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The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault

27 October 2017

THE Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in theory and practice (Shambhala Publications, £16.50 (£14.85); 978-1-61180-314-3) is a “how-to” and “why-to” book, both describing the practice of cent­ring prayer and positioning it within the story of Western spirituality.

Two things: the author, Cynthia Bourgeault, is an US Episcopalian priest and something of a guru, with a string of titles to her name. She writes with confidence and assur­ance and is not afraid to use power­ful contemporary metaphors to describe what she means. We learn about the brain’s capacity to run “operating systems” and re-wire itself. More traditionally, we also learn about the desire to “put the mind in the heart”.

Critically, the reader should also note that the author is a product of the American Trappist Fr Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach programme. In that sense, she is a guru and a pupil, both teaching and learning at the same time.

Bourgeault acknowledges that the practice of self-emptying, as exem­plified in the writings of Christian mystics such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, which she ex­­amines at length, and also the work of St Symeon the New Theologian, is universal. It runs like a golden thread through the practice of all belief systems, from both East and West. Within Christianity, it has a special flavour, based on St Paul’s celebrated passage in Philippians 2. Self-emptying or abandonment become mandatory in prayer and will lead to awareness or, put in more contemporary language, the “nondual” or unitive state to which centring prayer aspires.

I have said that the author is both a teacher and a learner: does this explain her openness to new ideas? Her understanding of the neuro­logical aspects of altered brain states brought about by prayer, and her desire to reach out to other tradi­tions beyond Christianity, make this a really interesting read. An example — which brings the two together — is that to describe the “rewiring of consciousness” she chooses a quo­tation from Rumi, who writes of “quivering like a drop of mercury”, or what Bourgeault calls “being able to hold your attention as a tensile field of aware­ness”. This is alto­gether a worth­while read.

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