The Psychological Experience of Centering Prayer – Part 1, by Thomas Keating
THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
with Fr. Thomas Keating The Psychological Experience
of Centering Prayer This time I want to describe the psychological experience of the spiritual journey, if I may be so bold. In other words, we have a brief idea of the general pathology we’re dealing with. Obviously it needs profound healing. And as I understand it, the Gospel addresses itself to this pathology, to human nature, to view the human condition exactly where it is subject to these unconscious drives that we don’t even know about until we do deep psychotherapy or begin the spiritual journey and pursue it through the painful purifications that are part of the medication or part of the therapy. As you know, there’s been a great traditional paradigm for the spiritual journey called the friendship of Christ, or in the Middle Ages it was called the imitation of Christ. I’m suggesting here a contemporary paradigm which does not in any way denigrate from the other two very traditional and marvelous paradigms but adds a slightly further note to the idea of friendship with Christ. And although this isn’t missing from that note, it emphasizes it from the perspective of our contemporary understanding of psychology, which it seems to me, is almost a a handmaid of spirituality today, you might say. And since it’s street language almost, at least in the West, it’s a good way of presenting the spiritual journey as many people are turned off by some of the old terminology and the scholastic categories that even St. John of the Cross uses because that was his cultural conditioning. So let’s begin by just a dash of anthropology here— or just a spattering of anthropology. The first dot represents our conception. You might call this our personal Big Bang [laughter] because out of this moment of energy comes everything else. Doesn’t it? I mean, just like everything else came out of the first trillionth of a second. So we start to proceed there and around that this is the divine energy, the divine source. Let’s call that the divine presence. Divine for short. And this first layer around it, let’s call the true self without going into details of what that might be in infancy, but there’s some indication that the infant is in union with God, in union with the primal energy, and experiences bliss and experiences, you know, an identification of this energy with its mother who means everything to it in the first year and a half or so. So the false self project or the separate self sense begins about a year and a half or two when mother no longer does everything for the infant. And the infant begins to reach the conclusion that it has to go on its own, and it can’t count on blissfully returning to the womb or whatever is similar to it anymore because mama has other things to do. Now, so there begins then this development of the false self system. And that— that might be presented in different ways but let’s call this level around the true self our spiritual awareness, which is kind of all identified in one thing in the early year or so of life. And then we have the awareness that develops, you know, through early childhood as the emotional programs get solidified, emotional programs for happiness, which we’re built for happiness so we have to look for it somewhere. And the crucial human poignant problem is that the thing that would really give us happiness is missing in our growing up process, namely the sense of God’s presence. We lose that sense of unity when we move out of the dependence on the mother. This is at least the suggestion of several transpersonal psychologists at the present time. But this outward layer, let us call this our ordinary awareness once we have reached the age of reason and are beginning to have an ego of our own. Our rational life has reached a certain capacity to function. And we tend now to be dominated in our awareness by what goes on at the peripheral of our being, so to speak, by events, by other people, and by our emotional reactions to them. And this is precisely the level that we tried to get off temporarily in centering prayer to have a breather or a kind of vacation or to try to develope an awareness of the spiritual level. You might compare our ordinary awareness then, if you will, to being present at a very interesting movie, “Jurrasic Park” or something. Everybody likes that. Or some of these new pictures that are supposed to be so engrossing. So your whole attention is focused on the screen and you identify with the characters. And if it’s a good enough picture, you forget that you’re in the audience or in the cinema. Now this, I suggest, is our ordinary awareness of life. We’re living life as if we were at the movies. And what happens on the screen that is outside of us, external of us, determines what our emotional reactions are depending on what out particular energy centers are and our temperament and where you are on the Enneagram or wherever else you might be. And so our life is dominated by external experience. So there’s very little sense of the self except in moments of special intensity. And now suppose you were at a lousy movie. And you don’t identify with the characters, and you know you’re in the theater. Now you have the freedom to get up and leave. You could also stay if there’s motives for staying. But this could be a symbol of our spiritual awareness where our intellect in its passive capacity—that is the intuitive intellect— and the will to God are active but dormant until we awaken them through some process, and life sometimes serves that process. But the spiritual journey is meant to be an awakening to that level of our being whenever you take it up, and you could take it up in adolescence, early adulthood, midlife crisis, old age, senility. You might even make it on the dying process. Some people seem to wait till the last minute. I’m hopeful that a lot of good things happen in the dying process, ’cause I don’t know when else they could happen. In any case then, this process now if you just keep in mind these various stages— notice all in a feminist circular pattern. [laughter] We’re really with it here [laughter] in contemplative outreach. This gives us a chance now to look at the psychological experience of centering prayer over a long period of time. It could also happen if you’re quite advanced— some of it at least—in a single period of prayer. But let’s pretend that we’re condensing maybe two or three years of regular practice of centering prayer into a process that would explain our spiritual personal experience of the process as time goes on. So let us say now we’re going to do centering prayer. And we start out with the sacred word. And again