Many times, I hear from directees who say they have trouble sitting for an hour for mental prayer, Lectio, or a meditation in the spiritual exercises. And during that time, they describe trying to control their attention due to so many distractions and are exhausted from what is happening and feel too discouraged hinting at giving up for not doing it right.
In looking at how the brain and the mind function, there is much we do not know, for it will always be a mystery. Yet today we can observe more how God designed us - for there are many clinical or non-clinical considerations that affect one’s initiative and activity. There may be health reasons where pain or certain disabilities prevent a lengthy time frame of sitting in prayerful silence. We have to remind ourselves as Fr. Jacques Phillipe writes in "Time for God", all is grace for prayer is not a method or even restricted to time.
Time: Interior (Mental) prayer can occur at any time, and for any length of time for it rises from the heart from the grace of the invitation where the heart and Heart meet. Beginners to certain prayer methods may need to become familiar with those few physiological limitations. There are neuroplastic changing that must take place in the brain over a period of time. It takes practice for the brain (with the mind) to build up to a length of time to stay attentive. That is why it is an iterative process starting with 10 minutes and adding additional time little by little.
Attention: Our brains naturally wander, it’s called 'mind wandering' where the mind easily slips back into the past then forward into the future, into the present, makes a detour on a different topic, and starts another journey into the future. It takes a practice of awareness to notice where we’ve been, and how we can bring ourselves back to the center, the center of our soul where hearts (the soul) touch. (The more we practice, the less time between wandering and noticing becomes less and less.) Soon those wanderings are less frequent, and those intrusive thoughts become less distracting.
Distractions: Thoughts and images will always flow in and out because our brain is always working in the background, it never sleeps. We need to be aware – the discernment of spirits is operational here. If these are thoughts are of God we respond in interior conversation; and if they are our own and not a distraction, we let them flow in and flow out, if they are a distraction we bring them to God; and if the thoughts are of the enemy, we are to ignore them and say a prayer, then give no notice and return to the place that you last felt consoled.
Many are able to listen attentively or notice more interiorly while externally focusing on an icon or attending adoration, and find it is as if time stands still – it is two different sections of our brain that are operational.
“There is room for a certain amount of initiative and activity on the human side, the whole edifice of the life of prayer is built upon God’s initiative in his grace. We must never lose site of that fact for one of the permanent and sometimes subtle temptations of the spiritual life is to rely on our efforts and not on God freely given mercy.” p11