Today on the show, I’m privileged to be interviewing Rich Lewis, a speaker, coach and author.  Rich has been practicing centering prayer since 2013 as a way to relate and pray to God. He even wrote a book about it. 

  • What is centering prayer and how do we do it?
  • What are the purposes and benefits of centering prayer?
  • What are the challenges in practicing centering prayer? 
  • Basic steps of centering prayer
  • Rich Lewis’ Book:  Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self Through Centering Prayer

Resources and Links:

Rich Lewis
Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self Through Centering Prayer

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Transcript of Episode 48

Welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD, Episode 48. This is your host, Carrie Bock. On our show, what we do is focus on reducing shame, increasing hope, and developing healthier connections with God and others. In one of our very early episodes, we talked about prayer. We’ve also talked on the show about mindfulness in the past. Both of those were great episodes. I encourage you to go back and listen if you haven’t heard those. 

And today we’re talking with author and speaker Rich Lewis. A meditative practice called centering prayer. So I’m really interested in learning more about this and how it might be beneficial for people with anxiety.

Carrie: So thanks for coming in and talking with us Rich. I really appreciate it.

Rich: Sure. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it. 

Carrie: So how did you get connected with and interested in centering prayer? 

Rich: I stumbled into it in late 2013 in a book. So prior to late 2013, I’d had read books by Carl McColman and he talked a lot about silence and how powerful and transforming it was. But I don’t remember him talking about a practice to do in this silence. So at that point, I just sit in silence but do not really have a practice and this was probably in 2012 and 2013. Then I was simply browsing Amazon looking for a book to read and I came across Amos Smith’s book, Healing the Divide: Recovering Christianity’s mystic roots.

In his book, he talked about a practice called centering prayer that he had been doing, I think for about 15 years at that point. So that immediately intrigued me because I was looking for something to do in this silence, which may sound funny, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do in silence.

So I began investigating centering prayer and obviously, his book talked about it. Then I began reading other books on centering prayer. I started practicing centering kind of dabbling in it in late 2013 and then decided to, I’ll call it, jump into centering prayer, swimming, swimming pool on June 1st, 2014 and practice it more regularly on a daily basis.

So that’s how it happened. I’ve been attracted to silence and then I came across a practice that you can do in the silence in late 2013 and started exploring it. It resonated with me and I’ve been doing it since June of 2014. 

Carrie: I know silence can be intimidating for some people is, especially in the beginning. Maybe they feel uncomfortable with it. I’m curious for you when you started out was surges, like this internal craving in your spirit for more silence. Just a sense of like, life is so busy, so noisy, so much going on, like you needed that space. 

Rich: It just intrigued me. I guess I was looking for a new way to relate to God and a new way to pray to God. I guess I was all, I always considered myself an introvert, so I didn’t mind being alone at times. I go into crowds and have friends, but I don’t mind being alone or taking a walk alone or going in nature or going on a walker or a bike ride by myself. Since I had read silence was powerful. I thought it was the way to sit with myself and another neat way to just sit with God, rather than talk out loud to God. So it kind of intrigued me. 

Carrie: Okay. What is centering prayer exactly? How do you describe it to other people? 

Rich: Centering prayer has been around since what was created in the early 1970s by three Trappist monks. So, three Catholic priests saw a transcendental meditation going on and they wanted something for the Christian community. So they created centering prayer and the method itself actually was found by Fr. William Manager. One of the three Trappist monks kind of found the method of centering prayer in an old book called the Cloud of Unknowing.

And then the three of them, the two other priests, including himself sort of refined to practice and started teaching it to priests, clergy, and rolling it out to the public. So it’s been around, I guess, at this point for about 50 years. It’s considered meditation and a relationship with God and it’s silent wordless prayer.

I’ll describe how you do it. The guidelines are you sit comfortably with your eyes closed and then to begin your silent sit, you introduce what’s called a sacred word interiorly, and it really means you’re consenting to the presence and actions of God within. The word usually is anywhere from one to three syllables and it could be anything – love, ocean, God, Jesus, some type of short syllable word. Whenever you begin engaging your thoughts as you’re sitting there. What I mean by that is whenever you begin thinking about what you did before your sets or thinking about what you’re going to do when you get up from your sets, you realize that you’re beginning to engage your thoughts and plan and plot and that’s you’re supposed to let go of them.

So you’ve then re-introduced the sacred word. Let go of these engaged thoughts to bring you back to the present moment. Then you let go of the sacred word itself as well And you do that during the duration of the time that you’ve decided to sit, whether it’s five minutes or 10 minutes or 20 minutes, you kind of repeat that.