let’s use a circular motion. Actually there’s no such thing as going straight to the top. This is not a ski tow. So we start our sacred word, and first of all, we have the usual stream of thought that we don’t want and a certain amount of returning to the sacred word to reinforce our original intention to be open, present to the divine action. And because we have habitually lost interest in the usual flow of thoughts, not many of them are attracting us anymore or causing aversions so that a certain peace descends on us or a sense of well-being. It may be specifically a sense of the presence of God, perhaps a certain joy—a quiet joy or consolation, a sense of being some place although you don’t know where. Remember, there’s no particular content to centering prayer but there may be an overall general sense of God’s loving presence enfolding us or perhaps gazing upon us or we gazing upon God, as the case may be, or listening to the sacred word as if this was the whole of Scripture condensed in that word that was being revealed to us. And this particular period of prayer, some aspect of that whole Scripture revelation was impressing us more than another. So all of those wonderful things—well being, coming home, a sense of peace, joy— we might call using the classical term from the early fathers of the church for contemplation, which is rest. Remember the term for rest in Latin is quies. And in Hebrew it’s sabbath. So the whole of the literature of the sabbath rest is talking fundamentally about contemplation on the allegorical level. Once you’ve grasped the four senses of Scripture, then the Old Testament opens up all kinds of mystical possibilities as regards its interpretation. So we’re moving then from the flow of thoughts, and we settle down after 5 or 10 minutes into a kind of rest. Now, the deeper the rest the more certain it is to reduce the defense mechanisms that we use to repress undigestable emotional material from early childhood or later on or a grieving that we didn’t complete for some deceased relative or friend, which is very common in our culture because we’re so busy. In the Philippines, you know, I think there’s a 60-day—isn’t it?—period in which—40 days— the deceased doesn’t do anything. They’re just free to grieve and nobody’s supposed to— What’s this?
– Survivors. – The survivors.
– Not the deceased. No, no, no. I meant [laughter] Well in the end it’s all the same. [laughter] But anyway, the survivors have 40 days in which nobody bothers them and they can write their letters and they can grieve. We don’t have that in the West. So an awful lot—I would bet an awful lot of grief is just shoved into the muscles or the tissue somewhere and causes you trouble. And sometimes you then grieve at the wrong things because they remind you of grief you haven’t expressed. Well anyway, here we have someone who’s kind of relaxed and delighting in the presence of God and is resting—resting beyond thoughts and feelings and isn’t interested in any thoughts that come down and have wonderful inner freedom, because you know you’re not interested in the thoughts. And you know that you’re not going to follow something that comes down that has a certain interest for you under ordinary circumstances. You’re free in other words. This is the marvelous thing about developing the spiritual level of our being. Let me just remind you that on this diagram here again is the divine presence, the true self on the spiritual level. So the rest then that you’re experiencing consciously on your ordinary level of awareness is the reflection that this spiritual level of your being is coming alive, is awakening, or reawakening, as you were. Now, the thought is this could go on forever. Or you thought, I’ve made it. I’m finally getting somewhere. Praise the Lord. I hope I can come back to this place tomorrow. The very fact that you have rest and the depth of your rest mean that you’re certainly going to experience unloading of the unconscious. So the deeper the rest, the more certain is the second moment, you might say, of prayer. Let’s call this the first moment of centering prayer. And here’s the second moment. And so you move on in the prayer to this point which might be called unloading. In other words, the body because of this deep rest and very diminished thought, is losing its defense mechanisms and whatever apparatus the psyche had devised to prevent painful experiences from early childhood from coming to consciousness. So now they start to emerge, and it changes the prayer dramatically, so instead of peace and quiet you now are experiencing the third moment of centering prayer, which is evacuation. And the evacuation takes the form of primitive emotions and thoughts that bear no relationship to your immediate past. This is what identifies them as coming from the unconscious. Namely they don’t—it’s not an argument you had recently. It’s not a desire. It’s not a grief. You don’t know why you have this upsurge, let us say, of anger or a flood of thoughts about what a terrible person your relatives are and so on when you normally like them. You might not normally have any trouble. And you may have grief. You may have pride. You may have lust. You may have anger. You may have apathy, which is a peculiar one, a kind of desire to withdraw from all your friends and relatives and God too and so on. So there’s a burst of energy in the form of emotionally charged thoughts. We call that the third moment, and this is evacuation. And that’s the time where the sacred word won’t be of any help, because it’s sort of blown away, you might say, by the hurricane of thoughts or feelings and a bombardment of thoughts. So what you do with that is just sit with it. Don’t get up and leave because it’s extremely valuable, and it’s the direct correlation of the rest. So if you want rest, you better want evacuation ’cause they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s inevitable if you enjoy deep breaths to have the unloading and to have the evacuation. And then when it subsides hopefully in the same period of prayer, but it could go on sometimes in the dark nights for some weeks, then you return to the sacred word where you started from when you can reach it. But notice, you don’t return to the same place you started from. Notice now you’re a little closer to the center. In other words, every time we evacuate something in the body that’s an obstacle to the divine flow of grace and energy, there’s space and into that space rushes the Holy Spirit with various gifts and so on. And so when you start down again, you’re closer to the center. You experienced some rest. The rest inevitably sets off some more unloading. The unloading expresses itself in the evacuation of thoughts. And you head back to start over again