“Deliberately dismantle the emotional programming of the false self”

by Cherry Haisten
member of Welcoming Prayer service team

At the end of early editions of Open Mind, Open Heart appears a list Thomas Keating calls “Means of Extending the Effects of Centering Prayer into Daily Life.” “Deliberately dismantle the emotional programming of the false self” is #5 on the list. Amusingly enough, #4 is “Carry a minute book.” Well, making a minute book to carry with you any elementary school child might be able to do. Get out your paper, scissors and glue; cut out favorite sayings, quotes, and passages; stick them in a little blank journal, and voila! You have a vade mecum for instant reminders of your intentions.

Not so easy to accomplish #5. Dismantling the false-self system is not a project for a rainy afternoon in a grade school classroom but rather a lifetime proposition. And truly it’s not something we do at all. The Holy Spirit directs this project. Our job is to consent to cooperate by practicing our practices, of which Centering Prayer is the foundation.

As has often been said, Centering Prayer initiates a process of transformation. Initiates. Much will follow, including the unloading of our unconscious where all the wounds, hurts, traumas, stresses experienced over our lifetimes are stored. Thomas Keating defines unloading the unconscious as the “spontaneous release of previously unconscious emotional material from early childhood in the form of primitive feelings or a barrage of images or commentaries” (Open Mind, Open Heart 2006, 190). Unloading may also manifest as physical sensations. We remain at the mercy of the contents of our unconscious and how they affect our behavior as long as the contents remain buried and unhealed. As we go through the moments of Centering Prayer time after time, day after day, Thomas Keating points out, the “emotional programs of early childhood that are buried in your unconscious begin to emerge into clear and stark awareness” (Open Mind, Open Heart 2006, 97). When they emerge dragging up their childish demands and all that goes with them, the healing process can look messy and unattractive; when we let go of our tight control of the image we project, our behavior becomes more unpredictable and perhaps more volatile. The reality of this messiness is difficult for the false self to accept, but it is a necessary and unavoidable part of healing. It chips away and breaks apart the false self, that homemade self-image we are attached to. “Trust in God is so important,” Thomas Keating writes about this process. “Without trust we are likely to run away or say ‘There must be some better way of getting to Heaven.’”   (Open Mind, Open Heart 2006, 96)

So what is going on in this unattractive but necessary healing process? It starts in the rest Centering Prayer provides. Here’s how Thomas Keating puts it:

“Suppose we were in a dimly lit room. The place might look fairly clean. But install a hundred bulbs of a thousand watts each and put the whole room under a magnifying glass. The place would begin to crawl with all kinds of strange and wonderful little creatures. It would be all you could do to stay there. So it is with our interior. When God turns up the voltage, our motivation begins to take on a wholly different character . . . .”

Our illusions–or delusions–about how good and pure our motivations are fall away and we begin to see the underlying needs for security-affection-esteem, the defensiveness and protective posturing resulting from wounds in early childhood, and the way those needs determine our choices and behaviors.

When God turns up the voltage and shines the light on our interior space, Mary Dwyer paraphrases Thomas Keating, we can see more clearly and we realize that “the place is crawling with critters! They were there before, but we were not aware of them. Now that we are, it is very uncomfortable. And this is an enormous gift. As our awareness increases we are able to respond in love by turning to the Divine Indwelling and saying ‘HELP!’”

If the Spirit simply made us aware of our motivations and silently cleaned them up, the process would seem tidy and painless but the wounds would not really be healed nor the motivations purified. We could hang on to the image of ourselves as pure and pious, but ironically the false-self system would remain intact. Any changes would be superficial.

That’s not how dismantling works. The rest Centering Prayer provides relaxes our defenses and allows unloading of all the old stuff that we have held so long in unconscious storage to try to protect ourselves. In the time of prayer we might or might not be aware of unloading. Sometimes it may take the form of itches and twitches and physical discomfort. When that happens, our unconscious may be sloughing off the scabs without the nature of the wounds or the programs to deal with them coming fully into consciousness. Other times some memory may pop up. We may notice it, become aware that we are thinking about it, and return ever-so-gently to the sacred word, trusting in the Spirit to do its work of healing. At other times, unloading occurs outside the time of prayer in our behavior and reactions to what is happening in our lives. For example, ten minutes after what seems to me a wonderful, refreshing, peaceful period of Centering Prayer transforming me into the saint I think I really am, I find myself flying off the handle at my husband over some slight irritation or I come into the office and immediately snap at my colleague. I’m shocked myself at this behavior. It’s what St. Paul describes in Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 17:15-20)

This unexpected and unwanted behavior is part of unloading. Centering Prayer initiates the process of transformation; it initiates unloading and dismantling of the false-self system. But that process does not begin and end during our periods of Centering Prayer when we may or may not be aware of it. Rather the process is continuous, at some times more intense and evident than others in the ordinary routines of daily life. As Thomas Keating points out, the Welcoming Prayer is a way of letting go into the present moment in the midst of these routines. And it’s a way of working with the contents of the unconscious, reaching deeply into the hidden recesses where the wounds and needs lurk.

