Intention, Attention, and the Practice of Contemplative Prayer

Intention, Attention, and the Practice of Contemplative Prayer April 8, 2019

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash.

This is the third of a series of blog posts in response to a lengthy email I received a few weeks ago from an Episcopal priest who is a veteran centering prayer practitioner. You can read the email in its entirety here, and then the first post and the second post I wrote in response to this email.

Today I want to look at this question:

I wonder about this hard and fast distinction between so-called concentrative methods and receptive methods — intention vs attention. Centering prayer has made serious hay over this distinction and I wonder if it actually exists. Having done lots of centering prayer intensives, I must say that from my perceptive many people doing centering prayer are spacing out, going to sleep, in the name of contemplation. A little concentrative attention seems to called for — both to recognize what is coming up and to let it go.  I’ve been doing intensive contemplative practice for 25 years and it just doesn’t jell with my experience. I wonder what you think about this “methods fetish” approach to contemplation. It’s about relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit after all!

I’m sorry Frs. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating have passed away, because I’m afraid my reader really wants to hear from one of them. Fr. William Meninger, their colleague who actually is credited with formulating the original centering prayer method, is still alive. Perhaps he needs to be the one to answer this question.

Although I am also someone with years of experience practicing the centering prayer method, I’m relatively new to the training that enables me to actually lead centering prayer workshops. So I’m afraid I can only offer an opinion in response to this question; and I invite other long-term practitioners (and especially veteran centering prayer teachers and retreat leaders) to jump in with your opinions, if you happen to stumble upon this post.

So, to boil down this question into three parts:

  • what do I think about the distinction between concentrative and receptive methods of prayer?
  • what can I say about the fact that some people seem to practice centering prayer in a “spacing out” or “sleepy” manner?
  • what is my opinion about the emphasis on “method” in centering prayer, rather than just emphasizing relationship?

One at a time.

Intention versus Attention

I’m actually very comfortable with the distinction that emphasizes intention (centering prayer is a function of the will) over attention (which would imply the purpose of centering prayer is concentration, or a clear mind, or some other achievable mental state). I don’t see the point in trying to suggest that such a distinction “doesn’t exist” — if not, then why are the instructions for centering prayer and for the WCCM-style Christian meditation so different? Centering prayer is a gesture of radical openness and willingness in the presence of God, whether felt or unfelt; whereas a mantric meditation practice seeks to present one’s self to God in a focused and particular state of consciousness, facilitated by the skillful use of the “mantra.”

But just because the centering prayer method prioritizes intention over attention does not, at least to my mind, mean that these two emphases are mutually exclusive. On the contrary! If we have no attention at all, we’ll be all over the map in terms of our inner experience; but all attention and no intention means we just focus on the technique of prayer (“am I doing it right?”) with no regard for the heart of the practice, i.e., deepening our relationship with God. Shambhala Buddhists have a wonderful saying about meditation practice: “not too tight, not too loose.” It’s how you tune a guitar string: too tight and the string is too sharp, too loose and it becomes flat. You need the right tension to hit the proper note. With centering prayer, I think both intention and attention can be seen in terms of “not too tight, not too loose.”

“Too tight” “Too loose”
Intention Pelagian, “All my responsibility” Likely to abandon practice
Attention Overly focused on technique Quickly lost in thoughts/distractions

So yes, centering prayer places greater emphasis on intention than attention. But that’s a matter or prioritizing, not of exclusion. Intention comes first, but attention still has its place.

On to the second topic:

Judging How Others Pray

Okay, we all do it. I catch myself “checking out” other people in my prayer group from time to time. I try not to make a habit of it, because frankly, doing so is just another dodge — gawking at how other people are praying is a great way to avoid my own call into the silence.

