I will look first at how the sacred word is used, then what it is, and finally how it compares and contrasts with the use of a mantra, as well as raising certain questions.
It is my intent that counts in centering prayer, consenting to the presence and action of God in my life. It is a simple, direct intent to be open to God. The sacred word symbolises my intent to do this. My attitude to thoughts is one of letting them go. They will keep on coming, but I do not attach to them or grasp them. To have thoughts is not the problem, it is thinking about thoughts that is the problem, and what is meant by being engaged with thoughts. Not engaging does not require effort, it only requires the willingness to let go of ordinary preoccupations. I do this by returning to my sacred word.
By training myself to let go of every thought, I gradually develop freedom from my attachments and compulsions. These may be attachments to outer things such as money or fame or success, or to inner psychological needs, such as power, or control, or spiritual pride.
When I lose myself in thought during centering prayer, I return to the now moment and use the sacred word to gently centre me in that moment as it helps dissolve all other thoughts. This includes thoughts no matter how sacred or spiritual or prayerful they are. There are other more appropriate times for these. Keating states, that by simply consenting to God, ‘I am also implicitly praying for everyone past, present and future’. (Thomas Keating in Open Mind Open Heart, ch. 3 p.32).
God’s deepest communion with me is in that silence within, resting in the presence of God. In this way thoughts will still be present, but will have less power to draw me away. I can still be passionately concerned about issues, but I am able to stand apart from them so that they do not control me. This is one of those many paradoxes of and/both rather than either/or in the spiritual life/wisdom way of experiencing the world.
So what is the sacred word? It is a short word, of one syllable, though two very short words are acceptable. The word may be devotional such as Lord, Jesus, Abba, Father etc. or it may be a sacred word from another religion such as shalom, or it may express a spiritual intent, such as open, listen, love, be still. It is sacred not because of its meaning, but because of its intent to be open to God.
I may use it at the start of centering prayer, to indicate my intent to be open to God. I am consenting and surrendering to God. This is not weakness, it has to do with keeping the right alignment inwardly. I gently place the sacred word in my awareness. It is time which makes the word a sacred word, as over time it lodges in my unconscious. Whenever I find myself drifting into thoughts that I engage with, I use the sacred word to gently pull myself back into the moment. The sacred word will then gradually dissolve until thoughts that I engage with take over again. And so it goes on, over and over, a constant letting go and a repeated consent to the presence and action of God in my life. Thus I am going beyond the sacred word into union with that to which it points – the Ultimate Mystery, the presence of God beyond any conception that we can form of Him. This is a place of interior peace where I experience a level of awareness that is beyond the sacred word, or any word for that matter. It is indeed indescribable.
The sacred word should initially be chosen during a period of prayer, so that it is one chosen in communion with God. In my experience it needed to be a word I felt comfortable with. It does not need to be a spiritually meaningful word for me, because if it is, and has associations, it may distract me into thoughts. As Keating states: ‘in one sense, the less the word means to you, the better off you are’. (Thomas Keating in Open Mind Open Heart, ch.3 p.32). It is not a way of going to God or a means to move into interior silence. Rather, it establishes an interior climate of openness, of willingness to listen, of willingness to let go, of willingness to change. An arrow that points rather than a means of getting there. Thus I am simply being receptive to God.
It is then best to stick to that sacred word over long periods of time once chosen. This is because it becomes not just my word in centering prayer, but over time lodges in my unconscious, and becomes a word that I can use in the whole of my life as a way of returning me to that frame of experience in whatever situation I find myself in life. This may be a supermarket queue, an argument etc. The one prohibition is never to change the sacred word during a particular session of centering prayer, as this increases thoughts. I have pondered changing to a different word on occasions, but this one still feels right for me now.
Some may prefer a simple inward gaze upon God, but the sacred gaze acts as the sacred word does. A visual symbol could also be used, but it should be general, not clear and precise. Noticing one’s breathing could act in the same way, but not following one’s breathing as in Eastern meditation, but simply observing it. After twenty years of yoga however, I do prefer to tie in my sacred word with my breathing. I feel that this opens up my body, as well as my mind and spirit to God. It is important to me that all these aspects of myself are in harmony and that God can flow equally through all parts of me.
A mantra by contrast, is a sacred word that I concentrate my mind in. It is usually spiritually meaningful. In meditation I repeat it from start to finish, either aloud or silently, on each in-breath. It anchors my mind and stops it wandering. This way I can stop thoughts from interfering with my communion with God, by keeping them in the background because the sacred word is in the foreground. This is a concentrative or attentive approach. The end result is said to be the same. I have tried both ways as well as Eastern methods, and upon deep reflection, I am still not sure. It may be that different methods suit different people, or that one method is more appropriate at a particular time in a person’s life than another, rather than one approach being right for all at all times. The receptive approach feels right for me now is all I can say.
However, the gesture of release is everything in centering prayer. It is a letting go of myself, my ego, my thoughts and personal agendas and expectations, and my only activity is to be thinking the sacred word and to be open and receive God. This is bare, formless openness to God; a receptive approach. The sacred word is not used to hold down my thoughts by force. It is argued that to use a mantra is to accomplish this by force of will and that this only serves to reinforce the false self. It is about remaining in control. It is also argued that if I am saying the word throughout, then there is no space for God to come forth from within me.
Eventually in centering prayer, the will consents of itself without need of a symbol, or sacred word, at all. Upon deep reflection, I am still unsure though, whether it matters how open I am prepared to be to God. I say my intent is to be open to God, which is easy to say, yet there are parts of me that are held back, that I cling to, that I cannot let go of easily. Is that my free will and choice how open I am, or does that depend on God’s grace? I am not saying other than that healing comes from God, but how far God heals me may depend on how willing I am to be healed. Or is that what is meant by faith that grows over time?
Bourgeault Cynthia – Centering prayer and Inner Awakening Cowley Publications 2004
Keating Thomas – Open Mind, Open Heart Bloomsbury 2006
Madagain Murchadh 0 – Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious Lantern 2007
Main John – The Way of Unknowing Canterbury Press 2011
Smith Elizabeth and Chalmers Joseph – A Deeper love Continuum 2005
Richard Eddleston 23-02-2015