I want to share with you a little contemplative tool with a big impact: the Welcoming Prayer. This unassuming method has helped me many times. What’s your first impulse when you have a “bad” feeling? If you’re like me, it’s usually to suppress it. But we all know that doesn’t work. What you focus on sticks around. This is one of the big lessons you learn through meditation: if you try to suppress a thought, it becomes your entire focus. Worse than before.
But while a regular meditation practice can inculcate a balanced relationship with your feelings and emotions, with the serenity that comes from that, sometimes you need a little help now, in the world. You can’t exactly sit down on the sidewalk and start meditating. (Though there may very well be a park bench or church nearby.)
And sometimes, you’re too caught up in the thoughts that are swirling around a negative emotion, and meditation just seems impossible. I encourage you to try meditating anyway in those situations, but if you want some extra help, try the Welcoming Prayer, a contemplative tool to bring the centering practice practice of neither reacting to thoughts nor resisting them into stressful moments during the day.
Palmer: How do you do it — block out fear?
Gibbs: You don’t. It’s what you do with it.
— from NCIS
You’ve heard all the axioms about going through rather than around problems. Well, the Welcoming Prayer is a method for doing this with bad feelings. The basic idea is that when you are experiencing a negative feeling, you don’t pray for it to go away, you welcome it. Let’s say you are feeling fearful. You literally say to yourself, “Welcome, fear.”
You don’t detach from it. You get to know it.
The history of the Welcoming Prayer is a little surprising. It’s not an ancient practice, though it’s an ancient idea. Mary Mrozowski of Brooklyn, New York — one of the first leaders of centering prayer — developed the method. She was inspired by Abandonment to Divine Providence, an early 18th century spiritual work by Jesuit priest and spiritual director, Father Jean Pierre de Caussade. Father Thomas Keating and others saw the value of her little method and over the years it has been supported, fine-tuned and expanded within the community of people who practice centering prayer and beyond.
If you are struggling with a bad feeling, this method offers a structured way to embrace and accept it, so you can release it and move on. There are three phases to the Welcoming Prayer. You might go directly from one to the next in a single, relatively formulaic prayer sequence. Or you might find yourself staying in one phase as it does its interior work. Using Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault’s labels, the three parts are:
- Focus and sink in.
- Let go.
Focus and sink in. This is not about indulging bad feelings. It’s not about amplifying them or justifying them. It’s about feeling the feeling. Allow yourself to become immersed in it. Let it wash over you. Don’t run away from it or fight it. Just feel what it’s like to be experiencing it.
The word “feel” can mean either to have a physical experience of touching, or to have a mental experience of encountering an emotion. Connect those two. Feel the emotion physically. Notice your body, how you are tense or anxious or hot or fidgety or lethargic. As with meditation, you are just observing the feeling, not trying to alter it.
Welcome. As I’ve said many times, you can only start from where you are, and you can only move forward if you accept where you are. So, now, affirm the rightness of where you are by welcoming the bad feeling or emotion, and acknowledging God’s presence in the moment. You do this by literally saying, “Welcome, [bad feeling].” If you are frozen in fear, say, “Welcome, fear.” Hot with rage: say, “Welcome, rage.”
Note we’re talking here about feelings and emotions, not problems and physical hardships. We are not welcoming illness or injustice. If you are looking for relief from the struggle with a problem or illness through the welcoming prayer, think about what negative emotion or feeling is being kicked up. (It will likely be a variety of fear or anger.) You might be angry about unfairness, or afraid of the future. Remember, the welcoming prayer is for feelings and emotions, not what triggered them.
Many resist the idea of accepting where they are at, when where they are at is not good. But there’s nothing passive about acceptance. Acceptance merely establishes you in reality, so that you can respond to a situation effectively. If you are terrified about a health issue, that fear may be immobilizing you; accepting and then releasing the fear may free you to be able to deal with the issue.
Let go. There are at least four ways to let go in the welcoming prayer. Mary Mrozowski’s original version uses a fixed statement. You say these lines no matter what the specific issue:
“I let go of my desire for security and survival.
I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire to change the situation.”
(Not a bad little prayer to add to your morning repertoire too.)
Another version takes just that last line and ties it to the current situation.
“I let go of the desire to change this feeling.”
A third alternative is even briefer, and names the feeling:
“I let go of my [fear/anger/etc.].”
And finally, my favorite, for its added depth with the same economy of words:
“God, I give you my [fear/anger/etc.].”
That night or the next morning when you meditate — and you do meditate, right? — you can reinforce the letting go pattern. The two practices complement each other.
Part of my spiritual first aid kit
Some take the Welcoming Prayer to another level, as one of the key pieces in their spiritual life. There are workshops devoted to the method. People draw charts. They apply it to positive as well as negative emotions. I haven’t done all that, though I’m sure it’s valuable.
For me, the Welcoming Prayer is a complement to my meditation practice, and it’s a Band-Aid — part of my spiritual first aid kit that I can take wherever I go — to break a negative pattern. Its power is in its simplicity: Focus — Welcome — Let go.
If you find yourself fighting against an emotion or a feeling, try the Welcoming Prayer. If you already use it, or if you try it after reading this, I’d love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment below or email me.