- The Other Mindful Practice: Centering Prayer & Psychotherapy
P. Gregg Blanton
Published online: 6 July 2010 # Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
Abstract A review of the literature reveals that one particular form of mindful practice, mindfulness, has received the most research attention during the past decade. While all of this attention has been focused on mindfulness, the clinical usefulness of other mindful practices has been ignored. Built upon this background, the purpose of this article is to bring attention to an overlooked form of mindful practice that grows out of the Christian tradition: Centering Prayer. The article begins with a description of Centering Prayer, along with a comparison with mindfulness. The remainder of the article explores the clinical implications of Centering Prayer. First, ways in which Centering Prayer informs our understanding of the need for and the goals of counseling are suggested. Next, four therapeutic skills of Centering Prayer, along with three distinct ways for integrating Centering Prayer into psychotherapy are offered. Throughout the clinical section of the article, numerous practical ideas and strategies are developed. Finally, a case study is included to illustrate the potential benefits of including Centering Prayer in psychotherapy.
In recent years, there has been a rising interest in mindful awareness practices among mental health professionals (Siegel 2007). Siegel (2007) defines mindful practice as “focusing the mind in specific ways to develop a more rigorous form of present-moment awareness that can directly alleviate the suffering in one’s life” (p. 9). These practices have been described as an essential part of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Taoist teaching. Over thousands of years, mindful awareness practices have emerged in various forms: mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, qui quong, and Centering Prayer. During the last 10 years, most studies that examine the integration of mindful awareness practices and psychotherapy have focused on a Buddhist practice called mindfulness (Smith 2004). Mindfulness, which is defined as awareness of the present experience with
Pastoral Psychol (2011) 60:133–147 DOI 10.1007/s11089-010-0292-9
P. G. Blanton (*) Montreat College, Montreat, NC 28807, USA e-mail: email@example.com
acceptance (Germer 2005a), “has become one of the hottest growth areas in the field of psychotherapy” (Germer 2006, p. 54). The most frequently cited method of mindfulness training is the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn for treating patients with a wide range of chronic pain and stress-related disorders (Baer 2003). In 1979, Kabat-Zinn established the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and today, there are over 2,500 MBSR programs around the world (Davidson and Kabat-Zinn 2004). The primary goal of MBSR is on training participants in various meditation techniques that result in the development of mindfulness (Bishop 2002). To accomplish this goal, members participate in 8 to 10 weekly group sessions, with one session being a full day retreat. Participants are expected to complete homework exercises that largely involve practice of mindfulness techniques, both in formal and informal practice. Members are aided in their homework exercises with audiocassettes that guide them through the mindfulness exercises. Even though mindfulness stands alone in MBSR, recent treatment developments have begun to focus on the integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy (Mace 2008). Psychodynamic psychotherapists were the first to discover and utilize mindfulness, but there has been a recent surge of literature on mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral treatment (Germer 2005b). The three leading approaches within the cognitive-behavioral tradition are: (1) dialectical behavior therapy (DBT; Linehan 1993a, 1993b), (2) mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT; Segal et al. 2002), and (3) acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes et al. 1999; Hayes et al. 2005). All three of these treatment packages contain a substantial mindfulness component (Germer 2005b). MBCT, which was developed to alleviate chronic depression, teaches the mindfulness practices of MBSR. MBCT is an 8-week group intervention program. Linehan, the innovator of DBT, notes that mindfulness skills are central to DBT. However, unlike MBCT, which looks to Kabat-Zinn for the development of mindfulness skills, Linehan acknowledges that her ideas about mindfulness are adapted from the work of Thich Nhat Hanh (1976). Linehan (1993a, 1993b) describes three mindfulness “what” skills (observe, describe, participate) and three mindfulness “how” skills (i.e., how to do the “what” skills). DBT clients learn mindfulness in a year-long weekly skills group. ACT, a third approach from the cognitive-behavioral tradition, can also be thought of as a mindfulness-based therapy (Hayes et al. 2004). Clients in ACT are taught to experience current thoughts and emotions, without judging, evaluating, or attempting to change or avoid them. ACT explicitly teaches clients to attend to thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally, with acceptance (Baer 2003). ACT is implemented in either an individual or group format. The potential of these mindfulness-based approaches has produced a wave of empirically based treatments for familiar problems (Germer 2005a). Studies show evidence for the effectiveness for mindfulness-based approaches in the treatment of depression (Hayes and Harris 2000; Lynch et al. 2003; Ma and Teasdale2004; Morgan 2005; Segal et al. 2002; Teasdale et al. 1995; Teasdale et al. 2000; Zettle and Raines 1989), anxiety disorders (Germer 2005c; Kabat-Zinn et al.1992; Lopez2000; Miller et al. 1995; Orsillo et al. 2003; Robins2002; Roemer and Orsillo 2003), borderline personality disorder (Linehan 1993a; Linehan1993b; Linehan et al. 1999; Zettle 2003), substance abuse (Breslin et al. 2002; Linehan et al. 1999), and eating disorders (Kristeller and Hallett 1999; Telch et al. 2001).
