The Other Mindful Practice: Centering Prayer & Psychotherapy
P. Gregg Blanton
Published online: 6 July 2010 # Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
Abstract A review of the literature reveals that one particular form of mindful practice, mindfulness, has received the most research attention during the past decade. While all of this attention has been focused on mindfulness, the clinical usefulness of other mindful practices has been ignored. Built upon this background, the purpose of this article is to bring attention to an overlooked form of mindful practice that grows out of the Christian tradition: Centering Prayer. The article begins with a description of Centering Prayer, along with a comparison with mindfulness. The remainder of the article explores the clinical implications of Centering Prayer. First, ways in which Centering Prayer informs our understanding of the need for and the goals of counseling are suggested. Next, four therapeutic skills of Centering Prayer, along with three distinct ways for integrating Centering Prayer into psychotherapy are offered. Throughout the clinical section of the article, numerous practical ideas and strategies are developed. Finally, a case study is included to illustrate the potential benefits of including Centering Prayer in psychotherapy.
In recent years, there has been a rising interest in mindful awareness practices among mental health professionals (Siegel 2007). Siegel (2007) defines mindful practice as “focusing the mind in specific ways to develop a more rigorous form of present-moment awareness that can directly alleviate the suffering in one’s life” (p. 9). These practices have been described as an essential part of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Taoist teaching. Over thousands of years, mindful awareness practices have emerged in various forms: mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, qui quong, and Centering Prayer. During the last 10 years, most studies that examine the integration of mindful awareness practices and psychotherapy have focused on a Buddhist practice called mindfulness (Smith 2004). Mindfulness, which is defined as awareness of the present experience with
Pastoral Psychol (2011) 60:133–147 DOI 10.1007/s11089-010-0292-9
P. G. Blanton (*) Montreat College, Montreat, NC 28807, USA e-mail: [email protected]
acceptance (Germer 2005a), “has become one of the hottest growth areas in the field of psychotherapy” (Germer 2006, p. 54). The most frequently cited method of mindfulness training is the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn for treating patients with a wide range of chronic pain and stress-related disorders (Baer 2003). In 1979, Kabat-Zinn established the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and today, there are over 2,500 MBSR programs around the world (Davidson and Kabat-Zinn 2004). The primary goal of MBSR is on training participants in various meditation techniques that result in the development of mindfulness (Bishop 2002). To accomplish this goal, members participate in 8 to 10 weekly group sessions, with one session being a full day retreat. Participants are expected to complete homework exercises that largely involve practice of mindfulness techniques, both in formal and informal practice. Members are aided in their homework exercises with audiocassettes that guide them through the mindfulness exercises. Even though mindfulness stands alone in MBSR, recent treatment developments have begun to focus on the integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy (Mace 2008). Psychodynamic psychotherapists were the first to discover and utilize mindfulness, but there has been a recent surge of literature on mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral treatment (Germer 2005b). The three leading approaches within the cognitive-behavioral tradition are: (1) dialectical behavior therapy (DBT; Linehan 1993a, 1993b), (2) mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT; Segal et al. 2002), and (3) acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes et al. 1999; Hayes et al. 2005). All three of these treatment packages contain a substantial mindfulness component (Germer 2005b). MBCT, which was developed to alleviate chronic depression, teaches the mindfulness practices of MBSR. MBCT is an 8-week group intervention program. Linehan, the innovator of DBT, notes that mindfulness skills are central to DBT. However, unlike MBCT, which looks to Kabat-Zinn for the development of mindfulness skills, Linehan acknowledges that her ideas about mindfulness are adapted from the work of Thich Nhat Hanh (1976). Linehan (1993a, 1993b) describes three mindfulness “what” skills (observe, describe, participate) and three mindfulness “how” skills (i.e., how to do the “what” skills). DBT clients learn mindfulness in a year-long weekly skills group. ACT, a third approach from the cognitive-behavioral tradition, can also be thought of as a mindfulness-based therapy (Hayes et al. 2004). Clients in ACT are taught to experience current thoughts and emotions, without judging, evaluating, or attempting to change or avoid them. ACT explicitly teaches clients to attend to thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally, with acceptance (Baer 2003). ACT is implemented in either an individual or group format. The potential of these mindfulness-based approaches has produced a wave of empirically based treatments for familiar problems (Germer 2005a). Studies show evidence for the effectiveness for mindfulness-based approaches in the treatment of depression (Hayes and Harris 2000; Lynch et al. 2003; Ma and Teasdale2004; Morgan 2005; Segal et al. 2002; Teasdale et al. 1995; Teasdale et al. 2000; Zettle and Raines 1989), anxiety disorders (Germer 2005c; Kabat-Zinn et al.1992; Lopez2000; Miller et al. 1995; Orsillo et al. 2003; Robins2002; Roemer and Orsillo 2003), borderline personality disorder (Linehan 1993a; Linehan1993b; Linehan et al. 1999; Zettle 2003), substance abuse (Breslin et al. 2002; Linehan et al. 1999), and eating disorders (Kristeller and Hallett 1999; Telch et al. 2001).
