A common problem for Orthodox Christians is being attacked by worldly thoughts while praying. I’m no exception. Due to my overactive imagination, my thoughts stray during prayer, and rarely does a minute go by where my mind is completely pure and focused on the Lord God. The attacks can be so bad that, even though I know of the Orthodox concept of “watchfulness,” I indulge in thoughts, sometimes even pausing my prayer to do so. Nonetheless, the first step for me in being watchful is knowing what type of thought categories Satan uses to distract me. I’ve identified 16 of them through experience.
Someone did something that has made you mad or upset. While praying, you may imagine ways to confront the person or convince yourself how bad they really are. Satan likes focusing your anger on a person rather than material objects, such as bad weather, to stir up your passions more strongly. Also, I was told by a priestmonk that irritation has its root in anger, so thoughts of being irritated by someone would also classify.
Example of distracting thought during prayer: “I don’t believe my mother falsely accused me of dropping orange juice on the floor. Next time she does that, I’m going to tell her off!”
Anxiety and fear
You’re worried about something that may happen or has already happened. You dwell on negative or catastrophic outcomes. Anxiety is common in our generation. All of us could probably be diagnosed with some sort of “anxiety disorder.”
Example: “Are they going to mandate the vaccine at my job? If they do, how will I earn an income? Maybe I’ll starve.”
I often have thoughts of sensations of my body and how to take better care of it. This is most commonly related to temperature, whether I’m hot or cold, and any discomfort in my feet. I also think of ways I could make my body more comfortable.
Example: “The lumbar support cushion in my car is a bit hard. I wonder if Amazon has a different style that I can buy.”
During prayer, you may suddenly get the urge to examine your skin, explore your ear canal for pieces of wax, remove lint from your navel, pop a pimple on your head, stretch, crack your knuckles, smell your hair, or play with your beard.
Example: “This zit on my forehead just won’t pop. Let me try to scrape it with my fingernail one more time while I recite the Nicene Creed and see if there is any white juice.”
I find that thoughts of despair during prayer are often a sign of an acute demonic attack, and coincide with other disturbances of the soul. Here you will have thoughts of hopelessness, either for your salvation, material situation, or life in general. Take thoughts of despair seriously, because Satan is actively trying to upend your faith.
Example: “Prayer is too hard! I will never pray in peace!”
Events and news
You focus on things happening in the world, whether high-profile news or upcoming events in your social circle.
Example: “I wonder what the result of the election will be. If the conservative candidate loses, it’s the end of America.”
I commonly create grand fantasies in my mind that are oriented into the future. Fantasies are especially damaging because you’re attempting to escape from the current reality, similar to what drug addicts do.
Example: “If I lived in a log cabin, I would be so happy. It would be so peaceful and serene. I could watch the birds all day. I wonder how many logs I would need to build it. Let me count…”
You recollect the taste of the last meal you ate. Then you think of the next meal you will eat, and how tasty it will be. If you often cook like me, you may also imagine the recipes you want to make in the future. Often, I think of ways to improve recipes.
Example: “My banana bread was delicious, but a bit too dense. Should I use 50 grams less sugar next time?”
Judgment doesn’t lie far from thoughts of anger. You judge other people for not pleasing you or not being perfect like you.
Example: “I’m tired of African women almost hitting me with their bad driving. They are dangerous.”
Meta thoughts are small thoughts that describe what you’re currently experiencing while praying, such as the warmth from your prayer candle or the realization that you haven’t had a distracting thought in a while.
Example: “I think I’m experiencing grace right now because this prayer is better than yesterday’s.”
Sometimes you get bombarded with gibberish or trivia that seems comes from nowhere.
Example: “I wonder what’s the difference between brown eggs and white eggs.”
Past and memories
While my thoughts often stray into the future, I noticed many other people, especially women, linger in the past. Past memories, resentments, and grievances come up during prayer, often coinciding with anger and judgment. Other times, you think of pleasing episodes from travel or intimate moments with the opposite sex.