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While all of this attention has been focused on mindfulness, the clinical usefulness of other forms of mindful awareness practices has been largely ignored. Isn’t it time to bring more attention to these overlooked forms of mindful practice? The purpose of this article is to accomplish this purpose with a Christian form of mindful practice: Centering Prayer. Several authors have attempted to draw attention to Centering Prayer. Siegel (2007) includes it alongside mindfulness as a beneficial form of mindful practice. Robins (2002) has suggested that contemplative practices based in other religious traditions should be introduced to clients who object to the Buddhist roots of mindfulness. Even Linehan, the originator of DBT, recognizes the similarities between Centering Prayer and mindfulness and recommends it as an effective alternative to mindfulness (Robins et al. 2004). The mental health profession needs to address some important questions. What is Centering Prayer? What are the similarities and differences between Centering Prayer and mindfulness? What are preliminary ideas on the integration of Centering Prayer and psychotherapy? This article attempts to address these questions.
What is centering prayer?
Centering Prayer, developed by Meninger, Pennington, and Keating in 1975 (Keating 2005), is a synthesis of various sources from the Christian contemplation tradition. Bourgeault (2004) tells us that Centering Prayer is a contemporary expression of the ancient custom of contemplation as it was practiced by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the third and fourth centuries. Until recently, their teachings were sealed away in a set of Latin volumes called the Patrologia Latina, but Merton (1960) made the Desert teachings available for the first time in a contemporary, accessible way in book called The Wisdom of the Desert. The essence of the Desert teachings was captured by John Cassian, who studied with the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the fourth century. He brought what he learned from this Egyptian monastic experience back to the West in a collection of writings called the Conferences (Pennington 1982). His teachings have been maintained primarily in the West by the Rule of St. Benedict. Centering Prayer is inspired by John Cassian and other sources from the Christian contemplative tradition (Keating 2005). In Conferences, no. 9, Cassian describes a method of “pure prayer” which was later developed in The Cloud of Unknowing, which was written by an anonymous fourteenth-century author. The writings of St. John of the Cross in the sixteenth-century and the more recent works of Thomas Merton inspired Meninger, Pennington, and Keating to develop Centering Prayer. This contemporary expression of an ancient tradition was first called “Prayer of the Cloud,” but it later adopted the term coined by Thomas Merton: “Centering Prayer” (Bourgeault 2004). It is important to note that Centering Prayer was developed in the 1970s. During this decade, there was a movement among spiritual teachers of major Eastern religions to come to the United States and present their respective methods of meditation. (Note: In 1977, the American Psychological Association sounded the call for research into the clinical effectiveness of meditation.) Numerous young people who learned these other traditions came to St. Joseph’s Abby in Spencer, Massachusetts, where Keating was abbot, asking for a Christian method of contemplation. Since there was not a contemporary method of Christian contemplation, Meninger, Pennington, and Keating were prompted to create one.
