Listening to God and Stilling Our Wandering Mind
Do you feel drawn to exploring God in silence?
In this article, Emma Lowth considers some aspects of contemplative prayer, or Listening Prayer. It is part of a series of articles that Discovering Prayer is publishing about different ways of thinking about prayer.
Certain arms of the church have viewed contemplative prayer with some suspicion at different times. But when it is part of a healthy spiritual diet of reading the word of God and joining in with a church community, this Listening Prayer - resting with and focusing on God in silent meditation - can be immensely fruitful and help us to become aware of God's presence in our lives.
In Romans 8.26, Paul says that the Holy Spirit dwelling within us helps us to pray beyond our own feeble efforts:
'We do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.'
It's as though sometimes we need to stop trying to put our prayers into words, because our God is truly unfathomable and, though we need to pray, we cannot possibly know how or what to pray.
Yet, when we do start spending time with God in silence, the first hurdle we face is how to deal with the wanderings of our own mind. What's going on? And how can get our minds to focus on God in this time?
So in this article, I'll be looking at:
Why is my mind so noisy?
When I finally stopped, and spent time in silent prayer, the first thing I noticed was how much noise there was going on inside.
If you have ever spent time on the platform of a busy train station, then you know it is a very good picture of what it can be like inside our own heads. Thoughts come roaring in and out like trains, stopping just long enough to unload a few ideas and emotions, before hurtling on as the next thought comes in behind.
It can be quite an overwhelming experience, and it's little wonder that we find all sorts of ways to try to block this noise out in our idle time, by listening to music, checking our phones, watching a video or reading a book.
I wish I had known back then what I know now. Then, like Michelle, Discovering Prayer's Director, I might not have been so impatient with myself.
All this internal noise comes from what neuroscientists refer to as our default mode network (Gilbert 2007). It's a set of tracks in our mind that activate 'by default' when we are not involved in a particular task and our brain is in a state of 'wakeful rest'. It is the network around which zoom all of the ideas that our mind is processing about ourselves and about other people. It is also the network that helps us to remember the past and plan for the future.
That definitely sums up the kind of anxious thoughts I find charging through my mind when I try to listen to God, and I'll hazard a guess it's the same for you.
How reassuring to know, then, that this mind-wandering is not something that's wrong with me. It is simply how we are made.
More than that, the default mode network is important and helpful, because it's the way we evaluate the interactions we have with others, and understand the story of life that is going on around us. It helps us to find meaning and to make good moral decisions.
What should I do with these thoughts?
It is all too easy to see these wandering thoughts as a distraction preventing us from focusing on God, because they can feel like worries or anxieties blocking us from thinking about 'holy' things.
In fact, having noisy mind is actually a sign that we might benefit from more time in quiet contemplation.
Scientists have discovered that those who regularly practise meditation and contemplative prayer have far less activity going on in their default mode network. Prayer gives the brain the chance to process these thoughts and so it can exist in a far less frantic state. It still does what it needs to do, but is much more peaceful.
Did you ever read the children's book We're Going on a Bear Hunt ? A family sets out on an expedition to catch a bear, and on the way they come across all sorts of obstacles blocking their path. Each time they come across a new obstacle, such as a particularly big and muddy puddle, they look for a way to get around it. But they realise that they can't. There is nothing for it:
'We can't go over it, we can't go under it...oh no! We'll have to go through it!'
As we set out to encounter the living God, we need to take a lesson out of this book! Our brains are crying out to us for the chance to process the noise we have in our minds, and the only way to still that internal noise is to go through it.
It is daunting, of course. When I first tried silent prayer, it was far from the peaceful experience I was hoping for. I found myself pounding my fists on the floor in frustration at all the distractions in my mind, horrified at all the unholy musings that were popping in.
Then, eventually, something happened.
One morning, sitting in the noisy silence, I found myself entering into a new place of peace and focus. All the noise of the default mode network was still there, but it had retreated to the background and wasn't clamouring for my attention anymore. It was rather like I'd been swimming along in a noisy public swimming pool for weeks and then, all of a sudden, taken a dive underwater. All the noise was muted and here now was a peaceful place where I could focus beyond myself.
To start with, this experience was fairly fleeting, but as I carried on in silent prayer I began to find I entered this space more quickly and for longer periods.
Let's be clear – this experience of moving beyond our immediate thoughts into a quieter inner space is not itself Listening Prayer. It is an important stage in a journey towards tuning into the heart of God. As yet, we have listened only to ourselves. In order to listen to God, we need first to learn to be quiet. This is just Part One.
We should also be clear that the internal noise never goes away for good. It will come and go, and this is natural. Some times there is more on your mind than at others. The key is not to worry about your worries, but keep 'turning up' to pray and listen.
Three tips from Psalm 139 to help a wandering mind
Here are some helpful tips, taken from Scripture, for dealing with the internal noise that assails us when we first start listening to God in prayer. Let Psalm 139 be your companion as you start out.
Tip 1: Remember that God knows everything about us already
The thoughts that pop into our minds in the silence may be a surprise to us, but they are not a surprise to God. We cannot disappoint God because God knows everything about us better than we do. As you begin a time of silent prayer, why not start by reading the first two verses of Psalm 139 aloud to yourself and to God:
'You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.'
Tip 2: Don't be hard on yourself
Remember that the thoughts that enter your mind are there because your brain is working hard to process everything that has happened to you. God made us this way for our good. When the internal noise feels like a torment, read verses 13 and 14 and praise God for making your inmost being.
'For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.'
Tip 3: Don't resist your thoughts, but ask God to lead you through them
The thoughts in our minds are not going to go away. It's how God has made us. So there is no point resisting them or trying to distract ourselves from them – we have to go through them. But we cannot do this on our own. Using the words of verses 23 and 24, ask God to lead you through your thoughts and reveal the truth about them.
'Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.'