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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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November 2nd, 2009

What Works: The Welcoming Prayer

An unassuming little tool in my spiritual first aid kit that can have a big impact

 
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I want to share with you a little method with a big impact: the Welcoming Prayer. This unassuming little method has helped me many times. What’s your first impulse when you have a “bad” feeling? If you’re like me, it’s usually to suppress it. But we all know that doesn’t work. What you focus on sticks around. This is one of the big lessons you learn through meditation. If you try to suppress a thought, it becomes your entire focus. Worse than before.

But while a regular meditation practice can inculcate a balanced relationship with your feelings and emotions, with the serenity that comes from that, sometimes you need help now, in the field. You can’t exactly sit down on the sidewalk and start meditating. (Though there may very well be a church nearby.)

And sometimes, you’re too caught up in the thoughts that are swirling around a negative emotion, and meditation just seems impossible. I encourage you to meditate anyway in those situations, but if you want some extra help, the Welcoming Prayer might help.

Palmer: How do you do it — block out fear?
Gibbs: You don’t. It’s what you do with it.

NCIS

You’ve heard all the axioms about going through rather than around problems. Well, the Welcoming Prayer is a method for doing this with bad feelings. The basic idea is that when you are experiencing a negative feeling, you don’t pray for it to go away, you welcome it. Let’s say you are feeling fearful. You literally say to yourself, “Welcome, fear.”

You don’t detach from it. You get to know it.

The method

The history of the Welcoming Prayer is a little surprising. It’s not an ancient practice, though it’s an ancient idea. Mary Mrozowski of Brooklyn, New York — a practitioner of Centering Prayer and friend of Father Thomas Keating — developed the method. She was inspired by Abandonment to Divine Providence, an early 18th century spiritual work by Jesuit priest and spiritual director, Father Jean Pierre de Caussade. Father Thomas and others saw the value of her little method and over the years it has been supported, fine-tuned and expanded, within the community of people who practice Centering Prayer and beyond.

If you are struggling with a bad feeling, the power of this little method is that it offers a structured way to embrace and accept it, so you can release it and move on. There are three phases to the Welcoming Prayer. You might go directly from one to the next in a single, relatively formulaic prayer sequence. Or you might find yourself staying in one phase as it does its interior work. Using Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault’s labels, the three parts are:

  1. Focus and sink in.
  2. Welcome.
  3. Let go.

Focus and sink in. This is not about indulging bad feelings. It’s not about amplifying them or justifying them. But feel the feeling. Allow yourself to become immersed in it. Let it wash over you. Don’t run away from it or fight it. Just feel what it’s like to be experiencing it.

The word “feel” can mean either to have a physical experience of touching something, or to have a mental experience of encountering an emotion. Connect those two. Feel the feeling or emotion physically. Notice your body, how you are tense or anxious or hot or fidgety or lethargic. As with meditation, you are just observing the feeling, not trying to alter it.

Welcome. As I’ve said before (here, here, and here), you can only start from where you are, and you can only move forward if you accept where you are. So, now, affirm the rightness of where you are by welcoming the bad feeling or emotion, and acknowledging God’s presence in the moment. You do this by literally saying, “Welcome, [bad feeling].” If you are frozen in fear, say, “Welcome, fear.” Hot with rage: say, “Welcome, rage.”

Note we’re talking here about feelings and emotions, not problems and physical hardships. We are not welcoming illness or injustice. If you think you should be applying the Welcoming Prayer to a problem or illness, think again about what negative emotion or feeling is being kicked up. (You probably will be dealing with a variety of fear or anger.) There’s nothing passive about acceptance. Acceptance merely establishes you in reality, so that you can respond to a situation effectively. If you are terrified about a health issue, that fear may be immobilizing you; accepting and then releasing the fear may free you to be able to deal with the issue.

Let go. There are at least four ways to do this last part. Mary Mrozowski’s original version uses a fixed statement. You say these lines no matter what the specific issue:

“I let go of my desire for security and survival.
I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire to change the situation.”

(Not a bad little prayer to add to your morning repertoire too.)

Another version takes just that last line and ties it to the current situation.

“I let go of the desire to change this feeling.”

A third alternative is even briefer, and names the feeling:

“I let go of my [fear/anger/etc.].”

And finally, my favorite, for its added depth with the same economy of words:

“God, I give you my [fear/anger/etc.].”

That night or the next morning when you meditate — and you do meditate, right? — you can reinforce the letting go. The two complement each other.

Part of my spiritual first aid kit

Some take the Welcoming Prayer to another level, as one of the key pieces in their spiritual life. There are workshops devoted to the method. People draw charts. They apply it to positive as well as negative emotions. I haven’t done all that, though I’m sure it’s valuable.

For me, the Welcoming Prayer is a complement to my meditation practice, and it’s a Band-Aid — part of my spiritual first aid kit that I can take wherever I go — to break a negative pattern. Its power is in its simplicity: Focus — Welcome — Let go.

If you find yourself fighting against an emotion or a feeling, try the Welcoming Prayer. If you already use it, or if you try it after reading this, I’d love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment below or email me at phil (AT) bustedhalo (DOT) com.

