Q: “I am new to Centering Prayer. I have historically meditated with a focus on the breath. I am having a difficult time not focusing on my breath throughout every Centering Prayer practice. Is this right? It doesn’t feel “silent”.
Joy: It is a good thing to check in about what you are doing in your practice, especially when it doesn’t feel quite right. And I know from personal experience that there can be a bit of adjustment if you have been doing a different type of meditation practice. The intention behind Centering Prayer is different from practices of focus or attention – it is a practice of surrender. With each return to the sacred word we empty ourselves of our usual ways of thinking and being, and affirm our intention to consent to God’s presence and action. As Paul describes in Romans 8:26, the Spirit prays through us.
As you know, there are breathing practices and they can bring our awareness into the present moment. This can be very valuable at particular times. However, your instinct is correct: intentionally focusing on the breath or on anything else is not Centering Prayer. And also, trying hard not to focus on your breath takes a lot of effort, as you noticed!
In Centering Prayer, anything that draws us away from our open consent, our resting in God, we call a “thought”. “Thoughts” can include strong emotions and body sensations as well as mental stories and images. Any of these things may be present during our Centering Prayer – they are normal aspects of our human nature. But when we find that they divert our attention, that we find ourselves engaging them instead of abiding with God, we let them go.
Centering Prayer is a practice of trust. As we let go, we trust that we let go to God’s loving arms. We let go of the notion that we need to “do” anything, or change anything about who we are: God loves us into being, and continues to love us exactly as we are. In this abiding trust we enter interior silence; however briefly, whether noticed or unnoticed. And remember, even if you find yourself letting go over and over again of your efforts, or of anything else, this is not a sign that you are failing – it is the heart of the practice. You are learning a new way: letting go to God. You will find (or perhaps your loved ones will notice first!) that this new way begins to permeate your life and your way of being in the world, bearing the fruits of the spirit mentioned in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control. As we let go to God, God brings blessings into the world through us.
One more comment about the breath – the sacred word is a symbol of our intention to consent to God’s presence and action. Instead of the sacred word we could also use a sacred breath, or sacred glance. In this case the sacred breath would be introduced very lightly and briefly, “like a feather on absorbent cotton”, as Thomas Keating liked to say, rather than a continuous focus.
I hope this helps to clarify things for you. Thanks so much for reaching out; please do so any time.
Blessings on your journey!
A follow-up comment from our community:
” I was reminded by the writer who was having trouble switching from a breath-based meditation to Centering. A long time ago, I discovered that by paying attention briefly to the end of the exhaling breath before the next inhaling one, that there is a short period of nothingness. That space, to me, was the complete letting go into God’s presence and the non-engagingness I was looking for. I was able to remain there and not concentrate on breathing and/or other distractions, so began using this technique as my ‘sacred breath.’ I still use this technique sometimes as well as my ‘sacred word’ sometimes. I offer this suggestion as a way to perhaps help those who might find it useful.” Wilma Y.