Overcoming Distraction with Prayer

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I have been trying to begin this section for over an hour, during which time, among other things, I helped a friend in Europe set up a PayPal account so I could wire her money, responded to a text, stopped my hard drive back up because it was slowing things down, emailed a couple of people, read an article about teens texting and driving, responded to a message on Facebook, looked for a bio on Maggie Jackson (who wrote the definitive book about distraction), checked the news on some local fires, and located a quote by Mark Twain to send a friend (after reading an entire page of his quips). Clearly, I am distracted (at least I wasn’t watching cat videos).
Here’s the thing. All that activity that seemed so important was a diversion that kept me from doing what I really needed to be doing (writing this). Now I must deal with the angst of wasted time. This is the deadly debris of distraction—it keeps us perpetually tying up loose ends while robbing us of time and energy and creativity and proficiency . . . and peace. Sadly, our digital world commandeers our focus so powerfully that it is rewiring our brains so that we’re losing control of our fragmented minds. We are addicted to distraction and we can’t seem to find our way out of the morass.[i]

Nowhere is this deadlier than in our spiritual lives, where the currency of God’s Kingdom lies in relationships that cannot be sustained or deepened without an ability to focus, to pay attention. In the era of digital disruption, friendships swirl in very shallow waters, prayer distills into random arrows of petition, while meditation is replaced by snippets of truth that constrict our hearts to ideas rather than the glorious awe of encounter. The prayer of simplicity is an antidote to this, and one we desperately need.
The Sacrament of the Present Moment
Almost three hundred years ago a Jesuit priest named Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote a series of letters on the spiritual life to the nuns under his spiritual direction. Profound, and in many ways revolutionary for that era, the letters endured, and a century later, were published in a book that has become a devotional classic for Christians of all persuasions. While its teachings are rich and varied, one theme resounds throughout: because God is hidden in the ordinary, mundane routines of life, every moment is sacred, a sacrament no less holy than those established by the church. De Caussade writes:

To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as in the greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith. To find contentment in the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will in the succession of all the things to be done and suffered which make up the duty to the present moment.[ii]

There is great risk in leaving the moment at hand to give in to the demands of our digital devices—all those pings and beeps and red numbers and other notifications. Jesus comes to us in the ordinary, ready to transport our souls from the dry monotony of secularity into the soul-sustaining sacrament of the moment. He invites us to abandon ourselves to him, to trust that his plans are unfolding before our very eyes, if only we have eyes to see.

What would keep us from embracing this blessed reality? The prayer of simplicity helps us answer this question. When we stop the noise without and within, we become vulnerable, our souls void of the numbing narcotic of preoccupation. We discover that distraction has kept us from facing our fears or dealing with our disappointment with God or people, or experiencing the malaise of boredom or pain of rejection or loss.
But these are the very moments that God sanctifies. Even in our unsatisfied yearnings, our angry discontent, our pressing preoccupations, he longs to surprise us with love and hope and a word for our future. This is the incredible power in the prayer of simplicity.

Practicing Prayer: Rewiring Our Brains

Preparing Your Heart
Begin your time by settling your soul through a few deep breaths. Offer three sentences of gratitude to the Lord for what he is doing in you right now. Hold this moment like a treasure in your hand, seeing it as a sacrament—made holy by God’s presence in it.
Pressing In
While the prayer of simplicity can and should be practiced throughout the day, we find it difficult to do because of our fragmented minds. To that end, there is an exercise below that can help rewire your brain for focus and give you peace. Research suggests that it only takes twelve minutes a day with this kind of exercise to increase our attention span and ability to focus. I call this spiritual practice “God-focused deep breathing” (GDB) and it includes three components—deep breathing, simple movement, and vocal sound.[iii] The more comfortable you are with each part, the easier it will be. First, practice each one alone and then put them together, beginning with deep breathing.
Deep Breathing: Your breath must be diaphragmatic, which means that your stomach visibly rises when you inhale and falls when you exhale (many people think expanding their chest is deep breathing, but it is not). For this practice, you will breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try a few deep breaths by placing your hands on your stomach to feel the movement. Inhale as you count slowly from one to five, about once per second, then pause for a second, and exhale as you count from one to five again. Once you’ve established a pattern of inhaling and exhaling from the diaphragm, move on to simple movement.
Find this exercise and many others to help deal with digital distraction in The Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age.

Simple Movement: While any repetitive movement can work here, one of the simplest is to place your hands with palms together in a prayer pose, fingers touching. As you exhale, you tap your fingers together one at a time, beginning with your thumbs. In the beginning when your exhales are shorter, you will probably only tap through the hand once. However, over time as you begin to inhale and exhale more deeply, you can repeat the movement as many times as necessary while exhaling. Once you feel comfortable with this, move on to vocal sound.
Vocal Sound: There are a vast variety of Scripture passages, hymns, and even self-composed songs you can use to give sound to your exhales. To begin, it is helpful to use something you are very familiar with so that you can close your eyes and relax through the process. This time begin with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Take in a deep breath, and as you exhale, quietly sing one line of the hymn. On your next exhale, sing the next line. If you find that a full line is too much, do half of the line instead. Once you feel comfortable doing this, move on to the final step—putting it all together.
Putting It All Together: Find a comfortable position in a quiet place and eliminate external distractions as much as possible. (Once you’ve mastered GDB, you will be able to engage in it anywhere you go, but first you need to become familiar through practice.) Place your hands together, palms open in prayer pose, with both feet resting comfortably on the ground. Use the template below to begin:

  • Inhale: Count slowly and silently to five as you take in a deep breath. Pause briefly.
  • Exhale: As you slowly release the air, sing softly—Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound—while tapping your fingers together.
  • Inhale: Count slowly and silently to five as you take in a deep breath. Pause briefly.
  • Exhale: As you slowly release the air, sing softly—that saved a wretch like me—while tapping your fingers together.
  • Inhale: Count slowly and silently to five as you take in a deep breath. Pause briefly.
  • Exhale: As you slowly release the air, sing softly—I once was lost but now am found—while tapping your fingers together.
  • Inhale: Count slowly and silently to five as you take in a deep breath. Pause briefly.
  • Exhale: As you slowly release the air, sing softly—was blind but now I see—while tapping your fingers together.

Continue this pattern through as many verses of the song as you can remember.
End your time by asking for grace to recognize when you are being pulled away unnecessarily by digital distractions today. Commit to a practice of looking for the sacred touch of God in various moments throughout the day.

You’ve been reading from Tricia McCary Rhodes’ book The Soul at Rest: A 40 Day Journey into a Life of Prayer. Learn to hear God speak and grow a deeper and more intimate relationship with him. Get the book or read chapter one here for free.

[i] For a full explanation of the effect of technology on our brains and spiritual journeys, see my book, The Wired Soul, NavPress, 2016.
[ii] Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, 1887. This book’s original title was Abandonment to Divine Providence. Accessed April 6, 2018, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/decaussade/abandonment.
[iii] Taken from The Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2016), 81–85.

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