Tips on How To Quiet Our Minds for Prayer

This week, I want to make sure I respond to your questions!  I know that my responses are often delayed by months, and there are probably a few questions that came to me that I didn’t answer. If you have a burning question about discernment, or specifically about religious life, please email me or add a comment! I will try to be  proactive in the next two months and respond to your questions, either individually or as a post, within a week or so.

Recently, someone posted a comment to one of my posts about silence. I thought the question was excellent, so I’m reposting the question here, as well as my response.

I was wondering if you had any tips on how to BE silent? Whenever I try to meditate on a reading in silence, or go for a walk, or spend some quiet time in my room to pray, I find my mind instantly wandering to other things. How can I focus quieting my mind, not just my environment?

Entering into silence is often daunting or uncomfortable. Here are a couple of things I did when I first tried to pray silently. Even today, when I’m especially distracted I still go back to some of these, especially #s 1, 3, 4, & 5.

1) Start small. Try to focus your attention for a very short time–maybe 2 to 5 minutes. When your mind wanders (and this happens to all of us!), as soon as you realize it, bring your attention back to what you’re meditating on. Try meditating or praying quietly for 5 minutes a day. After you feel that you are able to focus for about half of that time, increase it to 10 minutes, and so on. Many people pray silently or meditate on the Word of God between 20-30 minutes a day.

2) What time are you choosing to pray? Prayer–especially contemplative prayer–is hard work, so it’s a good idea to find a fairly consistent time when we are quite alert, but not imminently distracted about our responsibilities. This is why early in the morning is a good time to pray for many people; others are able to pray best in the evening–after supper or before bed.

3) If you’re meditating on a reading, choose just one sentence or phrase that “resonates” with you and re-read it slowly several times. What comes to mind as you re-read it? What about this phrase stands out for you? Even if no thoughts or insight arrives, savor the sentence or phrase. Simply spending time with the Word of God and allowing it to enter deep within us can be deep prayer and transformative.

4) Look at the sources or “fonts” of your prayer. If you’re struggling to “quiet” your mind, choose a source that is easier to enter into. The Word of God is the best “font” for our prayer, but different passages are easier than others. For example, it took me several years to learn how to pray with the letters of Saint Paul, while praying with the Gospels–especially with the stories of Jesus healing people–was much easier for me to enter into. Needless to say, I used to pray mostly with the Gospels! Pick a book of the Bible–and the Gospels are ideal–that you can read more easily.

If you’re struggling to read the Bible or if you feel especially distracted, you can pick a spiritual writer that engages you, whom you really like to read. Sometimes another person’s insights can enable us to enter into silence a little more deeply or easily.

5) Talk to God about what you read or are trying to pray with–a spontaneous conversation. If you’re by yourself, you can even talk out loud! Make sure you give God space to respond to you. If you really find it impossible to concentrate, talk to God about what’s on your mind. Once again, after you have opened your heart to the Lord, make sure you take time to listen to his response. You may not “hear” any words or “feel” anything, but even making an act of faith that God is present by listening for him will bear fruit in your day.

6) Choose an environment that enhances your ability to concentrate. For example, try praying in a quiet chapel. If you’re praying in your room, create a simple prayer-corner with a religious image, statue or crucifix, a prayer book, a Bible, and a comfortable chair. If you like to pray outside, pick a beautiful but quiet place. Wherever you choose to pray quietly, use the environment to quiet your mind: focus on the religious image in your room; offer your heart to the Lord as the candle that is burning in the chapel sanctuary; etc. Using beauty or religious imagery to enter into prayer often engages our emotions and enables us to “bypass” our mind’s noisiness and encounter God in our hearts.

* * *

There are so many styles of prayer, and it’s helpful to pray in a variety of ways, depending on what’s going on in our lives, where we are in the moment, how much time we have, and how we feel. Prayer doesn’t always need to be silent or contemplative:

  • Vocal prayer is the easiest way to pray as a community together.
  • Praying amid the bustle of the day is the easiest way to connect with God or stay connected with God. Snatching a moment on a subway commute, praying the Rosary when we’re out for a walk, or making short acts of faith and love while waiting in line at the grocery store are ways that we sanctify our day.
  • But we also need quiet or more focused times when we can have “quality” conversations with God. The quiet in our prayer is important because it helps us develop the habit of listening for God and to encounter God more fully in the depths of our hearts. 

How To Discern If We Are Uncomfortable with Silence

métis 56A second obstacle to interior listening is a restlessness or discomfort with silence or deeper reflection.

If someone isn’t used to a lot of silence or more contemplative forms of prayer, some restlessness or discomort with silence is not truly an obstacle at all, but simply something to become used to. Starting out small—five or ten minutes of quiet prayer—is manageable for many people on a daily basis. (If five minutes seems unbearable, try starting with just two minutes—there are some good two-minute meditation books available. God is not limited by time. He can do in one second what would take us a century…or would simply be impossible for us to do on our own.)

Often, inner restlessness or an inability to sit still can arise because we are currently suffering a profound loss or grief; the pain that we feel surfaces every time we start to quiet down, so we shy away from silence. This is a time to be gentle with ourselves. It’s good if we can still take short times of silence or quiet prayer, acknowledge the pain long enough to be aware of it and to offer it to the Lord, but then move on to another form of prayer or some other activity that soothes us. For example, instead of sitting still in Eucharistic adoration, take a prayer walk and pray the Rosary, or repeat a phrase from Scripture that is meaningful while we walk. When we are too restless to sit still, we can find other ways to pray and listen to God, such as journaling, art-journaling, listening to music or a song that reminds us of God’s love for us, etc. Eventually, our inner restlessness will pass and we can return to quiet prayer.

If we struggle regularly with an inner restlessness that makes silence or quiet prayer times uncomfortable, this could mean we are simply uncomfortable with the thoughts and feelings that arise when we are quiet. If quiet prayer and reflection haven’t been part of our lives, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings can truly become overwhelming. If this is the case, beginning slow—with even two minutes of reflection—is helpful. A structured method for praying—such as lectio divina, centering prayer, or Eucharistic adoration—can also be useful because it gives us a place to focus in the quiet. (Some resources are listed below.) If thoughts or feelings arise that are deeply troublesome, speaking to a counselor or trusted mentor about them can help us to sort through them.

Quiet, reflective prayer times are important for the deep listening that discernment requires, but God works with us individually, where we are, responding our specific needs and desires right now. Total silence can be helpful but is not always necessary (or even possible). Freedom from distractions so that we can listen deeply to the Lord is what we are looking for. Sometimes soothing music, or a prayerful practice—such as journaling or a form of art—can be more helpful than silence in leading us into a spirit of prayer.

Please Reflect & Share:

  • Where do you stand with silence today?
  •  What has helped you enter the silence of prayer when you have struggled with it?

Your sharing here (or anonymously by emailing me, and I will post your response) may be enormously helpful to another discerner.