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While all of this attention has been focused on mindfulness, the clinical usefulness of other forms of mindful awareness practices has been largely ignored. Isn’t it time to bring more attention to these overlooked forms of mindful practice? The purpose of this article is to accomplish this purpose with a Christian form of mindful practice: Centering Prayer. Several authors have attempted to draw attention to Centering Prayer. Siegel (2007) includes it alongside mindfulness as a beneficial form of mindful practice. Robins (2002) has suggested that contemplative practices based in other religious traditions should be introduced to clients who object to the Buddhist roots of mindfulness. Even Linehan, the originator of DBT, recognizes the similarities between Centering Prayer and mindfulness and recommends it as an effective alternative to mindfulness (Robins et al. 2004). The mental health profession needs to address some important questions. What is Centering Prayer? What are the similarities and differences between Centering Prayer and mindfulness? What are preliminary ideas on the integration of Centering Prayer and psychotherapy? This article attempts to address these questions.
What is centering prayer?
Centering Prayer, developed by Meninger, Pennington, and Keating in 1975 (Keating 2005), is a synthesis of various sources from the Christian contemplation tradition. Bourgeault (2004) tells us that Centering Prayer is a contemporary expression of the ancient custom of contemplation as it was practiced by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the third and fourth centuries. Until recently, their teachings were sealed away in a set of Latin volumes called the Patrologia Latina, but Merton (1960) made the Desert teachings available for the first time in a contemporary, accessible way in book called The Wisdom of the Desert. The essence of the Desert teachings was captured by John Cassian, who studied with the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the fourth century. He brought what he learned from this Egyptian monastic experience back to the West in a collection of writings called the Conferences (Pennington 1982). His teachings have been maintained primarily in the West by the Rule of St. Benedict. Centering Prayer is inspired by John Cassian and other sources from the Christian contemplative tradition (Keating 2005). In Conferences, no. 9, Cassian describes a method of “pure prayer” which was later developed in The Cloud of Unknowing, which was written by an anonymous fourteenth-century author. The writings of St. John of the Cross in the sixteenth-century and the more recent works of Thomas Merton inspired Meninger, Pennington, and Keating to develop Centering Prayer. This contemporary expression of an ancient tradition was first called “Prayer of the Cloud,” but it later adopted the term coined by Thomas Merton: “Centering Prayer” (Bourgeault 2004). It is important to note that Centering Prayer was developed in the 1970s. During this decade, there was a movement among spiritual teachers of major Eastern religions to come to the United States and present their respective methods of meditation. (Note: In 1977, the American Psychological Association sounded the call for research into the clinical effectiveness of meditation.) Numerous young people who learned these other traditions came to St. Joseph’s Abby in Spencer, Massachusetts, where Keating was abbot, asking for a Christian method of contemplation. Since there was not a contemporary method of Christian contemplation, Meninger, Pennington, and Keating were prompted to create one.
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The result was Centering Prayer, a new name and a new package for the ancient Christian tradition of contemplation (Keating 2005; Pennington 1982). The unique intent of the originators of Centering Prayer was to provide a simple method for practicing Christian contemplation. As a result, the method of Centering Prayer has only four straightforward guidelines (Keating 1999). The first rule is to “choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within” (p. 139). Centering Prayer works on the power of intention (Bourgeault 2004). The person’s intention is to focus on the indwelling presence of God, so Centering Prayer consists primarily in returning to and refocusing one’s intention. When you find yourself engaged with a thought, you simply let it go and return to your original intention to be open to God. You use your sacred word when you observe that you are being attracted to a thought. What is a sacred word and how is it used? The sacred word is any word chosen by the person that elicits a sense of love for God in that person (Pennington 1982). It can be a word like Jesus, Abba, Love, or Silence, that spontaneously comes to mind when a person turns his or her attention towards God. The sacred word is not used like a mantra, because the word is not repeated constantly. Instead, it is only used when practitioners observe that they are being attracted by a thought. The word is gently used to return the person back to God’s presence. If a person does not find a word useful for this purpose, other strategies are permitted. A person may want to silently use a sound or notice one’s breathing. Keating (2005) writes, “Our intention and consent to God can also be expressed by noticing our breathing as a symbol of the Spirit” (p. 107). This seems appropriate, because in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma), the word “spirit” means breath. The second guideline is to “sit 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” (p. 139). Notice that Centering Prayer starts when you use your sacred word. It is used as a way of acknowledging the Divine Indwelling. Consenting to God’s presence is different than “turning on the presence of God” (Keating 1999). It is a way of saying, “Here I am.” The next step is then up to God. In Centering Prayer, you put yourself at God’s disposal. The person is only interested in being open to God so the results are up to God. The third strategy is: “When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word” (p. 139). This rule captures the four Rs of Centering Prayer: Resist no thought, Retain no thought, React to no thought, and Return to the sacred word (Bourgeault 2004). The phrase “ever-so-gently” alerts us to the practice of using the sacred word to release, not suppress, thoughts. By using the sacred word, you return to your original intention to be open to God. Keating (1999) writes, “Your only activity is the attention you offer to God either implicitly by letting go of all thoughts or explicitly by returning to the sacred word” (p.82). The final rule is, “At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes” (p. 139). The standard time for one formal period of Centering Prayer is 20 min. Once the 20 min is complete, the final period of silence is designed to help the person transition into daily life, maintaining an attitude of silence and attention to God. A more complete understanding of Centering Prayer requires more than this brief introduction to the simple guidelines of Centering Prayer. Therefore, in the next section, we will explore Centering Prayer more thoroughly by comparing it with mindfulness. Since Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990, 1994, 2005) is the most frequently cited author on mindfulness training, we will appeal primarily to his writings.
