Thoughts About Our Thoughts

A fountain at the San Juan Capistrano Mission

A fountain at the San Juan Capistrano Mission

In classic Christian literature, there are many good things on the theme of distracting thoughts in prayer. There is a way of thinking that focuses our mind and heart towards God through Jesus. There is also a way of thinking that turns in on itself, even with thoughts about God, that doesn’t help us much. Here’s one way of talking about our distracting thoughts in the context of prayer that I recently read and found helpful:

“As likely as not, without any deliberate intention on your part, you will actually find yourself chasing the first thought with a second one, such as “I must stop this‑I’m not supposed to be thinking”. That easily leads to an infinite regression, one thought trying to catch another. There is no need to take any notice of any of them! Thoughts are a bit like spoilt children trying to attract attention to themselves. If you ignore them, refusing to be distracted by them, then sooner or later they will get bored and go away.” (Tugwell, Simon. Prayer in Practice. Springfield: Templegate Publishers, 1974, p. 39.)

For example, when I sit down to prayer, often a whole series of distracting thoughts will cross my mind:

  • I really should look through my email inbox really quick and make sure I’ve answered the critical ones.
  • Is there something I forgot to do that needs my attention?
  • I wonder who has posted something on Twitter or Facebook that I’d be interested in.
  • I feel hungry, tired, distracted, worried, fearful, etc., so I’m not at my best to pray right now. I’ll pray later.
  • I need to use the restroom, check the mail, straighten up my desk, finish just one more “to do.”
  • Etc, etc., etc.

If I latch onto or act on these thoughts, they really can become an ongoing string of continued thoughts that draw me away from my intended attentiveness to Jesus. I let myself become distracted by my distractions, worried about my worries, afraid that I’m feeling fearful, frustrated with my frustrations. There is a way of continuing to offer my attention to Jesus, simply and peacefully while allowing all those noisy, distracting thoughts chatter away, but more in the background.

For Reflection or Comment: What do distracting thoughts look like when you stop to offer your attention to God and pray? What have you found helpful in resisting the temptation to get wrapped up in such thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts About Our Thoughts

  1. helpful post, Alan. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and have found it helpful to think of my thoughts as a running ticker tape across the bottom of my mind’s “screen” – I’m aware of them, but just let them go by.
    Peace,
    Scott

    • That’s a really helpful metaphor for me. A little more helpful than things floating by in a stream (since streams are such a rarity here in Southern California!). Thanks!

    • That’s a really helpful metaphor for me. A little more helpful than things floating by in a stream (since streams are such a rarity here in Southern California!). Thanks!

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