Distraction in prayer

I remember the moment when I realised that most of the ‘noise’ that bothers me, is on the inside, not outside. The occasion was the first time I ever went on an eight day silent retreat. Obedient to the instructions I was given in advance, I had left all that could distract me at home, no novels, no radio. It was hard. Alone with myself and with endless time between meals I realised two things: how dependent I was on a whole scaffold of diversions, which protected me from spending any real time with myself and shielded me from the boredom I experienced when thrown on my own company; and, secondly, how noisy my head was.
It is only when we try to remain quiet, still and centred that we realise just how unquiet we are. Like a video for ever playing in our heads or a radio left on all night, our minds chatter and chatter, pulled swiftly from one thing to the next. We have imaginary conversations with ourselves and others. We go over old scenarios or future fantasies. We are pulled every which way by our emotions as we follow these dramas played out within us. There are even times of deep desolation as our memory takes us to past hurts which we thought we had dealt with long ago, or present grievances. The darkest of emotions are found here – envy, pride, anger, grief, loneliness and resentment. It engages all our attention and energy. It is noisy and exhausting. No wonder we do everything we can to avoid ourselves! BUT ALL THIS STUFF IS NOT REAL and that is the most important lesson we can learn. What is real is what is here and now, the present moment.
That is why so much prayer is about “practicing” being in the present moment. Trying over and over again when the mind wanders and the legion of voices inside our heads start calling to us, to come back and to attend to what is in front of us; what is in this moment. It is here, in the present, when we still the voices for an instant, when we are hushed and quiet, that we feel a presence deeper than the silence; that we know ourselves as part of something much bigger, much deeper, much more profound. This is a place without walls. We cannot define who we are in this place and we do not need to. We are simply here, now, still, at peace and awake to God.
However much we practice we cannot stay in that place. We always have to come down from the Mount of Transfiguration to the chaotic world below – and that is just as it should be. In my experience distraction in prayer is much more common than these times of wakefulness to the present moment. The conversations inside my head are very persistent. But I am learning that with a little bit of discipline I can chose, on occasions, not to engage with them, however tempting they may be. I can turn from them and just listen to the bird singing outside my window or sense my breathing, or know that I am typing at this moment, and I am back in the present. This is where I am alive and despite all distractions, I would rather spend a little more of my time here…now.