Then sigh not so, but let them go,Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny.
People will often say that they can’t pray. When asked they will say that they are unable to make their minds still or empty of thoughts. Somehow they have acquired the fantasy that to be able to pray they have to be able to stop the hubbub of thoughts that happen. At this point, I am reminded of what was said to me on a course in mindfulness: “When your mind wanders, this is not a problem.”
The reality is that everybody’s head is full of noise. It never stops. There are many things that go on in the mind. Try to be gentle with it. It is just trying to preserve and prolong your life and the life of those you care about. That is what it evolved to do. It is the nature of the mind always to be thinking. Prayer does not stand or fall on having a quiet mind.
There are many kinds of noise. Two of my favourites are planning and reminiscing – thoughts about the future and the past. The trouble with the brain is that, by evolutionary design, it is defensive. Planning easily turns into anxious thinking about how to make the future safe, either about a situation that is coming up that is worrying me, or a much longer-term concern about old age finance, health, and mortality. Reminiscing easily becomes rumination upon my failings and mistakes – “sighs for folly done and said.”
Ignatius would call these defensive strategies the work of the enemy of our humanity, inasmuch as they bring about “spiritual desolation”. Our hope and trust in God’s grace and mercy is undermined by anxiety and sad rumination allied with flawed thinking (what Ignatius called “fallacious reasoning”). Or, to put it in more modern language, because the brain likes the negative we can easily lose our momently delight in being alive.
There is a kind of work to be done to counter this preference for the defensive. I say ‘kind of’ work because prayer is mainly down to God’s grace, which is always present and active and abundant. Grace, it is said, abounds. God is only to be experienced in the present, and so our work is only to try to remain present and open to grace.
This ‘work’ is helped by two practices I have written about elsewhere:
- the Practice of Remembrance
- the Practice of the Presence
There is another kind of noise which might be called censoring or filtering that could be likened to a copy editor. A critical eye monitors our thinking and makes a judgment. “Stop thinking!” “Don’t think that!” “That’s not allowed!” “Get a grip!” “Thank God no one else knows what I’m thinking!” And so on. Etcetera, etcetera. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might recognise our right to freedom of thought and expression, but we don’t always extend that right to ourselves.
This too though, in its own way, is still the mind’s attempt to keep you safe, making sure you remain acceptable and don’t stray too far from social norms. For the human creature, belonging to the group is a significant survival strategy. In the not-far-distant past (on an evolutionary scale) it was a dangerous business to be excluded from the group. Here again, we see how defensive thinking, by undermining our hope and trust in God who always includes, can lead to spiritual desolation.
I hope I am conveying that this is all utterly normal. No one who prays, however experienced, is without brain noise. You are not a remedial pray-er when your head is full of noise. Thinking is merely what happens. So rather than berating yourself for your lack of attention, be kind to yourself in your humanity. The human is a fragile construct.
In the end, three things matter in response to the noise in our heads:
- Be kind and tender towards yourself and the thinking, planning, reminiscing, censoring, protective mind. It is not your fault when your mind wanders. This is simply what minds do. Reality is not as we would wish it to be. There is no blame attached to this.
- Show and tell your thoughts to God, to Jesus, to Buddha, to whomever you pray. Realise that they present no lasting bar to loving relationship with the Divine. One way to do this is to turn what might feel like random thoughts into a conversation with God. If you find yourself making a shopping list or a to-do list, then talk with God about what is on the list. If you are anxious about a meeting you are soon to have, share your anxieties with Her. If you feel the shiver of shame at what you said to someone, let Her look at the situation with you. When you judge yourself, show this to God and let Her be the judge. These thoughts might not be what you hoped to happen in prayer, but to show and tell will cement the relationship you have with God.
- Then sigh not so, but let them go. Your thoughts are not that important. They are not you. Hey nonny nonny. Be you blithe and bonny.