Mindful Centering: A New Approach to Contemplative Prayer

(I am a long-time member of Contemplative Outreach and a former member of the Chicago chapter’s volunteer “circle of service.”  Here, I discuss the origins of a new form of meditation I’m calling “Mindful Centering.” If you’re interested, I will be teaching Mindful Centering for the first time, starting this Tuesday, January 16.  For more information on the course (offered by the Theosophical Society) , please visit the Society’s website.)

I first attempted contemplative prayer in the Fall of 1987. I remember sitting on the floor in the bedroom of my small grad student apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I sat there trying to pray as I thought a contemplative would. I remember being able to sometimes sit for an hour, but struggling with distractions, flights of fancy, and a general sense of not knowing what I was doing!

Since that first attempt, I’ve experienced many forms of spiritual practice, including Centering Prayer, which I discovered in the 1990’s, but also Zen Buddhist Mindfulness and other forms of meditation. Although I was tempted to drop out of grad school to follow my spiritual longing, I finished the doctorate in biochemistry that had brought me to Ann Arbor and moved to Chicago in 1992, having realized my true vocation.

In the years since I arrived in Chicago, I have begun teaching workshops, offering spiritual direction, and working to share the spiritual wisdom that others have shared with me. I’m delighted to help people deepen their spiritual lives. During this time, I have been fortunate to attend many Centering Prayer retreats, including an Intensive in Snowmass, at which I met Fr. Thomas Keating. A couple years later, I spent time with him again at a 21-day retreat he co-led in New York, together with Fr. Carl Arico and David Frenette. I am deeply appreciative of my Centering Prayer practice and the framework that Fr Keating teaches, but I have always been a synthesizer and innovator. So I have found myself thinking about the different forms I know, the gifts of each, and how they are similar and different.

After practicing Centering Prayer for years, I completed the training to become a teacher of Centering Prayer in 2014. In the years since, I have been thinking a lot about Centering Prayer. About the method, about how it is taught, about how to guide the people who come to me for spiritual direction. During this same period, I’ve taught dozens of mindfulness meditation workshops around Chicago. My experience with mindfulness has suggested that it has something to offer to those who want to take up Centering Prayer.

I learned mindfulness meditation in the late 1980’s. Originally a Buddhist form of meditation, mindfulness can be taught in either religious or secular language. These days I often teach Christian mindfulness, but more often I teach a form of mindfulness that emphasizes its many health benefits. Teaching mindfulness-for-health in secular language makes the practice more appealing to people who identify as agnostic or spiritual but not religious. And experience has shown me that mindfulness is an excellent entryway to true spirituality and contemplation. Participants at these workshops tell me how powerful the practices are. As the press is constantly telling us, mindfulness is an excellent practice for stress relief as well as for getting out of our heads.

Based on my experience with these two forms, I have created and will soon be teaching a new practice that I call Mindful Centering. You could call it a hybrid between mindfulness meditation and Centering Prayer. For people who love Centering Prayer and cannot imagine changing anything about it, any thought of experimenting with enhancing it probably seems unnecessary, even unwise. I have thought a lot about that. I know that every aspect of the prayer and how it is taught has been thought about carefully and discussed in depth at the annual gatherings of the leadership of Contemplative Outreach. What could I hope to add to the work of these long-time contemplatives headed by Fr. Thomas Keating himself?

I’ve been lucky to have met and spent quality time in conversation with all three of the men responsible for the development of the Method of Centering Prayer, Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Basil Pennington, and Fr. William Menninger. My conversations with them have broadened my understanding of the process that lead to the creation of Centering Prayer as we know it. From Fr. Meninger, I learned that, in part, Centering Prayer was actually inspired by the monks’ practice of mindfulness meditation!

When they lived at the Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, they were not far from the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Mass, and would sometimes go there for long retreats. Having had formal training in both mindfulness meditation and Centering Prayer, I have always seen many similarities. When I heard Fr. Meninger say talk about this connection, a lightbulb went on in my head. Of course! Fr Pennington apparently went so far as to suggest that Centering Prayer should be practiced while sitting on a zafu and that periods of meditation should end with a tea ceremony. While these ideas were rejected as not appropriate for a western audience, they point to how steeped in the mindfulness world the founders were when they developed Centering Prayer.

What I’ve decided to do, based on my experience with these two practices, is to recommend the following. First, I will be recommending a “body scan” practice from the mindfulness tradition. This practice involves mentally scanning the entire body, bringing compassionate awareness to the body as you do. It can be a great help to people who tend to be “up in their heads” or carrying a lot of stress. I think that adding a regular body scan practice, as an ancillary practice, will help newcomers to contemplative prayer to more quickly drop down into their bodies. I’ve found that people love how this practice awakens their awareness of the body and grounds them in the here and now.  (You can find an example of a body scan on my website.)

Secondly, I will be recommending that beginners to contemplative prayer choose a focal point for their attention. In mindfulness meditation, it is generally recommended that beginners focus their attention on a focal point, usually the nostrils or the lower belly. This focal point is considered crucial during the first weeks and months of practice as it helps you develop a level of concentration in which the focus on this point is maintained during the entire time of prayer. Once you have established this level of concentration, the focus on attention can be relaxed. I think that people will benefit from this preliminary phase of practice. I think it helps to build up your concentration before moving to the more “open awareness” that is central to Centering Prayer.

Since this practice has some significant differences from Centering Prayer, I’m going to give it a new name. I call it Mindful Centering. I think that Mindful Centering will make it possible for people to more quickly deepen in their contemplative prayer practice, overcoming the mind-wandering that challenges many newcomers to Centering Prayer. I hope and believe that Mindful Centering will be a helpful path of practice for any practitioner who wants to deepen their experience of and relationship with the Divine.

It is my belief that we can and should find new ways to introduce people to the contemplative aspect of the life through contemplative practice. If you’re curious to learn more about Mindful Centering, I hope you will sign up for my upcoming online class. I will be very interested in your feedback, whether you’re new to contemplative prayer or you have a solid, established practice of Centering Prayer. It’s my hope that Mindful Centering will offer a new entry way into contemplative prayer for many.

Bill Epperly (bill@integralawakenings.com)

More information on the upcoming Mindful Centering online course.