Making an Important Distinction
Technically, centering is NOT meditation. This is a very important distinction every student of meditation should know and discern, because many students are misled into thinking that their initial or introductory centering practice is already the very practice of meditation, itself. As a result, they fail to enter into the true meditative state at the shortest developmental time possible, or they miss out on experiencing deeper states, stages or levels of meditation. It can delay or impede one’s spiritual development and journey along the path.
Students should be made aware that centering as a practice or process is not, in itself, the end and all of spiritual practice; rather, centering is only a means to a further end which is the experience of true meditation. Centering is very relaxing, and the relaxation experience it produces is usually mistaken for actual meditation. As the cliché goes, it is only a meditation on one’s belly button. Not knowing this vital distinction often makes the student complacent with his or her current centering practice as THE spiritual practice of any lifetime. Such an attitude will prevent the student from actively exploring and pursuing authentic meditation practice.
- Centering is NOT meditation. Centering is a preparation for meditation.
Meditation does not occur until the mind enters a state or dimension of inner stillness and silence — known in various spiritual systems as resting in the presence of God or simply resting in God, or experiencing emptiness or the void, or entering the Holy of Holies, or seeking refuge in the Secret Place of the Most High, and other euphemisms to describe a common meditative state of mind in which individual consciousness has disengaged fully from its everyday human awareness.
On the other hand, centering is only a preparation for the experience of meditation. Its primary function is to detach awareness from “material sense” or to disengage the mind from “everyday human awareness.”
Centering is extremely critical for several reasons:
- Centering allows the meditator to disengage or detach from what is termed “everyday human awareness.” It frees awareness to gravitate toward one’s center of being, away from the heavily encrusted circumference of the human condition (the human state of awareness).
- Centering prepares the meditator by cultivating the essential qualities of openness and receptivity in awareness. It is likened to tilling the ground soil of the human mind.
- In neuroscientific parlance, centering functionally allows the brain to switch from an active and busy beta brainwave pattern, which is characteristic of externally-oriented human brain activity, to the slower, relaxed alpha brainwave pattern, which is ideal for doing prayer, affirmation, or other similar metaphysical (mind) practice using thoughts and ideas while engaging the intellect mind. Centering is a valuable tool in preparing individual consciousness for contemplation practice. (Refer to the immediate diagram above which shows how the psyche is affected by the practice of both centering and contemplation.)
- The alpha state, which results from centering, readily facilitates a shift to the theta state of brainwave pattern, which is the actual state of mind a seasoned meditator will normally experience, especially during contemplation.
- Centering acclimatizes the human mind and accustomizes the body to the sensation and experience of sitting quietly over a period of time without actively engaging the thinking mind with its usual mental chatter and rambling thought patterns. It is a self-discipline requiring personal commitment and practice regularity. It disciplines the mind to quiet the emotions and the thinking proceas as the meditator sinks into deepening relaxation states fully alert and aware, without falling into the sleep state.
- Centering slows down the individual to a point where the “here and now” can be experienced by the meditator as a continuous flow of ever-present moments, without the stresses of worldly life and without the reference points of the past or the future.
Always remember the significant distinction between mere centering and contemplation or meditation. Do not confuse one for the other. Each serves a definite yet different purpose in the scheme of the spiritual journey. Both play important roles in your spiritual growth as your tools for unfolding mystical consciousness, and you need to cultivate them in devotional tandem to progress along the path.
Now let us proceed to an exposition of centering whether viewed as a spiritual practice or a religious prayer form. We begin with the matter of relaxing the body and quieting the mind.
Practice, practice, practice.
Relax the Body, Quiet the Mind
A valid spiritual practice begins with relaxation. If you are a novice at meditation who is easily distracted by the human mind — particularly the incessant chatter or attention-getting gimmicks of the intellect/thinking mind — or who is unable to sit quietly and still for any short period of time, get “grounded” or “centered” physically, mentally and psychologically by taking up a centering practice.
Centering quiets the mind by taking away the busyness of everyday human awareness. Centering quiets the mind by bringing us to an awareness of the present moment, letting us flow with it thereby allowing us to let go of our grip on the past and the future. Centering quiets the mind by letting us experience a momentary feeling of release or a sense of freedom from our humanhood, right where we are, right at the moment. It acclimatizes the mind to moments of silence and stillness, so the mind can pause in between constantly flowing words or thoughts or breaths, bring awareness to focus on the gaps of emptiness, and reveal in those gaps a glimpse of the soul.
Centering engages the mind at the moment, bringing it to a present awareness of the moment. In this regard, it is an essential preparation for spiritual contemplation. The mind that has learned to be quiet and still is the “fertile soil” described in the parable of the soils: It is the soil in which seeds of Truth can germinate, grow to maturity, and produce a plentiful harvest in various aspects and areas of life.
