By far, the hardest part of centering prayer for me is not getting lost in my thoughts. Some of my friends seem to find it pretty easy to turn off that verbal, analytical part of the brain, sometimes to the extent that they’re not able to express their thoughts or experiences in words. I am so the opposite of that. I process almost everything that happens to me by talking, writing analyzing, categorizing.
All this to say, if you find it hard to clear your mind of thoughts while doing centering prayer/meditation, I’m right there with you.
There are three kinds of thoughts that typically stir up my mind when I’m trying to calm it down. The good, the bad, and the ugly, if you will.
Good thoughts are things I would love to be thinking if it weren’t prayer time. Like, “Ooh, I have an idea for my next blog post!” or “Almost forgot, I need to bake cookies for that potluck,” or “This would make a beautiful poem.” These are good thoughts to think, but now is not the time for them; now I am trying to focus on just being.
Sister Shirley’s wisdom on this: “If it’s such a great thought, it will come back later.” And you know what? I have found this to be true! (Not that I would, by definition, remember all the good thoughts I forgot… but the world hasn’t ended.)
Bad thoughts are… well, okay, it’s probably not that useful to label them “bad,” but they are thoughts that do not serve me. Thoughts like, “This is totally stupid,” or “I know the doctor said that weird mole wasn’t cancer, but what if it is?” or “Here’s how I would do today over…” If I’m not careful, I can get caught in a sneaky loop of anxiety or regret that lasts for the entire prayer period.
Sister Shirley’s wisdom on this (well, actually it’s taken from her teacher, Father Thomas Keating): “Just wave it goodbye.” This is very useful because it helps me avoid the trap of getting caught up in yet another spiral of anxiety or regret for thinking bad thoughts. I can just say to myself, Oh hey, it’s one of those yucky thought patters. Hi there. Bye now.
Ugly thoughts? Well, I don’t know if you experience this, but I have and the literature seems to indicate others do too. Sometimes nonsensical, dreamlike thoughts will arise when I’m trying to meditate – and sometimes they’ll be thoughts that totally repulse my conscious mind, like spontaneous images of violence.
Sister Shirley’s wisdom on this: “Your mind is just playing tricks on you. It’s just another distraction. Don’t take it too seriously.” This was obviously a relief to hear. When your mind isn’t used to being empty, sometimes weird things fill the space. Nothing to worry about!
The most important thing is for me not to engage with my thoughts, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly. I don’t even need to get upset over the fact that I’m thinking when it’s not time for thinking. I can just let the thoughts float away like balloons or dissolve like wisps of smoke. They don’t last. They can obscure the divine presence for a moment, but not forever.
Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Conference room, afternoon break. Praying for my compassion to be stronger than my thoughts of whatever kind.