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Comparison of centering prayer and mindfulness
At first glance, the purposes of mindfulness and Centering Prayer seem very similar. First, both forms of mindful practice are seeking for a distinctive connection. In mindfulness, this special relationship is with the present moment. A mindful exercise is anything that brings the practitioner back to awareness of the present moment of experience (Germer 2005a). Mindfulness includes a conscious desire to abandon one’s agenda to have a different experience, and it involves embracing whatever one is thinking, sensing, or feeling. Approaching experiences this way allows them to become more vivid and more bright. Through the lens of mindfulness, “Ordinary experiences may be seen as extraordinary” (Kabat-Zinn 1990, p. 154). Centering Prayer also fosters a special connection; however, this bond is with God. Keating (1999) declares that Centering Prayer is about awakening us to the presence of God. He argues that the Divine presence is available to us at every moment, but our worldview blocks out this awareness. Since the human condition is a felt separation from God, Centering Prayer is the remedy for this disease. Pennington (1999) writes, “Centering Prayer is but responding to the offer of the intimacy of divine friendship” (p. 121). Through contemplation, a person is able to access the experience of God’s presence within us. In Centering Prayer, a person is able to have the experience that Jesus had of God as Abba (Keating 2005). Pennington (1982) writes, “When we go to the center, we leave behind time and place and separateness. We come to our source” (p. 92). The second goals of mindfulness and Centering Prayer are even more similar. The practice of mindfulness helps people wake-up to who they are. This idea of “waking-up” resides within Buddhism, because the word “Buddha” simply means that one has awakened to his or her own true nature. Kabat-Zinn (1994) says that mindfulness is “fundamentally about being in touch with our deepest nature” (p. 45). In another place, Kabat-Zinn (1990) states that in mindfulness, we learn to become aware of “something deeper within ourselves, a discerning wisdom” (p. 29). He adds (1990) that mindfulness has “no goal other than for you to be yourself” (p. 37). How does one become oneself, according to mindfulness? The answer, according to Kabat-Zinn (1990) is to simply realize that “you are already there” (p. 37). Perhaps more than anything else, mindfulness helps people realize that “they are already whole” (p. 95). Through mindfulness, people examine who they are and find greater self-acceptance. Kabat-Zinn (2005) writes, “Isn’t it time for us to discover that we are already larger than we allow ourselves to know?” (p. 125). We find that the goal of Centering Prayer is also about “waking-up” to who we are. By leaving behind thoughts, feelings, and images, people can “assent wholly to being who we are” (Pennington 1982, p. 89). According to Centering Prayer, when we return to our center, there is nothing left to do. We are already being who we are. Keating (2005) observes that the regular practice of silence allows God an opening through which the image of God within us is awakened. Jones (2003) points out that in contemplation we see the image of God within us and we reflect that divine presence. Both Centering Prayer and mindfulness give similar responses to the question: What obstacles get in the way of discovering who we are? There are two primary obstacles, according to mindfulness. First, our thinking, colored by past experiences, interferes with accessing that other part of ourselves. Therefore, according to mindfulness, we need to stop, be present, and let go of our thoughts. It is difficult to stop and be present though, because we are so active “doing.” However, by shifting into the “being” mode—this is what mindfulness does—we are able to “let go of the past and future and wake up to what we are
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now, in this moment” (Kabat-Zinn 1994, p. 14). In mindfulness, we learn that “we are not our thoughts, we can watch them come and go and learn not to cling to them or run after them” (Kabat-Zinn 1990, p. 440). The second obstacle to realizing one’s wholeness, according to mindfulness, it the “selfing habit” (Kabat-Zinn 2005, p. 17). This phrase refers to the human tendency to define ourselves. Mindfulness teaches us that we are always being hounded by the fear that we are less than we think we are. We constantly feel incomplete. As a result, we endlessly participate in the process of creating new stories about ourselves. However, according to Kabat-Zinn, stories, by their very nature, limit us from realizing our full selfhood. As long as we are attached to these stories, we will have a limited view of ourselves. Kabat-Zinn (2005) writes,“You are not who or what you think you are. We are much larger, and more mysterious. Once we know this, our possibilities for creativity expand enormously” (p. 329). Centering Prayer also is a process of leaving behind thoughts in general, and thoughts about the self in particular, in order to get in touch with our entire selfhood. First, Centering Prayer is about letting go of thoughts. By withdrawing our attention from the ordinary flow of our thoughts, Centering Prayer is designed to make us aware that we are not just our thoughts. Centering Prayer is a method that teaches practitioners how to handle the thoughts that arise by letting them go. By releasing your thoughts, you can enter into the “being” mode. Keating (1999) writes of Centering Prayer, “It