I was first exposed to the ideas of contemplative prayer in some of the readings I got from my Aunt Ann Mary. Who was also the first adult to share nonfiction C. S. Lewis with me. Thomas Merton was way out of my depth, but I at least got the direction to pray in quiet with presence. Time spent out by the River Raisin (bad pun but actual name of the river in my hometown) introduced me to the Holy Spirit. I was amazed at meeting this aspect of God. My practice never became regular or formal, but it was good, and grew my connection to God.
My Catholic high school was run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, which is not a contemplative order. But Br. Phillip taught a class on contemplative prayer, and started introducing techniques about breathing and position. This helped, because before that if I wasn't feeling it, I stopped. Now, with some disciplines, it became more possible to stick with it through distractions.
In college, I got an opportunity to go teach for the summer in the Bronx with the Christian Brothers. Also not a contemplative order, but prayer was a daily feature of house life. One of the non-monks living and working in the house, Chris, was waiting to enter the Carthusian order, which is contemplative. He taught us centering prayer, and led a session everyday. I frequently fell asleep during it, but Chris really modeled acceptance. When you're with God, He'll give you what you need. Chris also got me deeper into the literature. More Merton, but also Henri Nouwen and Basil Pennington. Pennington's book Centering Prayer is a good place to start for a history and how to of Christian meditative prayer.
After that summer, my spiritual director in the CBs was Br Louis, and he was a good mentor in this prayer. He had terrible back trouble, and experimented with other postures and positions. When he finally got to go back to Africa, the only thing he took with him was his kneeler a student had made for him at his perfect angle.
Somewhere in there I found Merton's Way of Chuang Tzu, which is not about prayer directly, but about Taoist understanding, which led to Merton's Zen experiences and thinking about Eastern religions and their teaching of the disciplines of contemplation. A Buddhist friend recommended Chongyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan writer that taught me a lot.
In grad school I also got into Tom Brown books and survival classes. His teacher, Grandfather, was an Apache scout and emphasized spiritual practice that was practical. That you could use while crossing a log, for example. He taught the importance of having a key, that would help you access the contemplative state when there was a need. The Grandfather book or Awakening Spirits is the read for more on that.
Getting the chance to combine all these teachings while living on Mackinac Island, with the woods and the lake, was amazingly fortunate. While my practice has waxed and waned over the years, the benefits of time with God never go away. While some people might not recognize it as prayer, a mug of tea on the steps of McNally watching the sun rise over the Straights of Mackinac was some amazing communion.
If you're considering starting contemplative prayer, I'd encourage you to find someone(s) with whom to pray. Start with an accepting spirit, that this is a discipline that takes practice to develop. Your mind does not want to be quiet.
- be physically comfortable but alert. Americans often need to be sitting upright in a chair, body symmetrical, feet flat, hands at rest together up or palm down on your legs.
- declare your intent to be with God, Father, Jesus or Holy Spirit. Some people do this with a verse or two of scripture, some with a regular prayer or dedication.
- be quiet. As thoughts or physical distractions come into your mind, release them. Tools to let them go can be a phrase, as short as Jesus, or two part phrase for the in breath and the out breath.
- breathe deeply. We just don't do this. All the way in, hold for a moment or not, then all the way out, gently. Never forced.
- have a timer or signal for the end. Start for a minute, try five, work up to twenty, or not. The timer frees you from wondering about time.
- have a key that you will be able to associate with this time. For me it's a breath pattern, for others it's beads, or a stone, or worded prayer, or a physical position. While engaged in the key, appreciate the time/sense/benefit of the time you just gave to God.
At other times, access your key and try to call to mind the spiritual state from your prayer. This strengthens the peace, encourages practice and is just plain beneficial. Talk with someone about your practice, ask questions, and be open to teaching from surprising places. There's a lot of mindfulness training now that we can use to apply to our prayer practice. Their focusing techniques and exercises can be very helpful.