Example: “Living in Poland was so pleasant. I really miss the café culture and chocolate croissants.”
Thoughts of pride and superiority may be about how you’re skilled or accomplished in a certain area. You may also compare yourself favorably to someone else as if saying, “At least I’m not like that person.”
Example: “I read one new Orthodox book each month. I’m doing a great job maintaining the faith.”
Tasks and to-do
A big problem for me is I review chores and work tasks while praying. I even dive into the logistics of how exactly I’m going to execute a task. Sometimes I plan out my schedule and the times I should start baking my latest cake recipe.
Example: “If you start baking the masculine layer cake at 11am, and then make pancakes no later than 1pm, you’ll have time to do a live stream at 2:30pm.”
Theories and ideas
These are the pie-in-the-sky thoughts where you try to connect the dots from your education and life experience. There’s nothing wrong with that… but not while you’re praying. Sometimes I even draft articles like this one in my mind.
Example: “I should write an article on all the thoughts that attack me while I pray.”
The last category is vain thoughts about yourself. You review your strengths (or weaknesses), you commend yourself for a good deed, you wonder if you should get a haircut, you review your latest accomplishments, and so on.
Example: “I was really nice to that inquirer in church. Maybe I inspired him to take up the faith.”
Can distracting thoughts be stopped?
I’m still battling this problem daily so I can’t offer much advice on how to deal with it, but I can share some steps I’ve taken. First, I’ve come to accept that I cannot control whether or not a thought enters my mind, but I can control if it persists or lingers. If I proceed to feed distracting thoughts, what will happen is that I’ll only be technically reading the words of a prayer while having a conversation with myself concerning the thought. You can’t stop the thought of what you’re going to eat for dinner from entering your mind, but you can decide not to answer back with the name of an entrée and side dish. Don’t feed the thoughts.
Prayer is like driving on a highway. You’re in your lane, and up ahead you see a road sign. You glance at that sign but don’t fixate on it, because if you do more than glance at it, you will start to veer out of your lane. There are many cars on the opposite side of the highway. You glance but you don’t stare at them. There is a dead deer on the road. You don’t try to examine its guts. Otherwise, you will end up in a ditch. While driving you cannot control all the “distractions” in the form of signs, cars, or other objects, but you deal with them by staying in your lane and maintaining appropriate speed. In prayer, you cannot control the thoughts that come in, so treat them like road signs. Recognize them as a thought and leave them there as you pass by. To my rudimentary understanding, this is what Orthodox elders call being “watchful.” You observe the thoughts coming in, acknowledge them as distractions, but you don’t start a dialogue with them or with yourself about them.
In the process of learning how to become watchful, I noticed that it was helpful to name the thoughts that were coming in as if I were a baseball umpire. I’d be praying, and I’d remember the lunch I just ate. “Food!” Then later I’d think of how supermarkets have started to have empty shelves. “Anxiety!” Then I’d have a thought about riding a rented bicycle by my favorite Polish lake. “Past!” This helped me understand that there are no good thoughts during prayer, and that if a thought that entered my mind is important, I’ll surely remember it after prayer, even if it’s an idea for my next greatest novel.
My understanding of distracting thoughts has improved, but I admit that on some days, I don’t have the willpower or strength to not engage with them. I can go through whole prayer sessions having a conversation with myself about a dozen different matters even though I’m simultaneously “praying.” I try not to get upset because I know that God recognizes my puny effort. I persist until the next prayer where my willpower may be stronger.
For a new Christian like myself, I believe the key is perseverance. I know the types of thoughts that assault me and I know that Satan is using an intelligent, refined, and concerted program to distance me from God. I simply try my best to focus when I’m speaking with Him, because when I’m speaking with a mere human being, I would want them to focus on me instead of every other worldly topic under the sun that enters their mind. How much more important is it for us to pay attention when speaking to God.
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