What to Do When Contemplative Prayer Leads to Sadness

A reader, who has asked to remain anonymous, writes:

I have been practicing centering prayer for about 3 years. It took me a while, but I stuck with it and it has helped me immensely. Besides becoming more mindful, I also feel more centered and calm since beginning this practice. In the beginning it did bring out a lot of negative emotions to the surface that have since disappeared. I know 3 years is not much; I’m still just a beginner. However, now that I’m going into my fourth year, I have been experiencing a heavy sadness, it’s like a depression takes over me when I’m done. I have two questions for you: Why now? And will it ever end?

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Thank you for your email. I’m sorry to hear about your sense of heavy sadness. Before I say anything else, let me say this: Sadness and depression can be deeply unpleasant or painful. It can be tempting to see such feelings as the cross we must bear, and so we try to deal with the pain all by ourselves. But sometimes, we need help. If you have any sense that this sadness is causing you particular distress, is interfering with your daily life, or is leading you to consider hurting yourself or someone else, please consult with a qualified counselor, therapist, or other mental health practitioner.

And whether or not you choose to work with a therapist to move through your depression, I also hope  you will prayerfully consider meeting with a spiritual director or some other “soul companion” (if you aren’t already doing so). A sustained commitment to silent prayer is a profound and transformational practice, so it’s pretty important we have someone we trust with whom we can share our experience, and pray together for God’s continued blessing and guidance.

For many people an ongoing discipline of silent prayer can lead to an encounter with unpleasant or negative feelings, emotions, memories, sometimes to the point of being overwhelming. Fr. Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault both write about how the practice of centering prayer is a kind of “divine therapy” for in the safety of the silence and the sense of being in God’s presence, it is not at all unusual for the person praying to encounter what has been called “the waste of our own being.”

You ask “why now?” but I’m really not qualified to answer this. The answer is hidden within you. Everyone’s prayer life is unique and so your experience is yours alone. My guess is that you reached a point in your prayer life where it became spiritually and psychologically safe for you to begin to pay attention to the sadness you are experiencing — but that sadness could be something newly emerging in your life, just as it could be something age-old that you are only now giving yourself permission to feel.

There are different ways of thinking about why we experience powerful feelings, afflictive thoughts, compulsive distractions, or other “interruptions” during silent prayer. In ancient times, contemplative writers thought that unfriendly spirits could tempt us in our thoughts (not in the silence itself, but through our thoughts temptation was believed to occur). In the 14th century, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing suggested that our distracted and chaotic minds were a consequence of original sin. These days, we are more likely to chalk it all up to the “shadow” or the unconscious self where we’ve hidden away all our unpleasant memories and experiences.

But however we might explain it, one thing’s for sure: we all have unruly, easily distracted, often chaotic minds, and even though centering prayer and other silent prayer practices are gentle and safe, they can still cause distress because in such practices we are learning to pay attention — which includes paying attention to those parts of ourselves that we have become rather skilled at ignoring.

On to your second question: “will it ever end?” When we struggle with depression — whether connected to silent prayer or otherwise — sometimes it can seem like the depression will never go away. But that’s just the depression talking. In fact, we have many effective ways to treat and move through depression. Your counselor or therapist can help you find the path that is best for you.

If you would like to read a book (written from a Buddhist perspective, but I think it’s applicable to Christian contemplatives) that looks at how silence can be a trusted pathway through depression, read The Light Inside the Dark by John Tarrant. Another title that might be helpful is The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams et al.

You are describing the heavy sadness as occurring when you are coming out of your prayer time. But if you ever encounter the sadness/depression while you are praying, one strategy for you to explore might be the “Welcoming Prayer” which Cynthia Bourgeault describes in chapter 13 of her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.

Thanks for such an important question. Clearly, I’m encouraging you to share your unique and specific circumstances with a spiritual companion (and, if necessary, a therapist) to help you chart the path that’s best for you. But I hope that you (and all readers of this blog) will approach this question with a sense of trust in God. It has been said that love wants to heal everything that is “not-love.” I think that’s true. So, while the practice of silent prayer can bring us face-to-face with some difficult or challenging thoughts/feelings, it’s helpful to keep the bigger picture in mind, and remember that in God — the “divine therapist” — all things work for good, for those who love in response to Love.


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