It’s not a mantra. So there are mantra-based practices. Centering in this with centering prayers just used when it is needed. The last thing I’ll say about the sacred word is that it doesn’t have to be a word. Like if you’re an auditory person, it may work well. I started with a word and then I discovered I’m really more of a visual person. So I used an image and I would kind of picture the image and I wouldn’t like to paint it out and draw it out. But I would just think of that picture and think of that image to bring myself back. So if you’re a visual person, If you’re more of a physical person, you can use your breath. And then lastly, some people want to keep their eyes open, or they’re just afraid they’ll fall asleep.

So they keep their eyes open and stare at a spot four or five feet in the distance somewhere and kind of focus on that during this sit. So that’s a little bit about what is centering prayer. It is meditation, then a relationship with God where you are consenting to the presence and actions of God within and how long it’s been around and how you do it.

Carrie: Okay. So when people are selecting a sacred word or picture of that nature that they can use and kind of go back to, to redirect themselves to the practice, do they usually use the same one each time, or does it depend on the day? 

Rich: That’s a good point. So you should use the same word or visual image during the sit. Don’t change it because then you’ll spend more time in what’s my next sacred method instead of really sitting with God. So use the same method during these sets. Then if you discover, you want to switch a word, or I think I want to switch to an image, do that on your next sit. That is what we recommend and then kind of find the method that works best for you and then stick with it. So, as I said, I started with a word and then I switched to an image and I’ve been using the same image for years at this point. 

Carrie: What are some challenges that people run into when they start this practice? 

Rich: I guess the first thing they say is, they think maybe they’re failing at it because they have racing thoughts and they’re using their method numerous times. If you show up, you’re doing it right. So they may think that they’re failing because they’ve used their sacred method a hundred times or 500 times. If you show up, you’re doing it right. So that’s kind of one thing people say, and then another thing, some people will, they’ll say, I don’t have time for this.

I challenged them to do this sit anyhow. So for example, I would challenge people, make it. The first thing you do is you begin your day and then get up and, and start your day. Then I encourage people to add a second sit and I think that’s where some people will say, well, I don’t have time, I’m too busy and I’m not arguing. But I’ll say it has a way of giving you back time from my experience. Now I stop what I’m doing and do a second sit right before lunch, no matter how busy I am. Then when I look back at the day, I discovered that I was very productive and I got done what I needed to get done.

And in fact, I really needed this sit because the benefit of the sit is that you’re bringing this let-go posture that you do in centering prayer into your everyday life. You’re letting go of the tasks that you don’t need to do and focusing on the things that you need to do. So has a way of giving you back time, but you don’t know that until you actually try it. So that’s another thing that people will say, I don’t have time to do it. And I’ll say, I think actually it has a way of giving you back time if you trust the process and trust your sits. 

Carrie: I imagine that if you feel calmer after this practice or more at peace, and maybe your mind is more clear to prioritize like you were saying of what’s the most important thing that I actually need to get done today and what is really inconsequential or it can wait till tomorrow.

Rich: Right. That’s exactly what happens in the gesture or the posture of letting go and opening to the moment, opening to God, opening to life comes with you outside of your sit. You take that same gesture or posture with you, as you get on with your day. I have found it calms me down, slows me down and helps me focus on what I need to do, and lets go of what doesn’t have to happen today.

Carrie: I imagine that you have different experiences on different days with this, but what are some of the experiences or the takeaways that you’ve received from these moments of centering prayer? 

Rich: So well during them, it’s not your even special life go of whatever your experience is. So if you’re experiencing joy and peace, that’s wonderful. But you are really supposed to let go of that. Come back to your sacred method and just continuously open to the presence and actions of God within. Obviously, you may experience painful thoughts because a lot of times things can come up.

Our bodies and I guess our minds hold a lot of repressed thoughts. Some of them we don’t even know we have, and they start coming up. When we do sit, other times it forces us to come to terms with some of our things and they come up. So we are kind of let go of them and come back to the present moment with our sacred word. It’s more so outside of centering prayer is where you notice the benefits of your practice. During the practice, our job is just to show up and let go of us and all of our thoughts, all of our emotions, and be open to the presence and actions of God.

I think of it as reverse prayer. God is praying for me, what I need, and that can be many things. It could be inner peace, calm, confidence, wisdom for tasks, nudges to get out of my comfort zone and try and do new things. So all of this is happening during my sit, and I’m noticing it’s outside of my sit where I’m noticing I feel more confident or I feel more energized or I seem to have wisdom for a task that earlier I didn’t know how to do or I feel like I’m being nudged to try and do something new. That scares me a little bit, but I know it’s going to help me grow. So it’s outside of your practices where you notice kind of the fruits of the practice from God, quite frankly.

