Part 1: Centering Prayer vs. Eastern Meditation

Part 1: Centering Prayer vs. Eastern Meditation

[Note: I changed the title from “Christian Meditation vs. Eastern Meditation” to “Centering Prayer vs. Eastern Meditation” because I am only focusing on one form of meditation in this post. I didn’t want readers to think that I was presenting Centering Prayer as the only form of Christian meditation. There are, of course, many forms of Christian meditation and prayer but since Centering Prayer is the one that seems to be the most unclear, I wanted to spend some time reflecting on it specifically. Thank you for the comments and feedback to help make this a better and clearer post.]

This is the first of three posts focused on bringing more clarity to contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation.


I’ve been saturated in the world of spiritual formation and contemplative Christian spirituality for the last 9 years or so. I received my Bachelors in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University. While I was there, I had the opportunity to take a course with Richard Foster on the History and Practice of Spiritual Formation which ignited my desire to learn more about the depths of Christian spirituality. During my time in college, I also put together an independent study with one of my professors exploring Contemplative Prayer in depth. More recently I completed my Master’s degree in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. I have spent a lot of time thinking about and exploring different facets of Christian spirituality and I desire to continually grow in understanding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the years, I’ve heard all sorts of perspectives on contemplative Christian spirituality and Christian meditation. Some people say that discovering a more contemplative faith has saved their relationship with God and mark it as one of the most transformational aspects of their faith. Others condemn it as heresy and speak of the dangers of certain teachings that are taught under the guise of “contemplative” spirituality. They caution that it walks too closely with new age thought and Eastern religious practices. They claim that it is a harmful weed slowly infiltrating the church.

Certainly, some Christians take things too far and have become overly influenced by Eastern thought and practices. Almost anything can be misappropriated if improperly understood. Similarly, there are Christians who are abandoning a vital, historical aspect of Christian spirituality by condemning anything loosely tied to contemplative spirituality. There are two sides by which one can fall off of a horse!

The main criticisms of contemplative Christian spirituality and/or spiritual formation that I typically hear fall into one of three categories:

  1. Centering Prayer is Eastern mysticism wrapped in a Christian package. (Current post.)
  2. Contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation are focused more on self than on God. (Read part two here.)
  3. Spiritual formation is a form of works righteousness.

In this post, I’d like to do my best to help distinguish some of the fundamental differences between Christian and Eastern meditation—specifically between the Christian practice of Centering Prayer. Christian meditation should always be centered around Scripture and prayer practices should be used as ways of allow the truths of Scripture descend from one’s head into one’s heart. There is so much to say on this topic, but I want to focus on just a few points that have been really helpful for me.

There are many forms of Christian meditation, but Centering Prayer1 is the practice that is often accused of traversing most closely to Eastern meditation and seems to be the most unclear. I’m not sure where I stand on the practice of Centering Prayer personally, but I hope this will at least help clarify what it is and allow you to draw your own conclusions. The Centering Prayer method is to choose a word or phrase that represents your attention and intention to be conformed to God’s image by remaining in his presence. This word might be Jesus, Peace, Rest, Holy Spirit, Lord Have Mercy, etc. Any time you get distracted by your thoughts, you are to say this word and return to your center. The repetition of this word is to reaffirm your intention to remain in God’s presence and surrender your will to His. This word is not supposed to be a mantra that is mindlessly repeated in vain, it is supposed to be a tool to keep ones heart and mind centered on God—rather than on wandering thoughts and distractions. The idea is to simply rest in God’s presence, step away from the onslaught of inner noise that congests our minds, and to allow God to speak and work in one’s spirit.

Eastern Transcendental Meditation might sound similar but is distinctly different. The word or mantra used in Transcendental Meditation typically has no meaning, intention, or representation in of itself. The word or mantra is used in the same way, to dispel distractions, but the goal is not to keep one’s attention on God and His love, but to simply clear the mind and remain in a state of detachment. The mantra is a meaningless phrase simply used and repeated as a tool to block out thoughts and maintain a detached state of mind. Sometimes “secret” or specialized mantras are selected because of beliefs about how that mantra allegedly affects the brain. The repeated use of such mantras during meditation can bring the meditator to an altered state of consciousness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApologetically, this is a very brief and high level overview and comparison of Christian Centering Prayer and Eastern Transcendental Meditation, but it should be clear that there is an obvious distinction between the two. So why is this distinction so important? Why should we care about maintaining a clear boundary between these two practices? What else do we need to know?

