What To Do When Your Prayer Doesn’t Get ‘In The Zone’

What To Do When Your Prayer Doesn’t Get ‘In The Zone’ April 17, 2015

Front Gate, Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers GA
“Pax” = “Peace.” Front Gate, Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers GA (Photo by Carl McColman)

A reader named Kevin wrote the following comment to me on Facebook, in response to my recent post Why Is “Mysticism” a Dirty Word.

Thanks Carl, interesting points. I was wondering if I could pick your brain on something…when I meditate/contemplate on my breath (I have a semi regular habit) I only seem to get “in the zone” of a peaceful meditative state about 1 session in 10. The rest of the time not much happens. Is this normal? Am I expecting too much? I’m getting a bit discouraged…

Thanks for your question, Kevin. Several thoughts. First of all, yes, it’s very much “normal” that much of our time spent in contemplative practice will feel like anything but “in the zone.” That’s not meant to be a word of discouragement. But rather a word of reassurance, for often beginners will think “I’m not doing it right” or “I’m not cut out for this” because of how much inner turmoil they encounter. Actually, though, such inner turbulence is very much the norm.

I think so often we become drawn to meditative or contemplative forms of prayer because we hope to find “inner peace” or a “peaceful meditative state.” But often, all that we find is what Kenneth Leech calls “the waste of [our] own being.” Let’s be honest: most of us have deeply undisciplined minds. Even if we are basically mature, emotionally healthy people. We live in a culture that, according to T. S. Eliot, is “distracted from distraction by distraction” and this plays out in the theatre of our minds and hearts.

We have incredibly short attention spans (it used to be the length of a TV show segment between commercials, but I bet now it’s even shorter than that — maybe the length of a short Youtube video?) and we’re used to being entertained pretty much all the time. We can hardly stand in line at the post office for a minute before we’ve whipped out our phones to check our email or Facebook page or to get in a few minutes of whatever the cool game of the month is. We really are a distracted group of folks, and we bring that mentality with us into our silence.

So it’s no surprise that for many of us, silent prayer is much more about seeking inner peace than actually finding it. You might enjoy this blog post that I wrote a while back about this issue: Sometimes When I Sit in Silence….

Incidentally, Julian of Norwich writes about how there are two dimensions to prayer, what she calls “seeking” and “seeing.” She says, in her poetic voice, about God in prayer: “I sought him and I saw him.” Her point is that when we pray, we want to “see” God — we want a sense of God’s presence in our hearts and our lives. Sometimes in prayer, we receive such a blessing: what mystics like St. Teresa of Avila call “consolations.” But in truth, often in prayer we don’t see God or receive such a blessing. According to Julian, those kinds of prayer are “seeking prayer.”

In other words, prayer is beautiful and important and spiritually nourishing regardless of whether we “see” God or simply “seek” God — without any sense of inner peace or felt presence. To quote another one of my heroes, Pete the Cat: “It’s all good.” Or, as Julian of Norwich herself said, “All shall be well.”

So maybe the point in contemplation is not about the result (feeling inner peace, sensing God’s presence), but rather the process — actually showing up, day in and day out, to be silent before the mystery of God’s presence, whether “felt” or “hidden.” Which leads me to my final bit of feedback to you. You are very honest in saying you have a “semi regular” habit of prayer. I appreciate your candor, and believe me, there have been many times over the past thirty years when my prayer practice has, at best, been “semi regular.” So I offer no criticism for that — but I do wish to invite you to prayerfully consider making it simply “regular” instead of “semi regular.”

And maybe think “practice” instead of “habit” (although I do believe a daily practice does become habitual over time). Here’s my thinking: when we were kids, our moms and dads had to harangue us to brush our teeth every morning and night. We had to be reminded, cajoled, threatened, whatever. But I bet 99.9% of the folks reading this blog now brush their teeth twice (or more) each day without giving it a second thought — and if, for some reason, we skipped brushing, our mouths would “feel” gross.

For most of us, learning a daily practice of silent prayer is like kids learning to brush our teeth. We find it hard to get started. We have to remind ourselves, nag ourselves, and so forth. But just do it. We know that silent prayer is good for us, both spiritually (“Be still and know that I am God,” “Pray without ceasing,” “Silence is praise,” etc.) and mentally/emotionally/physically (as all the research into mindfulness practice has shown).

I think it’s best to make a small commitment, but every day. Five minutes a day. Or ten minutes: five in the morning, five at night. Just do it every day.

I’ll lay all my cards on the table. Once we get established in the daily practice, then we will find ourselves yearning for more than just the five minutes. Because it really is that good for us, even if we don’t feel any sense of inner peace on a conscious level. Subconsciously, good things are happening, and our soul knows it. Once that yearning kicks in, it becomes easier to stretch it out to twenty, thirty, or even more minutes each day. But don’t worry about that.

Focus for now on the daily practice. Give it a try. You might just find that the ratio between “seeking” and “seeing” (or feeling inner peace) gets better than just one in ten! So, those are my thoughts. I hope this is helpful for you, Kevin (or anyone else reading this). Please feel free to leave a comment if you have any further questions or insights.

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