Finding Happiness through an Ancient Practice

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

Ray Chohan was a16-year-old high school student in Tanzania when he first wondered about the state of being called happiness. Was there a way to achieve this positive feeling? Was there a method or formula he could employ?

With the scholarly precision that even today – some 50 years later - characterizes his approach to any problem, Ray searched for an answer. He read books of philosophy. He stayed in an Indian ashram (a Hindu retreat center). He earned degrees and jobs and titles that said “success,” first as a lawyer in London, next as a multi-million dollar business owner in Tanzania, and finally as a professor in the U.S.

Nothing produced happiness, per se, but by this time Ray had grown too busy to notice. He was teaching a full load of business classes at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, Iowa. He had papers and journals to read, office hours to hold, meetings to attend. He factored in time for his wife and son.

Everything seemed to go according to plan until Ray received an unexpected surprise one day. For years, he had taught a Management Consulting class that had always been well received. Suddenly, he was receiving very negative student evaluations. What had gone wrong? He was stunned and perplexed.

“The evaluations were exceedingly bad,” Ray says. “I thought, What is it about me that I am not seeing? I think I am teaching and the students are learning. But obviously I am wrong. I had a sabbatical coming up and decided to use it to look for an answer.”

A Desert Experience

As the ancients who once traveled into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, so Ray packed his questions and traveled to Arizona for three months. There, at the Redemptorist Renewal Center, he made a life-changing discovery.

“I was sitting in front of one of the outdoor stations of the cross*, when I began crying uncontrollably,” he says. “I remembered a horrible thing that happened to me as a small child. I hadn’t paid any attention to it before. I wept like a baby. As I walked to the other stations, I realized I was seeing my life story unfolding in front of me. Each station was telling me something about myself.”

When Ray quieted himself hours later, he felt called to do something. So he signed up for a Centering Prayer seminar that was to take place that weekend.

“Something began to shift in me,” he says. “I began centering five times a day at the Center. I read Thomas Keating. When I returned to Davenport, I looked for a Centering Prayer group and found the Benedictine Sisters. The practice eased me away from busyness into being. I started to understand who I am.”

Being versus Doing

Any meditative practice – and especially Centering Prayer – can lead to a sense of peace. It can lead to an ability to live life in the present, attentive to each moment. It can lead to what the ancients called contemplation, where we “put on the mind of God,” where we sense the eternal in the ordinary. Finally, it can lead to the simple conviction that, as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “It is enough to be.”

Indeed, the benefits of Centering Prayer are evident in everyday life, as we give our full attention to each conversation, each activity, each task. Centering Prayer is fundamentally transformative. It allows us to let go of what Thomas Keating calls “the false self system,” where we tend our materialistic, ego-driven desires, to make room for our true self. And as our “true self” – or that which Paul called the “new self … created in God’s likeness” (4:22-24) – develops, we know peace in what Thomas Merton described as the “ordinary human mode.”

Sr. Audrey Cleary says Centering Prayer, while similar to other forms of meditation, is different in intent. “The intent is to rest in God,” she says. “By quieting yourself, you make space for God within you. You consent to God’s transformative work within you.”

Back in the Classroom

Ray took his growing ability to live in the present back to St. Ambrose.

“I incorporated many changes into my teaching method,” he says. “I tried to be mindful of the students during class. What was their body language telling me? Were they interested? Were they bored? Were they confused? It made a tremendous difference. I never had a bad evaluation again.”

Living and working in the moment produces a sort of mindfulness that enhances every sort of activity, from conversing with others to viewing a sunset. As Merton wrote, "It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one's hunger and sleep, one's cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying."

Deeply Rooted in Life

For Ray, the transformation from doing to being was profound … and lasting. It’s been 17 years since his desert quest. Now retired, he finds welcome satisfaction in “making coffee and then drinking it.”  

“At one time I was so very unhappy, even alienated,” he says. “But now I feel deeply rooted in my life. I get up in the morning, look forward to breakfast, to reading the newspaper, to going to the YMCA. I can say without pretense that I am generally happy with my life. This is because of the blessing of spending half an hour a day doing nothing.”

Ray says he is mystified why more people don’t engage either in Centering Prayer or another form of meditation every day.

“It’s an ancient practice, over 2,500 years old,” Ray says. “How do you communicate to people that it will make sense to them? The feeling of joy in just being is extraordinary. I have no desire to get busy doing things, although I enjoy all of my activities. This has been one of the great blessings of my life.”

Getting Started in Centering Prayer

Sister Catherine Cleary, who holds a Centering Prayer group weekly at Benet House, suggests we choose a quiet place and time of day to pray. "Sit comfortably, back straight. Begin by saying a short prayer first, to prepare yourself for this sacred time. Close your eyes and take up a sacred word – choose a one- or two-syllable word like Peace or God – to signal your intention to withdraw from the everyday world and go into the deepest part of yourself. Thoughts will surface, but when they do, gently take up your word again and return to interior silence. Begin with 20 minutes at a time."

For more information, contact Sister Catherine at (309) 283-2108.