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How should you deal with distractions in prayer?

If you commit yourself to practicing mental prayer daily, talking with God from your heart, you soon will encounter difficulties. One of the most common is distractions. How can you navigate through them to grow closer to God? 
You have probably encountered something like this: You sit down to pray, but instead find yourself planning your day, reviewing a conversation or pondering a problem you are facing. Two temptations then arise: to be lazy and allow the distractions, or get anxious and frustrated over your seeming lack of control.
Distractions in prayer are perfectly normal. Everyone encounters them. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that saints have easy, beautiful prayer times routinely. When we study their lives, we quickly realize how wrong that notion is. Many saints struggled with distractions for years. Yet they persevered. We too should persevere through our difficulties if we want to succeed.
One of the biggest mistakes people make about distractions is worrying over them. Some people are so concerned about their wandering minds, that they drive themselves to distraction, if you’ll forgive the pun, seeking a solution. Some look for a secret to overcoming them. They might turn to techniques like mindfulness, then spend more time practicing hyper-focusing than they do talking to God. 
That is not the route you want to go, but neither should you lazily let your mind wander. Let’s consider a few alternatives.
One of the easiest ways to minimize distractions is to pray first thing in the morning. Pray before you have to deal with rush-hour traffic, discipline problems at home or whatever tends to occupy your mind. If praying first thing is not possible, try some quiet activity before prayer, like a little reading or a crossword puzzle, as a calming transition.
Using digital media just before prayer almost always causes distractions. In fact, watching TV or movies, playing video games or getting into arguments on Facebook can distract you even hours later. That goes for listening to music as well. Practice moderation in your media usage and you will be able to focus on God more easily.
Another important practice is getting enough sleep. Distractions, let alone dozing off, plague a tired mind. Praying just after a large meal often produces the same results.
The format of your prayer can help you keep your mind on God. You might start by picturing yourself laying distractions at Jesus’ feet. Or ask your guardian angel to keep distractions at bay. If a certain person comes to mind during prayer, briefly pray for him or her, then turn your thoughts back to God. Sometimes such thoughts can be from the Holy Spirit, but we don’t want to follow rabbit trails. We must be discerning.
Your distractions might indicate virtues you need to cultivate or disordered attachments. Turn gently back to God as well as you can while you are praying. After you finish prayer, you can reflect a few moments on what distracted you. If you kept rehearsing an argument, for example, ask yourself why it’s so important to you. Do you always need to be right? Are you overly critical? Do you care too much about trivial things? Getting to the root of your distractions helps more than just trying to ignore them.
Distractions cannot harm your prayer unless you consent to them. Used prudently, they may even bring you closer to your goal, which is intimacy with Christ.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of The Contemplative Rosary just released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.

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