He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables, such as this one:
“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” Then he said, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
(The Gospel According to Mark 4:2-9, NLT)
In the following sections, we shall discuss and explore some common forms, practices and techniques for centering. Feel free to explore and adopt them to the degree you can feel comfortable with them as a regular practice. You may need to have more than one centering practice form and to switch techniques occasionally. It is not unusual for the human mind to “get bored” with a repeated activity over time, but give a particular practice enough chance and time to take root in you and to flourish as your own.
Practice, practice, practice, practice.
Centering by Doing Repetitions
One of the easiest ways of centering yourself is by doing word or sound repetitions: You can try repeating a mantra (referred to as japam yoga or mantram yoga in eastern traditions) or a short calming affirmation over and over again, audibly or silently in the mind, for a set length of time. (The Internet and many books and spiritual centers are good sources of information for this type of centering practice; try exploring them.)
- Literally any word in any language or combination of words (preferably short words and not more than three) or brief phonetic sound combinations, which do not evoke stressful emotions but rather induce relaxation and peacefulness in you, can be used as a mantra. Here are some common examples: aum, om, om shanti, hu, hum, peace, shalom (Hebrew for peace), salaam (Arabic for peace), love, amor (Spanish for love), amore (Italian for love), bliss, nirvana, neti neti (Sanskrit for not this, not this), I am, relax and let go, peace… be still, BE-ing, here… now, and so forth.
- Your mantra need not be personally or spiritually meaningful to you at the start; however, you might wish to cultivate spiritual edification or devotion (bhakti yoga) from the very beginning or at some later time in your practice, in which case, you may opt to use more spiritually meaningful faith expressions or adopt deific names you are comfortable with, that are associated with your religious culture or preferred spiritual system. Nearly all religious or spiritual systems normally incorporate and include this practice in their liturgical rites or rituals, in one form or another.
Examples of this would be: Elohim, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jehovah-Jireh (and other variations of God’s name in Judaism), Adonai, Christ, Jesus, Yēšûă‘ (Hebrew-Aramaic for Jesus), Yĕhōšuă‘ (Hebrew for Jesus), Christ Jesus, Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, Krishna, Hare Krishna, Vishnu, Rama, Ramakrishna, Shiva, Brahman, Atman, Father-Mother-God, Divine Father, Divine Mother, Yin-Yang, “Holy, holy, holy,” Allah, mercy, blessings, oneness, allness, spiritus (Latin for spirit), Holy Spirit, “Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Latin for “Come, Holy Spirit”),” “Lord, have mercy,” “Christ, have mercy,” Praise be the Lord, Praise be God, Praise be Allah, maranatha (the prayer-word recommended by the late Fr. John Main OSB), the Jesus Prayer popular in the Christian orthodox sects, the Roman Catholic recitation of the Holy Rosary, prayer litanies and novenas, and so forth.
- You can use and work with short calming affirmations which resonate with the Truth teaching. Your Truth statements may or may not be associated with your religious culture or system. Remember to keep them brief. Examples of these would be: “Where I am, God is.”; “I am that I am.” (Hebrew: “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.”); “I and the Father are one.”; “Om mani padme hum.”; the Shema of the Jewish religion, “ayam ātmā brahma” (Sanskrit for “The Self or the Soul is Brahman.” from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5); and so forth.
- Start with a few minutes practice of repetitions; then build up gradually to ten (10) minutes, then fifteen (15) or twenty (20) minutes in one sitting, for a regular daily centering practice session. See if you can regularly do at least two (2) centering sessions in a day, one upon waking up in the morning and another shortly after sunset or day’s end; squeeze in a third session at noontime if you can.
Impose and apply self-discipline in observing your practice sitting times and sessions. Do not shorten your centering periods or cut corners with your practice. If you happen to fall asleep during your centering practice session, simply resume your practice upon returning to wakefulness. Avoid having your practice session on a full stomach after consuming a meal. Try to take a nap or get rested first when your body is exhausted or fatigued.
Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice.
Centering with Your Breathing
Cultivate your hara energy center (Japanese, meaning “belly“; Chinese: dāntián). During periods of inactivity when you have nothing else to do, sit relaxed and silently, and bring your awareness to an area just below the navel — about three finger widths below the navel and two finger widths into the body behind the said navel area. This is where the hara center is located. Keep awareness focused there at the hara as you breathe deeply, inhaling and exhaling slowly in the process.
