Father Thomas Keating is a writer, teacher and founding member of the Spirituality branch of Integral Institute. At the age of eighty-one, he continues to be a prominent voice in the Christian Centering Prayer movement through the organization he founded, Contemplative Outreach, an international network committed to renewing the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in daily life.
Fr. Thomas, born in New York in 1923, entered the Cistercian Order in Valley Falls, Rhode Island in 1944 and was appointed Superior of St. Benedict’s Monastery of Snowmass, Colorado in 1958. Three years later he became Abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey of Spencer, Massachusetts, before retiring to Snowmass—a small mountain community of just over a dozen monks—in 1981, where he remains today.
Fr. Thomas is also a best-selling author, having penned, along with many other publications, Open Mind, Open Heart in 1986, a clarion call for many to the need for transformational practice within the Christian tradition.
It helps that Fr. Thomas also has an unusually open-minded attitude towards the meditative practices of other traditions and has studied with spiritual teachers from a variety of Hindu and Buddhist lineages, for this led to the creation of the Snowmass Interreligious Conference in 1982, where teachers from diverse paths met regularly to compare notes and evaluate the successes and failures of their respective practices. Other organizations graced by the presence of Fr. Thomas include the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (which sponsors exchanges between the monks and nuns of every religion), and the International Committee for Peace Council.
Amazingly, within this flurry of activity Fr. Thomas has nevertheless found the time to deepen his own relationship to the Divine—which he likens “to two friends sitting in silence, being in each other’s presence”—to such a degree that he is sought the world over for his extraordinary warmth, humility, and deep-centered love. ( http://integrallife.com)
The following interview was conducted on 11/22/10.
The Father Thomas Keating Interview
TIS: Can you tell me about the method of centering prayer, and what it offers in contrast to other forms of spiritual practice?
FTK: Centering Prayer is a contemporary term for an ancient and well traveled Christian path towards contemplation. It is a practical way of cultivating interior silence based largely on The Cloud of Unknowing for practical inspiration. It is suggested in a number of places in the Gospel, and especially in the classical invitation of Jesus when he said, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to the Father in secret, and the Father who sees in secret, will reward you.” So what distinguishes it from other forms of prayer such as vocal prayers, aspirations, or reading the scriptures in a meditative way? All these practices are stepping stones to the silence of our own inner mysterious self, which is deeper than the senses, deeper than thinking, deeper even than consciousness itself.
The focus of Centering Prayer is to sit still and let go of the external senses and the interior dialogue that goes on almost uninterruptedly in our minds. Letting go of images, desires, memories, reflections, emotions, commentaries, judgments; in other words, the whole interior razzmatazz that goes on as we talk to ourselves about what’s happening, and taking stock of our emotional reactions to events within and without. Sitting regularly (like everyday) gradually overcomes the tendency of our minds for non-stop thinking.
It may be a help to have some gesture by which we can renew our intention when thoughts become tedious, bombarding, or persecuting. In this prayer we learn that we’re not our thoughts. We have them, but we need not identify with them. Little by little, their intensity begins to diminish as we cultivate our inner room (the spiritual level of our being). We recommend 20-30 minutes twice a day, because we’re dealing with habits that have a physiological basis in the brain and which react to stimuli in a habitual way. Over time we are able to undermine habitual modes of thinking formed by our self-made self in early childhood, which tries to squeeze happiness from the gratification of our desires for the symbols in our culture of survival and security, power and control, and affection and esteem. Thus part of the process of Centering Prayer consists in accepting the coming to awareness of our attachments to these emotional needs and moderating them by our rational faculties that hopefully are developing in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The capacity for emotional sobriety belongs to everybody in the human family and leads to a fully human response to the adventure and goodness of the gift of human life.
TIS: You’ve studied with spiritual teachers from a variety of Hindu and Buddhist lineages, which lead to the creation of the Snowmass Interreligious Conference in 1982, where teachers from diverse paths meet to compare notes and evaluate the successes and failures of their respective practices. Can you talk about the importance of keeping an open mind to other spiritual paths, and how that can benefit our own personal practice?
FTK: This is a very important issue in our time. It’s obvious that humanity continues to be torn by religious violence. All religions proclaim the advantages of peace, loving one another, and “doing to others what we would like them to do to us.” We’re obviously at the edge of something quite new in humanity’s experience. That is this globalization process which isn’t just economic or social, but involves the interpenetration of cultures, people moving to different places several times in their lifetime, traveling for business or pleasure, and marrying people of very different cultural backgrounds, all of which was almost impossible a hundred years ago. The whole immigration issue suggests the inevitability of people in our time seeking economic security that they can’t find at home, which usually involves bringing their religion with them. One’s children are going to be married to people outside their religious traditions as well as inside.