In his book The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life, Dr. Timothy Jennings gets right to the issue at hand:

Eastern meditation techniques increase the frequency of alpha and theta waves, suppressing beta waves and causing increased secretion of a brain chemical called dopamine (which enhances visualization), provoking a predominance of right-brain activity and altering one’s entire consciousness. This would cause one to feel a loss of self-awareness, a feeling of unity with the cosmos, more intense mental imagery, and less awareness of time and space. It would also reduce one’s ability to discern evidence-based truths. (225)

If you read personal testimonies of people who regularly practice Eastern Transcendental Meditation, this is exactly what they often report. But for a Christian, what is the problem with a loss of self-awareness, feeling of unity with the cosmos, less awareness of time and space, etc.?

Jennings explains:

God calls us to meditate on his law of love, which is an expression of his character of love. This is no empty, mindless, thoughtless meditation, but a contemplative, deeply reflective meditation on the beauty of our infinite God and his methods of love. Such meditation reqires the balanced engagement of both right and left hemispheres. Such balance not only results in greater healthy and peace but also growth in Christlikeness. (226)

What Jennings just said there on the balanced engagement between both the right and left hemispheres is key. He continues:

Our left brain is attacked within Christianity by false ideas about God’s law, with subsequent distorted views of God as a vengeful, punishing tyrant, which incites fear. And sadly, many Christians, rather than reevaluating their view of God, instead turn to Eastern meditation to calm their chronically active fear circuits. But Eastern meditation inactivates the left brain through meditations designed to shut it down and so pursue an emotional, transcendental experience.

Thus we find that Eastern meditation, rather than leading a person to a personal friendship with God, actual transformation of character, and overcoming fear and selfishness, instead isolates one from God [and] fails to transform character…. (228)

In other words, overtime Transcendental Meditation can increase your feelings of well-being, unity, and detachment but it does so because it is overstimulating your brain’s thalamus (the thalamus controls our sense of what is real and what is not) to the point in which your feelings become neurologically real, even if they are not in actuality.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo here are a few important considerations that might be worth reflecting on:

1. If you are someone who actively practices Christian contemplative forms of prayer, particularly Centering Prayer, is your attention genuinely on God and your desire to be in his presence? Or have you potentially slipped into Eastern Transcendental Meditation and are just using Christian language for your mantra? Is your meditation rooted in the God of love as revealed through Jesus Christ or has your spirituality become more abstract, vague, and amorphous? Are your spiritual practices well-balanced—not just relying on abstract meditation but on actual contemplative study, reflection, and conversation with a loving God as revealed through Jesus?

2. For those of you that are asking, “Well why even bother with Centering prayer if it is sometimes confused with other forms of non-Christian meditation? There has never been a time in our history where silence is more needed (and unavailable) than it is today. Centering prayer and other forms of Christian meditation and prayer can be invaluable ways to clear out some of the noise and clutter that is constantly competing for our attention. Furthermore, Centering Prayer is not a new modern practice but a form of prayer that can be traced back to the first and second century Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers—and has been practiced for thousands of years since. [As a commenter below noted, the mere presence of a practice throughout history does not necessarily mean it is legitimate, one should always look for the fruit to judge the validity of such practices.] Others have argued that the Jesus Prayer is a much less ambiguous form of prayer that focuses specifically on the Savior and is not likely to lend itself to potentially deceptive influences. (Thank you to my friend Jonathan for highlighting the Jesus Prayer as a better alternative to Centering Prayer.)

3. For those of you who have been largely critical, skeptical, or even condemning of contemplative Christianity, please consider exactly what it is that you are condemning or cautious about. Simply saying that it looks too similar or comes too close to new age or Eastern thought is vague, unclear, and ultimately unhelpful. Almost every belief and nearly every doctrine only needs to be slightly twisted or altered to become a form of heresy or to fall outside of orthodoxy. Just because something looks similar to something else or requires careful discernment doesn’t mean that it should be cast by the wayside.

Lastly, I would love to hear your thoughts. I don’t write this as an expert but as someone who is actively working through these questions and desires further clarity and insight. What do you think, is is Centering Prayer a viable Christian practice or does it lend itself to deceptive influences? Does it have Scriptural backing?

Part 2 – “Knowing Thy Self” 


1For more on Centering Prayer visit: http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/centering-prayer

2The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life

Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Egypt

12 Comments

  • Debra

    December 22, 2014 at 1:51 pm Reply

    One of the questions you asked in your solicitation of readers’ thoughts is “Does it (Centering Prayer) have Scriptural backing?” I consider myself a serious Christian and I take the Bible seriously as God’s inerrant Word. I try to apply Acts 17:11 to my daily life.

