Excerpted from "Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening" by Cynthia Bourgeault. Reprinted with permission from Cowley Publications.

Deeper Silence, Deeper Self

"Silence is God's first language," wrote the 16th-century mystic John of the Cross. And silence is the normal context in which contemplative prayer takes place. But there is silence and then there is silence. There is an outer silence, an outer stopping of the words and busy-ness, but there is also a much more challenging interior silence, where the inner talking stops as well.

Most of us are familiar with this first kind of silence, although we don't get enough of it in our spiritual nurture. It's the kind of silence we normally practice in retreat times and quiet days; sometimes you'll hear it described as "free silence." With a break from the usual hurly-burly of your life, you have time to draw inward and allow your mind to meander. You may pore over a scriptural verse and let your imagination and feelings carry you more deeply into it. Or you may simply put the books away and go for a walk in the woods, allowing the tranquility of the setting and the relative quieting of external pressures bring you more deeply in touch with yourself. You listen carefully to how you're feeling, what you're wishing. In this kind of work, the free association of your mind provides the key to the renewal, and silence furnishes the backdrop where this work can go on.

But there is another kind of silence as well, far less familiar to most Christians. In this other kind of silence, the drill is exactly the opposite. In free silence, you encourage your mind to float where it will; in this other, sometimes called "intentional silence"-or to use the generic description, meditation-a deliberate effort is made to restrain the wandering of the mind, either by slowing down the thought process itself or by developing a means of detaching oneself from it.

Intentional silence almost always feels like work. It doesn't come naturally to most people, and there is in fact considerable resistance raised from the mind itself: "You mean I just sit there and make my mind a blank?" Then the inner talking begins in earnest, and you ask yourself, "How can this be prayer? How can God give me my imagination, reason, and feelings and then expect me not to use them?" "Where do 'I' go to if I stop thinking?" "Is it safe?"

Since centering prayer is a discipline of intentional silence, dealing with this internal resistance is an inevitable part of developing a practice. In fact, I've often said to participants at centering prayer introductory workshops that 90 percent of the trick in successfully establishing a practice lies in wanting to do it in the first place. So let's consider that question first.

The Art of Awakening

Perhaps the most powerful argument is the one from authority. Virtually every spiritual tradition that holds a vision of human transformation at its heart also claims that a practice of intentional silence is a non-negotiable. Period. You just have to do it. Whether it be the meditation of the yogic and Buddhist traditions, the zikr of the Sufis, the devkut of mystical Judaism, or the contemplative prayer of the Christians, there is a universal affirmation that this form of spiritual practice is essential to spiritual awakening.

When I talk about "transformation" and "awakening," incidentally, I should make clear that I am not using New Age terminology. I am speaking of: "You must be born from above" (John 3:7 NRSV), or "Unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24), or perhaps most pointedly: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25). Among the worldwide religions, Christianity is surely one of those most urgently and irrevocably set upon the total transformation of the human person. And while it's true that we don't have pictures of Jesus teaching meditation practice exactly-this can be read between the lines fairly easily on any number of occasions and more important, derived theologically.

Like most the great spiritual masters of our universe, Jesus taught from the conviction that we human beings are victims of a tragic case of mistaken identity. The person I normally take myself to be-that busy, anxious little "I" so preoccupied with its goals, fears, desires, and issues-is never even remotely the whole of who I am, and to seek the fulfillment of my life at this level means to miss out on the bigger life. This is why, according to his teaching, the one who tries to keep his "life" (i.e., the small one) will lose it, and the one who is willing to lose it will find the real thing. Beneath the surface there is a deeper and vastly more authentic Self, but its presence is usually veiled by the clamor of the smaller "I" with its insatiable needs and demands.