Contemplating the Sacred Word

Contemplating the Sacred Word September 5, 2018

A reader wrote this message to me recently:

Carl, I just recently started centering prayer as my form of meditation. Here is my dilemma: I find myself picking a word without really knowing why and the midway through the meditation feeling some kind of inadequacy in it so then picking another word. How do you pick a “sacred word” and then how do you stick with it? Any thoughts?

This is a great question and one that I imagine many people wrestle with. “What if I don’t like my sacred word?” “What if I’ve chosen the ‘wrong’ word for me?” “What if I can’t decide between two (or more) words?”

Notice what all this has in common: it’s thinking.

Centering prayer is a gesture of gently releasing the tight grip that our thinking mind normally holds on our waking consciousness. But the thinking mind often will not go down without a fight.

Thoughts during silent prayer are like the surf on the beach: they may never end, but they cannot erase the stillness at the center.
(Photo by Carl McColman)

This is why centering prayer, like any form of silence-oriented meditation, often seems so “noisy” with internal distractions — even though the thoughts we think can be banal or pointless. The thinking mind feels like it is dead if it is not actively working!

Of course, thinking is a function of a conscious mind, which is why it’s a misconception to describe centering prayer as “emptying the mind.” That does not happen. Even when we learn to gently lay all our distracting thoughts aside, they will still hum along in the background — kind of like a TV that is playing, only no one is watching it.

So in centering prayer we seek to be present to God, who is already present to us but at a level deeper (higher) than ordinary consciousness. As The Cloud of Unknowing puts it, we can’t think our way to God! So we gently set thoughts aside, to simply “be still and know.”

The prayer word, then, functions as a wonderful point of focus. By gently repeating the prayer word, we give ourselves a point of attention, allowing our awareness to rest in or on the prayer word — as a way to avoid getting caught up in the many distracting thoughts, feelings and images that the “TV” keeps throwing our way.

Some people suggest that any word can work. You could choose “plop” and it would be a perfectly suitable prayer word, since it would have the same function (giving the mind a point for focussing the attention) that a more “spiritual” prayer word like “God” or “love” or “grace” does.

I don’t go quite that far. Especially for beginners, I recommend choosing a word that is consistent with the intention to pray. I don’t want to pray to a plop, but I am interested in praying to Love, to God, to Christ. So those are the kinds of prayer words I go for.

Thinking About the Word

But back to the reader’s question. What to do when feelings of inadequacy or boredom or any other kind of thinking about the prayer word arises?

Centering prayer is an invitation to set aside all thoughts in the interest of being still and knowing God. So that even includes pious or religious thoughts! And it also includes internal commentary about the experience of the prayer — whether good or bad.

It’s not unusual to have thoughts like this emerge during centering prayer:

  • “This is boring.”
  • “I’m so busy, I don’t have time for this.”
  • “This feels pointless. I should be praying the rosary/feeding the poor/etc.”
  • “This prayer word stinks! I need to choose another one.”

Sometimes centering prayer can lead to wonderful feelings of peace, or serenity, or a sense of closeness and even union with God. That really gets the ol’ mind stirred up!

  • “I’m one with God! Wheeeee!”
  • “I must be a mystic!”
  • “God has chosen me for something special, I wonder what it is?”

What all of these thoughts — whether good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant — have in common is precisely that they are thoughts, and therefore are distractions from the silence. It’s like you’re watching a football game and deciding that you’re more interested in what the sports announcer has to say to the point of ignoring the game itself.

Okay, Howard Cosell was a legendary sportscaster, but listening to him chatter on was no substituting for watching the game itself. In centering prayer, the “game” is simply the silence, that vast openness within each of us, where we are invited — I’ll say it again — to simply be still and know.

So when we feel those urges to change our prayer word, the most helpful response is the same response to any other thought that arises. Simply let the thought go.

And return to the prayer word.

For the duration of our prayer-time — whether it’s twenty minutes, a half hour, or whatever — it’s best to approach the prayer word without any judgment. Just let the word be. If you feel impressed with the word… let it go. Feel the urge to second guess it… let it go.

Changing Your Word?

Which leads to the question of how often can someone change their prayer word? In other forms of meditation (like transcendental meditation, for example), the student is told that their mantra may not be changed without the approval/guidance of the teacher.

A prayer word used during centering prayer is not a mantra (in the technical sense), and no student of centering prayer is beholden to the teacher like a student of T.M. is. So, you really are free to change your prayer word.

But I would caution against changing your prayer word too often or too frivolously. For a very simple and practical reason: choosing a prayer word involves plenty of thinking. You have to ponder what your choices are, mull over which word(s) you like and which ones you don’t, and so forth. It’s like giving a child a sugary drink right before nap time.

In other words, it can actually make the settling into silence during your prayer time just that much more difficult.

So I would recommend taking some time at the front end and picking a word that resonates with you. And then making a commitment to stick with that word for at least a month, maybe three months, maybe six months.

Chances are, over the course of the weeks you are praying, you’ll find that some days you love your prayer word, some days you can’t stand it, and some days you don’t think about it very much (hallelujah).

And guess what? When (if) you do change your prayer word, you’ll soon discover that you have the exact same ups and downs with the new word, that you had with the old!

So it’s not like one prayer word is necessarily “better” for you. Rather, any prayer word you choose will be simultaneously a word you use to focus your attention — and an object that your thinking mind will try to use to distract you from the silence.

Silly thinking mind!

So choose a word and stick with it, at least for long enough to become familiar with how that dynamic plays out in your own prayer practice.

Choosing Your Word

Now, my reader asked me how do I pick my sacred word, and I’ve already said that I personally prefer a word that seems itself to be prayerful. So “God” works better for me than “plop.”

And following the advice of The Cloud of Unknowing, I think it makes better sense to stick with a one-syllable word. The shorter the better. Again, there’s nothing magical or sacrosanct here. It’s just my preference, and I agree with the author of The Cloud that a shorter word makes for less likelihood of getting entangled in distractions.

So here are a few options, mostly one-syllable although there are a few two-syllable ones. See if one of these works for you. But don’t feel like you have to be limited to this list!

Love … Grace … Joy … Peace … Light … Heart … Yes … Be … Now … Life … Hope … Faith … Jesus … Christ … Holy … Still … Spirit … Father … Mother … Heaven … Glory … Amen.

I’m sure you can come up with some other ideas. Remember: you only need one.

I hope this is helpful. Be gentle with your prayer practice. Be gentle with your distracting tendency to think all sorts of thoughts. Lay them aside gently. And place your attention again and again on the silence, the luminous silence, that is always available within.

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