Thoughts About Thoughts

by Eben Carsey, Boulder, Colorado, USA

The Centering Prayer method is a prayer of intention to consent to the being, presence, and action of God within. During prayer, thoughts arise. In the language of Centering Prayer, “thoughts” include body sensations, feelings, images, reflections, memories, other intentions, etc.  As thoughts arise, I respond to them “ever-so-gently,” without retention, rejection, or reaction, returning to my sacred word, breath, or glance that symbolizes my intention of consent to God.

My capacity for ever-so-gently responding to thoughts is influenced by my attitude toward them and ways in which I understand them. Recently, a good friend of mine passed on this quote from John Chapman OSB (25 April 1865 – 7 November 1933), “God is in every feeling that we have — in it, moving through it, opening us (if we consent)—deeper faith sets context.” God created us as sentient beings, beings with feelings and emotions. Given deeper faith as a context for deeper consent, even afflictive feelings, like St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh, can be God’s way of acting in us and eventually transforming us.

What John Chapman said about our feelings can also be applied to other “thoughts” that arise.  For me, noticing my breath becomes a potent symbol of God’s presence and action within, supporting my very existence; likewise, it has been a potent symbol of my consent to God’s presence and action.  God created us as reflective, thinking beings with memory, imagination, and intentions. So whether it’s awareness of body sensations, feelings, or other thoughts that arise, their arising is rooted in God’s being, which is to give being, and God’s continuing presence and action in love, supporting me in my existence. (Similarly, God’s being, presence, and action allows a tree be a tree and a stone be a stone.)

Understanding “thoughts” in this way has helped me to be more open and welcoming to them and, since God is in them, to bless them.  To bless them does not necessarily mean to approve them, and it does not require engaging with them, examining them, nor controlling them.  Blessing them involves a gentle attentiveness to them, recognizes God’s presence in them, and releasing attachment to them, letting them go to be in God.

Finally, I have found practicing Centering Prayer with this understanding of “thoughts” to be an aid in the initial stages of discernment, which is a process of sorting thoughts while opening to and following the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Although I enter the process of discernment because of the need or call to make a decision and to guard my heart in faithfulness to that decision, cutting off other possibilities and distractions, the initial stages involve opening in prayer to all of the promptings of the Spirit that might arise in the form of thoughts.  As I sit in Centering Prayer, it is likely that thoughts that arise will often be related to my discernment process.  Although I simply release these thoughts in blessing during prayer rather than examining them, I trust that the ones that are important will return to me later (Ecclesiastes 11:1).  My experience with blessing these thoughts in prayer can help me to welcome them all with more inclusiveness, indifference, and detachment, allowing me to see them more clearly and to see new possibilities, no matter how they might initially strike me.  As I prayerfully look deeply into them, even those that seem to be the most reprehensible, I might be able to find God’s presence moving in them.  As Rebecca Cown quotes Gregory of Nazianzus in her preface to Meg Funk’s Discernment Matters, “Whatever is not consciously embraced cannot be transformed.”