Recently, a mentor of mine talked about an image that has really stuck with me. He told me to picture a snow globe being shaken vigorously, and then imagine what happens next. When the globe is set down in stillness, the fast, hurrying flakes fall to the bottom, and clarity and peace settle into the scene. He said that’s a perfect picture of what happens to us when, as we live our hurried lives, we pause long enough to settle ourselves and enter into stillness. And as we do, clarity and peace settle into us, body, soul, and spirit.
“Be Still and Know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10 ESV)
I want to keep a water bottle with some glitter in it on my desk to remind myself, sometimes hourly, that, when I feel shaken, usually the most powerful thing I can do to gather myself is not to try harder or move faster, but to be still. That is because the key to allowing peace to overflow the chaos is our coming into stillness, centering our minds and hearts on the presence of God inside us. There’s a practice that can help us do this called centering prayer.
Theologians, mystics, and great Christian thinkers have practiced this for centuries. Recently, however, centering prayer has even been getting the attention of the secular world, with scientific studies proving its merit, thanks to MRI evidence, patients’ reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, and other experimental methods. Both research and the experiences of those who advocate for centering prayer attest to stillness as the means by which we are transformed, the means by which we renew our minds. Quiet times stolen away with Him literally change us.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 ESV)
Practicing Centering Prayer
In theory, centering prayer is a simple practice because it doesn’t require the use of any words in terms of verbalizing our prayer. We’re not asking, interceding, or questioning; we’re not even praising. Centering prayer is the practice of clearing our mind and simply focusing on God’s presence. But clearing our mind is easier said than done, so the first step of centering prayer is to choose a sacred focus word to quietly say to yourself when your thoughts start to wander and you need to redirect your attention toward God. I usually use the word “Jesus,” though I sometimes choose a word that reminds me of something God is working on in me, such as “peace.” Once the word is decided, the rest is simple, though not necessarily easy:
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Feel the chair, couch, or earth underneath you.
- Pay attention to your breathing pattern. Slow and intentional breathing tells your mind and body that you’re safe.
- Find a way to visualize letting go of unwanted thoughts. One way is to picture yourself next to a stream and, as thoughts come up, to visualize tossing the thoughts into the stream to float away. (This is just one way. I encourage you to get creative!)
- Remain this way until your prayer time is over. It’s recommended to start with just a couple of minutes and slowly work your way up to longer periods, even up to 30 minutes. Ten minutes is frequently noted as sufficient to yield substantial benefits.
Be Kind To Yourself
I remember when my prayer practices first started to change, as they often do and always will. Initially in my Christian walk, I adored praying over comprehensive lists that got longer each week. I prayed for everything and everyone, from Christian leaders and organizations to news events to those I knew personally who were hurting. Slowly, though, this no longer felt like enough, and without even knowing it, God led me from a prayer practice of solely interceding to a prayer practice of spending more time listening and centering on Him. I couldn’t name or define what God had done inside me, but it eventually made me feel different, even beyond my time spent alone with Him. But now I know that I was doing centering prayer. And I’m hooked.
One of the hardest things about centering prayer is being kind to yourself while doing it. It might seem like you’ll build a dam with all the thoughts that float down your imaginary stream. You might be distracted by sounds, sensations, or feelings. That’s all okay; it shows you’re human. The key is to be gentle with yourself and with all that happens. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that God delights in you no matter what. And then just let it be. Like anything, centering prayer takes practice; but eventually, you’ll experience more of Him and less of you.
“For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’” (Isaiah 30:15 ESV)