Developing Spiritual Lifestyle Practices - Day Ten: Boats & Centering Prayer


Today we are going to be exploring the tenth spiritual lifestyle practice that is outlined by Fr. Richard Rohr in his book Just This.  

The topic this morning is what Rohr calls "Boats Floating Downstream and Centering Prayer."  Let me explain, albeit in a very round-about way.  Stick with me.  

Yesterday I went bike riding for the second day in a row.  The first day I went on a bike track that only had one semi-challenging hill, but yesterday I decided to take a ride that felt like it was uphill both ways.

I would love to say that while I was riding that I was able to put in my headphones, get a good pace going and then slide into a zen-like space in my head where my thoughts were free, my body energized and all was right with the world. 

Instead, I was bombarded by thoughts, like:

"This sucks."
"I'm tired."
"My butt hurts."
"My hamstrings are on fire."
"I think I'm in the wrong gear."
"This helmet is too hot."
"That car is going to hit me."
"It's hot all of a sudden."
"I drank too much water at that stoplight."
"I'm seriously out of shape."
"I need to get in shape."
"How can I get in shape if I can't walk after this?"
"Did I mention that this sucks?"

I labored pretty hard on the incline back to my house.  My knees were rubbery, my breathing was ragged, and I felt like I was about to fall over because my legs didn't work all that well. 

And then the chain jumped off the gear and I had to stop and fix it.

So much for feelings of zen, right?  I have heard that some people can do that kind of thing while running or biking.  I think they are lying, and they just want to mess with the rest of us who aren't in shape.

But what got me thinking later was how all of those thoughts crowded into my head as I was riding.  All I wanted was to simply focus on my breathing, and the steady pace of my legs propelling my bike forward.  

Instead, I couldn't stop the flood of thoughts that kept coming at me, and I was left feeling completely unsure of which ones to pay attention to, which ones were more urgent.  

Fr. Richard addresses this particular spiritual practice by using an image given to him by his mentor Fr. Thomas Keating.  

Keating said that one of the best ways that we can find clarity of thought and peace in our spirit is to first imagine that we are standing by a river choked with boats.  He said to imagine there are so many boats that you can't even see the river, although you know it's down there. 

Then Keating said to start naming the boats, one at a time.  Give it a name and then let it go in order to create space.  You might call it "Worry," or "Grief," or you could get specific and name it after something or someone you are in conflict with at the moment.  

Just name the boat, let it go and create space. 

Fr. Richard says that we have to resist the urge to step into the boat, and instead simply let it go.  His reasoning is that addictive thought patterns and obsessive ways of feeling will try very hard to be noticed, to get us to step on to them, and once we do that---we don't create space, we never fully experience the river. 

Rohr puts it like this: 
"This is no repression or denial--remember, we have calmly named the thought or the emotion and thus taken ownership of it--but rather we do not let it control the flow of the river."
In the end, all we are doing is trying to get to the river below all of the boats that are obscuring our view, blocking our touch, keeping us from simply being in the flow.  

And what is this river that Keating was trying to get us to uncover, and experience?  Why, it's none other than us.  Or should I  say the essence of us.  The part of us that is inextricably connected to God and to others--the part of us that we let get cluttered, choked and obscured.  

Fr. Richard says that once we begin to uncover the river, we find ourselves in a space where communion with God and connection to others is so much more attainable.  He puts it like this: 
"This open expanse of water is pure receptivity to the Holy Spirit..."
I  rather love the image of the boats to help with this process of getting your mind free and connecting with the Divine, but there are other ways to achieve the same thing.  

You can also replace the boat exercise by practicing centering prayer. 

Centering prayer is when you pick a sacred word or phrase like, "Lord hear my prayer," or "Maranatha! (Jesus come!)," and then you repeat the phrase over and over again until your thoughts are clear and you are focused solely on the phrase.  

You'll soon discover that you may be able to stop praying the phrase as your mind becomes clear and your thoughts uncluttered.  You can start repeating it again as needed to keep your mind free.  

My go-to phrase for centering prayer is the cry that the blind man in Luke 18 cried out to Jesus when he wanted to be healed: "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!" 

All of this--the boat image, centering prayer--is simply the practice of "letting-go therapy" followed by "replacement therapy."  But there's something deeper here as well.  This isn't merely about finding clear thoughts---it's about clearing your thoughts to experience God more fully.  

And interestingly, if these become a lifestyle practice for you, you will---experience God more fully.  You will discover a new capacity for openness to the Spirit, more room for love and forgiveness, and a new sense of hope for yourself and for the world. 

May this be true for you today and every day.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.  


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