Practice Centering Prayer for Mental Health

Woman practicing centering prayer at home in quiet place

At Restoring the Soul, we believe that opportunities for transformation often come through the spiritual practices of silence and meditation. Of course, this is a lovely sentiment — but what do we really mean by meditation? What does it look like to sit silently with yourself? And how does it change anything in your mind and heart?

While there are many ways to look inward, one of our favorite meditative methods is the historical practice of centering or contemplative prayer.

Before you check out, we don’t mean checking boxes off a list of things you should say to God. We don’t mean spending just the right amount of time talking to God until you feel holy again. In fact, we don’t even mean saying anything to God. Instead, centering prayer is simply a practice in being present.

What is centering prayer and why does it matter?

You might know this practice by a variety of names, such as centering prayer, contemplative prayer, or meditative prayer — they are all basically the same. When we talk about centering prayer, we are referring to the spiritual discipline of sitting with God. It allows for and facilitates an intimacy that is deeper than words can express.

God never intended our faith to be a mere intellectual pursuit. Instead, God wants our spiritual walk to come from an inward place. When we are disconnected from this place, this center, we gravitate toward anything nearby that gives us a false sense of being centered.

To combat this, centering prayer helps us find our spiritual and emotional center and increases our faith. As we step into God’s loving presence, the idea is that we become less focused and dependent upon what we intellectually believe and more deeply connected to our experiences.

Centering prayer exercises and guidelines

So what does this look like? Many people who practice the contemplative life suggest spending no fewer than twenty minutes per day in centering prayer. You may engage in centering prayer for twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening.

Of course, sitting in silence can be daunting, especially if you have a busy mind or don’t know where to start. We suggest following the guidelines in J. David Muyskens’s book, Forty Days to a Closer Walk With God.

1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your desire to be present with God.

When you think of God, what word comes to mind? What do you call God? Remember that there are no right or wrong answers.

2. Sit comfortably in a quiet place.

Make sure you are sitting somewhere comfortable in an environment that is free from internal and external distractions. The noise around you and within you will seem amplified as you begin to quiet yourself.

3. When interrupted by thoughts, sounds, or other distractions, acknowledge them and gently return your attention to God via the sacred word.

If a random thought or distraction interferes, let it go. As soon as you become aware that you are distracted, simply return to your sacred word.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with your eyes closed for several minutes.

When finished, keep your eyes closed so you don’t jar yourself back to your surroundings. Ideally, after centering prayer, you’ll want to stay in that centered space for a little while.

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. There is no perfect way to do it, and no grade or spiritual points for being able to quiet your mind quickly or for a long time. Take deep breaths, and celebrate the moments of groundedness and silence you have with God, no matter what it looks like.

An elderly man sits in silence with his hands in his lap at home

How can centering prayer help my mental health?

We encourage centering prayer because it provides spiritual enrichment, but it also helps you connect with yourself. It has the potential to lead to an increase in concentration, attention span, mood regulation, and self-control. You may feel much more connected to your heart and the center of your being.

According to developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, two imperative factors involved in neurological rewiring are attention and focus. Countless scientific studies have demonstrated that our brains are wired according to what we give our attention and focus to — as Norman Doidge, MD says in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, “what fires together, wires together.” Centering prayer involves simultaneously giving intentional focus and sustained attention to our inner world and God.

Furthermore, centering prayer, like the practice of mindfulness, teaches that thoughts, feelings, and sensations should be accepted and acknowledged without judgment. This may deepen your sense of God’s love for you and increase your self-compassion.

Reconnecting with yourself, others, and God isn’t easy. Even just sitting in God’s presence can feel painful and slow. But rewiring your brain takes time, and God isn’t looking for you to meet some inflexible timeline. In the silence, or in your attempts to reach for a quieted mind, God meets you where you are at.

Want to learn more about centering prayer at Restoring the Soul? Read the full chapter in Michael’s book, Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle. For further exploration, listen to our podcast episode 64: Centering Prayer with spiritual director and psychotherapist Ellen Haroutunian.