"As Gently as Laying a Feather on a Pillow" - Freedom, Focus, and the Sacred Word - Thomas J. Bushlack
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The one and only time I met Fr. Thomas Keating, he commented on how millions of people all over the world are “accidentally” discovering the secret of contemplative prayer, by attending 12-Step meetings in church basements. I raised a subtle smirk (it’s not polite to jump up and announce you’re an addict in a group of people you just met), as the combination of Centering Prayer and 12-Step Recovery have been a bedrock of my sobriety and serenity for over a decade. I had this sense that he somehow “knew” this about me, although we had never met before that moment.

Recently I attended a workshop to become commissioned to present the Centering Prayer 12-Step Outreach Introductory Workshop. The basic method of Centering is the same, but it is presented within the context of the 11th Step for those in a 12-Step Recovery Program.

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

AA Big Book, p. 96

In the Introductory Workshop to Centering Prayer, the suggestion is to return to your sacred word “as gently as laying a feather on a pillow.” By this teaching a minimum of effort is indicated.

This gentle, minimum effort provides room for the “presence and action of God” to gently dwell within the heart-space.

“When engaged with your thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word”
Centering Prayer Guideline #3

Since that workshop, the image – no, really it’s more the internal sense – of returning the sacred word “as gently as laying a feather on a pillow” has remained with me. I have learned – through long and painful experience – that life goes better when I ease back on the throttle. When I stop trying so damn hard to make the outcome of everything “perfect.” Or to make everything fit with the way my ego wants it to be.

It also illustrates how the regular practice of Centering Prayer (the suggestion is 20 minutes twice a day) has changed me from the inside out. Or more accurately, how it has created space in my days for God’s “presence and action within” to do its thing. After two decades, which Thomas would say is not really that long, I have begun to realize that it’s not just about returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word. It’s also about returning to life ever-so-gently. Coming to the present moment without the need to impose my self on every one and every thing around me.

Our culture reinforces the belief that we have to scrap and fight for what we want out of life – and this is especially true for us men. We have to plow through obstacles. Be tough. Fight your way to the top. Psychologists even have an ominous name for these qualities; the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. (We’ll come back to these below.)

I have found at least three important benefits from bringing more gentleness into my daily life:

  1. My stress and anxiety level is lower
  2. I get more done and the quality of my work is better
  3. I enjoy and appreciate my relationships more – with my wife, my kids, friends, and co-workers

It’s only been two weeks since I attended the workshop, but pursuing work goals as gently as laying a feather on a pillow might also lead to better financial health – bonus (literally!).

The psychologist Dacher Keltner led a ten-year study between 2005-2015 of hedge fund managers whose funds ranged from $40 million to $1 trillion. They studied video footage of manager behaviors and found that those managers “who displayed psychopathic tendencies at a level of one standard deviation above the mean, an investment of US$1 million earned US$1,161,694 (15 per cent) less over the course of ten years“!

This is consistent with our findings on the Centering for Wisdomâ„¢ Assessment that persons who remain more centered when faced with triggering events, experienced lower stress, anxiety, and depression (even when compared with those who practiced mindfulness alone).

We tend to think that hedge fund managers are rich and powerful because they’re the toughest, most aggressive professional class – think of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” (There’s also a lot of addictive behaviors in that movie. Coincidence? Methinks not.) But Keltner’s research suggests that even in competitive market environments, those who work well with others, and who know how and when to be gentle, really are more successful.

So, the next time your computer won’t do what you want, or the jerk next to you clearly needs to go back to driver’s ed, or your partner or kids are driving you crazy, take a moment. Just ask yourself, “does forcing my way into this situation improve things? Does it make me feel any less angry or anxious?” If you have a sacred word (or a mantra, or a breath practice, or a Welcoming Prayer practice), now would be a good time to return to it…


As gently as laying a feather on a pillow…

Just try it. And see what happens!

If you’d like to learn more about integrating contemplative prayer and meditation into an 11th step practice, check out my audio course right now!

To learn more about 12-Step Outreach for Centering Prayer, click on the link below:

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