Why “Listening Prayer” Is Essential to Self-Improvement
“We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” –The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 11
Even if you don’t believe in a personal God—or don’t believe God speaks to people in the sense of giving individual answers to specific questions—some form of what’s called “listening prayer” is important for maintaining sobriety and maximizing your potential. When you take time to distance yourself from the immediate bustle and open your mind to deeper things, you open a channel to receive the insights, approaches, and solutions you need most.
To practice the sort of prayer/meditation/deep thinking that clarifies your goals and purposes:
KNOW WHAT YOU BELIEVE
To discern what to do in a specific situation, you first have to be clear on the general principles that guide your decisions. You don’t need a ten-page mission statement: if anything, trying to figure out too many details in advance will hamper you by limiting your options. It’s best to start with a simple, basic statement such as:
- “I want to live according to the principles set forth in the Bible.”
- “I want to maintain my integrity at all times.”
- “I want to focus on helping other people in the most effective ways.”
- “I want to stay true to myself and become the best version of myself I can possibly be.”
Once you know what you stand for, you won’t fall for temptations to always take the expedient or painless route.
MAKE THE TIME
Be careful about starting with a full “day in prayer.” If you try to transition directly from constant distraction to unbroken hours of quiet, you’ll probably fail to find those hours and wind up making no change at all. Either that, or you’ll set aside a full day once, find yourself incapable of handling the quiet and the resulting inrush of thoughts (people do get panic attacks from too much “pause” too quickly), and never attempt listening prayer again.
Start with just ten or fifteen minutes every day, or even every other day. Give yourself time to get comfortable with being still and quiet. As you learn to listen, you’ll find it easier and more natural to set aside longer periods.
Do practice your listening prayer in as solitary and silent a place as you can find. If you lack access to a designated “prayer closet,” go into your own room, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, and slip on a pair of white-noise headphones. You can always find adequate privacy if you’re committed to it. Methodist preacher John Wesley told how his mother raised 19 children and still managed a daily prayer time, by sitting down and pulling her apron over her head as a “Quiet Zone” signal.
Don’t read, go through lists, listen to songs with lyrics, or even think too hard. While all of these are useful in their place, deep-meditation time isn’t that place: you want to keep the outside world and even your own thinking habits from putting preconceived ideas in the path of what you need to hear. Input should be limited to:
- A specific focus point that can be summed up in a few words (usually a spiritual concept or scripture verse that emphasizes the direction you want to go)
- White noise or wordless meditative music that helps you focus your thoughts
- The sensory effect of a comfortable room and relaxed physical position
Do know that stray thoughts will try to fill the vacuum in your mind, especially at the beginning. Practice letting these thoughts roll by without giving them your deliberate attention. Trust that if something’s really important, it will come back to you when needed.
TAKE “NO”—OR “YES,” OR “GO”—FOR AN ANSWER
That is, once you feel a clear leading, don’t let yourself be deterred or distracted from acting on it. This is all too easy once your body and mind return to the material world with all its “shoulds” and “what ifs.” Questions of “Did I hear right?” and “What about all these obstacles?” and “How will I do it?” will paralyze you if you let them gain a foothold. Make up your mind that you will do what your deepest self knows is right, however daunting it looks from where you stand.
Remember, Alcoholics Anonymous speaks of trusting a Higher Power not only to tell you what to do, but to give you power to carry it out. Whether you’re deep in prayer or in the middle of a hectic work schedule, let faith and confidence be your guides!