In my second post about Jewish prayer, I mentioned that I have always struggled a lot with formal prayer: the daily recitation of words out of a prayer book. I wrote: “It is very difficult to maintain kavana (intention, concentration, and focus) on the same exact words every single day… I know the idea is perseverance, continuing to ‘show up’ even when you don’t feel like it and even when you can’t do it as well as you’d like or should. And obviously, that’s something I need to keep working on.”
Well, I recently took an online course on mindfulness meditation through FutureLearn, and through the course I gained an insight that suddenly helped me understand something about why I’ve always struggled with formal prayer and what its benefits are.
Meditation is a discipline that involves controlling the focus of your attention, right? And prayer is a form of meditation. When I was in second grade, I was taught how to pray the amidah prayer, and I have a very clear memory of being taught that “prayer without intention is like a body without a soul”. Our teacher handed out a coloring page with this line, with a drawing of a doll on it, representing a body without a soul.
From that moment forward–pretty much my entire “praying career”–I believed that the goal was to pray with complete intention, and that any word I said without intention was a failure on my part.
I understood that it was supposed to be a struggle and that even adults weren’t always able to concentrate on the words when they prayed. Later in life, I learned that reading the words more slowly helped me concentrate on them better. But I was living with a constant sense of failure every time I picked up and put down my siddur–and didn’t even realize it.
I felt exactly the same way about meditation.
I suffered from anxiety as a child, and one of the effects was insomnia. I’ve had a lot of trouble falling asleep for much of my life. My dad gave me guided meditation and relaxation tapes to listen to at night, but they always seemed to have the opposite of the desired effect. The guy in the recording would say, “Now relax your feet…” and I’d be thinking, “Okay… but… I think they’re already relaxed… what if I’m not relaxing them enough?! He hasn’t gone on to the next body part, which means it’s supposed to take longer, what if I’m doing it wrong?!?!”
(You are already more well-acquainted with the neurotic and insecure voices in my brain than anyone should have to be, so this may sound familiar to you. 😛 )
Over time I learned more and was able to engage in meditation better, but I think there was always a subconscious element of stress around the feeling that to really be doing it right, I needed to be completely focused and have my mind totally clear. Ideally, I thought, I should not have to “gently bring my mind” back to focusing on my breath or whatever the focus of the meditation was. It should not be wandering at all.
And then, one of the facilitators of this FutureLearn course said something that turned this concept on its head.
He said the goal is not to train your mind not to wander.
Your mind is supposed to wander.
The goal is to train your mind to recognize when it has wandered, and then gently–without scolding, without judgment–bring it back.
And then I had a flashback to second grade and thought: what if kavana doesn’t mean preventing my mind from wandering?
What if it means bringing my attention back to the meaning of the words when my mind has wandered?
The word kavana, which I translate as intention or focus or concentration, comes from the root כ.ו.נ.. The verb form of this root, לכוון, means “to direct” or “to adjust” as in adjusting the focus of binoculars or the time on a watch. Maybe kavana in this context is not “being in total focus”, but rather “the act of focusing”.
And maybe this is a micro-practice of something we should be doing in real life: though it’s fine and normal to be focused on the mundane things that need our attention in the moment, we should always try to bring it back to the things that matter.
Thinking of it this way, the table of contents of the siddur reads like a list of Things That Matter:
- That I woke up healthy this morning
- That I have everything I need
- The miracle of creation and the beautiful world we live in
- That “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”
- The blessings and responsibilities our ancestors passed down to us
- The well-being of our communities
- Our hopes for the future
In my first post about prayer, I wrote that the verb for praying in Hebrew is reflexive, meaning it’s something you do to yourself; but I don’t think I ever understood what formal prayer was supposed to do for you until I had this insight.
It hasn’t revolutionized my life; I still don’t pray as often as I should. But when I am praying, and I find my mind wandering, instead of feeling frustrated that I’m “not doing it right”, I simply draw my attention back to the words I’m saying and think, “This is good practice.”
It’s definitely a better way to live!
P. S. This post is dedicated l’ilui nishmat Avraham ben Yacov Yitzchak v’Dina, in memory of my Zadie, who passed away on this day last year on the Hebrew calendar. Watching him pray with his tefillin and tallit is a strong memory I have of him. You can read more about him, and find a photo of him praying, here.