Carrie: So it’s an opportunity for the holy spirit to minister to your spirit.

Rich: Right. I mean, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re sitting with God and letting God act in you and just resting in the rest of God and trusting that God knows exactly what you need for even when you get up from your set.

Carrie: I really like that because there are times where we may feel lost spiritually and we don’t even know what to pray or what to ask God for. But just like you’re saying, God knows exactly what we need, even before we ask that’s scriptural. So if we take that opportunity to commune with God and say, okay, I’m here and I know that God is here, then things can happen that are probably even outside of our awareness.

Rich: Right and that encourages people. By all means, don’t give up your other prayer forms and I pray other ways as well. Just add a silent meditation, prayer like this, and see how it can enrich and complement your other prayer forms and enrich your prayer life. If you think about it, often we might sit with a friend or someone special or spouse and you don’t always need to be talking. You’re just together taking a walk or together sitting and we’re together watching a movie. It’s kind of the same thing you’re sitting with God and you don’t always have to have words with God. You just sit with God and it’s like sitting with a friend, a special friend’s words aren’t always needed.

Carrie: I like that and there’s the truth to that. Tell us about when people are first getting started. Is there a length that you recommend that they start with?

Rich: Sure. The temple of outreach is the main center and prayer organization that was created in 1984. They suggest two sits or get yourself up to two sits of 20 minutes. But obviously, that could be rather difficult for people and so I suggest taking baby steps. The first thing you do is you get up in the morning before you do anything. And then two, make it five minutes and then begin your day, and then slowly work your way yourself up from 5 to 10 to 15 to 20 minutes.

I then encourage people to do the same thing with the second sit and take a look at your life. Where does the sit best belong? Is it before lunch? Is it before dinner? Is it after dinner? Is it later in the evening? Only you can know when it makes the most sense for you and then take the same approach with that sit if you have to start with five minutes and work your way up to 20 minutes.

The last thing I’ll say is they suggest 20 minutes because sometimes they can take you that long, just as still you’re in the inner voice is going on in your head. But in my opinion, any silence is better than nothing. So there are times where my first sit is 20 minutes and then my one before lunch is 7 minutes or 10 minutes. I think it’s more important to take the time for silence because any silence is better than no silence in my opinion. 

Carrie: Okay. So what are some of the other benefits that you’ve seen in your life as you’ve been on this journey of centering prayer? 

Rich: When I think about myself before centering prayer, then after centering prayer, even though, obviously right now into the present moment, it definitely has changed me. I enjoyed life then, but I think I’m more excited about life simply because I think I’m more present in the present moment and enjoying the present moment, whatever that is. So a practice such as centering prayer helps you kind of let go and be present, whether it’s for the task you’re doing or enjoying or listening to the person in front of you, who’s talking or taking a walk and enjoying the scenery.

It’s helped me have a bigger excitement for life and to be more present for life and more present for people. It definitely gives me wisdom for tasks. I’ll have things just pop into my head during the day that I couldn’t figure out earlier. Some of them are, as one example what my daughter works at Wawa and it was a Saturday and I’m driving home after picking her up and a solution popped into my head on SA I wasn’t even thinking about it. The solution to a problem at work popped into my head. So I tried it quickly when I get home. I didn’t plan on working on Saturday, but I quickly tried it and it worked. So I’ve seemed to notice sometimes solutions to things start popping into my head that I was struggling with. I attribute it to my centering prayer practice and kind of clearing the clutter.

So that kind of stuff. I think I’m a much more confident person and I’m definitely more willing to get out of my comfort zone and try and do new things, which is really what I’ve been doing since I’ve been practicing, centering prayer. I’ve created my website and I get out and teach people. I work with people one-on-one and I’ve written a book and I get out and talk to small groups or even one-on-one about the book. These are the things that I probably don’t think I would have done previously. I think they would’ve made me nervous just the idea of doing all those things would have made me very nervous. I never would even never have tried them, but centering prayer has given me a boost of confidence or God has given me a boost of confidence just to trust me and together we continue to move forward. 

Carrie: That’s awesome. I think that’s great and that’s so much has changed for you. We willl certainly put the links into the show notes regarding this, but I know that you wrote a book on centering prayer. Tell us a little bit about that. If people are interested, in reading more and getting their practice.

Rich: The book’s called Sitting with God: A Journey To Your True Self Through Centering Prayer and it’s hard to believe that next month it’ll be out one year. What caused me to write the book was, I had mentioned earlier that Amos Smith, I discovered centering prayer in his book that I read in late 2013. Then I began kind of an email dialogue with Amos via his website and then we became friends along the way.

