The Welcoming Prayer
The welcoming prayer is a method that can be used in conjunction with centering prayer at times when we are being overwhelmed by an emotion during our prayer and can’t get centered or at any time in our daily lives when we are troubled by our feelings. When we find that it is difficult if not impossible to let go of an emotion or state of being, we can instead move deeper into that state. This is a way of accepting what is rather than trying to run away from it.
These are the steps of the prayer:
1) Focusing - Notice the sensation in your body of the emotion or state of being. Where is it? What does it feel like? Is it moving around? Are you tensing parts of your body or breathing differently than usual? Is it a familiar sensation? Try to be fully present to this sensation rather than pushing it away. You don’t need to analyze or explain the sensation, just notice it.
2) Welcoming - Welcome the feeling by giving it a name and saying for example, “Welcome anger,” “Welcome frustration,” “Welcome anxiety.” Accept that it is there and that you can just be the way you are without trying to change.
3) Move back and forth between these two steps for as long as you need to until the feeling begins to dissipate naturally. Don’t try to make it go away; just notice and welcome until the overwhelming quality of the feeling begins to subside.
4) Letting Go - When you are ready, gently let go of the feeling, saying, “I let go of my anger.” You are not letting go of it forever, you will certainly feel angry again sometime. As Cynthia Bourgeault puts it, “This is not a final, forever renunciation of your anger or fear; it’s simply a way of gently waving farewell as the emotion starts to recede.”
Welcoming Prayer is the practice that actively lets go of thoughts and feelings that support the false-self system. It embraces painful emotions experienced in the body rather than avoiding them or trying to suppress them. It does not embrace the suffering as such but the presence of the Holy Spirit in the particular pain, whether physical, emotional, or mental. Thus, it is the full acceptance of the content of the present moment. In giving the experience over to the Holy Spirit, the false-self system is gradually undermined and the true self liberated.
~ Thomas Keating
For a more detailed discussion of the welcoming prayer, I recommend Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Chapter 13.
When an emotion becomes overwhelming during centering prayer or in life, it can also be helpful to simply lean into the emotion, just being with it fully rather than resisting it, allowing the emotion itself to become the sacred symbol of centering prayer. Be with the emotion in a simple and open way until it dissipates and it seems to be time to go back to the practice.
Here is Richard Rohr’s description of the welcoming prayer, adapted from his CD The Art of Letting Go:
“The Welcoming Prayer” encourages you to identify in your life, now or in the past, a hurt or an offense: someone who has done you wrong, or let you down.
• Feel the pain of the offense the way you first felt it, or are feeling it in this moment, and feel the hurt in your body. Why is this important? Because if you move it to your mind, you will go back to dualistic thinking and judgments: good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or.
• Feel the pain so you don’t create the win/lose scenario. Identify yourself with the suffering side of life; how much it hurt to hurt. How abandoned you felt to be abandoned.
• Once you can move to that place and know how much it hurts to hurt, you would not possibly want that experience for anybody else.
• This might take a few minutes. Welcome the experience and it can move you to the Great Compassion. Don’t fight it! Don’t split and blame! Welcome the grief and anger in all of its heaviness. Now it will become a great teacher.
If you can do this you will see that it is welcoming the pain, and letting go of all of your oppositional energy against suffering, that actually frees you from it! Who would have thought? It is our resistance to things as they are that causes most of our unhappiness—at least I know it is for me.