My mind wanders when I pray: Distraction during prayer.
Distraction during prayer. Everybody suffers from it. Everybody’s mind wanders when they pray and their concentration lags. It’s usually worse when we’re tired or upset about something, but even at the best of times, it’s easy to get frustrated when we can’t concentrate on our prayers. What can we do about it? Here are a few suggestions that might help.
Minimize distractions. It’s hard to pray if there is background noise or commotion. It’s why the Lord tells us to go into our room and shut the door and pray in secret (Mt 6.6). Turn off the television, the radio, lay aside the cell phone. Shut out the dog or the cat. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos used to put away his alarm clock so he would not hear it ticking when he prayed.
Less caffeine. Too much caffeine gets in the way of some people’s ability to concentrate. It can also make you feel the same way that you do when you’re anxious, and that hurts concentration, too.
Read something spiritual before you begin your prayers. As St. Peter of Damascus says, “The purpose of spiritual reading is to keep the intellect from distraction and restlessness, for this is the first step towards salvation” [A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, Book 1, “Spiritual Reading,” Philokalia, vol. 3, p. 155.]
Pray about anxieties first. If there is something serious on your mind, are you have a burden on your heart, then pray about that first. Having put it in the Lord’s hands, you’re more likely to be free to concentrate on your other prayers.
Slow down. If were saying prayers out of a prayer book or reading familiar Psalms, it’s very easy to read them faster and faster without realizing it. Our eyes race across the page, and when were done, we don’t know what we’ve read. Slowing down, even just a little bit, can help us to concentrate on the words better.
Moreover, if you’re someone who does a lot of reading on a computer screen, check yourself to see if you fallen into the common (and a very bad) practice of skimming what you read. It’s very common for people to skim material that they read online, but the habit carries over into other things that we read, and if were not careful, we find ourselves skimming our prayer books as well.
Say your prayers out loud. Saying our prayers out loud forces us to slow down. Also, the combined action of seeing the text with our eyes, speaking the words with our lips, and hearing the words with our ears, helps us to be more attentive.
Make the gestures of appropriate to prayer. Get your body involved by making the Sign of the Cross, bowing, and making prostrations when your rule of prayer calls for them. Not only does this involve is physically in our prayer, but it also helps to slow us down.
Vary your rule of prayer. Sometimes we just said the same prayers for so long that they become stale to us. With the advice of your spiritual father, consider changing up your prayer rule a little.
Don’t beat yourself up. Everybody’s mind wanders while they pray. If you catch your mind wandering, gently bring it back to your prayers and continue for you left off. It’s not necessary to go back to the beginning of that particular prayer and start all over again; that sometimes breeds more frustration, especially if you catch your mind wandering a second time. Just continue on from the place where you caught yourself distracted.
Because everybody’s mind wanders while they pray, there’s no sense in beating yourself up when yours does. If you get frustrated with yourself during your prayers because your mind wanders (or for any other reason), it constitutes a second fall. Why? Because the only reason you would beat yourself up at prayer is because you think you are too good to let your mind wander, that you are somehow above slipups like that. And that’s just pride. Why compound a distraction at prayer with the frustration of pride? No, just bring your mind, gently back to your prayers and continue on. That’s the best thing to do.
These are some of the things that I recommend to people when they complained that their mind wanders during their prayers. Can you suggest anything else that might help?
“When the demons see that someone has the zeal and diligence to pray as he ought, then they suggest to him thoughts about something, supposedly important (and then draw away); but a little later they again call up the memory of this thing, urging his mind to examine it (if it is a problem – to solve it; if it is a thing – to acquire it); and he, not finding what he seeks, feels vexed and grieved. Then, when he stands up to pray, the demons remind him of what he had thought of and sought for, so that his mind should once more be moved to enquiry and his prayer become barren.” –St. Nilus of Sinai (d. 450)
For a deeper consideration of distractions, see this post by Hieromonk Alexis (Trader).