Meditation that involves an internal mantra or prayer word–like Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation, or (I suspect) Transcendental Meditation–is another. When Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the modern Centering Prayer movement, says that we should internally repeat our prayer word as gently as “laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton,”[i] most of us will have no idea what that means until we’ve tried it. Maybe not even then.
I find it helpful to think of myself, not as “saying” or “repeating” my prayer word, but rather as “allowing” it to say itself–as though it were something I were inviting to happen rather than “doing.” Of course, like a Buddhist monk who, instead of “ringing” the gong, “invites the gong to sound,” I’m certainly still “doing” it–but if I think of it as “allowing,” I do it differently.
When I go about my daily tasks like folding laundry or cleaning the kitchen, I often repeat the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) internally, which redirects my mental energy away from daydreaming, planning, or brooding and allows me to experience my experiences much more vividly. (For instance, the other day I was rinsing the soap out of the underside of a saucepan lid by swirling the water around the upturned lid. At each swirl, a little warm water would slosh out of the lid onto my hands. It felt just as though I were juggling balls of warm water. I would never have noticed that if I allowed memory and anticipation to hijack the here-and-now. A small thing, for sure–but why should all the magic be in the past or the future?)
What makes this prayer exercise work is absolute gentleness in the repetition; if I’m saying the prayer to shout down my thoughts, the prayer just becomes, itself, an even more oppressive thought.
In sitting practice, I find it helpful to link the repetition of my prayer word to the breath. (In case you’re wondering, I say “Trust” on the in breath and “Love” on the out breath.) In order to keep the word from feeling like something I’m banging out on an inner anvil, I try to think of it as something carried in and out on the breath itself–almost as though it were passing over an infuser and carrying the fragrance of the word with it. I call this process “baptizing the breath.”
Suppose you worked somewhere where you had to wear an ID tag. Once the gatekeeper got to know you, you wouldn’t have to actually hold up the tag every single time you went in and out–just wearing it where it was visible would suffice. But if the gatekeeper didn’t recognize you, or there were a heightened state of security for some reason, you would show your ID again for a while.
Likewise, once you’ve established that the in breath carries the scent of your word and (if you have two words) the out breath is likewise redolent, you don’t have to “say” the word internally every time; you just let it come and go with the breath. Then, when you find you have wandered, let your breath “show its ID” again for a few cycles until you’re back in the moment.
It’s almost as though the word has to die “to the flesh”–to go from being something solid to being incorporeal, something that can float on a breath–in order to do its work in us. Jesus said that if He did not “go away” to the Father, He could not send the Spirit to His disciples. (John 16:6) Perhaps, like Jesus, if the “bodily” prayer word does not die and ascend, it cannot participate in the Spirit–the word for which, in both Greek and Hebrew, is “breath.”
[i] Keating, Thomas, O.C.S.O.: Open Mind, Open Heart