is an exercise in being rather than doing” (p. 85). Centering Prayer is also a process of leaving behind thoughts about the self. According to Centering Prayer, people look outside of themselves to construct an image of themselves. However, Centering Prayer is about looking in another direction, to the center, to see who we are. We are more than our thoughts or stories tell us about ourselves, Centering Prayer teaches us. The constructs of self that occur in our heads or in society are limiting, so we need to release them. Instead, Pennington (1999) observes “we come to know ourselves really only in the eyes of someone who loves us” (p. 90). This someone is the one Jesus called Abba. Since letting go of thoughts is so important in Centering Prayer and mindfulness, they each suggest a method for accomplishing this end. As we noticed earlier, Centering Prayer makes use of a sacred word or one’s breathing. Once you realize that you are attracted to a thought, you use the word or breath to return your intention towards God. In mindfulness, the basic instructions for sitting meditation are very simple: “We observe the breathe as it flows in and out…And whenever we find that our attention has moved elsewhere, wherever that may be, we just note it and let go and gently escort our attention back to the breath, back to the rising and falling of our own belly” (Kabat-Zinn 1990, p. 64). Even if your attention to the breath wanders off a hundred times, and you have to bring your attention back to the breath a hundred times, it is good, because you are building your powers of concentration, just as muscles develop by repetitively lifting weights. Already, from the previous discussion, we can see that mindfulness places more emphasis on the body than does Centering Prayer. The three major formal techniques practiced in MBSR are hatha yoga, body scan, and sitting meditation. In the sitting meditation, as you tune into your breathing and notice the sensations of your chest and belly rising and falling, you can work at being in your body. The body scan is a method of checking in with and listening to and relaxing every region of the body systematically. This helps people develop greater familiarity with their bodies also. Finally, hatha yoga consists in gentle stretching and strengthening exercises. They are done very slowly, with present awareness of breathing and bodily sensations, as one puts oneself into various postures.
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In Centering Prayer, the attitude toward the body is very different. Pennington (1999) states that posture is important, but he does not want to give it too much attention. He does say that one should be comfortable and one’s back should be straight when one practices Centering Prayer. Poor posture can hinder the process of prayer. Pennington even realizes that a bit of exercise before Centering Prayer can be useful if it relaxes the body. However, he makes it clear that exercises are in no way a part of the method. Exercise is peripheral to Centering Prayer, because there is no desire to burden people with certain types of bodily rituals. How much time should be spent in contemplation? Kabat-Zinn (1994) states that mindfulness has little to do with clock time, observing that 5 min of formal practice can be as profound as 45 min. The sincerity of your effort matters more than elapsed time. He says that if one can only manage 5 min, or even 1 min of mindfulness at first, that is good. Remembering to shift from doing to being for even a short while is a valuable practice. Thich Nhat Hanh (1976), a Buddhist monk who influenced Linehan to integrate mindfulness into her model of psychotherapy, recommends that beginners sit no longer than 20 or 30 min. He observes that it takes 10 to 20 min for your thoughts to “quiet down like a pond on which not even a ripple stirs” (p. 21). The instructions in Centering Prayer are similar to those of Thich Nhat Hanh. Pennington (1999) recommends a period of 20 min for beginners. However, if a person is unable to Center for 20 min, he recommends letting them Center for whatever amount of time that they are able. Finally, both forms of contemplation suggest that there are two types of contemplation. One form is formal, whereas the other is informal. When mindfulness is being practiced formally, people may be provided with audiocassettes or CDs that guide them through mindfulness meditation exercises. Formal practice is designed to help bring attitudes of mindfulness into a person’s daily life. As people become more aware of what is happening in the present moment, they become more aware of possibilities. This is the case because experiences happen in the present. Only with moment to moment awareness can people notice aspects of their lives that they were ignoring. Mindfulness can be practiced as people bring mindfulness to ordinary activities such as eating, walking, or even washing the dishes. Nhat Hanh (1976) writes, “Be mindful 24 h a day, not just during the 1 h you may allot for formal meditation…Each act must be carried out in mindfulness” (p. 24). Centering Prayer also recognizes that formal times of contemplation are designed to help people carry the same attitude into their daily lives in an informal way. Keating (1999) observes that the experience of God’s presence during Centering Prayer activates our capacity to perceive God in normal, everyday events. Keating (1999) writes, “The ripe fruit of contemplative prayer is to bring back into the humdrum routines of daily life the spontaneous awareness of His abiding Presence in, through, and beyond everything” (p. 115). Brother Lawrence, a layman who worked in a French monastery kitchen during the seventeenth-century, provides us with a wonderful model of informal Christian contemplation. Brother Lawrence (1666/2005) writes, “We need only to recognize God intimately with us, to address ourselves to Him every moment” (p. 32). For him, prayer was reminding himself of the presence of God. Brother Lawrence writes,
