Saturday, January 9, 2016

On Meditation and Centering Prayer – Part I

Interview with Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington William Meninger


Fulfilling a promise, overcoming all religious division and shallow new age thinking, it´s time to clarify any doubts and barriers on the way of loving contemplation described in The Cloud of Unknowing, magnificent work attributed to an anonymous fourteenth-century Carthusian monk and which he completed with another gem, The Book of the Privy Orientation [1].

In this mystical teaching meditation and contemplation are simply understood as a silent kiss between the Eternal Father and the Son who dwells in every human heart, or else between Husband-Spirit and the human Soul Bride.

Something that reminds of Solomon´s words:


Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins [human souls] love thee.
Song of Songs 1: 2-3

Many cultures have known the Lord in some of its aspects or attributes, as Creator Spirit and supplier, Mother Earth, but rarely in a complete form, let alone in such an intimate way.


In the early centuries of the past Era of Piscis, the Desert Christian Fathers discovered that the higher degree of sustained silent prayer is love for the One Lord.

However, discovering its love within and be able to rest on it, lying down or sitting still, requires very subltle guidance, understanding and spiritual discipline, because the mind tends to fall into self-delusions and the heart became a rock, feeling hardly as it should.

Hence The Cloud of Unknowing begins with a warning that makes clear this teaching is not for everyone, but only for those committed to the inner path, versed in the principles transmitted by those in the Way.

But far from being a secret teaching, it has seen the light for anyone interested and ready to assume responsibility.

The Trappist monks Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and William Meninger popularized this form of contemplation under the name of Centering Prayer, first by teaching their fellow monks, and then other people interested in the inner path.

All started in the 70s as an attempt to show there are methods as valuable as the Eastern forms of meditation that began to become popular at that time, due to the spiritual poverty of conventional mass Christianity in the West.

Nevertheless, as we will see, Centering Prayer includes meditations in its first steps, and from there it may lead to what might be called blissful contemplation and further on, to mystic union, which are in no way actions the practitioner does, for these come spontaneously when there is no resistance.

This three in one combination is generating increasing interest in the art of Centering Prayer.

The similarities and differences between Eastern and Western arts will become clearer as we proceed.

Now let's see what Father Thomas Keating says in relation to Centering Prayer:

Silence is not the absence of noise but the absence of resistance to God.

God is always present. We are the one who are absent.

The yearning you feel for God is actually God’s yearning for you, and this his yearning is an invitation to an incredible intimacy and tenderness.

These wise and simple words could perfectly be attributed to Sufi mystics like Rumi or Ibn Arabi, and it´s surprising to hear they come from a Catholic Christian monk –not just any one, but the old Thomas Keating.

He invites us to discover that our "resistances" are physical, mental and emotional. These keep us from receiving the finer energy of Love, causing pain and frustration.

To get rid of these resistances is precisely the aim of all kinds of true meditation, even though not all do it in the same way.


One approach is discursive meditation, whose attempt is to experience the content of a prayer, or bring to light subconscious material by means of reasoning, investigating points such as:

What subconscious thoughts and beliefs trigger negative emotions like laziness, boredom, sadness, anger, hatred, bitterness, pride...?

What kind of sensations and emotions there are and how are they related? etc

Then we have visual meditation, typical in cabalistic philosophy, where an intention is potentiated and proyected by means of concentration on symbols and letters.

Now, if these meditations are useful to clear up thinking and the soul-body relation, many forget the importance of silent analytical meditation, contemplative meditation and devotional.

Without accessing the Heart of Life fully, Divine Son in us, the Love of Massiah-Christ and Buddha in ourselves, there is no chance to make progress in the inner path, no matter how many rituals we do.

Unfotunately, there is much confusion about that subject, and many are misled.

Very popular is the so called Transcendental Meditation, which uses a mantra in order to transcend thinking. The problem is that this type is very limited and often leads to conditioned perceptions.

By contrast, Centering Prayer, which is rather devotional, uses a word that has meaning for oneself, but only as a first step and to focus the intention-attention each time there is a distraction, never to block the mind. Here longing and love is what propels the practitioner towards the center of gravity, as shown in The Cloud of Unknowing:

This is what you have to do. Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his fruits [namely for the benefits: bliss, healing, etc]

Moreover, Centering Prayer does not try to get rid of distractions but it rather needs them and uses them in order to put them aside and reassure compassion and love over and over again. If the mind gets off course a hundred times, attention returns to love a hundred and one, with double strength.
A similar type of contemplative meditation is Dhyana, the seventh limb of Yoga; specially the modality in Naqshbandi Sufism, as it was taught by Bhaisab and described by her disciple Irina Tweedie in the great spiritual diary Daughter of Fire. 
In Dhyana the mind is also absorbed by the love that comes from the silent heart, leading to samadhi, the mystic union.

Here Centering Prayer and Dhyana coincide, and can be expressed with verses of Rumi:

Love arrives complete like the moon at the window
Seek only that for which you have no clue
Wish only that for which you have no hope
This is not the Oxus river or one little creek
This is the shoreless sea
Here swimming ends, and always in drowning

Nevertheless, the Sufi modality of Dhyana has the inconvenient of trying to leave the body sensation right from the start, and this is not advisable without the presence of a Master, specially for non-expert practitioners, since any undesired devil or "cold energy" might get into a body which is not inhabited by mystic Love.