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The result was Centering Prayer, a new name and a new package for the ancient Christian tradition of contemplation (Keating 2005; Pennington 1982). The unique intent of the originators of Centering Prayer was to provide a simple method for practicing Christian contemplation. As a result, the method of Centering Prayer has only four straightforward guidelines (Keating 1999). The first rule is to “choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within” (p. 139). Centering Prayer works on the power of intention (Bourgeault 2004). The person’s intention is to focus on the indwelling presence of God, so Centering Prayer consists primarily in returning to and refocusing one’s intention. When you find yourself engaged with a thought, you simply let it go and return to your original intention to be open to God. You use your sacred word when you observe that you are being attracted to a thought. What is a sacred word and how is it used? The sacred word is any word chosen by the person that elicits a sense of love for God in that person (Pennington 1982). It can be a word like Jesus, Abba, Love, or Silence, that spontaneously comes to mind when a person turns his or her attention towards God. The sacred word is not used like a mantra, because the word is not repeated constantly. Instead, it is only used when practitioners observe that they are being attracted by a thought. The word is gently used to return the person back to God’s presence. If a person does not find a word useful for this purpose, other strategies are permitted. A person may want to silently use a sound or notice one’s breathing. Keating (2005) writes, “Our intention and consent to God can also be expressed by noticing our breathing as a symbol of the Spirit” (p. 107). This seems appropriate, because in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma), the word “spirit” means breath. The second guideline is to “sit comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within” (p. 139). Notice that Centering Prayer starts when you use your sacred word. It is used as a way of acknowledging the Divine Indwelling. Consenting to God’s presence is different than “turning on the presence of God” (Keating 1999). It is a way of saying, “Here I am.” The next step is then up to God. In Centering Prayer, you put yourself at God’s disposal. The person is only interested in being open to God so the results are up to God. The third strategy is: “When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word” (p. 139). This rule captures the four Rs of Centering Prayer: Resist no thought, Retain no thought, React to no thought, and Return to the sacred word (Bourgeault 2004). The phrase “ever-so-gently” alerts us to the practice of using the sacred word to release, not suppress, thoughts. By using the sacred word, you return to your original intention to be open to God. Keating (1999) writes, “Your only activity is the attention you offer to God either implicitly by letting go of all thoughts or explicitly by returning to the sacred word” (p.82). The final rule is, “At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes” (p. 139). The standard time for one formal period of Centering Prayer is 20 min. Once the 20 min is complete, the final period of silence is designed to help the person transition into daily life, maintaining an attitude of silence and attention to God. A more complete understanding of Centering Prayer requires more than this brief introduction to the simple guidelines of Centering Prayer. Therefore, in the next section, we will explore Centering Prayer more thoroughly by comparing it with mindfulness. Since Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990, 1994, 2005) is the most frequently cited author on mindfulness training, we will appeal primarily to his writings.
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Comparison of centering prayer and mindfulness
At first glance, the purposes of mindfulness and Centering Prayer seem very similar. First, both forms of mindful practice are seeking for a distinctive connection. In mindfulness, this special relationship is with the present moment. A mindful exercise is anything that brings the practitioner back to awareness of the present moment of experience (Germer 2005a). Mindfulness includes a conscious desire to abandon one’s agenda to have a different experience, and it involves embracing whatever one is thinking, sensing, or feeling. Approaching experiences this way allows them to become more vivid and more bright. Through the lens of mindfulness, “Ordinary experiences may be seen as extraordinary” (Kabat-Zinn 1990, p. 154). Centering Prayer also fosters a special connection; however, this bond is with God. Keating (1999) declares that Centering Prayer is about awakening us to the presence of God. He argues that the Divine presence is available to us at every moment, but our worldview blocks out this awareness. Since the human condition is a felt separation from God, Centering Prayer is the remedy for this disease. Pennington (1999) writes, “Centering Prayer is but responding to the offer of the intimacy of divine friendship” (p. 121). Through contemplation, a person is able to access the experience of God’s presence within us. In Centering Prayer, a person is able to have the experience that Jesus had of God as Abba (Keating 2005). Pennington (1982) writes, “When we go to the center, we leave behind time and place and separateness. We come to our source” (p. 92). The second goals of mindfulness and Centering Prayer are even more similar. The practice of mindfulness helps people wake-up to who they are. This idea of “waking-up” resides within Buddhism, because the word “Buddha” simply means that one has awakened to his or her own true nature. Kabat-Zinn (1994) says that mindfulness is “fundamentally about being in touch with our deepest nature” (p. 45). In another place, Kabat-Zinn (1990) states that in mindfulness, we learn to become aware of “something deeper within ourselves, a discerning wisdom” (p. 29). He adds (1990) that mindfulness has “no goal other than for you to be yourself” (p. 37). How does one become oneself, according to mindfulness? The answer, according to Kabat-Zinn (1990) is to simply realize that “you are already there” (p. 37). Perhaps more than anything else, mindfulness helps people realize that “they are already whole” (p. 95). Through mindfulness, people examine who they are and find greater self-acceptance. Kabat-Zinn (2005) writes, “Isn’t it time for us to discover that we are already larger than we allow ourselves to know?” (p. 125). We find that the goal of Centering Prayer is also about “waking-up” to who we are. By leaving behind thoughts, feelings, and images, people can “assent wholly to being who we are” (Pennington 1982, p. 89). According to Centering Prayer, when w
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