The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees. (p. 12)
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In summary, in this section, we have learned more about Centering Prayer by comparing it with mindfulness, a well-researched mindful practice. First, we notice that both types of contemplation have a similar goal; that is, helping practitioners wake-up to who they are. In addition, both forms of mindful practice agree that there is nothing people have to do to accomplish this goal. They are already whole, if they will only realize it. Mindfulness and Centering Prayer both share the goal of obtaining a special connection. The emphasis in mindfulness is upon connecting with the present moment. Accomplishing this goal through mindfulness opens great possibilities for the practitioner. In contrast, Centering Prayer draws attention to a person’s union with God. Having made this distinction, both Centering Prayer and mindfulness highlight the present moment. Mindfulness teaches that we only have the present experience, while the practice of Centering recognizes that God resides in the current moment. Both types of mindful practice share similar ideas about what interferes with waking up and connecting with the present moment. They recognize two major obstacles: thoughts and the propensity to create images of ourselves. Both mindfulness and Centering Prayer teach practitioners how to let go of thoughts. Letting go of constructed stories about the self is particularly important, because these self-made images of the self limit people from realizing their wholeness. Both methods acknowledge that we can only transcend ourselves when we let go of the pull to define ourselves. How do these two types of contemplative mindful practice accomplish this important task of letting go of thoughts? They both recommend catching a thought, gently releasing it, and changing one’s attention. In mindfulness, the target of one’s concentration is typically the breath, whereas, in Centering Prayer, people refocus their attention, or intention, upon God. Both systems suggest 20 min for a formal time of contemplation. However, the goal in both forms of contemplation is to take the contemplative attitude into daily life. By maintaining mindfulness, a person can be aware of present experiences. By remaining Centered, a person can be alert to the presence of God in daily events. The goals, obstacles, skills, and methods of Centering Prayer are very similar to mindfulness, one of the hottest growth areas in the field of psychotherapy. Kabat-Zinn has deleted references to Buddhism in his brand of mindfulness, but Centering Prayer obviously retains it religious roots. Its purposes, strategies, and ideas about present experiences maintain a focus upon God. Built upon this understanding of the practice of Centering Prayer, we now turn our attention to its implications for psychotherapy. Why do people need counseling? What is the purpose of psychotherapy? What psychotherapeutic skills and benefits occur when Centering Prayer is integrated into psychotherapy? What methods are available for integrating Centering Prayer into counseling? These questions are addressed in the next section.
Integrating centering prayer and psychotherapy
Need for and goals of counseling
Centering Prayer, as a mindful practice, is useful in psychotherapy because it helps us understand why people need counseling. According to mindful awareness practices, there are two major determinants of human mental suffering. Siegel (2007) identifies the first cause of internal stress as the tension within the mind between what is and what should be.
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This refers to the mind’s tendency to grasp onto certain conceptualizations of the world and to filter experiences through these views. ACT, as a counseling approach that utilizes mindfulness, refers to this problem as fusion (Strosahl et al. 2004). Hayes and his colleagues (Hayes et al. 2004) define fusion as the tendency of people to live in a world overly structured by language. They (Hayes et al. 2004) write, “Language is at the core of the remarkable human tendency to suffer in the midst of plenty” (p. 3). Mental suffering is the result of the narrowing effects of language in three key areas. First, language tends to fuse one’s thinking about the event with the event itself (Hayes et al. 2004). In other words, one’s thinking about reality gets confused with reality itself. It becomes virtually impossible for people to distinguish their languagebased concepts of the world from the world that they directly experience. Next, language tends to draw focus away from the present moment into the past and future (Strosahl et al. 2004). After people conceptualize the past, they tend to assume that the future will repeat the past. Finally, language enables people to evaluate events. For example, certain situations are evaluated as good or bad, true of false. As a result of the evaluative process, people seek out preferred states and push away nonpreferred states. Some experiences are owned while other ones are disowned. Morgan and Morgan (2005) refer to this tendency to resist experience as clinging and they view it as central to mental suffering. The