    Acts 17:11
    These (Bereans Acts 17:10) were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

    I read your article and then went back to the Scripture. I was unable to find Scripture that provides backing for “Centering Prayer.” When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He did not teach them “Centering Prayer.” I can find no example of Jesus practicing this type of prayer. I find it interesting that so many are telling Christians to practice “Centering Prayer” to be more like Christ, when we can find no examples of Christ Himself involved in this practice. Please let me know if you are aware of any examples that I have missed.

    In your argument regarding “Centering Prayer” as distinctly different from Eastern Meditation practices you made a couple statements that I must admit are alarming to me. I have quoted the statement below and presented my concern.

    “Centering Prayer” is not a new modern practice but a life-giving form of prayer that can be traced back to the first and second Century Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers.”

    First of all, from my study of the Scripture, it is clear to me that the only life-giving prayer discussed in the Bible is the prayer of a sinner’s repentance and acceptance of the gift of eternal salvation, provided to us through Christ’s sacrifice and the grace of God. I’m sorry but “Centering Prayer” does not give life. Only the blood of Jesus Christ and His resurrection give life. The second part of this statement that concerns me is regarding the tracing of this practice back to our Desert Fathers and Mothers. Another thing that is clear from the Biblical text is that false teachings and practices were infiltrating the church very early in church history. The New Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that the Apostles were dealing with false teaching. Jesus Himself deals with these false teachings in His seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3. To simply argue that these practices (Centering Prayer) were engaged in during this early church period is not enough to provide authority that Christians today should practice it. What does the Biblical text say?

    Another statement of concern:
    “The Centering Prayer” method is to choose a word or phrase that represents Your attention and intention to be conformed to God’s image by remaining in His presence.”

    So the intention here is Your intention, rather than God’s. I believe God’s intention is to conform born again Christians to the image of His Son. Romans 8:29 tells us that.

    Romans 8:29
    For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.

    The Christian cannot accomplish the act of being conformed to the image of the Son without God’s work through Christ in us. This, in my opinion is much deeper than a practice of repeating a word ( even a word that we can interpret as righteous). It is about praying the way that the Bible and Jesus Himself teaches us to pray. It is about meditating on God’s Word in the context that He gave it to us. It is about taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ ( 2 Corinthians 10:5). It is about trying every spirit whether they are of God because many false prophets are gone out into the world (1 John 4:1). It is about reliance on God and God alone.

    I will leave you with one last thought. You made a statement in your argument that I totally agree with. “Nearly every doctrine only needs to be slightly twisted or altered to become heresy.” I guess the question that every Berean must decide for him or herself is this: Is the doctrine of “Centering Prayer” a Biblical doctrine or has the Biblical teaching regarding prayer been slightly altered or twisted into “Centering Prayer.”

    • Quiet Pilgrim

      December 22, 2014 at 3:24 pm Reply

      Thank you Debra for such a thorough and thoughtful response. You are right that there is no example of Jesus practicing such a prayer but that is true of a lot of things. There’s no record of Jesus journaling, for example, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it should therefore not be a part of anyone’s prayer life. The most consistent thing we see Jesus specifically taking time to do is spend time with the Father and often retreating to a quiet place to pray. We don’t know exactly what transpired during these times alone with God, I imagine Jesus talking with his Father and spending time listening to Him. Two verses come to mind when I think about Jesus spending time with the Father: Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” and “Abide with me as I abide in you.” John 15:4. I think these types of verses are ones often used to uphold more contemplative practices. For many, Centering Prayer has been a helpful tool listening to God, but of course there are many other ways that one can learn to listen to God more.

      Also, when I talked about Centering Prayer being life-giving prayer, I was speaking in terms of something that fills up, renews, and inspires—just like a beautiful sunset or relaxing vacation is life-giving. I apologize if it sounded like I was making a claim that Centering Prayer is some sort of replacement for repentance or acceptance of God’s gift of Salvation. That is entirely not what was intended.

      You are right again that the mere existence of a particular practice does necessarily make it legitimate. However, Scripture says that one of the best ways to judge falsity from truth is to examine the fruit. (Matt. 7:15-20) When you look back at those who practiced Centering Prayer (among many other spiritual disciplines) throughout history the evidence of the fruit of the spirit is quite evident in their life. No one would claim Centering Prayer as their one and only means of prayer, but rather as one of many ways of spending time with God.

      I absolutely agree with you that the Christian cannot accomplish the act of being conformed to the image of the Son without God’s work through Christ in us. Nevertheless, we are responsible for responding to God’s grace and creating space so God can speak to us, guide is, and transform us. No form of prayer or spiritual discipline can take matters into one’s own hands, they can only further open our hearts to God’s gracious work within us. And no form of prayer should be undertaken at the expense of Scripture.

