all become distracted doing these kinds of exercises. For more on this refer to my main page on mindfulness.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
Depending on how deeply you go with this exercise it can be jarring to end it too quickly. Give yourself a chance to gently return to your full senses.
Ultimately the goal of these four steps is to help you to achieve a state of openness. In this way you are in a better position to directly experience God. Some have reported strong spiritual experiences after practicing this exercise daily for some time. Others report a simple but growing sense of peace. Only time and practice will reveal the specific way that this kind of exercise will benefit you.