Staying focused is the number one problem people share with me regarding prayer. And, intrusive thoughts have definitely been my biggest enemy during my Lenten devotional practice of praying and meditating for fifteen minutes every day in nature. I’ve been trying to capture in my observation log when my mind wanders off. Same days are much worse than others. Here’s what I’ve noticed.
1. The more tired I am, the more my mind wanders.This is not the least bit surprising, but it does raise the stakes on my need to work on getting better sleep.
2. My most common intrusive thoughts are: Pre-thinking upcoming conversations in my head, particularly, if I am concerned about how the conversation will go. Slipping off into recalling prior events.
So how do you prevent or quiet intrusive thoughts?
The answer is slightly different depending on whether you are meditating or actively praying.
Follow a method
For example, if you are praying, using a prayer method like the ACTS prayer which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanks and Supplication, can both anchor your prayer and help you jump back rapidly into praying. Having a prayer model is a bit like going into a grocery store with a shopping list. You are far more like not to aimlessly wander around, pick up things you didn’t intend, or walk out having forgotten something critical.
When meditating, usually implicit to the method is the answer for restoring focus. So for example, my meditation time is spent primarily paying attention to my senses. Every time my mind wanders I can just reengage one or more of my senses and I’m back on track.
Pray out loud or journal
Praying out load or writing your prayers will physically engage you in prayer. You will almost immediately recognize when you have checked out mentally because your lips or pen stop moving. I first realized this while praying and driving. Many times my mind would wander off until I started praying out loud. I actually lean praying out loud regularly during the thanks portion of my outdoor devotional time.
Acknowledge the distraction and intentionally dismiss it
When praying, I have labeled intrusive thoughts as the gorilla mind or the beast. Often times when an intrusive thoughts pops in, I personify and dismiss it. So I will mentally say, “Hey, I’m praying. You don’t get to be in the driver seat. Get back in your seat.” As silly as this sounds, it can be ridiculously successful.
When meditating, and I have a physical distraction, I will just acknowledge repeatedly and you become detached from it or it fades away. So let say my nose is itching. I just mentally acknowledge it, repeatedly mentally saying, “Nose itching.” You would think this would draw more attention to it. But, this technique seems to create a certain distance between you and the distraction. This technique removes you from a position of reacting to being a disinterested observer.
When meditating and dealing with thoughts instead of a physical distractions, I will note them and then imagine them drifting away like clouds or boats. Again, this puts you in a detached observation mode for a moment and severs the influence over you of the thought.
Acknowledge and incorporate
So for example, let’s imagine you are attempting to pray and you keep lapse into fantasy conversation with someone at work who has upset you. Rather than fight it, embrace this as the focus of your prayer. This works particularly well if you are not following a prayer model, but even if you are, you may have to deal with the concern and then return to your model. Consider the possibility that an intrusive thought may represent an issue that needs prayer.
I hope these are helpful. I lean on all the above periodically and some nearly daily in my Lenten Devotional practice right now.
Questions: What are the most common types of distracting thoughts that pop up for you? Which technique feels like it is your best option for the type of prayer or meditation you do? Do you follow a prayer model ever or do you just free style your prayers?
If you don’t use a method currently here is a free guide to help you out and a few links to related resources:
A FREE RESOURCE GUIDE FOR YOU
The Prayer Focus Playbook
I’ve put together a free brief resource guide that includes three prayer models (ones I’ve personally used) to engage you mentally and a brief guide to three ways you can journal to physically engage your prayer attention.
A Collect for Greater Focus
Holy God, who is always present and mindful of us, provoke the spirit of self-control that you have gifted us with, so our minds do not wander and we can give you the respect and attention you deserve, in Christ name we pray. Amen
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