One of my struggles in prayer has been distractions due to thoughts that interrupt my efforts to establish a relationship with God. After many years of struggle I was awakened the other day by an article on prayer by Heiromonk Peter Seregin. The Orthodox Word published an article on him and included his article Thoughts on Prayer (pdf).
Sometimes it happens that a person stands at the time of his prayer rule and goes through the words memorized prayers, while at the same time various extraneous thoughts about life's affairs and plans dig into his mind and recollections, and cares attract his heart (feelings), and instead of prayer, he turns out to be engaged in something not only empty but sinful. Of course this is not prayer, but hypocritical idle talk before God.This got my attention. Before I was taking this issue rather lightly thinking this was normal and I simply needed to recognize the distraction and return to my prayer. But I now realize how sinful this distraction is and that it is me who lets it continue. It is only my laziness that limits my prayer life. As I reflect on it, how could anyone not think that allowing such distraction to enter into one's mind during prayer is none other than "hypocritical and idle talk before God"? In prayer I am seeking a personal relationship with my God, my Creator, my Lord and Savior, and while doing this I let my mind wander to mundane worldly issues. How disrespectful can I be to let this happen when at the same time I am uttering words addressed to God!!
I now know it is a grave sin I am committing. I now have the necessary motivation to make some changes, to become a stronger fighter in this spiritual war we are all engaged in. I need to better prepare myself for my prayer.
Fr. Peter says,
This happens when, before prayer, we did not have the total resoluteness to "lay aside all earthly cares"; when the predilection for worldly and created things is dearer to us that the Lord God and His Heavenly Kingdom, to which He is calling us; when we are slothful in the labor of piety and have let our hearts slide into easy and cheap pleasures; when we have approached prayer unprepared, light-mindedly, and negligently.... Distraction is a sign of our laziness of soul and is the fruit of negligence.I began to examine the nature of my distractions. Sometimes it was about something I had done wondering if I had done it properly. Others were just pleasant events, still others about something I had to do in the future and had some anxiety about. Others were about issues I had with others or, in an indirect way, a judgment on what they were doing. Occasionally, it was for someone who needed prayers or had requested prayers.
Fr. Peter offers his views on the nature of these distractions:
Extraneous thoughts come at prayer for various reasons: either a person remembers something he liked, which once influenced his heart; or our [fallen] nature, unbridled by abstinence, draws his heart to sinful daydreams. In a word, the chart gathers vanity and iniquity into itself and gives birth to idle or sinful thoughts.I think the phrase "sinful daydreams" fits most of my distractions.
Fr Peter goes on to say,
When the mind is united with the heart in prayer, when it is vigilant and watches over the reverence and purity of the heart, the evil spirits cannot easily sow their pernicious tares in a man's heart or entice his mind away to soaring, sinful daydreams, for the mind is then praying together with the heart....For prayer, and perhaps for good works as well, zealous concentration and constancy of soul are required..... Remember the moment that prayer ceased, and what events, activities, and experiences there were at that time. try to understand what in you conduct was especially offensive to God during that period...It is necessary for us to be ever vigilant and to continually examine our daily behavior as it is in our daily activities that the seeds of distraction are sown. These distractions in prayer can give us clues about what needs to change in our daily lives. In addition we can become more resolute to fight these distractions, better prepared for true prayer, and not let distractions take us away from prayer by recognizing that when we do so, we are engaging in a most sinful act, mocking our God.
More on Orthodox prayer