Praying With Kavana: A Foolproof Solution to a 2,000 Year Old Problem

I. Introduction

You may be wondering about the title - it does need some explanation; especially if as the title suggests, I am going to suggest a foolproof method. Yes, make no mistake I am offering a foolproof method and a genuine one at that. Of course I need to explain what is meant by foolproof and what is meant by kavana. To be sure this is no play on words. If you follow the mental prescription I am going to suggest you will achieve a level of kavana that you most likely have not previously experienced.

With regard to kavana, I think most scholars agree that there are different levels of kavana when praying. Perhaps the most basic level on the one hand is just thinking about what the words mean as you read them during your prayers. On the other hand I think most people would agree that this is quite a daunting task if the standard is to have the meaning of the words in mind every time you say your prayers. Chazal I believe had at least this last standard in mind when they spoke of kavana while praying. Beyond this of course is having some sense of, closeness, communing, etc. with Hashem when praying. This last sense of the term kavana I am not going to address here. But rather the foolproof method that I am talking about is that of having the meaning of the words in mind every time you say your prayers. As difficult and as challenging a task as this may have been for you, I will describe here a fairly straightforward, simple to understand and most importantly doable mental procedure which if followed will allow you to achieve just this.

II. The Problem and the Problem With the Suggestions

The problem of praying with kavana is an age old problem dating as far back as when prayer started to become formalized towards the end of the second temple. Our sages recognized this problem and some of the earliest writings about this appear in no less than 3 places in the Talmud - Berachot pages 23, 28 and 31. Since then numerous articles and even books have been written on this difficult task. What heightens everyone’s concern is that apparently it is generally agreed by virtually all religious authorities that having kavana while praying is important. So, why is this such a difficult problem and what about all the articles and books with their suggestions on how to deal with it?

The human mind is a very complex organ. While you generally think you can control your mind, most people will generally admit that your mind does focus on things that you often do not intend and sometimes even on things that “you” do not want to be thinking about. Alas, your mind has a mind of its own! (Psychologists have technical terms for the various types of consciousness, but this is not a technical paper in psychology. So, rather than worrying about the correct technical psychological term I will just use the term your “mind’s mind” to describe the proclivity of your mind to wander.) Yes, at any given moment if called upon you can pretty much focus on whatever you want. The real struggle is when you try to focus your mind for a prolonged period on something very repetitive, like praying for example. Typically what happens is that you stay focused for a while but then your mind’s mind very stealthily manages to take over. There is no clarion call when the transition begins.   Alas if there were, you would snap to attention and reprimand yourself for almost losing control, and renew your efforts at keeping your mind on what it should be doing. (Keep this thought in mind, it will play a key role later in this article). No, nothing like this usually happens. It’s more like falling asleep. You don’t quite know when it happens and usually you are unaware when it happens. You “wake up” sometime later and only then realize that your mind has (one more time) wandered off some time ago. In the case of praying what this means is that not only by the time you “wake up” and realize that you are mentally far away from your prayers, you are also “physically” far away i.e. paragraphs or even pages from where you left off concentrating on your prayers. The transition can be so subtle and gradual that often you’re not even sure where you were in your prayers when it happened! From a practical point of view this really presents a problem. The first thought that comes to mind is, can I fix the situation? But one is left with a feeling of hopelessness in light of the fact that you are not even sure when your mind began to wander let alone that it often is paragraphs or even pages ago.

The problem I have found with the suggestions I have read is that they seem for the most part to try to help you stay focused on your prayers in the first place. This is certainly commendable. Unfortunately your mind’s mind is very subtle and forceful. Given enough time it seems to inexorably push your attention to other more enjoyable topics especially when the alternative is concentrating on repetitive prayers. The suggestions I have read do not seem to me to provide any easier means to concentrating on one’s prayers than the difficulty of dealing with the original problem itself.

III. A Procedural Solution and Some Caveats

One approach to solving the problem of praying with kavana which I present here is to try to address the issue of “catching yourself” that is catching your mind when it begins to wander, something like a safety net. A priori this is not easy for the reasons I mentioned in section II above. If we could just find some means of alerting ourselves when our mind begins to wander we could perhaps fashion a solution to our problem. Well, I don’t know of any way of doing exactly this, but I do have a procedure which comes close enough to this to basically accomplish the same result. Instead of alerting yourself when your mind begins to wander (very difficult) instead always “alert” yourself every few lines (not easy, but doable). That is to say, first pick a few lines of a prayer you wish to say with kavana every time you say the prayer. You may feel this way with all of the prayers - but a word of caution. Don’t bite off more than you can chew! This procedure is anything but easy. This should not be too surprising as you will now be focusing your thoughts every single time you say this prayer on the meaning of the words. This will require a lot of mental energy at first which is not easy. Start small and work your way up. This way you can become comfortable with the procedure and become better able to judge how much and how fast you can implement the procedure on additional parts of your prayers. Once you have selected a few lines make sure you can readily translate all of the Hebrew words. Next whenever possible (and this should be almost always) read your prayers out of a siddur. Do not try to implement this procedure when praying from memory on a frequent basis. Not that it won’t work, but for whatever psychological reason, it is much more difficult to use this procedure when saying the words from memory than if you see the words in front of your eyes. (This brings to mind an admonition of many of our sages including the Chofets Chayim who recommended that one should pray out of a siddur and not from memory). One of the most important factors in using this procedure successfully is your determination and commitment to using it. This in turn is related to how difficult you find it to use. You do not want to do anything which will make an already challenging procedure even more difficult and praying from memory will make it more difficult. Now when praying, each time you complete reading these few lines before proceeding any further ask yourself, did I concentrate on the meaning of every word I just read? If the answer is yes, great! continue on with the remainder of your prayers. If however the answer is no, then go back to the beginning of these lines and read them again in your mind, trying to concentrate on their meaning as you read them. You keep repeating these few lines in your mind as many times as necessary and each time at the end ask yourself did I concentrate on the meaning of every word I just read? Eventually you will come up with a yes answer. Only then should you continue on with the remainder of your prayers. This little procedure will guarantee that you concentrate on the meaning of the words provided you follow the procedure. As I said above it is not easy to follow this procedure but it does work and it is doable provided you are determined. If this procedure sounds like it may be too difficult for you, I suggest below a special part-time arrangement which is a little easier to maintain and does seem to work. Perhaps you can find success by implementing the procedure that way.

