Posture, Breathing, and Distraction
When we pray to God, we pray with our whole lives. Nothing given to us by God is left out of our prayer and, while our prayer is God’s gift to us rather than something we do, we can do a lot to more readily dispose ourselves to receive prayer as a gift. The more aware we are of what we do during prayer, the more open we become to the graces God gives in prayer.
As always, the experience of prayer differs from person and so trial and error will help you get to know yourself and how you pray best. The tips and suggestions given here are mutually reinforcing and can help you become open to a deeper experience of prayer.
First, remember that God creates us with lively bodies and so pray is as much a bodily activity as it is a mindful one. Posture, then, plays a key role in disposing us to prayer. As you begin the retreat, we recommend you find a sturdy chair that is neither uncomfortable or too comfortable; your goal should aim for a chair that facilitates the natural curve of your back.
Good posture and a solid chair benefit your prayer by allowing you to remain relatively still for a longer period of time. An uncomfortable chair causes us to shift constantly, distracting us from silence and prayer, while an overly-comfortable chair might tempt us to take a nap (the same goes for lying down in prayer: while resting peacefully flat on your back can be a great way to pray, it can also led to napping rather than prayer).
For many, taking walks, light running, or even while driving a car or engaging in some other passive action can be great moments of prayer; however, it is important to maintain the balance between active prayer and whatever passive activity we are doing.
Attention to your breathing will help you enter and remain in prayer. Before you begin to pray, take at least five minutes to prepare by focusing on your breathing. Inhale deeply, hold your breath for the length of a heartbeat, and then exhale slowly, allowing your exhale to last slightly longer than your inhale. As you breathe, be conscious of the simple pattern of inhale, hold, and exhale, repeating for at least five minutes.
Stress fills our days and that stress remains in our bodies in the form of tension. Tension in our bodies closes us off from God’s presence and so we must release any tension to open ourselves up to God. Many practices for relieving stress exist and can be quite helpful. We recommend the simple practice of stress and release: as you prepare to enter prayer and have completed a breathing exercise, focus on each part of your body. Starting with your toes, tense up the muscles of each part of your body for five to eight seconds and then release, allowing any tension to depart through the relaxation of your muscles. As you relax your muscles, your body should release much of the tension and stress in your body.
Distractions are the greatest practical barrier to a deepening experience of prayer. Unfortunately, we cannot eliminate distractions in prayer but many of the suggestions listed above can reduce distractions; practicing good posture, being attentive to breathing, and releasing stress eliminate a number of sources of distraction that affect our bodies during prayer.
At the same time, we also pray with our minds and distractions can affect our minds as deeply as our bodies. One spiritual writer has compared praying with distractions to being in a telephone booth filled with bees to being in an open field with bees: there will be bees either way but you worry about bee stings a lot less in the field. You will be distracted in your prayer but distraction need not be your entire experience of prayer.
If you are feeling distracted in prayer, we recommend:
Keeping your prayers realistics and consistent (e.g., if you decide to pray for twenty minutes, pray for twenty minutes);
You return to paying careful attention to the pattern of your breathing;
Recognizing, naming, and then dismissing the distracting thoughts racing through our mind;
Acknowledging that you are not identical to the thoughts that run through your mind;
Slowly repeating an “anchor” word or phrase (such as the name of Jesus or a short passage from the Scripture);
Acknowledging your distractions and befriending them;
Recognizing your own impatience and faithfully praying for the amount of time you have committed to prayer.
Lastly, the single greatest source of distraction in prayer is our impatience that something should happen immediately, that God will appear in some dramatic way now. While that may happen, do not expect the Burning Bush that appeared to Moses or the quiet breeze that came to Elijah amidst the storm to flood your prayer in the first five minutes. Much of your prayer will be quietly and attentively waiting for God, who is at the same time quietly waiting for you. In time, your prayer will grow into simply waiting for and spending time with God.
That’s ok. That’s how we fall in love.