On the contrary, both Centering Prayer and the contemplative techniques of Desert Fathers, simply let Love flood the mind, heart and body, since one of the aims of the Way is to spiritualize matter and create an immortal divinized body.

...it is sown a natural body, but it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:44)

...the one who is united with the Lord is one spirit with Him (1 Corinthians 6:17)

This is also the aim of oriental paths, although these focus more on analytic observation on early stages.

A well known form of analytical and contemplative meditation is shamata-vipassana or relaxing-insightful vision, taught by the Buddha. 

This method has as objects the Laws of Dharma and the five aggregates of the egoic complex, starting with the attention to body sensation and breathing. Thus the mind does not fly away and is able to unmask the delusions of the egoic complex:

1) Name-Form (labelled objects: body, flower...)
2) Sensations (cold-heat, pleasant-unpleasant...)
3) Intellectual perceptions (labeling process)
4) Unconscious pulsions and desires.
5) Consciousness that accompanies each aggregate.

However, as the practitioner makes progress, he needs other objects of concentration such as Compassion and Divine Love.

This leads him beyond the egoic complex, helping him receive the shining of Being, known is Tibetan Buddhism as Mother Light or Rigpa.

That Light is none other than the Holy Spirit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine, for there is only one Being, and it dwells beyond all deceit.

The Way to Light is Compassion and Loving Mercy (Buddha)

Without Divine Love and Compassion, any form of meditation is empty and can easily lead to typical pseudo-nirvanic delusions or self-centredness,  being a waste of time. 

Buddha was one of the first in pointing this truth, abandoning the brahmanic fanatism. Of course, the Fathers of the Desert and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing were not the exception.


Now, these forms of meditation are only a preparation to acquire self-knowledge and understanding. But they are not self-sufficient, for Divine Grace plays an important role to take the aspirant higher.

Regardless of the chosen method, the important point is to understand that darkness has a pattern:

The narrow view leads to dual-divisive thinking, which hinders the flow of the Heart, triggering a negative emotions (restlessness, anxiety, anger, pride...), which in turn make one react blindly and destructively.

Exposing darkness and follow the Way of Light is the core of the Universal Way, which must include a daily practice that transcends thinking.

Hence in the interview Thomas Keating emphasizes the importance of sitting or lying down every day for a while, letting go of every thought-emotion with Centering Prayer.

The own experience tells me it´s very useful to include loving attention to breath and its spaces as well as body sensation, to make the mind stable. For what a greater sign of love than the air and life that keep our body alive?

Yet the bliss of contemplation only arrives when the Lord finds the house clean. 

Thus we understand what our being is and who dwells in it, transcending the illusions that make us captive.

The Being we really are, our deepest Soul-Self, can do anything, but it is not what we think, because it lacks selfishness:

I have been crucified with Massiah-Christ, and it´s no longer I who lives, but Christ-Massiah who lives in me (Galatians 2:20)

The Book of the Privy Orientation clarifies that:

Remember this distinction between the [Lord] and you: He is your being, but you're not his.

He is All in everyone (1 Corinthians 15:2)
The truth is that only the Supreme is and exists; there is only one Being with many attributes and functions: Father, Mother (ie Gaia-Earth), Son, plus the Holy Spirit, which is the kiss of light-love that unites them all.

It is therefore a serious mistake to say I am the Supreme God, and also a great joke. 

Such blunder is typical in narrow phisolophies, as that of Nisargadatta, author of I am That. Idea which easily leads to pseudo-mystic pride.

Not even the full human would say that, because a Human is the image of the Name of the Supreme, but not the Supreme itself, which is endless and indefinable.

The clearest example was the man Jesus or Yeshua, who came to say: I and my Father are one (John 10:30), but he knelt before Him, refusing to be equated to him (Philippians 2: 5).

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God [the Supreme], the firstborn of all creation (Colossians. 1:15)

In any case we are called to be members of God the Son, and we are already Mother-God,  being part of the Earth.

In a similar line of thought, the genius of Buddha denied the Brahmanic identification of atman or divine soul with the Supreme.

Thus he suggested the idea of anatta or non-soul as well as the idea of para-Brahman, beyond Brahman.

Yet this does´t deny the Real Self, which is Light itself:

In the teaching of Buddha, even the attachment to the idea of nirvana or cessation of vibrations, is illusory. As Nagarjuna clarified in the 2nd century:

 nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana.

Emptiness is Form and Form is Emptiness 
(Heart Sutra) 
Everything is vanity (Ecclesiastes I)
The Beloved One and its radiant Fullness is not separate from Life. The painful samsara –that wheel of forms that are born and die–, is only a veil or partial perception of the Light. When the Light awakens in oneself, all shines in its true Nature. 

Understanding what our being is and who dwells in it, prepares us to transcend philosophy and religion, and thus find the Truth that shines all over.

The Kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you, said Yeshua (Gospel of Thomas).

In the next article we will see in detail passages of the two works on Centering Prayer.
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[1] Highly recommended is the compilation and brief commentary of both works, accessible in Spanish translation at:

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