spiral

Do you sometimes feel the need to center yourself? If so, what does that mean?

It is a term I have encountered in a number of situations including meditation, including both in a religious and spiritual sense.

A plain old dictionary definition of “to center” would tell you it means to have something as a major concern or theme, as in “the book centers around how people interact with nature.” Synonyms include to focus, concentrate, pivot, hinge, or revolve.

We even use the scientific term “center of gravity” (or more accurately the center of mass) is that unique point where the weighted relative position of the distributed mass sums to zero. The body is balanced around the center.

If I asked you to be still, close your eyes and “find your center,” what would you do? Possibly you would become more conscious of your body, your breath and the tension in your muscles. Without any training, you would be meditating.

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There are books that combine this centering concept with other less spiritual practices, as in Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person.

When I first encountered meditation, through investigating Zen Buddhism, I was given the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones. It is a one volume collection of four original sources for Zen: Zen Stories, The Gateless Gate, Bulls, and Centering Together. That last book shows you that this concept of finding your center is a key part of Zen practice.

The book contains many centering practices and you can find many of them on websites too.

Some of these sources will remind you that “Zen is nothing new, neither is it anything old. Long before Buddha was born the search was on in India, as the present work shows. Long after man has forgotten such words as Zen and Buddha, satori and koan, China and Japan and America – still the search will go on, still Zen will be seen even in flower, and grass-blade, before the sun.”

If you have participated in a meditation class (or if you just watch a ten-minute meditation video online), the introductory portion is generally a kind of centering exercise.

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If you move from spiritual to religious practice, you will encounter centering prayer. This is a method of silent prayer that is very contemplative. It is often described as prayer that is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.

Father Thomas Keating has been a key figure in the centering prayer movement since the 1970s. It is not a new practice and it has roots in Christian history. I took a life-changing religion and literature course in college that exposed me to the Desert Fathers and Mothers to The Cloud of Unknowing, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila.

Religious groups are careful not to allow centering prayer to cross over into a version of New-Age spirituality.

Many religions encourage a kind of “centering prayer.” Catholics are advised to meditate in some form daily — such as on the rosary, or on Scripture (lectio divina). This practice makes use of a “sacred word” which might sound similar to using a mantra to others.

Mantra (a Sanskrit word meaning a sacred utterance, word, or phrase) is believed by some to have psychological and spiritual power. A mantra may not even be syntactic nor have any literal meaning. The spiritual value of a mantra comes when it is made audible, visible or present in thought.

Earliest mantras were composed in Vedic times by Hindus in India, and those are at least 3000 years old. Now they are found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and similar hymns or chants are found in Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity and elsewhere.

Thomas Keating emphasizes that centering prayer is not an exercise in concentrating, or focusing one’s attention on something such as a mantra. Rather, it is concerned with intention and to “consent to God’s presence and action during the time of prayer.”

Centering prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. It is the opening of your whole being. I the sense of prayer, opening to God, but in other spiritual practices it might be opening to the Ultimate Mystery, a life force, energy or the universe.

Keating is a monk in the Cistercian Order in the Benedictine tradition. He has written many books, including the best-selling Open Mind, Open Heart. He lives at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado where he established a program of 10-Day Centering Prayer retreats, which are now held world-wide.

I’m not sure he would be happy with the definition that Centering Prayer is a form of “Christian” transcendental meditation, but he has presented the Centering Prayer method and its related mystical theology to workshops of non-Christians. He has also used it as a kind of therapy and has written a book on centering prayer and the twelve steps.

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I used to teach classes in using a map and compass. One of the first things you teach in the field is orienting a map.  You position it so that North is actually pointing north. When you orient a map and know where you are on the map, you can look in a certain direction and see a real landmark and find it on the map. You find your place in the world. For me, it always felt like a kind of centering.

I also like the idea of using triangulation. That is the process of pinpointing the location of something by taking bearings to it from two remote points and find where the lines intersect on a map. Without knowing where you are, you find your place by looking at your relationship to known things.

Compass

If you knew how to use it,
then starting anywhere,
turning any direction,
you could check,
find your bearings,
tell where you came from,
know where you were going.

If you knew when you entered these woods
where you wanted to be
at the end of this journey,
it would have taken you there.
If you knew how to use it.
If you knew when you entered.
If you knew where you wanted to be.

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