Where Should the Attention Be in Centering Prayer?


Q: First, let me send you my sincerest gratitude for all that Contemplative Outreach does. After several years of Buddhist meditation, I have found my home in the teachings of Fr. Thomas and other great mystics, and feel very blessed to be a part of this community.

My question is regarding Centering Prayer. I have been practicing it for a few months and am not sure that I am on the right track. Other methods of “meditation/prayer” use some sort of anchor to give the monkey mind something to grasp on to, whether it is the breath, sound, a mantra, or the Jesus Prayer. In Centering Prayer, as I understand it, the goal is simultaneously to let go of all thoughts and also to watch thoughts go by without getting involved with them. In open awareness meditation one lets go of the anchor and “watches” thoughts, sensations, emotions, sounds, etc go by. Is this similar to what we should be doing in Centering Prayer? Or should one be leaving those thoughts, sensations, emotions, sounds, etc as soon as one becomes aware of them? If so, where does one’s mind go to? I can have the intention of resting in God, but I struggle to know where my attention should be. If I should not focus on the sacred word itself and not contemplate God Himself, what should my attention/awareness be doing?

Again, thank you so very much for your efforts in bringing the wisdom tradition and contemplative prayer to laypersons. I cannot express how fulfilling it is to finally sense that I am growing in God and God is growing in me as I learn more who my True Self is. God bless.

A: Thank you for this excellent question and for your clear articulation of the challenges that many face when they transition from other methods of meditation into Centering Prayer. As you describe, many forms of meditation are concentrative, providing an anchor for the attention. Centering Prayer is instead a form of surrender. Like you and many others I spent some years in Buddhist meditation before I found my home in Centering Prayer. At the beginning I often had the feeling that I was not doing it right and even now after many years of practice still sometimes find myself bewildered and disoriented. In Centering Prayer, we are no longer doing, neither focusing on an anchor nor watching the thoughts go by. Instead, we let go of doing, and of “doing it right” and instead rest effortlessly in God’s presence. This is of course unfamiliar territory, but gradually we can develop a deep trust of the practice. Something is happening, but God is doing it, not us. David Frenette in his book The Path of Centering Prayer describes it this way:

Not realizing that you are praying means that God is praying, awakening, in you.  Not knowing that you are praying means that the workings of your intellectual mind are unknown or secret from your awareness and from the self who lives behind reflective thinking.   

You’re being invited into a trusting, receptive state in which God is doing the praying within you. Your own doing or not doing hardly matter during the time of the prayer. Simply continue to practice the prayer, renewing your intention to allow God to transform you, and disengaging yourself from your thoughts whenever you find yourself entangled in them. Gradually your new home of trust and surrender will begin to feel more familiar.

Warm regards,

Lindsay Boyer