Photo: McKay Savage

 
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The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • David Orth

    Hi, folks, I’m a little late in commenting here. I just want to point out that Mary Mrozowski, credited with developing Welcoming Prayer is using some of Eugene Gendlin’s language and parts of the 6 Steps of his “Focusing” process. This is an ancient spiritual skill variously called “inner attention”, “self remembering”, “knowing thyself”, “awakening”, etc. It would be very good for the Welcoming Prayer community to go back and read Focusing by Gendlin. Although he has stripped out the theological language of prayer, the tone is still there and most importantly he is much more clear on the precise relationship to the emotions that allows ultimately for the “letting go”. It is not a relationship of “immersion”, but more how you would attend to a little child – acknowledging it, noticing it, welcoming it, letting it be, but not letting it overtake the “house”. Also, Gendlin offers a clearer distinction between emotion (the reaction) and the feeling (more like sensation – an inner bodily sensation). Gendlin is not the source of these ideas any more than Mary Mrozowski is – it goes way back into the various spiritual contemplative traditions, but Gendlin parses this inchoate prayer/awakening into language and steps that are more easy for moderns to take in. If you read “Focusing”, you’ll see that Mary Mrozowski was clearly working from it, even using some of the language. The “letting go” language is tricky – Gendlin speaks of a shift that simply happens when the welcoming process is complete – more like God simply enables the reaction to soften. We most notice that it doesn’t not necessary just go away – more of a softening or shift. The metaphor of leaving things at the foot of the cross might be misleading. The Welcoming Prayer/Focusing does NOT walk away from emotion. It establishes a little distance (when we are overwhelmed), but welcomes it (when we are inclined to send it away), and finally notices the actual experiential shift or grace that comes when we ask it gentle questions and it speaks to us of what it needs. If you “walk away”, if you “let it go” without waiting until it is “ready to go”, then the process is not complete.

    But really I hope some of you will read the book – to get a better picture of what Mrozowski might have been aware of. These are very powerful, but subtle spiritual things here. I’m glad to see the interest.

    Blessings.

  • SC

    Chuck Superville – I might be able to answer your question from personal experience. The welcoming pray has three steps:
    1) Identifying the feeling
    2) Acknowledging the feeling
    3) Determining the desire that is causing the feeling and letting go of the desire.

    It is most important to address the desire because the desire is the root cause for the feeling. The other two steps will help you successfully address the desire. If you only address the feeling than you aren‚Äôt address the real problem. It would be like putting a Band-Aid on your toe after you stepping on something and cleaning it up. Your going to step on it again. The reason that the welcoming pray begins with the feeling is because the feeling is what is easy to identify but the desire isn’t. When you step on something, you know immediately that you are hurt, but you may not know what you step on. Starting with the feeling will help you to identify the appropriate desire to address. It is hard to clean up a mess if you have something sharp stuck in your foot. Likewise it is hard to address desires if you are in emotional pain. All steps are important. If you stepped on something you put a Band-Aid on your toe and clean up whatever you step on. Both are important.

    Hope this helps. God Bless

  • chuck superville

    great article. I think this is wonderful stuff. My understanding is that the afflictive emotion is caused by our desire for power, control, esteem, etc. When that desire is frustrated, we get angry, scared, etc. Q: Are we focusing on letting go of the bad emotion? or the desire for power, control etc.? If we are letting go of the emotions, then why do we pray to let go of the desire for control etc.? It really makes sense to me to focus on the emotion, and let it (the emotion go), but does not make sense to focus on the emotion and pray to let go of the desire. By teaching the ego that we are not going to “go there” any more with the bad emotion, it seems, we are dismantling the false self program enough so that we can begin to advance our spiritual life. What do you think?

  • Constance

    Hello Phil, your site “Godcidentally” fell into my lap. Your subjects are so pertinent and timely, all of them. Thank you so much, I will be back.

  • Tanya

    Your columns are nourishing. I started doing this kind of “welcoming” a few years ago, when going through a tough time. Although I didn’t know what I was doing then, learning about it now helps me understand the process, what worked, and why. I wish I could have read your columns then! Still, it helps a lot now!

  • carmela

    Thanks for the article. I did this some twenty years ago and gradually let it go. Surprisingly or Godcidentally I needed this today with a lifelong issue I can’t let go. Many Many thanks.

  • mairie gelling

    I use the backpack idea as well – I add more imagery as I have already created a sacred space garden in my head for meditation and i go through it clearing awasy the stones and brambles putting them in the bag and later giving them to God – I let him keep the bag too. Sometimes I do it with my students and they hold a stone during this meditation which they then drop into a bowl of blessed water. Symbolism is a great thing especially for beginners in meditation and when dealing with fear or anger.

  • Patricia H

    I couldn’t have read this at a better time. Truly a God thing. And best of all my son emaied this to me. Thank you.

  • Aaron Cavanaugh

    Hi,

    I use this but not exactly the way you describe it. I had a counselor tell me to visualize a backpack of all your worries and setting them at the foot of the cross and then just walking away. This is in essence what the welcoming prayer is I think. Of course you need to stop and think and recognize what it is you are holding onto that is bad, destroying you or killing you. Sometimes you need to ask God what is it that I am holding onto to get clarification of what you need to put in that backpack.

    Thanks. God Bless.

  • David G

    I’ve used Centering Prayer for over a year and it is really the best practice for me – it’s so simple that I thought I was doing it wrong when I first started. The Welcoming Prayer really is a real help dealing with those false self issues. Try it – it really does work!

  • Emily

    This What Works series is really great!

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