closer to the center again. Now this is a fascinating way of presenting the thing. In other words, this is a process. There’s no bad moments on it. It’s a healing process. It’s a kind of therapy. And the rest is not unlike establishing transference with a psychotherapist. As you know in some therapies, one identifies with the therapist from certain childhood attitudes. And the therapist then, by reflecting back acceptance for what we felt rejected for heals the emotions. This is so important to grasp that it doesn’t matter how intellectual you are, how much education you have, or how far you are in the hierarchical level. You never get rid of this stuff by a role. Roles are actually obstacles to it. The only way to get away from it is to go through it and to accept it, and it’s this process that enables one to perceive the dynamics of one’s own unconscious so that our hidden motives no longer influence our decisions, and our decisions are especially serious when they’re molded by selfish reasons, and we’re a big fact. In other words, all the presidents of the United States and the leaders of everywhere and all hierarchy are not fit for the job until they have been through this process. Put them in jail. Do something with them. But don’t put them in office because it’s an ego trip from the word go, and this is not the way to serve humanity, which is in desperate shape needing enlightened guidance. Well anyway, this is an individual issue here. How are we doing? Well, day after day we go through this process. Week after week we go through the process. Once in a while there are bigger unloadings than ever. And I think the ordinary flow of thought in actual fact are part of the evacuation once you commit yourself to this process. So that even the ordinary flow of thoughts are unloading the unconscious in my view but very gently so that many people don’t notice they’re unloading until they hit an oil well or something. And then they have an explosion of primitive thoughts which is a sign they’re really getting someplace now. In other words, the divine action is reaching deeper and deeper and deeper into their psyche and releasing the harmful material that was there. But just think of what it would be like to have a meal you hadn’t digested for three days on your tummy. And, well here are people who’ve had an undigested emotional experience on their psychological tummy for 30, 40, or 50 years. Well it’s not going to be too pleasant when it comes up. But nothing could be better for you. So I call this process the psychic nausea. [laughter] And here again it’s a practical value. It’s important to realize that the body is getting rid of it, and you don’t really have to figure out where it came from or analyze it. Once in a while the body tells you what it was. And it might be so serious you may need some psychotherapy to handle that material that is flowing, to get support in dealing with it because it’s so distasteful and so uprooting and so shocking. And so we welcome the assistance of a therapist. But they should not—a therapist should realize that this is a healthy process and that medication should be very delicately given so as not to hinder the process because the more rest, it’s absolutely certain the more stuff is going to come up. It’s as simple as that. And if we try to stop it from coming back, you simply push it back into the unconscious where the pathology is going to be continued in various forms and you’re never going to get cured. So it takes a little courage to undertake this therapy, and that’s why it seems to me that the Gospel— some of the Gospel sayings are a bit harsh. That’s because Jesus is saying, “I’m the physician.” And he would say today, “I’m the psychotherapist” obviously. And some of this stuff is tough to look at, and you need courage and you need to have, you know, are you willing to go ahead with this? In other words, the call to discipleship is this. It’s not running around the world. That could be done later after you — ’cause if you don’t you’d be running around the world for the wrong reason. In other words, the motivation of the unconscious is so subtle that it influences all our decisions until we have become aware of the dynamics of our own conscious and unconscious and have worked on it. So as they say today, to work on the self or in some therapies deprocess is really working on the same stuff, only I venture to say that the Holy Spirit goes far deeper and has a much more sublime goal in mind, and it’s nothing less than the transformation of all our faculties into the divine mode of knowing and loving. Union and unity. It’s an astonishing invitation. And it’s offered to everybody, as far as I can see. But it’s a healing process, and the medication and the therapy, at some times, is tough. But that’s not because God wants it that way. It’s because we’re so damn sick. We’re not prize packages. And we have this combination of drives for happiness that are deeply ingrained by the age of four complicated by the overidentification with our group and which are very hard to change. Contemplative prayer, in my view, is the divine therapy that is designed to heal that situation at its roots. So let’s suppose this process continues for a while. This goes around and around and every time you recycle and evacuate something through deep rest, you’re getting close to the center. Closer and closer to the center. You reach the true self. You go through that, and what happens when you hit bottom of the pile of your emotional junk? You’re in divine union. Where else could you be? There never was any obstacle except the ones that we put there. And as they’re unloaded through the divine therapy, then the Holy Spirit keeps filling all the spaces. So that having only our own junk to manifest in the world around us, we begin to have the gifts and beatitudes in the spirit that we share with one another rather than the false self. Notice please that this is a long-range process, and that the unloading may be very gentle for a while. It may explode at times, and this is where people need to be reassured and need help and need to rejoice that they’re making this much progress. And to be able to understand that the divine therapy is not designed to kill you. It’s designed to heal you. And so in this paradigm of the divine therapist as I see it, there’s an element of friendship but there’s also an element of healing because we are extremely sick. And so, I think we could stop there with this. This is obviously a two-dimensional diagram. We need to see this thing in three dimensions. So when we take this up again, I’ll provide you with another diagram, which shows what this looks like when it’s turned up like this and seen in its vertical dimension and not just its horizontal.