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The ancient Christian practice that can keep your mind from wandering


Ekaterina Iatcenko | Shutterstock

Chris Lowney - published on 09/22/21

Our spiritual traditions offers alternatives that help.

This essay is a three-minute read, but your mind will wander while you read it.

I won’t be offended.

See, that would happen even if were brilliant or witty, because the human mind is wired to wander. And the affliction keeps worsening. Fortunately, there’s an antidote: some age-old “spiritual technologies.”  

But before prescribing the cure, let me explain the disease: A fascinating study by Harvard researchers concluded that our minds wander as much as 47% of the time: while commuting, at work, even at church. And we tend to feel less happy while it’s happening. As the researchers put it: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Just think how social media and smart phone technologies have exacerbated the problem. We float along a river of posts, emails, and texts, and phone calls. We’re 100% present to every random, miscellaneous distraction that crosses our radar. 

What we’re not present to is what ultimately counts: What’s happening in our innermost selves? Are we mindful of our greatest priorities, this day and in our lives? And, if we’re religious believers: How are we relating to our creator?

What to do about it? Well, the social media geniuses whose apps have aggravated this mess are proposing solutions. Ready for it? More apps, apps in this case to prevent us from getting distracted. Really? No thank you. 

We’ll be better off with ancient practices instead of these newfangled ones. Instead of tapping on high-tech smartphone apps, let’s tap into low-tech wisdom from the world’s great religious traditions, which even centuries ago had established practices for re-centering our wandering minds. Devout Muslims, for example, honor five prescribed prayer times each day.

That practice will remind Christians of the regimens established by 6th-century St. Benedict and others, whereby monastic communities typically pray at six or more appointed times each day. More generally known as the “Liturgy of the Hours,” the discipline of praying at set times during each day is practiced widely within the Church.  

But wait a minute: What do such practices have to do with social media and Harvard research into wandering minds? A lot! If the human mind will invariably wander, our possible responses are basically to either accept passively all the negative side-effects, or, alternatively, to combat the affliction proactively via daily practices for re-centering ourselves and getting back on track. 

Granted, monastic practices were not developed to cure wandering minds; they were instituted for explicitly religious purposes: to help humans to praise, thank, and petition their Creator. 

But they also have the salutary side effect of refocusing us on what’s ultimately important in life. 

Admittedly, your daily schedule likely won’t allow so tightly prescribed a prayer regimen as monks follow: It won’t be a career-enhancing move, for example, to interrupt meetings multiple times each day and absent yourself for your fixed schedule of prayers.   

No matter: Our spiritual traditions offer flexible alternativesSt. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, the founder of the Jesuit religious order, proposed a daily reflective pause called an “examen.” Simply put, one carves out a few reflective minutes, a couple of times daily, in order to express gratitude for the day’s blessings, recall where one might have fallen short, and ask God’s help for the rest of the day. One can find many versions of the practice here.

Which version of all these practices works best? Simple: Whichever one works for you. Survey the possibilities, or develop your own ritual. But make it a habit and commit to hit. Don’t presume that you’ll just happen to remember to do it each day. You won’t. Your world is too chaotic, busy and distracting.

It’s humbling for me as an author to consider that your mind likely wandered a bit during previous paragraphs, but I’m gratified that you made it this far. And it will be far more gratifying if you now devote time to discovering and cultivating some daily habit for re-centering your wandering mind. 

Chris Lowney is author of Heroic Leadership. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or his website.

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