second cause of suffering, according to Odenski (2005), is our misunderstanding of the nature of the self. This second cause is related to the first, because it is our conceptualization of the self that leads us to a limited view of the self. We end up accepting a view of the self that is simply a product of language and the mind (Siegel 2007). This language-based version of self allows us to carry our identities into the world and to interact with the world in predictable ways. Siegel (2007) states, “Our personal identity is real, but it’s not the whole deal” (p. 130). In other words, the self is capable of so much more but it is restricted by language and our perceptions of reality. A form of psychotherapy that is informed by Centering Prayer can directly alleviate the suffering in clients’ lives. This healing comes about as we accomplish two goals of therapy. What are the outcomes of an approach that integrates psychotherapy and Centering Prayer? Siegel (2007) offers us two desired goals of such an approach. First, an integrated approach would free clients from the restraints of language (Siegel 2007). As a mindful practice, Centering Prayer helps clients see how their minds work and it helps them let go of a rigid identification with the activities of the mind. As clients learn to be in the moment, they learn to let go of evaluations and conceptualizations. By disentangling themselves from the chatter of the mind, clients learn that thoughts are passing events of the mind. Building upon Siegel’s ideas (2007), a second goal of an integrated approach can be identified. That is, a model that incorporates Centering Prayer will allow access to one’s deeper primary self, which Siegel calls the ipseitious self. This deeper sense of self is more commonly referred to in the literature as the transcendent self (Fletcher and Hayes 2006). One’s sense of self is transformed as he or she engages in mindful awareness. Clients learn that their old sense of self is based in language and that it is a product of their thinking. As clients get beneath the chatter of their minds, they become aware of a deeper self, and from this non-languaging self, they develop a feeling of belonging to a larger whole. Through present-moment awareness, “we gain a glimpse of a deeper reality—not replacing our identity but expanding it” (Siegel 2007, p. 320). Through Centering Prayer, as
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a mindful practice, clients’ minds are opened to another dimension, a dimension in which “the sacred suffuses each breath, our essence, each step through this journey of life” (Siegel 2007, p. 320).
Skills & benefits
Centering Prayer can be thought of a set of skills: identifying, separating, releasing, and encountering. My description of these skills will have a postmodern, narrative flavor since this is my preferred psychotherapeutic approach. As a result of Centering Prayer, people improve at identifying two things. First, people begin to notice inner dialogues that previously existed out of their awareness. Before they started Centering, the incessant self-talking existed with little recognition. Now, they recognize and catch the storying process the moment it occurs. Second, people begin to identify the story as a story. Instead of thinking of the narrative as the truth of who they are, people now recognize the story as something they have created. They understand that the languaging self constantly wants to create new stories of the self. The second skill is separating. Before beginning the practice of Centering Prayer, people equate the story with who they are. The narrative defines the person. Centering helps people see that there is a difference between the story and the complete selfhood. Even when the storying process is quieted and no inner talking occurs, the self remains. This experience enables people to create some distance between themselves and the story. They notice the story but they can step back from it and just observe it. The regular practice of Centering Prayer helps people develop the ability of releasing. During their periods of Centering, people learn more than just to identify inner monologues. They also become skilled at letting go of this inner talking. They learn how to quiet the inner talking and experience silence. During a twenty-minute period of Centering, people may catch themselves listening to inner dialogues fifty times. Each time, the person gently releases the story and returns to his or her intention of focusing on God. The skill of releasing becomes more and more fine-tuned over time. The final skill developed through the process of Centering Prayer is encountering. This refers to the ability to engage in and experience the present moment. People become skilled at noticing stories the moment they emerge in one’s thinking. For a twenty-minute period, the person actively monitors his or her thoughts. They quickly recognize when a story has captured their attention. Then, at that instant, they learn to turn their intention back to God who is also immediately available. They realize that God can be encountered in that exact moment. God resides in the Now. Centering Prayer, as a contemplative mindful practice, offers numerous benefits to clients. Siegel (2007) identifies several of these benefits. First, people learn to notice their thoughts and feelings without having to react to them. Second, clients can stay connected to their mental processes even when they are painful or unpleasant. Next, people can act with awareness as opposed to acting automatically. And finally, clients can react more nonjudgmentally of their experiences.
