Staying focused is not easy for most of us, but these practical aids to prayer can help.
My particular struggle with prayer is staying focused. My mind constantly wanders. I’m embarrassed to admit it but I think my mind starts wandering because I find prayer boring. I cannot seem to still my concentration and my brain goes all over the place the minute I sit down to pray. I start thinking about what I watched on TV, my job, the things that need to get done around the house; basically a million other things than what I should be focused on. Got a cure for being scatterbrained?
BD in Minnesota
I went on a silent retreat many years back and the most difficult thing wasn’t the lack of talking but the stillness of the environment itself. Without the constant outside stimulation of everyday noise, my mind resorted to relentless wandering. It was during that time that I realized I had become addicted to constant distractions, allowing them to dominate my day. I never learned to just sit and be quiet, so naturally when I forced myself to be still my meditations were much as you described yours — all over the place.
Prayer takes practice. It’s a mental exercise that requires daily training before results are seen. Being still, surprisingly, also takes a great deal of practice for many. It can be stressful when left alone with our own thoughts for too long because we’ve become so accustomed to constant stimulation — and to “doing” rather than simply “being.”
As we get older it does get a little easier — God intentionally slows us down with age — but there are some things you can do now to help settle your restless mind and have more meaningful prayer.
Limit your time with technology
Unless you are a doctor on call, there’s really no reason that you need to be accessible 24/7. Put your phone somewhere in the house where you can hear it ring, but don’t keep it on you. Also, turn off all your notifications except for text messages. You don’t need to hear a ding and whistle for every email and social media alert. If you rely on your phone to be your alarm in the morning, buy an alarm clock and start keeping your cell phone in another room beyond your bedroom. This way you won’t be tempted to be on it before bedtime, when you know your time would be better spent in meditating on your day — making an examen — and talking to God.
You also won’t be grabbing at it first thing in the morning, when your day might be better served by making a Morning Offering (or even just saying, “Good morning, Lord, thank you for this day. Help me to not screw things up too badly, and perhaps even be a blessing to others, through you.”)
Allow yourself to be bored
One of the things I’ve noticed is that as a society we can’t be bored, not even for one minute. We can’t wait in line for a coffee or even sit at a stop light without distracting ourselves with our phones. But being bored isn’t a bad thing that should be avoided at all costs. In fact, bouts of boredom in our daily routine can help us grow in patience.
Try creating intentional moments in your day where you allow yourself to be bored, to slowly wean you off constant stimulation and distractions. A friend recently confided in me that she forgot to bring her e-book with her while getting her nails done. “I had nothing to read. I got so bored, I ended up praying a Rosary.” Hey, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Practice on focusing
You can actually train your brain to focus. Art is an excellent hobby for this discipline because it forces you to focus on details. Sketching, painting, needlework, and even listening to complex pieces of classical music are all ways to strengthen our focus and concentration. Puzzles, crosswords, and other brain games work well to also force the brain to centralize our focus on one thing at a time. A trained brain can better focus your prayer.
Embrace your scattered thoughts
Because I know I am scatterbrained, I’ve learned various coping methods. Some of my favorite “scattered” ways to pray involve “studying” an icon or a piece of religious art, forcing myself to hone in on the tiniest of details — meditating on how a sculptor positioned a hand, or considering why something has been put into shadow. I ask God to bring me insight; I pray for the artist, or for others, like me, sitting before the piece. Religious art, especially iconography, is typically full of symbolism which can be similar to reading text. Prayer comes very naturally from “reading” what you are seeing.
Speaking of reading, reading is also an excellent cure for wandering mind syndrome. If I can’t still myself into a contemplative state I typically resort to reading a book of prayer or the Bible. Sometimes I just pop in a pair of earbuds and listening to chant or choral hymns and do nothing.
If you’re gonna lose it, move it
Some people just can’t sit still no matter what, but who says you have to pray only while sitting or kneeling? No one, that’s who. If your prayerful mood is being ruined because you feel to restless, get up and move around. You can pray while you vacuum, or while you change the oil in your car. Pray while you do the dishes, pray while you work out, pray during your commute. Pray while hiking or taking the dog for a walk. In any activity, if you are praying through it, you will find something to marvel at, and to thank God for.
In the end, the best way to deal with a wandering mind is to simply resign yourself to it. When a particular person or situation pops into your head while you’re trying to pray, don’t judge yourself a failure or feel defeated. Instead of calling it a distraction, think of it as an “alert” from the Holy Spirit — a prompt to pray specifically, in that moment, for that person, or the situation. Offer up a plea for their good, thank the Holy Spirit for using you in such a way, and then let it go, as you refocus on your prayer. There is no defeat in any of that.