Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Are There Distractions In Centering Prayer?

Fr. Thomas Keating, former Cistercian Abbot, author of numerous religious books, and founder of Contemplative Outreach, wrote somewhere that “There are no distractions in Centering Prayer.” What I think he means is that distractions are a normal part of Centering Prayer and we should not be disturbed even if they dominate our prayer period as long as we keep employing our sacred word or equivalent. He uses the following analogy. He compares our thoughts to tightly packed boats sitting on a river. When we do something to reduce this number “space begins to appear between the boats. Up comes the reality on which they are floating.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, p. 110)

We reduce the number of boats by our centering practice. Each time we become aware of a thought we say our sacred word. The question arises as to what we mean by becoming aware of a thought? This can be confusing for some of us. For me I relate the boat to an idea or sentence passing through my mind. When I find that a single sentence or thought leads to another similar sentence or thought, that is they are connected in some specific way, I identify this as becoming aware of a thought in centering prayer terms.

However, this thought sequence could go on for awhile before I actually become aware that this has happened and that I need to use the sacred word. Then if I fail to use the sacred word or whatever it is that I do to ignore the boat, I am allowing myself to be distracted. The key point for me is that, the fact that I got hooked on some special thought and my mind wandered in that direction, is not a distraction even though it lasts for a few minutes. It is only a distraction if, when I realize what has happened I linger on the thought, (perhaps it so enticing or seems so important), instead of immediately invoking my sacred word.

Surprisingly, Centering Prayer can be particularly helpful when we attend Mass or perform other devotions such as the Rosary. Regular and consistent practice of Centering Prayer is similar to an athlete training for a sport. We are trained by Centering Prayer to be much more conscious of our thoughts and often, more importantly, our feelings. Consequently when we attend Mass and a sudden distraction or emotion overtakes us and draws us away from the Mass, the discipline/training involved in our Centering Prayer practice helps us to recognize this distraction much more quickly and recover our attention to the Mass more easily.