Healing may take place whether we become fully aware or not, but over time we will inevitably become aware of and begin to take responsibility for some of our patterns of behavior. And then what do we do?

Remember that #5 on Thomas Keating’s list of suggestions in the early editions of Open Mind, Open Heart is “Deliberately dismantle the emotional programming of the false self.” It’s interesting to note that in later editions #5 on the list of suggestions becomes “Practice the Welcoming Prayer.” Thomas Keating elaborates on this point:

“Observe the emotions that most upset you and the events that set them off, but without analyzing, rationalizing, or justifying your reactions.” In practicing the Welcoming Prayer, we are letting go into the present moment and whatever it holds. Specifically, Thomas Keating says to use the Welcoming Prayer “when your needs for security, affection, and control are frustrated or gratified and cause emotional reactions [or turmoil]. It is a way of turning everything over to God by using . . . three simple movements . . . ” (Open Mind, Open Heart 2006, 168-69).

Here are the movements of the Welcoming Prayer Keating refers to as currently taught in Contemplative Outreach:

  1. Focus, feel and sink into what you are experiencing this moment in your body.
  2. “WELCOME” what you are experiencing this moment in your body as an opportunity to consent to the Divine Indwelling.
  3. Let go by repeating the following sentence: “I let go of the desire for security, affection, control, and embrace this moment as it is.”

Thomas Keating explains that letting go “means passing through the experience, not around it, not running away from it, or stuffing it back into the unconscious” (Open Mind, Open Heart 2006, 168-69).

In the list of means to extend listed in the back of Open Mind, Open Heart, Thomas Keating gives other suggestions: practicing guard of the heart, listening to and studying scripture every day, celebrating the Eucharist, practicing unconditional acceptance of yourself and others. All of these go into what Mary Margaret (Meg) Funk calls our contemplative toolbox. Each of us needs a combination of practices to move toward praying unceasingly, to making our life prayer. Our lives are full of many elements, and each element may need a different form of prayer. Over time, we don’t really have to think about what kind or when, rather we move through them organically in response to the content of the present moment.

But as we get into the dirty work of dismantling the false self, we need a heavy-duty tool. In Centering Prayer we may use a feather duster to shoo thoughts aside gently. In daily life, a feather duster might be good for a quick cleaning but it’s not adequate to get at the tough stuff. We need a vacuum cleaner that truly sucks! If you don’t find any of the dirty stuff under your sofa, then maybe you don’t need the heavy equipment, but if some pretty scary looking arachnids rear their heads from time to time, you might want a stronger approach.

Some wise Contemplative Outreach teachers of the Welcoming Prayer over the decades, including Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler, Carl Arico, and Bernadette Teasdale, have pointed out that, under some circumstances, some of our active prayers may have the effect of repressing some unexpressed feelings that are beginning to emerge as part of the unloading process. In a case like that, Welcoming Prayer is crucial for the healing of the unconscious.  Welcoming Prayer works directly with the needs for security, affection, and control and the unloading process to help heal the wounds of a lifetime stored in the unconscious which in turn resides in our bodies. “The issues are in the tissue,” is a phrase coined by Carl Arico. That is where healing occurs as we consent to God’s presence and action moment by moment in the events and situations of daily life and welcome what we are experiencing this very moment in our bodies.

Some Centering Prayer practitioners say that they do not practice the Welcoming Prayer, that it never really clicked for them. Surely everyone cannot practice every prayer form available to us and different combinations may “work” for different individuals. Yet, if you know there is something that might help you do more than polish your self-image, more than give you a stopgap, if you have a tool in your toolbox that can take you beyond a reliance on comfort and empower you to take risks on behalf of Christ and Christ’s people, if you want a tool that you can carry into the tough spots of daily life, then take another look at the Welcoming Prayer. Give its three simple movements another try. You may be surprised at what you have been missing. You may begin to experience how profoundly welcoming works within you toward your healing and transformation. “Deliberately dismantle the emotional programming of the false self,” Thomas Keating advises. “Practice the Welcoming Prayer.”

For more about the Welcoming Prayer and helpful resources, go here.
There is also a playlist of helpful learning and practice videos on our YouTube channel here.