I began initially working with him off of his site. He’s the one that actually challenged me to write a book. He saw that I had a big interest in centering prayer and he thought his book was more academic and that I might be able to approach it a little bit more laid back than his book did. He actually challenged me to write a book. So at the time, I thought he was crazy because I had never really written anything long, longer than six, seven pages in college. He challenged me to think about what is centering prayer and what does it mean to you and just write single sentences.

So I did that and then I came back to him with about, I remember 15 or so sentences and then in his mind he said, there’s your chapters, go write your book. I didn’t think it was as simple as that. So I picked one of them and then I took a couple of weeks to write that chapter, sent it to him and I just wanted to get his reaction. To my surprise, he thought it was fresh, neat and had something interesting to say. So at that point, it dawned to me that, well, maybe I really can do this. So I kind of checked in with my wife and I said, how do you feel about me taking time to write a book? And she said, do it. So I decided to write the book.

I didn’t want to take time away from my family so this is pre-COVID-19. The book actually got written mostly on Saturdays. Believe it or not. Saturday mornings in Starbucks, I would get up at about 5:30 in the morning, put on a baseball cap, grab my laptop, go to the local Starbucks, get a cup of coffee, open the laptop and that’s really where the book got written over. Probably two and a half years or so, because then the next step after that was really kind of editing the book and then approaching publishers to see who would want to publish it.

So that’s really how the book happened. It happened because Amos challenged me to, and I’m really glad he did because those Saturday mornings were neat spiritual exercises for me. Other than the one chapter I did, which talks about Jesus and what did the scholars say we know what is true about Him, where I had to do some research, listen to some of the scholars, and read some of them taking notes down. I then decided from my notes and what am I going to put in that chapter.  In the other chapters, I knew basically what I wanted to write about, and I just needed to let the words naturally flow from my heart, to my fingertips, and onto the laptop, so to speak. So it was a neat spiritual exercise and that’s how the book got done. 

Carrie: Okay. So towards the end of every podcast, I like to ask our guests this question. What is a story of hope? Like a time where you received hope from God or another person? 

Rich: So this is going back to about 1997. I’ve been married for five years at that point and my wife and I, joked around about this, that we’re on the five-year plan. We wanted to be married without kids for five years, but then after five years, we wanted to have a family and we weren’t able to, it wasn’t working the natural way. So we decided we needed to explore other ways to have children.

We did a lot of praying to God and the pastor of our church actually knew somebody within the church that was also adopting and they were adopting from Russia. So we were put in contact actually with that agency. Normally, it takes a lot longer, but in our case, it only took us about six months from contacting the agency, doing all the stuff you needed to do, and then flying over, to pick up your child.

It actually took six months and in six months of beginning contacting them, we adopted our first son, Benjamin Lewis. We actually saw him on his first birthday. So we adopted him the day after his birthday because I remember celebrating his first birthday in the adoption where he was living and then we actually legally adopted him. I believe it was the next day that was something where it was a lot of hope and praying about we wanted to have a family and God was telling us that I want you to adopt a child. Obviously, we adopted Ben, and then we went back to Russia in 2002 and adopted Gabriela.

So Ben is now going on 25 and Gabriela, we adopted her in 2002, she’s now 20. Then they say this happens, you’re just relaxed or whatever. We were able to have children and Joshua came along and that we have a natural Joshua or biological son, but all three of them are our children and they all love each other and we don’t consider them biological versus adopted. They’re just our three kids. Josh was 13. So we have a 13-year old, a 20-year-old, and a 24-year-old. That’s what God wanted us to do. God wanted the first two. He wanted us to help two children that needed a home and we did, and then he wanted us to obviously have Joshua. So we did. 

Carrie: So you are triply blessed with children.

Rich: It was a neat experience. I think when all said done, I think I was in Russia five times, never expected that I would be visiting Russia five times for with this adoption process. But now, it was a wonderful experience and we’re blessed with three great,  still call them kids, even though the two of them are not quite kids anymore. Three great kids. 

Carrie: Awesome. Thank you for sharing that story. That’s a good one. Well, I appreciate you educating me and our listeners on centering prayer. This definitely sounds like something I want to add to my practice even if it’s just in a small way and maybe it’ll grow and build from there. I hope that some of our listeners try this out as well. So thanks for coming and sharing with us. 

Rich: Thanks for having me, and hopefully this was helpful for your community. So thank you very much. 

Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By The Well Counseling in Smyrna, Tennessee. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum. Until next time may you be comforted by God’s great love for you.