The “conscious body” denotes the dimensions of human being that are experienced in moments of transition between pure subjectivity and one's focus on an object, such as when a thought or emotion begins to arise. In the instant before “I” perceive “this” lies a brief space in which the two are not so clearly distinguished. This transition can perhaps be witnessed most easily in the process of falling asleep. In waking, objects are external to me. In dreaming, objects are internal to me, but I still perceive them as separate. In deep sleep, subject-object distinction gives way to a pure unity of consciousness. These subtle degrees of relationship to God and the world are parts of the conscious body.
Within the Christian tradition, one practice that attends to this set of body parts has come to be known as Centering Prayer. (Forerunners appear in the Philokalia in the Eastern Christian tradition and the Cloud of Unknowing in the Christian West.)
- Select a word that signifies your intent to be open to the presence of the divine. One-syllable words are best, like Love, Peace, or God.
- Begin your time of contemplation with the intention to be present. You might say, "God, I am here. God, you are here." Consider setting a timer for 20 minutes so that you will not be distracted by checking the clock.
- When you notice that your mind has become attached to one of the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that inevitable arise, simply release that thought by returning to your word. Note: you are not thinking about this word, but you are employing it as a gentle reminder of your intention toward God.
- Repeat step 3. The mind is a busy place, so in the space of 20 minutes you may have, as Thomas Keating once put it, “ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”
- Some persons with profound intellectual disabilities regularly experience such states of consciousness: caregivers, “self,” and world are perceived as extentions of a single reality. How might Centering Prayer help a practitioner to appreciate the humanity of persons whose bodies work differently?
- What are the implications of viewing the conscious body as the image of God--for human families, communities, and other institutions?
- How does this practice differ from other practices, which cultivate love for God or right thinking about God? What relation do these practices have to one another?
- Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. Boulder: Shambhala, 2016.
- Contemplative Outreach.
- Haslam, Molly Claire. A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability: Human Being as Mutuality and Response. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.
- Voss Roberts, Michelle. Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017, chapter 2.
A Practice of the Conscious Body: Centering Prayer
In the nanosecond between the cessation of one thought and the arising of the next, there is a moment of pure consciousness where subject and object poles drop out and you’re simply there. For a nanosecond, there’s no “you” and no God. No experience and no experiencer. There’s simply a direct, undivided, sensate awareness of a single, unified field of being perceived from a far deeper place of aliveness. And what is first tasted in a nanosecond can indeed become a stable and integrated state. (Bourgeault 2016: 130)
Copyright © Michelle Voss Roberts. All rights reserved.