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4 Tips for Focused Prayer

4 Tips for Focused Prayer

©Miriam Karp
©Miriam Karp

I am a daydreamer.

On the one hand that’s good, because I am never bored. If I find myself in a dull lecture, or stuck in a long line at the market, my mind takes flight, dreaming of projects I’m working on, composing letters (okay, e-mails) to friends, or ruminating about essays on any of a thousand topics.

The downside of daydreaming is that sometimes I find myself miles away from where I want my mind to be. One challenge I face is concentrating when praying. I am religious when it comes to prayer– I consistently pray both Shacharit, the morning prayer, and Minchah,the afternoon prayer. I enjoy praying. I feel a special connection to the Creator of the World and I find prayer uplifting and comforting. I believe that G‑d really listens to me, small as I am, and that my prayers matter to Him.

However, I am human, and sometimes my mind wanders. So I’ve developed a few methods that help keep me focused during prayer:

Stop your train of thought. I remember once going to a class at the Berkeley Chabad House when I was a student, more than thirty years ago. The teacher, Rebbetzin Leah Drizen, said that when you become distracted during prayer and start thinking of other things, you may think that you should elevate your thoughts as an antidote. For example, she said, if you start thinking about a shopping trip, you might say to yourself: “I’ll think about putting Shabbat candles on my shopping list.” This is a mistake, the rebbetzin said. The thing to do is to stop, and redirect yourself back to the words of prayer.

It’s like what happens to me when I eat one or two (or three!) too many brownies. “I have to have an antidote,” I think. “I’ll eat a carrot.” That doesn’t make me feel better. So, I move on to a banana, or a pear, or something else I deem redeeming. Afterwards, I just feel fuller and no closer to feeling better. Once I finished with the brownies, I should have just stopped eating.

Point along. When I was a little girl, I would sit next to my mother during services, and she would hold my hand, extend my pointer finger and point to each word in the prayerbook with my finger. Now, I point to the words myself to keep focused. I don’t do this all the time, but when I feel distracted, my go-to practice is to point along.

Traditionally, we cover our eyes when saying the Shema prayer so that we can really concentrate with kavanah, proper intention. Since I don’t have all the prayers memorized, it would not be reasonable to always keep my eyes closed. But I have found the pointing method helps me to focus.

If you fail, smile and keep going. Sometimes I falter. But even when I do, I try to keep negativity at bay. We are commanded, “Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha,” “Serve G‑d with joy.” How can I do that when I am annoyed at myself? I try another trick inspired by my mother.

She told me that when you smile, it registers in your brain. Even if your heart is unhappy, it’s as if the smile deposits money into your brain’s happiness account. So when I feel frustrated—by anything—I smile, and I feel the subtle shift in my mood. I don’t try to think of other things to boost me up (“Oh, Jolie, your praying is a B-, but that brisket waiting at home is an A+), but I smile as I re-focus on the words in my prayerbook.

Pick one prayer to focus on. A friend told me recently that her kavanah during prayer was shot. Instead of trying to pray all of the Amidah, the “standing prayer,” with kavanah, she tried extra hard to concentrate on every word of the first paragraph.

The paragraph begins, “Blessed are You, L‑rd, our G‑d, and the G‑d of our forefathers, G‑d of Abraham, G‑d of Isaac and G‑d of Jacob.” Why is it that the blessing doesn’t say, “G‑d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” Why are the three separated? I heard once that it is because G‑d had a different, special relationship with each of our forefathers. Each of them approached Him in his own way, with Abraham instituting the morning prayer, Isaac the afternoon prayer, and Jacob the evening prayer.

The Amidah reminds us, not only of G‑d’s greatness and kindness, but also that He relates to each of us individually. We can each approach Him through prayer, not only with the prayers in our prayerbooks, but also with the personal prayers from our hearts. Knowing this is a real reason to smile.

Jolie Greiff is a journalist and a mother. She lives with her husband and two children in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.
Artwork by Miriam Karp.
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Rosa Brown Malden October 9, 2015

4 Tips for Focused Prayer I found these 4 simple tips very helpful. Especially number 4. I need to be reminded that focused prayer from the heart is also important. Reply

CM February 15, 2015

Praying out loud helps me. Reply

Bracha Goldman, Beersheva December 30, 2014

Excellent article Jolie!! Will share so many more can see your great suggestions for more concentration in our tefillah. May Hashem answer all our prayers l'tovah. Reply

CHEN EMILIE shanghai china December 14, 2014

Thanks G-D I do feel tha G-D is telling me what to do now:smile--no matter what happens,pray every day to him with bible and with my own words.He loves me----for sure,he is guiding me-----I can approach Him through MY prayer. Reply

S L Zacharowicz New York December 4, 2014

Pathway to Prayer, by Rabbi Mayer Birbaum, has an addendum with 50 techniques--recommended by rabbis ranging from ancient to medieval to contemporary rabbis, to help with one's concentration during prayer. Reply

yochanan December 4, 2014

praying is about being honest with G-d and with yourself.

prayer is at it's best when the person praying is doing T'shuvah at the same time.

G-d has Said many times that He will Listen to the prayer of an honest and humble person. Reply

ryan david lawrence port angeles, wa 98362 December 3, 2014

Prayer bs'd - It is good that you believe in Prayer and that God, Blessed be He, hears you. Thanks for the inspiring words. One quote from the Mishna that helps me is in regards to impure thoughts. To ignore them is more meritorious than praise. Well, the Holy One, Blessed be He, has certainly given a challenge. May He hlp us to pray to Him correctly and in a right way. Peace upon Jerusalem. Reply

Daniel Liebenthal December 3, 2014

As the years pass and we continue to daven the same nusach, day after day, year after year, we wind up having 'sort of' memorized the prayers, without really having committed them to memory. As we daven we see a word of the text and receive it as a subliminal cue that reminds us of the phrase or sentence that follows. As a result, one winds up davening ahead of one's reading of the prayer. I believe this is when one's mind may wander, when we daven on automatic pilot, so to speak. The solution, I believe, is to read the prayers word for word, ie, to concentrate (the long sort after and mysterious kavanah), in agreement with your practice of pointing to each word of the text, one after another in succession. Reply

Chani Eretz Hakodesh December 3, 2014

Nice article. Down to earth. Helps us get our prayers up to the heavens Reply

Yakov Kirschenbaum New York via December 3, 2014


nice, practical article. yasher koach Reply

Michelle UK December 3, 2014

thankyou I smiled a lot reading your piece and you made some great points that I can remember and relate to. hugs. Reply

Antonio Martin-Natal December 1, 2014

BH Jolie, you gave me an uplift to my prayers. That happens to me when I pray in Hebrew, I want to say the words correctly and sometimes I don't. But I'm going to do what you said , smile and keep on praying. Blessings to you! Reply

Miriam Solganick December 1, 2014

Lovely article. Reply

yochanan November 30, 2014

interesting article, i find that i am unable to be distracted when i pray.

Shalom Aleichem Reply

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