Is our own religion an end in itself, or is it a common cultural characteristic of humans to develop a relationship with a Higher Power? It seems to be a characteristic of people from the beginning of recorded history. Perhaps there are more common elements or purposes to the world’s religions than we think. Of course we express these common elements in different cultural terms, but there seems to be a common longing for something greater than can be provided by the peak moments of this life. We may experience moments of profound inner peace, a sense of oneness with nature, or a sense of something that is more important that we’re not reaching by the usual goals of human society. Perhaps we could say there’s a common heart to all the religions.
What is the meaning of this cultural factor that is so pervasive? Science and technology has tried to offer an alternative to religion by making a god out of human reason, but that didn’t work out too well. Science and technology have been embarrassed by two world wars, many smaller ones, and the spread of weapons that could destroy humanity. As a result, there is some loss of confidence in the great achievements of technology. In other words, technology isn’t fulfilling its promise of unlimited progress and solving every problem through technology. With the Enlightenment and its aftermath, there already was a general loss of confidence in the Western religions. This has caused a meaning vacuum in many people today who are no longer strongly devoted to their particular religion or disenchanted with some aspects of science. In addition, there are constant alarms from wars, terrorists, economic failures, and lack of equal opportunities in education and living standards. For all these reasons, it is essential for world peace that the world religions make peace with each other. If they don’t, we can hardly expect the nations of the world to lay down their arms. Our animal ancestry inclines us to violence in the face of conflict. Without love of one another, the hoped for peace of the globalization process is unlikely to happen. One of the great purposes of religion itself is being hindered by an exclusive-ism that doesn’t take into account the common elements and values that we actually share. I venture to say that it’s not enough to respect and tolerate religions other than our own. We really need to make a positive effort to see the Higher Power, which we call God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, at work in other religions. That means not only to respect them, but as far as we can, to try to understand and love them.
There are also other positive means like nature, service of others, friendship, science, art and conjugal love that helps us move beyond our purely selfish goals, to feel that we belong to this universe, and that this planet has been entrusted to the human family to take care of. Religions have a special responsibility to encourage and inspire people to love planet earth, which as far as we know, is the only place in the cosmos that works in such a harmonious way that it can support intelligent life. The wisdom of all religions has to be respected. The discoveries of science are also essential for our time and the future.
The best way to understand another person’s religion is to listen to the story of what particular practices helped them to deepen and to embody their religion, especially its spirituality. The spiritual traditions of all the religions have certain similarities that are unmistakable. They share many of the same basic practices like sacred reading, spiritual guidance, moderation in eating, drinking and sexual expression, and above all, trying to be aware of the presence of God in other people and in everyday life. To see everything in God and to see God in everything normally takes a lifetime of practice. The great spiritual traditions of Vedanta and Buddhism certainly have experience of this state and have come to it through similar means, especially through cultivating interior silence. Silence is God’s first language. The practice of interior silence gradually morphs into the presence of the Higher Power during meditative prayer.
Buddhists don’t believe in the personal character of the Higher Power, but they obviously have personal experiences. At the very least God treats us who are persons in a personal way. By deepening the spiritual dialogue between the spiritual traditions of the various religions in a spirit of friendship, one begins to understand just what the classical terms of the various spiritual traditions really mean. Sometimes the same terms are used in several religions, but differently understood. The word “emptiness” for example, is a very important word both in Christianity and in Buddhism. It has shades of meaning however, that are different in the respective traditions. Finding out what particular insights mean to people in other traditions enables us not only to respect but to love the wisdom of other religions. It may also deepen and broaden our perspective of the meaning of that term in our own theological or spiritual tradition.
TIS: You’re also a founding member of the Spirituality branch at Integral Institute, which is coordinated by Ken Wilber. Can you talk about your work there and with Ken?
FTK: That’s an example of the experience that I just described of actually coming to profound dialogue through establishing friendship on the human level through an appreciation for the sincerity that comes across when you’re talking to seekers of Ultimate Reality in an informal and relaxed way. One problem with inter-religious dialogue is that it is normally done only in public. The teachers address the audience but don’t have time to speak to each other, and that’s precisely the aspect of religious dialogue which is crucial for the growth of inter-spiritual dialogue. We’re not about to share our secrets about our spiritual experiences with other people unless we trust them and feel safe in their presence.
