Why is it so Hard to Pray?
Oct 06, '05
I have a lot of trouble praying. I sit in synagogue and as soon as I start to
read the words, my mind wanders. Even when I read the English I find it hard to
focus. I suddenly start thinking about work issues or what's for dinner,
anything but the prayers. Am I wasting my time trying to pray?
Prayer can be a confronting experience. And that is exactly what it is supposed
to be. Prayer is an inner battle waged between two distinct sides of your
personality. Your spiritual self and your physical self, your body and your
soul, are each vying for control over your mind. And it is not a quiet
confrontation. Since you are expecting another child, I'll give you a metaphor
that you will very soon relate to.
The family dynamic changes dramatically when a second child is born. Upon the
arrival of a newborn, the older sibling often feels the need to compete for
their parents' attention. When the mother feeds her baby, the toddler gets
jealous. He will start making noise or playing up, anything to grab his mother's
This is an opportunity for the parents to educate the older sibling. Gently
reassure him that he isn't forgotten, he is still loved as before, but now he
has a little sister, and that means learning to share his parents' attention.
Right now the baby needs to be fed. When that is finished, he will get all the
attention he needs.
After laying down the law, any further disturbances from the toddler must simply
be ignored; you can't reward bad behaviour and give in to negative
attention-seeking. Just as the newborn needs to be fed in order to grow, the
toddler needs to be disciplined in order to develop as a person.
The same conflict is played out when we pray. We each have within ourselves an
innocent baby and an undisciplined toddler. Our spiritual side, the divine soul,
is as pure and innocent as a newborn. Our human, physical side - our body with
its desires - is instinctive and unrefined like a toddler; not necessarily evil,
We spend much of our day eating, sleeping and living in the material world,
looking after the needs of our toddler, the body. Prayer is the time when we
turn our attention exclusively to our baby, the soul. Whether we are conscious
of it or not, our soul feels nurtured and at peace when we pray. The soul is
nourished by the words, soothed by the songs and comforted by the mystical
rhythms of prayer.
But as we feed our inner baby through prayer, the toddler within feels
threatened. "You're getting all spiritual, but what about me?" the body asks. We
are then bombarded with distracting thoughts - I'm hungry, I'm tired, someone
owes me money, I have to water the garden - whatever the body can come up with
to get our attention off our soul and back down to earth. And so we struggle to
concentrate on the prayers with the barrage of diversions being thrown at us.
This doesn't mean you aren't praying properly. On the contrary, the more intense
the distractions, the more effective the prayer must be: your soul is being fed
and your body is getting nervous. Don't give the body the attention it seeks.
Rather, gently tell it that now is not the time; you are feeding your soul and
there will be plenty of time to feed the body later.
Then, you are not only nurturing the soul, but also training the body to submit
to a higher cause. Feeding the baby and educating the toddler - that's Jewish