So with all the humility that acknowledges “I do it too,” I’d really like to encourage my reader to stop worrying about how other people are spacing out, or getting sleepy, or whatever it is they seem to be doing during their prayer time. Frankly, it’s none of your business — unless you are a person’s spiritual director or centering prayer instructor. And even then, the instructions are quite clear that the only “wrong” way to practice centering prayer is to abandon your agreed-upon practice —whether that means giving up before your 20 minutes are up, or deciding to quit altogether even you have made a commitment to persevere in the practice.

Everyone gets distracted. Everyone gets sleepy sometimes. Everyone gets lost in their thoughts. It happens. Some people struggle with this more than others. Responding to another person’s struggle with compassion rather than judgment is usually the wiser move.

But if you are a person’s spiritual director, or centering prayer teacher, it could be appropriate to offer encouragement, a review of the instructions, and a willingness to brainstorm “helpful hints” (for example, I often will take a catnap before my prayer time, finding it does wonders for helping me remain alert during my silence). But even then I think such guidance ought to be offered in a gentle way. Asking the person if they have questions or concerns, and letting them set the initiative, it seems to me, is more useful in the long run than bluntly saying “Boy, you sure seem spaced out just now when we were praying — what’s that all about?!?” Unless there is a high level of trust — and an explicit understanding that will you provide that kind of in-your-face feedback — it seems to me that such intervention is more likely to result in a person’s withdrawal than their engaged commitment to “improve.”

Method and Technique, Revisited

I am most of all bemused by the priest friend’s rather derogatory comment about centering prayer involving a “methods fetish.” I think he’s confusing method and technique — a distinction I explored in great depth in my post from last week. As a method of prayer, it’s all about relationship — it would only be when we reduce it to a technique that it becomes about “doing things the right way” and “getting the right results.”

Is there some of the “technique” focus in how some people approach centering prayer? Of course! Human beings — especially here in America, the land of pragmatism and results-oriented thinking — have a tendency to want to be sure we’re doing something “the right way” so that we can achieve whatever it is that we’re out to achieve. Centering prayer is about deepening our relationship with God, but that’s pretty hard (nay, impossible) to measure. So what do centering prayer practitioners do: we come up with other ways to decide if we’re doing it “right” — from getting finicky about posture, to obsessing over the proper use of the sacred word, to — well, doing what I’m doing in this post: talking about how to understand the difference between intention and attention, or technique and method, so forth and so on.

In other words, it’s pretty much impossible to be completely unconcerned with our “technique” (and if we were, then we’d fall into the “spacey” trap!). So I think we need to practice a bit of gentleness here. To the extent that centering prayer is all about deepening our relationship with God, it’s a method, not a technique. But human beings being what we are, it’s inevitable that we’ll approach the method in a somewhat technical way. I think the basic idea is not to get so lost in the technique that we forget that relationship really is what we’re after.

But dismissing the earnest human desire to do something well — even centering prayer’s technique-less method — as a fetish seems harsh and judgmental. I think that kind of language is not useful.

A Final Thought

Going back to the discussion above about the different between intention-focused practices (like centering prayer) and attention-focused practices (like WCCM’s Christian meditation) — I think I should mention, right now, that I believe these different approaches to silent prayer should be appreciated for what they are — diverse ways of preparing ourselves for contemplation — and that we should try to resist the urge to judge one or other as somehow better or worse, deficient or optimal. Some people are more naturally drawn to one method rather than the other. We should take care to practice the form of prayer that best suits our personality and spiritual needs, and try not to worry about the relative merits of the various methods, relative to one another.

I think it is much more useful to evaluate each prayer practice in terms of our personal experience, and leave it at that. If a particular practice “doesn’t jell” with your spiritual need or desire to respond more fully to God’s call in your life — then for heaven’s sake, let it go. Try something different.

Of course, I think it’s best to approach a change in one’s spiritual practice in a  discerning way, ideally in consultation with a trusted soul friend or spiritual companion. In other words, don’t make a change lightly just because you’ve hit a rough spot in your prayer. But if discernment leads you to a clear sense that a method of prayer doesn’t work for you, then rather than criticizing the method — or finding fault with its practitioners — I think it makes more sense to embrace a different practice.

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