      Thank you again for thoughtfully engaging the topic. I hope some of the comments and questions that you’ve raise will be helpful for others as they seek clarity and discernment for themselves.

  • Part 2: Knowing Thy Self | Quiet Pilgrim

    December 28, 2014 at 11:18 pm Reply

    […] Part 1: Centering Prayer vs. Eastern Meditation […]

  • […] Part 1: Centering Prayer vs. Eastern Meditation […]

  • pokeyone

    January 28, 2015 at 10:24 am Reply

    New reader to your blog. Started with “Praying with your life,” and “This is your life.” Captivated by the authenticity in both posts. Current post was a huge disappointment, substituting orthodoxy for authenticity.

    Aspiring to be Christian is sufficiently challenging for me. I see no value in denigrating anyone else’s religious or spiritual practice. And to dismiss the worth of an ancient spiritual tradition with a few paragraphs about modern neurological research seems to me the height of ignorance. I wish you well on your journey, but I find no value in this approach.

    • Quiet Pilgrim

      February 17, 2015 at 12:11 pm Reply

      I appreciate you taking the time to read the posts here on this blog and for your kind words regarding the things that were helpful to you. My intent in the post on meditation was never to denigrate another tradition or religion, only to help distinguish some of the differences. As I mentioned in my post, I’ve heard a lot of questions from my fellow Christians about the differences between different forms of meditation. As a Christian striving for orthodoxy, I am always trying to sharpen and clarify my tradition without undue criticism toward others. I may fail at that at times.

      My hope in referencing Dr. Timothy Jennings was to raise some thoughts and questions about what is happening in the brain during meditation and I thought his findings were worth sharing. Furthermore, Transcendental Meditation originated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the early 1900s and was popularized in the 1960s. Most of my comments were directed toward this movement and not toward any specific form or religion or ancient traditions. This should have been made more clear in my post.

      I try to remain open and sensitive to the different places in which people find themselves in their spiritual journey and I’m sorry if the way I expressed my thoughts in this post were off-putting to you. As I said before, I am writing from an orthodox Christian perspective and I firmly believe in the possibility of being authentic and orthodox—that one doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other. I like this quote from G.K. Chesterton, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

      So in writing on this blog I am trying to keep an open mind and thoughtfully engage a wide range of spiritual pilgrims, but I am also trying to find solidity. I hope that helps explain where I am coming from. All the best.

  • jennymeehan

    January 16, 2016 at 5:27 am Reply

    Thank you so much for this helpful and thought provoking post…I have been considering questions related to a short course I went to on Centering Prayer. My own thoughts, about this particular training session, was that it appeared to be transcendental meditation dressed up in Christian robes… the person leading the group actually said that the meaning of the word repeated didn’t matter and also spoke of blocking out thoughts and feelings which I was uncomfortable with, as I felt that to encourage dissociation from one’s self, is not actually a healthy thing to do. I also felt that entering into the presence of God is an emotive experience, also very imagination and thought provoking. I expect a kind of engagement of all my faculties rather than any kind of isolation. I have read of people developing mental health problems as a result of using transcendental meditation techniques to the extreme also. I also went to a training session given by someone else on Mindfulness and this was a much more positive experience for me. It was the opposite of the mindlessness which I felt was encouraged by the Centering Prayer. I felt that the Mindfulness was all about connection and awareness, and wasn’t dressed up in any way but delivered in a very pragmatic,” this is a technique which can be useful to those who are Christians” kind of way. One of the things which had annoyed me a little about the Centering prayer is that the person kept saying that it was not a technique and that it was prayer, where as I felt that it was a technique and it should not have been made more mystic or spiritual or Christian by insisting it was prayer! Well, reading your writing has been very helpful to me, and thank you very much for posting your thoughts and sharing your perspective. It has given me lots more things to think about too!

    • Lance Baker

      January 16, 2016 at 12:25 pm Reply

      Hi Jenny,

      Thank you so much for your comments and for the depth of thoughtfulness that you bring with your questions. This is all something that I continue to grow in understanding in and I think asking good questions is a great place to start. I’m glad that at least some of what I’ve written here has been helpful to you. May we all continue to learn and grow in understanding.

      I just spent the last 15 minutes or so looking through your artwork and I really enjoyed it! I admire the ability that people have to capture emotions and even mystery through artistic expression and you do that quite well.

  • charles clouse

    January 17, 2016 at 4:15 pm Reply

    Outstanding Thanks for keeping on track and not getting lost . Luv in Christ .

