Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Centering Prayer, Spiritual Surrender

I'd been meaning to read Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault for a while now. Finally got to it Monday night, and couldn't put it down! It's always good to read a book that agrees with your theological anthropology, right? ~smile~ Very familiar stuff in the beginning chapters. Here's a bit of what she says.

She's named the outer "layer" of who we are as an embodiment of:

~Ordinary Awareness~

This is the ego. In her words:

The person I normally take myself to be--that busy, anxious little "I" so preoccupied with its goals, fears, desires, and issues--is never even remotely the whole of who I am, and to seek the fulfillment of my life at this level means to miss out on the bigger life. That is why, according to Jesus' teaching, the one who tries to keep his "life" (i.e., the small one) will lose it, and the one who is willing to lose it will find the real thing. Beneath the surface there is a deeper and vastly more authentic Self, but its presence is usually veiled by the clamor of the smaller "I" with its insatiable needs and demands.
Exactly. And this outer "I" is the mask we often wear to present what we hope is a presentable self to the world. And it's the self we too often fool ourselves into thinking should conform to cultural norms, please others, hide, etc. This "I" knows itself only superficially. It's level of self-awareness doesn't extend much beyond its own preferences and opinions.

Interestingly, she points out that:
The so-called self-awareness tools of our times, from psychotherapy to Myers-Briggs to the enneagram, spend most of their effort merely resorting and clarifying the characteristics: 'I am an INFP,' 'a gut-centered type,' 'a five,' etc. This may yield insights into the workings of the personality, but it's still ordinary awareness.
Ordinary Awareness is in the kataphatic realm where we use reason and emotion and other faculties (the imagination, the will, etc.)

The truth is that there exists beneath (and I realize the spatial images don't really work, but they'll do here, I think) beneath this false self is the True Self, the Self that was given to be, the Self that is in some mysterious way the image of God within us.

Beyond our Ordinary Awareness, writes Bourgealt, is:

~Spiritual Awareness~

Spiritual Awareness is in the apophatic realm where we bypass our normal mental functionings and begin to use the "spiritual senses." Bourgeault says that most of us aren't very aware at this level --

It comes upon us only rarely, sometimes in a moment of overpowering emotion, such as suddenly being moved to tears by watching a sunset or receiving the Eucharist. That 'nostalgia for the divine' sweeps over us and we are left trembling before the present of a Mystery almost more vivid and beautiful than we can bear.

Spiritual awarness is [also] a way of perceiving. As with ordinary awareness, there is a sense of identity or selfhood generated through this mode of perception. Whereas ordinary awareness perceives through self-reflective consciousness which splits the world into subject-object, spiritual awareness perceives through an intuitive grasp of the whole and an innate sense of belonging.
What's really FABULOUS about this way of knowing (spiritual awareness) is that the body is one of its best instruments. More on that below.

At the third and deepest level of our being is:

Divine Awareness
And here she quotes Thomas Merton--
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our son[/daughter]ship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Isn't that beautiful? I think I might have posted these words of Merton last year -- but then again, perhaps it was Purple. Can't remember. Anyway, the point of Centering Prayer, writes Bourgeault, is to "put a stick into the spoke of [ego] thinking" so that we can be guided more frequently by our Spiritual and yes, even by our Divine Awareness.

So, I read all that and more Monday night, and was motivated big-time to do Centering Prayer again! And it was sublime. Tuesday morning. 20 minutes. And my day was full of energy and spirit.

Wednesday morning. Again, for 20 minutes. Not so sublime, ha!, but still good.

And then later WednesdayI had an appointment with my dietician/nutritionist,
Emily Haeussler, who teaches weight loss through mindfulness.

It's amazing. Slow -- it's extremely slow and difficult to learn to listen deeply to my body, to undo decades of a poor relationship with food and to create a new relationship. But I'm hanging in there.

Part of Emily's spiritual practice is
Centering Prayer, and today she spoke a lot about Welcoming Prayer which has three movements to it:

Movement One: FOCUS -- and sink into the energy of your body. She had me focus on my body and its energy: "Do a body scan."

Movement Two: "WELCOME!" You say in your mind: Welcome, Welcome, Welcome. No matter what the body scan reveals, we welcome it, for it is our teacher. And wow, is THAT ever true! As I settled in to focus on my body, I realized I had a slight headache. Totally unaware of that before I turned inward. Then as Emily began to say Welcome, Welcome and the words that followed, I realized in flash that the headache was connected to my stomach, which was hungry! I'd had no idea that this was so. None at all.

Movement Three:

"I let go of my desire for CONTROL / POWER."
I let go of my desire for AFFECTION / ESTEEM / APPROVAL.
I let go of my desire for SECURITY / SURVIVAL.
I let go of my desire for CHANGE (this situation, this feeling, this emotion, this thought, this commentary, this body sensation, this event).