Adapting the ideas of Germer (2005a), we can identify three ways for integrating Centering Prayer with psychotherapy. First, the therapist can come to sessions mindfully aware. Even though the therapist may not be explicit about her or his practice of
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Centering Prayer, she or he brings the skills and benefits of mindful awareness to the counseling session. The second method for integrating Centering Prayer into therapeutic work is to use Centering Prayer to inform one’s psychotherapy. With this second approach, the therapist may not explicitly teach the client how to practice Centering Prayer. Nevertheless, the theoretical frame of reference which is used by the therapist is informed by Centering Prayer. To illustrate this second method of integration, I will briefly describe how my preferred theoretical approach, narrative therapy, is informed by Centering Prayer (Blanton 2007, 2008). This integrated paradigm is based on some basic assumptions about reality, self, communications, temporality, and speaker. The first assumption is that there are two realities, one is physical and the other is transcendent. Second, I embrace the presence of two selves, the socially constructed self and the transcendent self. Next, communication can either involve words or be wordless. Fourth, the dimensions of past, present, and future all hold promise for individuals. And finally, the voice of humans and the voice of the Divine are all important. In addition to shaping basic assumptions, this integrated approach influences therapeutic attitudes and practices. For example, not only are conversations between clients and significant people selected and highlighted. In addition, interactions between clients and the Divine are called upon and emphasized. Encounters between clients and the Absolute are clearly viewed as part of the context of change. In terms of the therapy system, not only are friends, relatives, co-workers, and neighbors included. In addition, the Sacred is also included. Several methods reflect how the therapeutic process is influenced by Centering Prayer. First, the therapist helps clients develop space between themselves and their stories. In this space, clients can gain awareness of another self—the transcendent self. Second, narratives about this transcendent self are encouraged. Finally, awareness of the present moment is heightened. Centering Prayer teaches that we need to wake up to the experiences of the present moment. Newly observed experiences can become the raw material out of which new stories are created. There is a final way in which Centering Prayer can be integrated into therapeutic work. This approach involves explicitly teaching clients how to practice Centering Prayer. In my work, clients are taught to practice Centering Prayer formally and informally. To learn Centering Prayer, clients participate in weekly group sessions. Each group session includes the practice of and discussion about Centering Prayer. Participants are then expected to have two twenty-minute centering periods per day at a regular time and place. Having said this, Centering Prayer can be practiced more or less intensely. If clients are unable to practice centering for 20 min, they are encouraged engage in Centering Prayer for as long as possible. It is important to be aware that formal mindful practices can lead to some problems. People with fragile personalities can experience fragmentation of the self which can manifest itself as dissociation, grandiosity, terror, or delusion. Practitioners who experience these problems should discontinue formal times of Centering Prayer or limit these period of contemplation to a few minutes. These individuals should probably practice informal Centering Prayer by bringing the attitude of contemplation to activities such as walking or working around the house (Germer 2005a) We must also be cognizant of the relationship between mindful awareness practices and painful memories. Centering Prayer has the possibility of causing painful memories to surface, because Centering tends to uncover repressed mental content. Becoming aware of
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disturbing thoughts can be upsetting for some clients (Germer 2005a). If clients are afraid that upsetting thoughts and images may arise during Centering Prayer, we instruct them to keep their practice time quite short (Robins 2002). It is important for a therapist who uses this third approach to have a regular practice of Centering Prayer. A unique bond is created when both the client and therapist engage in the same practice of Centering Prayer. By practicing Centering Prayer, therapists develop skills that are beneficial for the therapeutic process, and they experience the benefits of these abilities. These are the same skills and benefits that clients achieve through the regular practice of Centering Prayer.
To illustrate this third way to integrate Centering Prayer and psychotherapy, we will look at the therapy I did with a couple—a couple that I will call Don and Sarah. When I first met Don and Sarah, they had been married for 10 years. Their relationship had been tumultuous, with a history of chronic conflicts—or “power struggles,” as Sarah called them—which oftentimes led to Sarah leaving. As they started therapy, Don was afraid that Sarah would desert him again, and Sarah confirmed that she wanted to separate. Don and Sarah, having been informed by someone else that I incorporated Centering Prayer into psychotherapy, requested the use of Centering Prayer as an adjunct to couples therapy. After informing them about the use of and risks of mindful practices in psychotherapy, Don and Sarah joined my Centering Prayer group and agreed to practice Centering Prayer for twenty minutes a day during the course of our work together. Both Don and Sarah were faithful in their practice of Centering Prayer for the next 6 weeks. During this time, they participated in the weekly group sessions and they regularly engaged in Centering Prayer on their own. Don was more disciplined in his daily routine, reporting Centering Prayer 7 out of 10 days. Sarah was slightly less regular in her practice, reporting Centering Prayer 6 out of 10 days. By the time we decided to terminate therapy, both Don and Sarah were pleased with the changes in their relationship. Sarah stated that Don had become kinder and less critical, and she in turn had become less blaming and more respectful of him. She said that the realization that she could not change Don and the resulting loss of desire in changing him were primarily responsible for the transformation of their marriage. Don was even more satisfied with the changes brought about by therapy. He said that he had become more accepting of Sarah during the course of therapy, and that this difference had increased the intimacy in their relationship. The integration of Centering Prayer into couples therapy clearly was beneficial. Sarah reported that her regular exercise in Centering Prayer helped her learn to “self-soothe” and to calm herself. She said that the skills she learned through practicing the Centering Prayer changed her marital relationship by helping her become more accepting of Don. Don’s response to Centering Prayer was similar. He stated that his practice had helped lessen his anxiety. According to Don, his regular routine in Centering Prayer had changed his relationship with Sarah by increasing his “acceptance of what I don’t understand.” I was interested in how my own exercise of Centering Prayer affected Don and Sarah’s perception of our counseling relationship. We practiced Centering Prayer together in a group for 6 weeks, but I was also engaged in formal mindful practice on a daily basis
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during the duration of our work together. As a result of our times of mindful practice together, Sarah viewed me more as a “peer instead of an outsider.” In addition, Sarah attributed my “neutral and nonjudgmental attitude” to my regular practice of Centering Prayer. Don credited my “calmness” to my regular routine in Centering Prayer. I hope that I was relaxed and present during our sessions, but I can’t help but wonder if Don and Sarah were projecting their own calmness and acceptance onto me as they each became less anxious and judgmental. Don and Sarah both reported that they had benefited from the integration of couples therapy and Centering Prayer. Sarah stated that she liked both the therapy and practice of Centering Prayer but she had difficulty explaining why. Don, on the other hand, reported that he liked the integrative approach because it “placed God as a player in therapy.” In summary, at the onset of treatment, both Don and Sarah were experiencing great emotional and relational pain. From a mindful perspective, we could think of their suffering as growing out of the tension they each felt as a result of the discrepancy between how their spouses were and how they wanted their spouses to be. After 6 weeks of couples therapy and the regular practice of Centering Prayer, they were each reporting much more acceptance of one another. They seemed to have let go of their demands for change and to have become much calmer. These results are compatible with the acceptance that seems to emerge out of a mindful stance. The regular practice of Centering Prayer had also opened up a transcendent dimension for both Don and Sarah. Sarah was reporting more trust in God and she stated that she was more “in tune” with God. As a result, she expressed a willingness to relinquish control and let God be “in charge.” Don, who was also expressing more awareness of the Divine, also reported being more “tuned” to God. (I took notice of the fact that they each described themselves as more tuned to the Divine.) You will remember that Don said that he now viewed God as more of “player” in his life and marriage.
The integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy has recently received a great deal of research. However, other mindful practices have received less attention. The purpose of this article as been to bring attention to another mindful practice—Centering Prayer—that has great clinical promise. I have attempted to answer two major questions in this paper. First: What is Centering Prayer and how can it be compared to mindfulness? Second: How can Centering Prayer be integrated into psychotherapy? I have explored this last question by examining how Centering Prayer informs our understanding of the need for and goals of counseling. We have also examined the therapeutic skills and benefits of Centering Prayer, along with three methods for integrating Centering Prayer into psychotherapy. Finally, a case study was used to illuminate this combined approach. It is my hope that others will continue to research the clinical implications of Centering Prayer. Until now, integration efforts have focused primarily upon the use of cognitivebehavior therapy and mindfulness with individuals. However, how effective is Centering Prayer with individuals, couples, and families? Can Centering Prayer be effectively combined with other models of psychotherapy? With which populations and presenting problems is a mindful approach most useful? I am hopeful that these clinical issues and others will be examined by future research as we attempt to utilize mindful practices in psychotherapy to alleviate the suffering in our clients’ lives.
You will write 2Journal Article Reviews (Modules/Weeks 1 and 5), which will be based upon your choice of articles from the professional, peer-reviewed journalarticles provided in Blackboard. No outside articles will be accepted. Each Journal Article Summary must be 3–5 double-spacedpages (not including the title and reference pages) and created in a Microsoft Word document. Use the following guidelines to create your paper:
1. Start your paper with a title page, correctly formatted per current APA. Use the provided template and the basic current APA components will be in place. Divide your paper into sections with the following Level One headings: Summary, Reflection, and Applicationas described on the template.
2. Develop a summary (40 points) of the main concepts from the article. Do not duplicate the article’s abstract. If the article describes a research study, include brief statements about the hypotheses, methods, results, discussion, and implications. If any test measures or statistical methods used are given in the article, do not provide detailed descriptions of these. Short direct quotations from the article are acceptable, but avoid long quotes in a paper this size. This section is the foundation of your Journal Article Review (at least a third of your paper). Make sure you include the core points from the article, even if it means a longer section. Do not reference any additional articles in your summary.
3. In approximately 1 page, reflect (15 points)on the article using your own words. Appropriate comments for this part of the paper could include, but are not limited to, your initial response to the article, comments regarding the study’s design or methodology (if any), insights you gained from reading the article, your reasons for being interested in this particular article, any other readings that you may plan to do based upon having read the article, and other thoughts you have that might further enhance the discussion of your article. Your subjective comments in this section must be clearly tied to main points from the article, not peripheral ideas. Again, do not reference any other article.
4. In your final section, in approximately 1 page, write how you would apply the information you have learned from this article to a particular counseling setting. Make this setting one that would typically be seen in human services counseling—community services agencies, adoption agencies, volunteer counseling settings such as in churches, etc. Develop this section as if you are a pastor or clinician and your parishioner or client has come to you with a problem—grief, depression, substance abuse, relationships problems, etc.— needing your help. Adequately describe the counseling scenario including the presenting problem. Draw out concepts from the article and apply them to the scenario as if you were guided only by the content of the article. Show the reader how you expressly drew from the journal article in this application section and cite correctly, per APA.
5. Use the provided current APA template and personalize the template for your particular article.
Point values for each section as well as for writing can be found on the grading rubric. Remember that all papers in the program must be written to professional (graduate level) standards and writing can contribute 15 points to your score.