  • Jean

    February 26, 2016 at 12:54 pm Reply

    Thanks so much for your post and contributing to dialogue about what’s most important to so many — sharing in the life of God! Prayer is essential to communicating with God, and abiding in God and God in us.

    I do find it helpful to differentiate between ‘Prayer’ and ‘prayers’.

    In my experience, contemplation (aka ‘contemplative living,’ see Thomas Merton) is a way of life (which I think our Lord would say is ‘orthodox’ Prayer.) To abide in God with more awareness in each moment of my day, I practice centering prayer at discrete times of the day (maybe we could call this 20-minute experience ‘small’ prayer?? or ‘baby steps’, or ‘checking in’ with God). I do this ‘small prayer’ because I believe it is God’s will that I *grow* in my capacity to live in constant awareness of God — abiding in God via contemplation — in every moment of the day (‘big’ Prayer??, eating solid food rather than milk?).

    You might also be interested to know more about kataphatic prayer and apophatic prayer.

    The Benedictine prayer form Lectio Divina (Divine Reading) provides some clarity, I think, about the difference between contemplation (heart resting in God, fully present to God, ‘awake’ to love, still and quiet) and meditation (mind pondering and thinking *about* God or scripture). The four steps of Lectio Divina are: Read, Reflect, Respond, Rest (Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, Contemplatio).

    I pray periods of centering prayer as a practice (a continuous ‘letting go’ of my ‘small self’ to return to His presence) in service of contemplation — awareness of God’s abiding presence as I go about my day. Centering prayer gives me a focused 20 minutes to sit in God’s presence /let go of mental distractions so that I GROW, so that I am better able to *practice the presence of God* with my heart in every moment of daily life, aware of what God is showing me in each moment, especially via my interior experiences (see Ignatius of Loyola). Contemplation is the gift that allows me to communicate with God in each moment of the day, not just in discrete periods of the day.

    When it comes to orthodoxy I turn to Christ’s orthodoxy. So much of our faith is man-made tradition and doesn’t align, in my opinion, with what Christ reveals is important to sharing in the life of God.

    Fruit is the best sign of one’s authentic need of, surrender to, and reception of God’s salvation. Christ says that he knows his followers by their love, their fruit. Those who are attached to the vine bear fruit spontaneously and unself-consciously. Contemplation, to me, means to have ongoing awareness that I am attached to the vine, that God abides in me and I in God. Contemplation means to respond, unself-consciously and spontaneously, to the experiences of my day with Christ’s love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and compassion.

    Looking to other traditions can help us grow closer to Christ in learning what it means to, for instance, love enemy, overcome evil with good, care about the suffering of others, and wash each other’s feet — all essential to sharing in the life of God and receiving the kingdom (according to Christ). Samaritans did NOT worship the same, yet Christ pointed to a Samaritan as an *authentic* example of one who is sharing in the life of God. Samaritans were NOT orthodox in their beliefs and yet were INCLUDED by Christ because they were sharing in the life of God, and bearing fruit that lasts. There are countless examples which Christ cites about what is most important to receiving the kingdom, the fruit of which many of today’s ‘orthodox’ are not bearing.

    I really enjoy your articles and insights and ponderings. Keep your eyes on Christ, gazing in the same direction! Thanks for sharing!

    • Lance Baker

      February 26, 2016 at 2:31 pm Reply

      Wow, Jean, what a rich, engaging, and thoughtful response! I so much appreciate your engagement and I really enjoyed reading your response.

      I want to comment on everything you said, but for now, I just want to affirm your thoughtfulness. Specifically, this particular section of your comment was a highlight for me:

      “Contemplation, to me, means to have ongoing awareness that I am attached to the vine, that God abides in me and I in God. Contemplation means to respond, unself-consciously and spontaneously, to the experiences of my day with Christ’s love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and compassion.”

      Very well stated!

      I am familiar with centering prayer, Lectio Divina, and kataphatic/apophatic forms of prayer. These and other various forms of ancient Christian practices have been a rich part of my own spiritual formation and I hope the additional things you’ve shared in your comment will be helpful to others who read it as well.

      And thank you for the encouragement. I don’t always know who reads this or how helpful they are to others, but I know that I really enjoy the process of writing and sharing them regardless. Thank you again!

    • pokeyone

      February 28, 2016 at 9:35 am Reply

      Wonderful comments, Jean. I particularly appreciate your distinction between what is authentically Christian and what is man-made tradition. I believe that holiness depends on an awareness of God’s indwelling presence, and that prayer and silence help us
      to cultivate that awareness.

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