Monday, April 4, 2011

The Welcoming Prayer

This is directly from Cynthia Bourgeault's Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. It's from the chapter on The Welcoming Prayer toward the end of the book.  I'm finding it to be a powerful spiritual practice.

The three step process of the Welcoming Prayer

1. Focus and sink in
2. Welcome
3. Let go

Focus and sink in

To focus means to sink in to the feeling in your body. If it’s a physical pain, like a toothache you become very present to it, putting your full attention inside it. Exactly the same is true for emotions. If you are angry, see if you can be present to how anger is manifesting in your body—is your jaw clenched? Stomach in knots? If fear is present, what is the sensation of it? Is your breath short? Is there a sense of vertigo, or a stampede of ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline?

Don’t try to change anything. Just stay present.

Focusing doesn’t mean psychoanalyzing. This is not about trying to discover why you feel the way you do, or justifying your feelings.

This first step is the key to whole practice. By becoming physically aware of this energy as sensation in your body, you can stay in the present, welcoming it.

Now comes the most inscrutable and counterintuitive instruction in the whole of Welcoming Prayer. Sitting there, steeped in the feeling, you begin to say, ever so gently, ”Welcome, anger” or “Welcome pain, welcome.”

How’s that again? If this emotion is what necessitated the practice in the first place, why are we welcoming it? Isn’t the goal to get rid of it?

Actually, no. The goal is not to let it chase you out of presence.

Admittedly, this is paradoxical. Common sense tells you that the emotion is the problem and the solution is to eliminate it. But by welcoming it instead, you create an atmosphere of inner hospitality. By embracing the thing you once defended yourself against, or ran from, you are actually disarming it, removing its power to hurt you or chase you back into our smaller self.

There’s a wonderful novel by Ursula Le Guin called A Wizard of Earthsea, which is actually an extended meditation on exactly this point. A young wizard named Ged is in training to become a sorcerer. One day, horsing around with his friends, he inadvertently conjures up a minor demon. The demon proceeds to haunt him throughout the book. As he grows in power and influence, it grows right along with him. Gradually it turns very dark and begins to stalk him; he flees in terror. He runs to a city by the sea, but it follows him there. He hires a boat and rows out into the sea, but it follows him there. Finally, he jumps into the water, but the thing is still right on his back. Finally, with all escape routes blocked, he does the only thing left to him: he turns to the demon and embraces it! At which point it vanishes, integrated back inside him as the shadow he’s finally willing to own.
Ged’s experience of liberation is the practical wisdom behind this mysterious second step of the Welcoming Prayer process. This moment can always be endured, the well-known spiritual writer Gerald May reminds us, and the act of welcoming anchors us firmly in the Now. This is the moment where those two great streams, awareness and surrender, converge. The small self is surrendered into the authentic self, connected to the divine within. In this configuration, you are able to stay present in the Now regardless of its physical or psychological content. It’s something the great saints and mystics have always known.

So have the small birds perched on an electric wire. No matter how high the voltage, the energy will do you no harm as long as you don’t give it a pathway to the ground (i.e., as long as we don’t identify with it, attach ourselves to it).

A couple of important points: First, what you are welcoming is the physical or psychological content of the moment only, not a general blanket condoning of a situation. I’m frequently asked by people with abuse histories, “But incest shouldn’t be welcomed, should it?” This misses the whole point. What you are welcoming in this moment is not incest, but the feelings the experience triggers for you: the fear or the rage or shame on your plate right now.

This is a very important mistake to nip in the bud, because if uncorrected it can lead to the assumption that surrender means to roll over and play dead, or that the purpose of the practice is to teach you to passively acquiesce to situations that are in fact intolerable. This is not so at all. There’s a crucial distinction between surrender as an inner attitude and as an outer practice, and we are concerned only with the former here. From the point of view of inner work, the situation is straightforward: anything done in a state of interior bracing will throw you immediately into your small self, with its familiar repertoire of defense mechanisms. Surrender understood as an interior act will place you in alignment with [your authentic self, your imago dei, that part of you that is connected to God]. Once you’re in right alignment, you can decide [freely] what you are going to do in the outer world. Sometimes this is a spirited fight; other times it is acquiescence. But whichever way, you’ll be doing it from consciousness, not reactivity.

Let go
Don’t get to this step too quickly. The real work in Welcoming Prayer is actually accomplished in the first two steps. Stay with them, going back and forth between ‘focusing and sinking in,’ and ‘welcoming’ until the knot begins to dissolve of its own accord.

And yes, ‘letting go’ is also just for now. This is not a final, forever renunciation of your anger or fear; it’s simply a way of gently waving farewell as the emotion starts to recede. If you can’t quite make it to this step, that’s OK. Don’t fake it, because the bulk of the word has already been accomplished.

When you are ready to let go, there are two ways to go about it: a short way and a more complex litany. In the short way, you simply say something like “I let go of my anger,” or, if you prefer, “I give my anger to God.”

Mary Mrozowski (creator of the Welcoming Prayer) preferred a more complex and invariable litany. When it become time to proceed with the third step, she would use this:
• I let go my desire for security and survival.
• I let go my desire for affection and esteem.
• I let go my desire for control and power.
• I let go my desire to change the situation.

The would be her inevitable litany, whether dealing with physical or emotional affliction. Those first three, of course, are the three false self programs, and in naming them thusly, Mary said, “I feel like I’m sending a strong message to the unconscious.”

The last one, “I let go of my desire to change the situation,” is right between the eyeballs and a stroke of pure genius. In no uncertain terms, it removes this practice from the ballpark of “fit-it” (“I do this practice in order to correct an unpalatable situation) and back into unconditional presence.

For Mary this practice was all about inner alignment. Whether the pain went on forever was not the point; the point is that throughout this entire “forever,” an awakened and surrendered consciousness can remain fully present to God “for the duration.”


Cindy said...

I have never visited here before, and came from Robin's "Metanoia" blog....but I clicked on the picture of the book cover.

This book is one of the very best books I've ever read. It has changed my life because it actually helped me change the way I operate. My daily prayer is different....and therefore my life is different.

I really appreciate your comments on The Welcoming Prayer..and look forward to exploring your blog!


Paula said...

I absolutely love Cynthia Bourgeault! I got to see her speak in January and she is simply amazing. The Wisdom Jesus is my favorite by her, it totally rocked my world :)

Jennifer said...

Our mutual friend Jan introduced me to Cynthia B's writings. Your post meant the world to me today as I move into a new way of coping with some heavy burdens. Thank you!

Jan said...

So good, Katherine! Hope you're feeling better.