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I am excited to share with you my review of the Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. Modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, Cynthia Bourgeault divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine, and a demanding schedule traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path.
She has been a long-time advocate of the meditative practice of Centering Prayer and has worked closely with fellow teachers and colleagues including Thomas Keating, Bruno Barnhart, and Richard Rohr. Cynthia has actively participated in numerous inter-spiritual dialogues and events with luminaries and leaders such as A.H. Almaas, Kabir Helminski, Swami Atmarupananda, and Rami Shapiro.
Learn more about Cynthia at The Contemplative Society.
Cynthia’s book begins with, “It’s been more than a decade now since I wrote Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. During those years, Centering Prayer has continued to be the mainstay of my spiritual practice, and my thinking on it has continued to evolve. The book you’re now holding in your hands is really the paper trail of that evolution.”
My practice also has evolved. I have been at it much less in duration, just short of three years, but I too have noticed that my thinking has continued to evolve. Along the way, I will share some of my evolution in this review.
The Heart of Centering Prayer discusses both theory and practice and is nicely divided into three parts:
Part One: A Short Course on Centering Prayer
Part Two: The Way of the Heart (Nonduality will be discussed.)
Part Three – The Cloud of Unknowing Revisited
(Father William Meninger located a paragraph within The Cloud of Unknowing that became the cornerstone for the method of Centering Prayer.)
Let me share five key takeaways from this wonderful book.
Spaces Between My Thoughts
“It’s in these gaps that Centering Prayer does its real transformative work.”
“….bit by bit you’ll discover that this inner spaciousness is no longer “a place you go to” but “a place you come from.” It begins to offer itself as a new home for your deepest sense of self hood.”
“In the nano second between the cessation of one thought and the arising of the next, there is a moment of pure consciousness where subject and object poles drop out and you’re simply there. For a nano second, there’s no “you” and no God. No experience and no experiencer. There’s simply a direct, undivided, sensate awareness of a single, unified field of being perceived from a far deeper place of aliveness.”
I call it the spaces between my thoughts. I enter them during my silent sit. Sometimes they are short. Other times they are longer in duration. I seem to emerge from my sit a new creation. I arise from my sit calm, peaceful, energized and excited to live life. I find I am very productive after my sit. I often discover solutions to problems that seemed to previously elude and hide from me.
“In those deeper waters of Centering Prayer, you are slowly acclimating to a whole new operating system: one that does not need to split the perceptual field in order to perceive. Think of it as an upgrade for your brain, if you like, but one way or another it will gradually help lay the physiological foundations for what’s known as nondual (or unitive) consciousness.”
“But there comes a time when the ego translator drops out, and we are simply there, hearing in responding directly in the native language of being. There is oneness. And that is fundamentally what is meant by nondual consciousness. Then this “inner wellspring” is no longer place you go to; it’s a place you come from. It’s a whole new structure of consciousness that can perceive without first splitting the field.”
This is one of the best definitions of nonduality that I have come across. It is a new operating system. I can access it by the entry into Centering Prayer. I arise from my sit better prepared to just let things “be”. I do not need to split the field so to speak. I am simply “there” during centering prayer. I can learn to also just be “there” during my non- centering times. I am more present. I see things I did not notice before. I enjoy life and better accept my present circumstances and surroundings. I am more alive. I am whole.
“It was ten years into my practice before I realized that the real theological basis for Centering Prayer lies in the principle of kenosis, Jesus’s self-emptying love that forms the core of his own self-understanding and life practice.”
“…in fact, the gospels themselves make clear that he is specifically inviting us to this journey and modeling how to do it. Once you see this, it’s the touchtone throughout all his teaching. Let go! Don’t cling! Don’t hoard! Don’t assert your importance! Don’t fret. “Do not be afraid, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!”
The letting go gesture during centering prayer helps us bring this same gesture into our daily life. When I am worried, I can let it go. When I am anxious, I can let it go. When I receive an abundance, I can share it. I am not my job title, or other accomplishments. If I can let go of all of these things, I will truly have the kingdom.
Blessed Are The Pure In Heart
“Every heart is already a perfect holograph of the divine heart, carrying within itself full access to the information of the whole. But it does need to be purified, as Jesus himself observed.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew 5:8
During Centering Prayer I am purified. As I purify my heart I begin to see God! I put on the mind of Christ. I become a walking Jesus who is inclusive and full of compassion and empathy. I will admit that I am work in progress! That is why I return each day to my Centering Prayer practice.
Silence Teaches Us Who We Are
“Like most beginners, I thought that the aim in Centering Prayer was to let go of thoughts so that God could “fill” me with his presence. One day I suddenly realized that the God story was the sideshow and the letting go was the main event. That was when the practice flipped for me, as I recognized that thoughts were not the obstacle; they were the raw material, as every opportunity to practice releasing that focal point for attention deepened the reservoir of “free attention” within me and strengthened the signal of the homing beacon of my heart.”
I too used to believe that I entered Centering Prayer to be filled with God. I now know that this is no longer true. I do not need to be filled with God. God never stopped being in me. I now realize that this is a place I come from. Centering prayer teaches me who I am. I am unconditionally loved by the Divine! Centering prayer teaches me how to live.
“The intent of Centering Prayer is not to “access” God through contemplative stillness or mystical experience, but to teach its practitioners how to spontaneously align with Jesus’s own continuously creative and enfolding presence through emulating his kenotic practice in all life situations.”
“Instead, it is found in the gradual but steady capacity to go to conform a person to “the mind of Christ”, and the life attitudes of compassion, generosity, and freedom that flow from this gesture.”
Centering Prayer is not a race. It is a marathon. A daily, weekly, monthly and yearly practice will transform you! It has transformed me!
