Contemplation and Emotional Intensity

One of this blog’s readers wrote to me this past Saturday (February 15, 2020) to ask a question about Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for that day.

Here’s the quote (emphasis added):

Contemplative prayer always requires hospitality to your deep self, to the deep parts of your self. It demands the openness to receive whatever might arise in you and then gently release it into God’s hands. But in prayer you are not alone as you open yourself to whatever might emerge. You do so in a relationship that provides a safety and support in holding whatever emerges. That which arises might come with a flood of emotional intensity. Sometimes, being still before self and God releases a torrent of emotions. Tears may be intermixed with joy. . . .1https://cac.org/ways-of-knowing-weekly-summary-2020-02-15/

My reader’s question:

I was surprised to read the underlined part.  I thought that in contemplation you were supposed to mistrust an emotional reaction and move away from it by returning to your prayer word, as you’re supposed to move away from everything.  No?  Yes? Both?

I don’t want to presume to speak for Richard, but it appears that he is describing what Thomas Keating calls “the unloading of the unconscious.” The idea is simple: as we progress in the practice of silent prayer, we create a sense of safety in our hearts and minds. Silent prayer practices like Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation are exercises in cultivating a gentle, non-judgmental way of being present to our own awareness. A thought emerges, and we gently let it rise and fall. Same thing with images, daydreams, memories, and even emotions.

But when we do this for a while, what happens is the mind and heart begin to “unload” — which is to say, dredge up old memories, old feelings, old beliefs, even old traumas. Not that these have necessarily been repressed, but they typically are stored away outside of the normal sphere of everyday consciousness, almost like a file cabinet marked “To be dealt with later.” And, if my experience is any guide, I would say that “old” can be from childhood — or from earlier today. It’s not just about suddenly recalling what’s been deeply buried, so much as it is about paying attention to what needs to be healed.

Trust, Welcome, Let Go

I would not say the instructions of silent prayer practices (like Centering Prayer) are to “mistrust” our emotional reactions. Indeed, I’ve never used that word in all the times I’ve presented or taught the Centering Prayer method or other forms of silent prayer. In fact, I would say the part of the beauty of contemplative practice is that it gently encourages us to trust our minds and hearts — but to trust what arises, welcome it, and then let it go.

Why trust — rather than mistrust? It’s the same principle that a smile takes less effort than a frown. To mistrust our thoughts and feelings is to necessarily become enmeshed in them. That’s an act of judgment, which Jesus counseled us against (Matthew 7:1). To trust whatever arises is to simply accept that the mind and heart is what it is, no matter how wise or ignorant, how virtuous or sinful, how healthy or dysfunctional we might be. After all, most of us are a glorious mix of all the above.

So we gently trust whatever arises, whether it’s the garden-variety distractions that annoy us most of the time in silence — or suddenly some wave of primal emotion like anger or rage or sadness or fear washes over us. But trusting what emerges is not the same thing as getting enmeshed in it. The posture of trust simply enables us to watch without judgment. What arises, arises. In silence, we let it arise, and we let it dissipate. And we always rely on a prayer word, a sacred word, following the breath, or the Jesus Prayer as a way to keep ourselves gently focused on the intention of the prayer.

What if it’s too much?

The reality of having powerful emotions, painful memories, half-forgotten traumas, or other intense thoughts/feelings emerging during silent prayer is that sometimes it can be overwhelming. As Richard points out, it can be a “torrent of emotions” where “tears may be intermixed with joy.” What are we to do when something so intense emerges? It’s like a huge wave that threatens to capsize the boat. How do we remain focused on the intention of the prayer at times like that?

Well, sometimes we don’t, or at least, not very well. And this is why Contemplative Outreach teaches a method called “the Welcoming Prayer” which was developed by an early leader of the Centering Prayer movement, Mary Mrozowski. Cynthia Bourgeault has a wonderful chapter in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening that explains this method of prayer, and so I would commend this book to anyone serious about learning how to respond to powerful/overwhelming emotions or thoughts that emerge during silent prayer.

In a blog post I can only offer the barest summary of the three-step process of Welcoming Prayer:

  1. Focus and Sink In
  2. Welcome
  3. Let Go

The first step is to receive the powerful feeling, just as it is, present in the body. Focus on it: don’t fight it (this is what I mean by “trusting” it). As Cynthia says, “Don’t try to change anything. Just stay present.” But it’s not about trying to analyze or understand what’s going on (if you need to do that, save it for a therapy session). Remember, in this moment you are praying. So by focussing and sinking in to the powerful emotion, you are in effect inviting God to notice with you what you are currently experiencing/embodying.

The second step is to welcome the feeling. The instructions for Welcoming Prayer involve actually welcoming the emotion by name but not by trying to label whatever thoughts or memories are swirling around it. So for example, let’s say you are overwhelmed by sadness because you remember being bullied as a child. Silently in your prayer you can welcome this by saying “Welcome sadness.” You are welcoming the feeling — not the memory, and most certainly not the trauma! So you wouldn’t say, “Welcome bullying” or “Welcoming getting picked on” or anything like that. You focus on the feeling and so you welcome the emotion, nothing more.

Finally, having focused on and welcomed the feeling — you simply let it go. Cynthia suggests that we do not need to rush to this third step. Depending on how overwhelming the feeling is, we may need to knead it like a charley-horse in your leg, to use her simile. But by focusing and welcoming the feeling, sooner or later it begins to lose its power to overwhelm us. As we sense that happening, we are reaching the point where we can simply let it go and return our awareness to the silence of the prayer.

As I hinted above, sometimes what emerges might be so powerful that we need to follow up with a therapist or counselor to truly heal what needs healing. Other times the prayer itself can be a healing process for us. And I should also mention that the Welcoming Prayer is not just for difficult or painful emotions — it’s an excellent method for “praying through” any kind of powerful emotion, even the happy ones like joy or exhilaration or the headiness of new love.

The Body Prays, The Body Feels

So many of us turn to silent prayer practices like Centering Prayer because we seek greater peace and serenity in our lives. So it can be a bit dispiriting to realize that even silent prayer can be turbulent and intense. But our interior lives are mirrors of our exterior circumstances, and since we all live in a society that is turbulent, conflict-ridden, and often traumatized, we need to gently acknowledge that any or all of this will show up in prayer, which of course is the forum for our intimacy with God. But by learning to trust, welcome, and gently release these powerful energies, we make it more possible to discover the silent beauty of peaceful presence within us.

Featured image photo by Josep Castells on Unsplash.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.