In Centering Prayer, whenever we notice we are caught up in thoughts, the instruction is to return ever so gently to our sacred symbol. But then what? While I understand we’re not really doing anything in contemplative prayer, I find it’s natural to wonder, What should I do now?

In many traditional forms of meditation practice, such as mindfulness meditation, once you notice you’re thinking, you generally bring your attention back to some object of meditation, like the breath, and focus it there. That’s what you do. However, as Thomas Keating always pointed out, centering prayer isn’t an attentional practice but an intentional one.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (a primary source text for Centering Prayer) talks about bearing a naked intention toward God. Again, rather nebulous (cloudy, hazy). Perhaps that’s why the author called it a cloud of unknowing. It’s not very specific.

Yet, as practitioners we do know that something specific is getting trained in us. I’d like to suggest that something is an intentional gesture of open receptivity.

Here’s how I would describe it.

First, let’s consider what it’s not. Again, there’s that moment of noticing you’re thinking and coming back to the sacred symbol. Then what? Imagine, if you will, that you’re having lunch with a good friend. You’re just chit chatting about the week, sharing the news, and enjoying some good food. Suddenly, you realize your friend is talking and you’re a million miles away, lost in thought, thinking about dinner!

Naturally, you let the dinner thoughts go and once again attend to your friend. You pay attention. You’re mindful of the conversation at hand. That sort of coming back and paying attention to something specific (your friend) is a lot like what we do when we practice mindfulness meditation.

But it’s different in Centering Prayer, right? It’s not attentional, it’s intentional, so what’s that like?

Let’s imagine a slightly different scenario. We’re having lunch with our friend again, but this time he’s sharing something difficult and painful. Perhaps something awful from his childhood or his struggles with his marriage. This time, it’s not very likely we’re thinking about dinner. In fact, if we really care about this person, we’re hardly thinking at all.

Instead, it’s like our mind has dropped into the depths of our open heart as we lovingly take in everything he’s sharing with us. This is what I am calling an intentional gesture of open receptivity. If we pay attention to what’s happening, we’ll notice it’s quite visceral.

This is what I think we “do” next in Centering Prayer. We notice we’re thinking. We come back to our sacred symbol. Then, we intentionally drop back into our open heart, lovingly aware, taking it all in—whatever it is. That’s between us and God. It’s that intentional gesture that matters (even if it only lasts for a moment).

As this gesture gets trained in us, we find ourselves opening more and more to everything that’s happening in life. Not just paying attention to it, but really opening to it.

Because of course everything that greets us is just one more way that God is making God’s presence known. It’s not so much what we see but how we see it that matters—how we sense and feel our way into Spirit. That’s why it’s not a matter of attention but intention, being intentionally present to God, to life, and to ourselves with an open, loving, warm heart.