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All In Podcast: Does Your Mind Wander While You're Praying? You're Not Alone (and Why That's Okay)

by | Aug. 17, 2019

On this week’s episode of All In, host Morgan Jones and guests Ty Mansfield and Jacob Hess had an interesting conversation regarding prayer as a form of practicing mindfulness, specifically, overcoming the tendency of the mind to wander during prayer. In his book, Letters to a Young Mormon, author Adam Miller also discusses this idea. The quote below from Miller, who is quoted in the upcoming Deseret Book release The Power of Stillness, authored by Mansfield and Hess, serves as inspiration for the conversation from the episode.

“When you pray, notice how the same thing happens almost everything. You address God, and then you start to think about what you should say. And then this prompts you to think about something else, and then, caught up in thinking about this other thing, you forget that you were saying a prayer. Your brain browns out. Eventually, after a few minutes, you remember why you were kneeling there in the first place. This moment is the key. When, for the first time, you remember this, your prayer can start for real.

“Don’t be discouraged. The substance of a prayer is this willingness to remember, to heave your wandering mind back, once more, in the direction of God, and then, when it drifts off yet again, to heave it still another time. To pray is to practice remembering God. The more frequently you forget, the more chances you’ll have to remember, and the more you remember, the deeper your prayer will go. With patience and practice, you’ll remember God more often. Soon, instead of forgetting God for whole minutes at a time, you’ll remember him every half minute or so. When you get that far, keep going! As your prayers gather momentum and that frequency increases, your connection to God will not just spark but burn. And when that happens, the lights will come on. And you’ll wake up.” 

Listen to the full conversation from All In regarding the quote in the player below. 

Morgan Jones: Before you ever quoted Adam Miller about prayer and the wandering mind during prayer, I was already thinking of that quote . . . he talks about when your mind wanders during prayer and that that's okay. That prayer is practice, and just as in yoga or meditation, you call your mind back when you recognize that it's wandering, that the same is true in prayer. How would you say that prayer is a practice in stillness?

Jacob Hess: Yeah, I think Adam uses the verb “heaving” the mind back, like it wanders off and you heave it back. When you meditate, you notice that the mind has wandered, and you bring it back, and you notice the mind has gone, and you bring it back so that there's this practice. It's not about making the mind still. It's about noticing where the mind has gone and bringing it back. So in prayer, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who has my mind wandering during prayer. And so in a very similar way, it becomes a practice of bringing, bringing your attention back not just to the breath, but to God, to the person that we are communing with. And sometimes I will admit, when I'm really like, “My mind's all over the place,” I'll kind of let the conversation go for a minute and just breathe and let my attention kind of stabilize a little bit and then return my attention. And maybe even start prayer with a few minutes of just breathing and feeling the body and noticing what's on my heart, so that I'm not just blurting off. And I noticed that what I end up saying is very different. If I give a little bit of space on the front end, I say something different, because I'm noticing something different. To start, I'm noticing what's really on my heart, rather than just going into what I think I'm supposed to say. I'm saying what feels right to say. so prayer is a fascinating practice. 

I actually think it's the . . . greatest mindfulness practice there is because rather than just sitting in silence with yourself, you are communing with God. And my prayers have become more quiet, have more pauses. I like to have silence at the beginning at the end and even times of just sitting and searching and trying to—it's not always easy for me to know what I'm feeling, and so if I give a little time to that, it really changes the experience. I find a lot of my prayer becomes trying to find what I'm feeling and then trying to discern what God really wants. And then like noticing the discrepancy between where my heart is and where it seems like God wants me to be. And then the conversation really gets interesting, right? Like, “Wow, what do I do with this? I'm really angry right now, but I'm hearing you say I need to let go of this.” So let's talk about how, yeah, it becomes more like a therapy session with Ty. 

MJ: Yeah, which we all need.

JH: Like, like an actual . . . we're doing work in the prayer. We're working through things that are real in my life rather than, you know, this and this and that. And we're trying to teach our boys to make prayers, not just, like, saying the same three things over again. But we all do that. 

MJ: Absolutely. Well, and I, the thing I love about Adam Miller’s statement in Letters to a Young Mormon, is to me, it made me feel okay about those moments when my mind starts to wander. Because I think in the past, I'd always been kind of hard on myself, like, "Come on, Morgan. Like, you've been here for three minutes and your mind’s already somewhere else." But I think that since then, I've looked at it as God is merciful in that moment of the wandering mind. And so I've been super, super grateful for that.


Image title Adam Miller's Letters to a Young Mormon was originally published by the Maxwell Institute in 2013. The letters are meant for a young Latter-day Saint who is familiar with Latter-day Saint life but green in his or her faith. The author, philosophy professor Adam S. Miller, imagined himself writing these letters to his own children. 

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