IV. Issues About Implementation

This section is largely based on my own personal experience using this procedure.

A. Mental Pressure and Acclimation

One of the most obvious changes you will notice immediately is that it takes longer to read each section of the prayers that you use this procedure on. This additional time required probably depends on many factors many of which may not be at all obvious. However, one major and very clear factor is how much mental pressure you feel from the daily pressures of life. The more pressure you feel the longer it will take to use this procedure to concentrate on your prayers. (Is it no wonder that Chazal and the Shulchan Aruch in particular, recommend that a person arrive early at the synagogue and spend time calming their thoughts before praying!) However, it does get easier to use the procedure as time goes on. Your mind “learns” that it is going to have to repeat the section of lines if it does not concentrate the first time so it begins to “behave” after awhile and often does what it is supposed to do. At this point you will be able to say your prayers without a large increase in the time required. However, make no mistake, your mind has a “mind of its own”. While the mental energy and the extra time it takes to use the procedure gets less, it does not go down to zero. You must spend some effort (determination) each time you read the prayers.   And, as I mentioned above if pressures in your daily life mount undoubtedly you will notice the amount of effort you (need to) expend will go up.

B. The Part-Time Issue

Because of this “tug-of-war” between mental pressure and effort needed to concentrate you may be wondering if perhaps say using the procedure periodically whenever you feel you have more time and perhaps don’t feel as much pressure, might be an effective strategy. Presumably it is better to use the procedure some of the time than none of time. However, I strongly recommend against trying to use this procedure on a “part-time” basis. In this context your mind is like water under pressure. Anything “it” can do to escape the commitment to concentrate it will try, including convincing you (it DOES have a mind of its own) that you should wait until tomorrow when the pressure will be off. But, as the famous line from ANNIE goes, “tomorrow – it’s always a day away”- before you know it you will be spending your time thinking about the procedure rather than using it.

There is however one special “part-time” arrangement which does seem to work, is effective and is a little easier to maintain. This special arrangement pertains to Shabbos. Specifically, pick a few lines of prayer that are said on Shabbos only and not during the week. In this way you can use the procedure “every time” except that in this context this means the commitment is only on one day out of the week. Again, your mind will try to convince you to avoid the commitment to concentrate. You will find yourself being confronted with arguments such as you do not have enough energy or you have too many concerns on your mind. But fortunately in this situation you have a “good” counterargument. You have the bona fide mental argument that “because it is Shabbos, you are supposed to be more relaxed with more time available and not subject to the pressures you feel during the week. So what excuse do you now have for not taking the time and using this method on a few lines of prayer?” This arrangement may work for you if you want to start out more gradually than with the daily commitment or if you cannot seem to make the daily commitment work.

It is somewhat ironic that by forcing yourself to use this procedure this way on Shabbos, to some extent you actually feel more relaxed and with more time available. You see, after the fact, when you reflect upon your having engaged in a procedure which is easier to do when you are more relaxed and with more time available, your mind comes to the conclusion that to some extent that is the situation that you are in! (This phenomenon is well known to psychologists.)

V. In Summary

Because of the many pitfalls in successfully implementing this procedure let me make the following recommendations. Pick just a few lines of some prayer. The first few lines of the Amida (Shmona Esre) is one good place to start in light of the emphasis that the Shulchan Aruch places on saying this with kavana. If you start with the Shabbos part-time arrangement perhaps pick the first few lines from the first paragraph further in the Amida that is said just on Shabbos. Practice using this procedure on just this for awhile until you become comfortable with using it. Before adding any more lines always ask yourself, could I maintain the added commitment into the foreseeable future if I were to add additional lines? Unless you feel confident that the answer is yes I would recommend you do not add any more lines to whatever commitment you already have. Remember if you try and fail you could very easily end up relinquishing your commitment to everything – not just the additional prayers you recently added. Be content if need be with saying only a small part of the prayers with this procedure. Saying a small part this way is better than saying none of your prayers this way. My best guess is that very very few people will be able to use this procedure on a permanent basis on anything more than a very small part of the prayers. Of course it is my hope that everyone should say all their prayers all the time with kavana, but I make this comment here only to help encourage and inspire you based on what I would guess to be the actualization for the vast majority of people.

In closing I would like to comment that the intent of this article in addition to explaining the procedure, is to help you maximize the likelihood of your long term success in implementing the procedure. So in a nutshell, start small, give it your best and try as hard as you can to make it a permanent commitment. Once you have tried it successfully on a small portion of your prayers and you feel you are on “solid ground” you can figure out where to go from there. In this way, you can maximize your likelihood for long term success. My best wishes to you and I hope and pray (with kavana!) that you have found this article to be helpful, inspiring and it enables you to come closer to Hashem Yisborach.