I was regretting the past
And fearing the future.
Suddenly God was speaking.
“My name is ‘I am’”. I waited.
“When you live in the past,
With its mistakes and regrets,
It is hard. I am not there.
My name is not ‘I was.’
When you live in the future,
With its problems and fears, it is hard.
I am not there.
My name is not ‘I will be.’
When you live in this moment,
It is not hard. I am here.
My name is ‘I am.’
From Helen Mellicost, on the kitchen wall of the ranch guesthouse, St. Benedicts Monastery, Snowmass CO
This beautiful poem captures one of the timeless truths not only of the Christian tradition, but really of all the great spiritual traditions: that God is to be found in the present moment, because it is the only moment in which we are truly alive. The past is already gone, and the future has not yet arrived. We are only alive in the moment which is right now. One of the challenges of the spiritual life is to be, as they say, present in that moment. This has to do with our awareness, our consciousness. And all of the great spiritual traditions have created techniques of prayer and meditation that are designed to help cultivate our awareness of the present moment. In the western Christian world today, the technique that has probably received the most attention is that of Centering Prayer. It is so simple, yet so challenging. The idea is that you spend initially 20 minutes at the beginning of the day and another 20 minutes near the end of day simply sitting in a quiet space. While you are in that space, you use a prayer word — a word that evokes a connection with God for you — to bring yourself into the presence of God. Your eyes are closed, and ideally you recite the word within yourself rather than out loud, though when first beginning a Centering Prayer practice, many find it helpful to recite the word aloud. And you set a timer to tell you when the 20 minutes has passed, so that you aren’t worrying about how much time has passed as you sit in meditation. See? Simple.
But here’s the challenge: as you quiet yourself and begin to recite your prayer word, almost immediately your mind begins spinning around with all kinds of thoughts about things you are worried about, or about things you need to be doing, or about any number of things. Your mind throws image after image, thought after thought at you, and without even realizing it, you start following your thoughts, and forget your prayer word entirely. The Buddhists actually have the best term for this: they call it monkey mind. Eventually, you will notice that you have followed your thoughts down some path, and then you return to reciting your prayer word, seeking to return to that prayerful place. All the spiritual teachers tell us that the more we try to keep our mind from getting carried away with our thoughts, the harder the mind will work against us. And so they counsel that we should simply acknowledge each thought as it presents itself, and then let it pass, using the prayer word as a reminder of what we are doing in this time, and as an expression of our intention to be present to God so that God can be present to us.
As we follow this practice consistently, the mind begins to know what to expect during the time of Centering Prayer, and we get better at noticing when we are getting carried away with our thoughts. And our practice deepens. And every once in a while, we may notice that we are in a space of no thought, when we are just present with God. The moment we notice it, it is gone — because we form a thought about it. But that brief moment is pure gift. We have been fully present in the present moment with I AM.
People who practice Centering Prayer faithfully notice that over time, it changes them. It’s the kind of change that happens when water drips onto a rock for a very long time. Gradually, the shape of the rock is changed. A regular practice of Centering Prayer can change our shape over time, as well. It can help reduce anxiety, and help us deal more effectively with our emotional life. Increasingly, rather than reacting instinctively when something happens, one finds that a little space has been created between the trigger and the reaction — a space of awareness, in which we have a choice to respond rather than react. And many have testified that those around them notice that they have changed, that they are different somehow.
Over and over in the Gospels, Jesus talks about the importance of awareness. He tells stories about keeping alert and being ready, because we never know when God will show up. The deeper truth of his teaching, I think, is that God shows up in every moment — if only we are willing to be aware of that presence. Centering Prayer — whose roots go back many centuries, to the earliest days of the Christian movement — is one way of following Jesus’ advice, and of opening ourselves to the transforming presence of God.