For the past few years, I’ve been seeing a wonderful counselor. I sought therapy because I felt like I was being pulled apart by various events — a death in the family, a breakup, general stress about work, and overall uncertainty about my life’s direction — and I wanted to develop tools for coping and building resilience.
For the first few months, we worked specifically on mindfulness with what’s called the “Wheel of Awareness.” The basic idea is that every person has an internal hub — a point of equilibrium. When we feel stress, it’s because we’ve wandered off on one of the spokes and are teetering somewhere along the edge of the wheel. Mindfulness exercises can help bring us back to our center, where we can observe events and feelings from a more integrated perspective.
Mindfulness exercises like the Wheel of Awareness and meditation apps like Calm or Headspace are incredibly popular at the moment. When I feel fragmented or pushed to the breaking point, these practices are incredibly helpful in alleviating stress, cultivating a healthy perspective relative to things I can and cannot control, and rediscovering a sense of wholeness.
After working with these practices for a while, though, I began to find them wanting. Deep down, I knew that no matter how aware or enlightened I became about myself, my feelings, and my tendencies, I could not fix the foundational brokenness that was causing my inner turmoil. I realized that as helpful as mindfulness exercises are in facilitating our journey inward, the only thing waiting for us at the center is the self. If I were going to make any real progress, I knew I couldn’t rely completely on myself. I needed Someone Else.
Around this time, I rediscovered a Christian practice called centering prayer. I had heard about it before, but had never really practiced it myself, because it seemed a little too new-agey for me — which is ironic because, as I later learned, centering prayer has been practiced by Christians for centuries.
Centering prayer uses what’s referred to as a “sacred word” or phrase to provide an anchor point for the mind, allowing one to leave behind any inner chaos by gently and consistently returning to that word or phrase. As in meditation, the point here is to make a journey inward — centering oneself, as the name suggests — but unlike meditation, centering prayer isn’t a monologue with oneself. It’s a dialogue with God. When we arrive at our center, we discover that we are not alone. We discover the One who has been waiting there in love for us all along, waiting to put us back together, to bring us back to ourselves — back to himself.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of moving beyond traditional meditation and into this form of meditative prayer, here are a couple of simple ways to explore centering prayer.
First, the Jesus Prayer is an ancient way of placing oneself in the presence of the Son of God. As baptized Christians, we have been united with Jesus Christ, so he is always present within us, but of course, our awareness of this great mystery fluctuates constantly. The Jesus Prayer reminds us that we are never alone, that Jesus is always with us.
There are many versions of this prayer; arguably, the most well known is: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But simply praying the name “Jesus” either aloud or in your heart is also a form of the Jesus Prayer, for this is no mere name. The name “Jesus” is the name — it is the name by which we are saved.
Praying Jesus’ name invokes his presence and his power. In whatever situation you find yourself, you can always close your eyes, inhale deeply, and breathe forth this name above every other name. You can be assured that Jesus is already there with you, bringing you back to the center of your heart, where he has been waiting to fill you with his love.
Second, you can practice centering prayer using a sacred word of your own choosing as described above. In considering your sacred word, it’s best to go with something short, and something that doesn’t immediately evoke an emotional response within you. Otherwise, you’ll be tempted to focus on the surface emotions rather than moving toward a deeper encounter with God. Examples of sacred words include: grace, love, peace, Abba, Jesus, Spirit, etc.
Allot 15–20 minutes for centering prayer, and set a timer to alert you when the time has ended (non-jarring ringtones are best). Find a seated position that you can hold comfortably without dozing off. Close your eyes, take several deep breaths, and gently introduce your sacred word.
This word is a symbol of your consent to God’s presence and activity within you; in this practice of prayer, your “job” is not necessarily to do anything, but to simply be present — allow God to be the one doing the work here. If your mind wanders, reintroduce your sacred word, and resist the temptation to berate yourself for being distracted.
When your time of prayer has ended, you’ll likely be faced with another temptation — to evaluate “how it went” or ask yourself “how did I do?” Accept your time of prayer for what it has been, surrender it to God, and trust that God is present and working — whether you are keenly focused or endlessly distracted.
These simple practices of centering prayer incorporate techniques of traditional meditation like cultivating awareness and developing mindfulness — but they go beyond meditation because they help to facilitate an encounter between the creature and her Creator. Whereas meditation can turn us inward completely on ourselves, centering prayer opens us up to a deep encounter with God.
Editor’s note: to learn more about the Jesus prayer or centering prayer — and other Catholic prayer practices — check out Carolyn’s book, Ten Ways to Pray: A Catholic Guide for Drawing Closer to God.