Such wisdom here, but wrenching. Do I really desire to let go of affection? esteem? approval? or my desire to change what I don't like? Yikes!

Actually, I do desire this. The wisdom is that such as Julian of Norwich proclaimed: all is well, all is well, all manner of thing shall be well. Just as they are. The circumstances of my life and who I am are perfect. Because they are.

On Tuesday night I met with the lectio divina group, and, as often happens, by the end of the evening we became aware of the Holy Spirit's synergizing work around everyone's contributions from the silent contemplation of the scripture (Acts 10). The theme that mysteriously arose was--guess what? Yes. It was the idea of letting go.

Now, when I was writing my dissertation one of my professors had a real problem with me using the word "surrender." Her reason was the feminist one--'surrender' can connote powerlessness. But when used spiritually it points to one of the most, if not the most, powerful actions a human being can take: letting go, just letting go.

And then the next day Emily and I spoke about my sense of how Bourgealt conveys idea of letting go continually throughout each day. In Centering Prayer the idea is to continually let go of each passing thought, those thoughts coming to us from Ordinary Awareness, the ego.*

Each time we become aware that we're thinking, we simply use the sacred word we've chosen to signify our intention to simply sit in silence. A thought comes and we let it go. Another thought comes, and we let it go. On and on and on. And it's not so much that we stop thinking; it's more that we increasingly detach from the thoughts.

The idea here is to practice letting go of thoughts so that a different kind of awareness (knowing) can gain a foothold. Kierkegaard talked about "fleeting missives" from the eternal within us. Bourgeault is talking about our Spiritual Awareness becoming stronger so that the Divine Awareness within us can begin to guide us daily and work its transformation.

I love that!

Here's what Bourgeault says about the importance of letting go of each kataphatic thought and staying in the apophatic Centering Prayer:
By your willingness to stay with the apophatic at all costs during the time of Centering Prayer, you are strengthening and deepening an attitude of soul that will protect you and carry you all the way: the attitude of spiritual non-possessiveness.
It's the Zen idea of clinging to nothing. It's the Beatitude of 'blessed are the poor in spirit.' But it's so wrenching because we want to grow and become spiritually mature, right? We want those insights that come in the silence! We want the ecstatic experiences of God so that we can re-learn what it means to really trust. So we rush to journal about everything we've come to realize. But as Bourgeault also points out, this kind of desire is about building up the cataphatic or ordinary self/awareness. And she's so right.

(Of course, this is also a necessary "stage" [not that it's really linear] to live through. The terrible woundedness that we all experience bleeds through to the projected self, and the insights we receive do heal and strengthen this self. I think it's only when this self is strong enough that it can even begin to understand the deeper more authentic self. )

The idea of practicing letting go throughout the day, not just during the 20 minutes of Centering Prayer is so appealing to me--to live from within a deeper awareness, not just this kataphatic ordinary ego thought life. As I wondered out loud how to remember to let go, let go, let go, Emily talked about how all of this connects to body awareness. As I try to develop a healthier relationship with food, I'm slowly learning to think before I eat. And part of this thinking will be to do a body scan. And here's the thing: "The body is the BEST spiritual director anyone could have," Emily said.

Wow! How very true that is.

As I do the body scan I become aware of all kinds of things. Yes, I have a headache because I'm hungry, but a headache might also be a tension within me, signaling stress or overload. That tightness in my stomach might be because of hunger, but on another occasion it could signify anger I'm not consciously aware of. As I do the body scan and become aware of each sensation, I do the Welcoming Prayer and sink into the sensation. I welcome the sensation because it's part of my now experience and hence is perfect and worthy of welcome.

And then I let it go. Let it go. Let it go. And each time I let go I am opening up some space for those "fleeting missives." I'm opening up some space to hear God's still small voice offering guidance and love.

It's all connected, of a piece. As I create a healthier relationship to my body I'm also tapping my spiritual and emotional/psychological self in learning the art of spiritual surrender.

*Those egoic thoughts are things like listing what we need to do, going over and over an unpleasant encounter with a co-worker, the upcoming vacation, self-reflection, emotions and bodily sensations, and, amazingly, even insights. All these "thoughts" need to be surrendered in Centering Prayer.


Jan said...

Katherine, this is amazing. I love that book but haven't read it for a long time. Perhaps that's what I need to read in my quest for our book group's next book. . . . Thanks.

RJ said...

I am very moved and awakened by your words tonight. The truth she describes - moving from ordinary to spiritual to divine awareness - is an important insight. I love the Merton quote too and will be spending some serious time with it. Many thanks.