Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 22 November 2014 / 29 Heshvan 5775

Perplexed in Prayer

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Ben

Dear Rabbi,

I find that often when I daven, rather than having an uplifting experience of holy thoughts, I actually get a flood of distracting mundane thoughts. It’s like all of a sudden I remember something I was supposed to do, or somewhere I am supposed to go, or some solution to a problem at work, or any number of things that have nothing to do with my prayer. Do you have any explanations why this is and what I can do about it?

Dear Ben,

Don’t get bent out of shape because of this. It’s extremely common and there are several reasons.

The first is simply this: Prayer is a great thing and a very important mitzvah. Therefore the yetzer ha’ra is very interested in distracting us, disturbing our prayer and even discouraging us from it. Don’t be discouraged by these distractions but rather view them as an indication of just how important prayer is! This should give you the fortitude to repel these thoughts and concentrate more fully on the prayer itself.

Another reason for this dynamic is a lack of preparation. We are told in the Talmud that the pious of old would actually prepare for prayer a full hour before praying. In this way they were able to clear their minds of mundane matters and prepare themselves properly for the powerful experience that prayer is meant to be. Nowadays, for many reasons, we don’t do this, but if you can take at least a few minutes to gather and focus your thoughts beforehand, you’ll find it helps a lot.

A third reason why this happens is because of the uplifting power of prayer itself. The experience of prayer and its wording unlocks mental and spiritual gates that normally bar us from elevation. As these portals open, expanded awareness initially flows laterally, resulting in what feels like a flood of mundane thoughts. We’re usually so occluded that we don’t sufficiently consider even these temporal concerns properly. The proof is that they come to us just as we start praying.

But the fortitude and preparation I mentioned earlier should enable a person to harness this opening of the mind in a vertical direction for elevation in prayer. This influx of expanded potential through prayer may be compared to pouring out water from a vessel. If it’s poured out on a table, the water flows laterally in all directions; but if it’s poured into a glass, the water rises within the walls of the glass. Similarly, as the portals of prayer open and elevated consciousness flows in, it can either run off in all directions or be harnessed to elevate us back to its source!

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