In regard to Wilber’s Integral Institute, I only met the group a couple of times and haven’t gotten to know the members as well as I’d like to. I attended two meetings of his group of spiritual teachers which were very valuable. There of course, is no lack of literature from Wilber’s extraordinary contribution to the subject of transpersonal and spiritual psychology. I think his ideas about integral Christianity as well as for all religions are very important and could contribute to their renewal or updating. Education, medicine and other professions as well as corporate and multinational bodies, could also benefit greatly. His teaching helps to recognize both the limits of spiritual progress and the amazing possibilities that open up if one pursues this journey.
TIS: You’ve lead a very fruitful, spiritual life, and I was wondering if you could tell me, through all of your practice and experience, what do you believe the human experience is all about?
FTK: Well it’s only one man’s experience, and it obviously reflects the Christian context in which I’ve lived my life, especially for the last seventy years most of it in a monastery where everything is designed to provide a scriptural environment and a transformative structure. I had a deep conversion while attending college and left behind all my previous projects for personal advancement. What I really wanted was to fall in love with God. It’s amazing what obstacles there are within us, or at least in me, that seem to slow this process. It depends a lot on how you look at God. As the years go by, I find myself experiencing God’s extraordinary concern, consideration, healing, and what I call in my books, the divine therapy. God seems willing to act as the most sublime psychologist, psychotherapist, or even psychiatrist if we are willing, The divine Spirit slowly brings to our attention the self-centeredness and mixed motives which accompany our efforts, however generous, to serve others and to surrender completely to God. I think the spiritual journey, as Wilber has pointed out, tends to have different levels of perception that are hierarchical in scope. Every time you have a major breakthrough in self-knowledge, and see the way the divine works within your own psyche, external events, and interior experiences of the divine, you are transformed in some degree. Your relationship with God, others, yourself, and all creation keeps changing for the better. Most of the world’s religions have developed maps to describe this process. Union with God is really possible. Unity with God I presume, is what is meant by Heaven, but that too is available in this life for the humble of heart.
TIS: You mentioned “divine therapy” and you recently wrote a book called Divine Therapy and Addiction: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps. I’m personally in recovery and would love for you to talk a little more about this model.
FTK: I’m in recovery too, but from the human condition and the addictive process that we all seem to suffer from in varying degrees of severity. If you accept the evolutionary plan of development, the evidence is pretty strong that there is a process which involves several stages: vegetative, animal, hominid, and finally the appearance of rational consciousness in homo-sapiens. So here we are in the middle of an amazing process that isn’t over yet and may be just beginning. If we’ve evolved to this point, what prevents us from going on to further stages? Some theologians today are talking about biological evolution being complete with the appearance of the human brain. The future calls for spiritual evolution, which is to manifest both individually and as a species, the full potential of the human adventure. This is the transformation of humans into what might be called a divine human life in which full reflective self-consciousness and abstract thinking are now the foundation. This is the journey into the fullness of life, beyond animal life, a life beyond even the highest mammals.
For us to remain in this world, our animal brain has to be there to support us. Now not only the neo-cortex has evolved, the biological masterpiece of evolution up to the present, but the frontal lobes seem to be growing, suggesting the possibility of more direct contact with the spiritual or invisible forces of the cosmos and of Ultimate Reality itself. The divine therapy helps us integrate our animal nature with the new possibilities of rational consciousness. For instance, conflict and violence are pre-human ways of addressing problems and conflicts, whereas discussion, collaboration, negotiation, compromise, forgiveness, reconciliation, and genuine love, are the specifically human ways of functioning. Unfortunately, on the level of global society, we haven’t found out how to use these great gifts yet. For humanity as a whole, this seems to be the great challenge in the 21st century. What is going to happen if pre-human instincts continue to dominate the globalization process, or if violence expands to the ultimate destruction of life on earth through mass chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that rational consciousness and its technology have developed? Becoming fully rational is not enough anymore; evidently it can lead to distortions of all the great human possibilities. We need to develop the intuitive capacities of the brain that some geniuses have manifested over humanity’s lengthy history. In the Christian perspective, the love of God and of all other human beings invites us to share and enjoy not just the best of the human potential as it evolves, but participation in the divine life itself. Divine life is basically the inner freedom to choose the right and the good spontaneously. Thinking belongs to the rational level and is a necessary stage in the process. But now we need to respond directly to the divine presence within us. This is the precise focus and purpose of Centering Prayer, which is a humble beginning to the dynamic process of transformation into the ultimate Source of all that exists and to whatever lies beyond the present divine plan for our planet and the human family.
TIS: Well I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk about these topics that mean a lot to me and are very obviously important to you as well.
FTK: You’re most welcome. Thank you for your interest and concern for these issues.
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