There’s a Twelve Step expression that a path with no obstacles probably doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. Some theologians assert that life’s meaning is revealed in the obstacles, as if life were an obstacle course that is pointless without obstacles. A previous post spoke of lingering at the threshold of intimacy with God and pondered how to surmount the obstacles in our paths.
One obstacle everyone who attempts meditation or prayer encounters is distraction. It afflicts even the most respected spiritual guides. When we remember that God rejoices in our returning, however, we can see distractions as opportunities to delight God simply by acknowledging them and returning our attention to God. If the distraction persists, we can bring it into conversation with God, asking what he makes of it.
Ultimately our attention is our choice, and several visualizations can aid our returning. My favorite is attributed to Martin Luther: “You can’t stop birds from flying overhead, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.” It applies to events that nudge us off course, but it applies no less to distractions that lure us from prayer. It’s ok to notice the occasional bird flying by. Just let it keep flying on. A Christian monk taught me that prayer can also be like observing a stream. If a fish swims by, let it swim into and out of view. You can notice the fish as a part of the stream’s life without the fish absorbing all of your attention.
It may help to spend time in reflection about what holds you back or gets in your way and to pray about it. The simplest prayer is a breathing prayer. There is a deep connection between breathing and prayer. Language reflects the connection. Hebrew and Greek bibles both used one single word for wind, Holy Spirit and God’s breath—rauh in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek. The text that provides the scriptural basis for Jesus bestowing the power to forgive sins to his apostles, John 20, is an example:
“22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh noted, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.”
One approach to breathing prayers is to inhale with a mental focus on what one desires, concentrating only on that word or short phrase. Then when exhaling, one’s focus shifts to what gets in the way. Typically the prayer is repeated several times, simply inhaling the desire and exhaling the obstacle. For example,
Join the conversation. Can you share wisdom for overcoming distraction?
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