This past Sunday I mentioned that one of the effects of a regular meditation practice in my life has ben an increased ability to focus. This is generally true of most folks. I said one of the aspects I most appreciate about this is how it impacts my prayer life. You see, I often find my mind wanders off when I am praying. I sit or kneel with the best of intentions and 5 seconds or 5 minutes later I cannot imagine the train of thoughts that lead to what I am pondering…has that bump always been on my hand? Does the van need an oil change, do I have the right work-out clothes clean and ready for tomorrow? I am not proud of this, but it is true, often my prayer times are frustrating because my mind follow a tangent and so-and-so goes un-prayed for. It seems, this admission from the pulpit hit a real chord. I have heard from a bunch of people how good it made them feel to know they are not alone; that even the pastor faces such struggles.
It is good to admit we are not alone in our struggles.
It is not good to become comfortable, complacent or settled in them.
As I mentioned, I think a regular meditation practice can help. There are a couple of other practices I have noticed and I thought I would share them with you, mostly they are ancient and certainly not new to me, I share them in case they can help you in your intention to live more prayerfully. If you have any you would like to share please leave a comment because it might help someone else.
1- Use beads. I have often used beads, either in the form of a bracelet or necklace to help me remain focused. I say a prayer, switch bead, say a prayer, switch bead. The physical act of switching beads is a concrete reminder of what I am sitting to do, switching beads has a way of bringing the mind back on topic. I love to use a necklace that has large and small beads. The large ones I use for thanksgivings to God and for changing subjects, the small ones I mostly use for intercession. As an example, I thank God for my family (big bead), then prayer for my wife and children, parents, and siblings (small beads), then I hit a big bead and thank God for the community I live, or the congregation I serve, or missionaries…you get the point, which leads to small beads which are specific prayers to do with the broader category opened by the bigger bead.
2- Pray out loud. This one is newer to me, I read about it in a memoire of a retired minister. He said his mind often wandered in prayer (it really is a problem for most all of us) and that by speaking his prayers out loud he kept his mind on topic and if he wanders he would literally hear it. This one feels a bit strange, especially at first (especially when I speak out loud a prayer but my mind is elsewhere!), but it is growing on me.
3- Have a dedicated place. We all know we can pray anywhere but that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from having a regular spot as well. I find that having a special chair (there is nothing special about the chair itself you understand) that is a trigger for the mind can be helpful. Like you train your mind to associate a certain spot with prayerfulness. Maybe for you the kitchen sink is a good spot, the point mostly is habit, trying to have a place where your second nature is just to pray because you are in that spot. Pastor’s tip: your bed makes a poor location for this:)
4- Pay attention to your posture. C.S. Lewis once noted that our posture can make all the difference. This is very similar to having a dedicated place. For example, some people find kneeling particularly helpful, maybe you cross your legs, or tilt your head, maybe you close your eyes, or semi-close them. Is their a body position that you can use to train the mind that when you are in this position you are praying?
5- Move while you pray. This is the one I have spent the most time practicing. I love to run and I love to pray and I find the two go together great. I suspect it has to do with the rhythmic breathing because it also works great with swimming. Many people throughout the ages have had serious prayer walking practices as well. For what it’s worth I have found that praying about circumstances and for people on my outward portion of the run and then praying a mantra like “toward the one” on the return particularly energizing and life-giving.
Prayer doesn’t need to be a burden but I have rarely met anyone with a particularly robust prayer life who “just happened” upon it. Mostly I meet diligent faithful prayer-warriors who set out to pray with intention, who have worked on what will help them, noticed what does and discard what doesn’t. These people are open to change over the years and who don’t get caught in a single method of prayer.
Like I said, we all want to focus more in prayer, I think if we succeed it will lead us to pray more and more, because we will see it as effective, we will see prayers answered, and we will generally find it more satisfying.
A satisfying prayer life is worth the effort of finding methods of prayer that we can do consistently and with focus. Please let me know if any of these help you or if you have others to add to the list!