I also reviewed Cynthia’s earlier book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Enjoy my review.
Books and courses by Cynthia Bourgeault:
NEW: Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm
The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice
(Listen to The Heart of Centering Prayer for Free when you try Audible with a 30-day free trial.)
The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
Love is Stronger than Death: The Mystical Union of Two Souls
The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming An Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity
Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cloister Books)
The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault: Jesus first and foremost is a Wisdom teacher, grounded in the universal traditions of spiritual transformation, and the first teacher of non-dual consciousness the West had ever seen. Almost two thousand years ahead of his time, he stands in the lineage of the great Jewish prophets, the master “cardiologist” entrusted with implementing the promise made to the prophet Ezekiel: “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault: Centering Prayer is a simple, no-frills form of meditation in the Christian tradition. Since it was first developed by Christian contemplative monks in the 1970s, it has allowed tens of thousands of practitioners worldwide to “return home,” developing an authentically Christian meditation practice which not only delivers the healing and quieting of the mind typical of all meditation paths, but also reconnects directly to Christianity’s hidden treasury of mystical and transformational wisdom.
The Gospel of Thomas by Cynthia Bourgeault: This e-course, “The Gospel of Thomas with Cynthia Bourgeault,” is a complete “Thomas starter kit”: everything you need to know to get you up and running with this remarkable text, plus a generous sampling of its most important sayings, arranged thematically so that they speak to issues that contemporary spiritual seekers are actually dealing with.
A Simple Immediacy: Desert Wisdom for Advent by Cynthia Bourgeault: The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries are arguably the first Wisdom School in Christian history. At first in trickles and then in waves, they fled into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to escape the increasing imperialization of the Christian Church and to live in a simple immediacy with the Risen Christ. In the process, they generated an extraordinary body of practical teachings on the spiritual practices underlying this life of deeper awareness and mystical union.
Encountering the Wisdom Jesus | Quickening the Kingdom of Heaven Within by Cynthia Bourgeault: Rediscover the “master of wisdom” in the passionate traditions of the early Christians.
One on One Coaching with Rich
Does this sound like you?
“I am bored with my life?”
“I am not doing the things that I want to do in all areas of my life:”
-career, personal, family, community.
I feel unfulfilled, like I am just going through the motions everyday.
I have dreams and goals, but I am afraid to show up and take action on them.
I don’t want years to pass and be disappointed when I look back on my life.
Integrating Centering Prayer practice with your everyday life addresses all of these thoughts.
Do you want to obtain the freedom to become your true self, the person I’m created to be?
How do I create a long lasting and sustainable centering prayer practice?
I am currently taking on clients for Centering Prayer One on One Coaching sessions.
I will work with you to setup a program designed to meet your specific needs.
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5 thoughts on “The Heart of Centering Prayer: Book Review”
Great overview of the book. I also love the idea of non duality as a new operating system. I think Cynthia could take it even farther, and let go (kenotically, so to speak!) of the “ascent” metaphor altogether. You hinted at it in your review – If God is omnipresent (and even more challenging to our modern, materialistic ego-driven thinking, omnipotent) then how could “I” (as the “little me”) possibly “do” anything – even the “letting go” is Divine action, though if I “think” of it that way, in my “little me” way of thinking, I may try to “do nothing” (the little me doing nothing that is) and in my egoic pride, end up subverting the process.
This is why the Heart emphasis is so important. if the above paragraph is opaque, let go of it, it doesn’t matter. The Heart knows how to do Centering Prayer, it’s been doing it for all eternity. If I just get out of the way, Centering Prayer does itself, not only in formal “seated” practice but all the time.
The other thing I’d love to see more emphasis on in Cynthia’s teaching of centering prayer is her rather radical way of teaching how to use the sacred word. I first came upon centering prayer in 1981, when i started working as music director at a Spanish Catholic Church in NYC. We were invited to a “centering prayer mass” led by Basil Pennington. I loved the silence, but didn’t find what I understood of the technique to be anything more than superficial.
over the years, whenever I heard about centering prayer, I never liked the way the use of the sacred word was described. I’ve mostly practiced, since 1976, in the “integral yoga” tradition of Sri Aurobindo, which is at its heart, a practice of surrender, letting go, and opening.
I happened to pick up The Heart of Centering Prayer last fall, and came upon the passage where she explained that, if one is intent on opening to God’s Presence and Action, there is no need for the sacred word. in fact, if “thoughts” (or objects of awareness) only come up once in the sitting time, one would only use the word once as the gentlest reminder possible of returning to one’s intention.
For the first time, Centering Prayer not only made sense, but I realized it was exactly the same “gesture of consciousness” i had learned from Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and from Sri Aurobindo. Perhaps most astonishing, the Advaita Vedanta teacher I’ve been studying with the past 10 years, Roy Eugene Davis – who you might think would be very much in the “ascent” tradition – when he guides meditations, opens with instructions quite in the same spirit – “let your intention to open to the Divine guide your meditation.”
There is still something to be said for ascent, but that’s for another comment:>))
Thank you so much for a wonderful overview.
Thanks for reading my review!
I love your comment that the Heart knows how to do Centering Prayer, it’s been doing it for all eternity.
Agree, even the sacred word gets in the way. I have found that I use it less and less.
I have heard others say that they have been practicing centering prayer for a while but just did not know that they were.
Just came across this. Excellent review. CB’s word is “heart”, when she does use it and I think it’s now more to bring her back to embodied awareness in the heart region, not as a means of focused attention. Similar to Sardello. For a long time I thought one stayed focused on the sacred word. No. It is simply a tether to draw you back from development of thoughts.
Your last sentence nails it! Thanks for reading and commenting!