Centering prayer, according to those who teach and practice it, goes back to the very early contemplative practices of Christian “desert fathers,” Benedictine Monasticism, and other pioneers in the area like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Centering Prayer got some traction in the 1970’s due to the writings of some Trappist monks, the most recognizable name would be Thomas Keating. The idea behind the practice is to center one’s attention upon the presence of God.
Keating describes Centering Prayer as a processes of letting go of every thought. The practice attempts to generate an experience of God directly rather than meditating on a passage of scripture or engaging one’s imagination as in an imagined scene with Jesus.
The amazing thing about this practice is that it takes advantage of much of what we understand about neuroscience and brain health. The centering prayer practice in general has been linked to powerful and permanent changes in the brain.
There are several methods or descriptions of Centering prayer, but the gist is to simply sit and focus on God’s presence. There is no dialogue or imagery involved, one simply turns their attention toward God’s presence for a prescribed amount of time.
In today’s culture, it may be very hard to do this. With the amount of attention we pay to cell phones, there is very little true down time. We are not used to focused attention and that aspect of our brains has atrophied. Because of this it might actually be prudent to begin some exercises to strengthen those aspects before fully engaging in something like centering prayer.
Breath meditation is probably the simplest and most profound meditation that increases the ability to focus. I recommend that my clients do this for 5 minutes each day, setting their phone timers for that amount of time. All you do is simply focus on your breathing, pay attention to how your breath feels, even the change in temperature of the air. In mindfulness practice, breath is considered one of the anchors to the present. Every time a distracting thought comes in you simply return your attention to your breathing. Don’t allow yourself to get frustrated or make this exercise about performance, every time you redirect your attention your giving you’re a brain a workout- it’s like a repetition in the gym. If you are distracted 60 times in a minute that is 60 repetitions!
Neuroimaging actually demonstrates that the areas associated with sustained attention and executive control get larger in individuals who practice mindfulness and meditation over time.
As you grow comfortable with the breath meditation and learn how to be still, you can begin to incorporate in things like simply focusing on God or sitting in his presence.
Centering Prayer: Contemplative practice for the 21st century. America Magazine. 2014-12-03.
Keating, Fr. Thomas (2006). Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th Anniversary Edition. London: Bloomsbury.
Jane K. Ferguson; Eleanor W. Willemsen; MayLynn V. Castañeto (2010). “Centering Prayer as a healing response to everyday stress: A psychological and spiritual process”. Pastoral Psychology. 59 (3): 305–329.
Newberg, A., & Waldman, M. R. (2010). How God changes your brain: Breakthrough findings from a leading neuroscientist. Ballantine Books.