“Becoming aware of this center is going to help you tremendously. So the more you abide there, the better. It will create a great centering in your life energies. You just have to start looking into it and it will start functioning; you will start feeling that the whole of life moves around the center. It is from the hara that life begins, and it is in the hara that life ends. All our body centers are far away; the hara is exctly in the center – that is where we are balanced and rooted. So once one becomes aware of the hara, many things start happening.
“For example, there will be less thinking because energy will not move to the head, it will go to the hara.
“The more you think of the hara, the more you concentrate there, the more you will find a discipline arising in you. That comes naturally, it has not to be forced.
“The more you are aware of the hara, the less you will become afraid of life and death – because that is the center of life and death. Once you become attuned to the hara center, you can live courageously. Courage arises out of it; less thinking, more silence, less uncontrolled momenmts, natural discipline, courage and rootedness, a groundedness.”
– Osho (Sri Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) –
[Acknowledgment: Our gratitude to MonkeyMindSociety for posting the video above on YouTube.com.]
You can try practicing breath awareness — the practice of ānāpānasati in the Buddhist tradition or prāṇāyāma in the Hindu yogic tradition (Watch the videos above and below for a guided basic pranayama practice for deepening and slowing the breath, increasing your peaceful state of mind, and decreasing stress.), or just have regular daily exercise sessions of mindfully doing deep diaphragmatic breathing. Spiritual teacher Ram Dass has a good breathing meditation instruction and guide, which is worth listening to.
[Acknowledgment: Our gratitude to centerformindfulness for posting the video above on YouTube.com.]
Practice, practice, practice, practice, and practice.
Various Other Ways of Centering
You can try to chant — participate at a local Taize contemplative gathering (view the video below) if you are of the Christian persuasion . . .
[Acknowledgment: Our gratitude to Elizabeat for posting the video above on YouTube.com.]
. . . recite/pray the rosary, do verbal or mental repetitions with mantra prayer beads, pick up a yoga or other eastern body-mind disciplinary practice, do deep relaxation exercises, listen continuously or repeatedly to deeply relaxing music over a set period of time (just flow with the music releasing yourself to it), set up your own meditation corner or room where you can just sit, relax and be quiet (or do your practice) with lit candles and/or burning incense, explore brain entrainment techniques, etc., . . . or simply do Centering Prayer for a starter (read information below on Centering Prayer).
If you happen to have a definite Christian orientation, you might want to consider Centering Prayer as taught by Abbot Thomas Keating OCSO.
Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. (Contemplative Outreach)
The relationship aspect of Centering Prayer makes it a good spiritual practice for beginners on the mystical path. It prepares them for actual contemplation practice, which is a process of growing in intimacy with God, and the deeper stages and states of meditation.
The following are the guidelines prescribed by Fr. Keating in the Centering Prayer brochure.
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- Sitting 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.
- When engaged with your thoughts*, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
*Thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections
Here is an introduction by Fr. Keating to the practice of centering prayer and its methodology.
Fr. Keating continues his presentation on centering prayer in the next video in which he discusses the matter of thoughts arising during practice.
[Acknowledgment: Our gratitude to lawrenceweiss for posting the centering prayer videos above on YouTube.com.]
Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, and practice.
Try Zen Practice
Here are some easy to follow instructions on practicing zazen or zen sitting meditation, given by Roshi John Daido Loori from the Zen Buddhist tradition, whom I have considered a helpful teacher along the path.
[Acknowledgment: Our appreciation and gratitude to dharmacom for publishing the video on YouTube.com.]
Zen is particularly rich in the practice of mindfulness, and neuroscience research confirms its benefits and effectiveness. In the Buddhist system of mysticism, mindfulness is not only a centering practice, but it is also a meditation practice in itself which can bring one to a moment of awakened consciousness or satori. Try to cultivate “mindfulness” daily while doing your routine activities, such as washing the dishes, taking a shower, brushing your teeth, washing your hands, walking down the street, vacuuming the carpet, sweeping the floor, shopping for groceries, etc. — even the most mundane activity of breathing air with your lungs. You can weave mindfulness easily into your daily life. Watch the video below and learn how.
[Acknowledgment: Our appreciation goes to Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., (and MBSRWorkbook) for posting his video on YouTube.]
So, practice, practice, practice, practice, and PRACTICE.
Your persistence on the spiritual path means that the spirit of God has already touched you. You have not chosen God. God has chosen you, and God will not let you go until you arrive safely at home in His bosom. The constant recognition that the spirit of God has touched you and will not let you go is one of the greatest helps on the way.
— Joel S. Goldsmith —
Your persistence on the spiritual path means that the spirit of God has already touched you.
“Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform — do that . . . as an offering to Me.”
(Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 9.27)