Praying with Kavvanah (concentration) is very difficult.
Lest we think this is a modern problem reserved for the common person, think again.
Said R. Hiyya the great, “In all my days I never concentrated [properly on my Prayer.]One time I wanted to concentrate [properly]. So I meditated. And I said to myself, `Who goes up first before the king? The Arkafta [a high dignitary in Persia] or the Exilarch?'”
Samuel said, “I count birds.”
R. Bun bar Hiyya said, “I count rows of bricks.”
Rabbi Matna said, “I am grateful to my head for when I arrive at the Modim prayer, it bows on it’s own.”
[Y. Berakhot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 4.]
Rabbi Hiyya, Samuel and Rabbi Bun. bar Hiyya all tried to concentrate on prayer, but their thoughts wandered, one to politics, one to nature and one was so bored that he simply started counting the bricks in the wall. Rabbi Mata’s expression of thanks to his head testifies to another common challenge to praying with Kavvanah – rote action. Often our mouths are saying things that are disconnected from our mind.
When we read this passage we should feel a sense of common struggle – everyone struggles with prayer, even the greatest of religious figures.
But, we should also realize that despite their struggles we do not find that these rabbis gave up on prayer.
How can we overcome some of these struggles? How can we succeed in praying with Kavanah.
While there are many strategies, I would like to start with two (I plan on writing more about this).
One of the biggest challenges to prayer is that people are often not “in the mood” to pray. Some may not be feeling particularly grateful, others many not be in an introspective state of mind and others may simply be too busy.
The key here is to use prayer to make us feel prayerful. There is no doubt that it is hard to instantaneously get in the mood to pray. It is also true that the text of the prayers are there to move us. Words like, “Blessed are You, Lord, who forms the radiant light”, are there to awaken us to the marvels of the world. “You have loved us with great love, Lord our God, should move us to gratitude for the special relationship between God and the Jewish people as expressed by the Torah. Each and every prayer can be viewed as a means to rouse us to new and deeper understanding and appreciations of life. Do not wait to be in the mood to pray, use prayer to put you in the mood.
The second strategy is to realize that prayer is a cumulative experience.
Each prayer experience is a layer in the prayer career of an individual. Insights gained at one time lead to and add to the next prayer experience. As such, prayer gets better, more focused and richer the more we do it.
In this way, prayer is like many other aspects of life. Human relationships (marriage, friendships, family) grow and flourish from one experience to the next. Viewing the events of our lives as disconnected incidents robs us of the ability to grow from the wisdom of accumulation.
To take advantage of this reality, we need to pray with consistency.
Inconsistent praying simply does afford the same cumulative experience and leave us feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, tightly connected prayer opportunities can lead to an overall feeling of satisfaction and meaning in prayer.
Try these strategies for a few weeks. I think they will work. They work for me.