How to establish a regular practice of silent prayer or meditation

Sometimes we have a yearning to grow closer to God. We sense that a regular discipline could help cultivate a more intimate relationship. We may get off to what seems like a good start, but then find it hard to stick with it.

a woman meditates while sitting

As you develop a plan for a spiritual discipline, you may want to focus on either meditation or on contemplation—or possibly include some of each. Meditation implies quietly reflecting on a single thought or image (an excerpt from Scripture or spiritual literature, a painting, an icon, an image from nature, a piece of music). Contemplation, on the other hand, implies trying to let go of all thoughts, feelings, and images so that they simply float at the periphery. The intent is to be as an empty vessel, totally open to the Spirit of God. In contemplation, for the most part, we are unaware that anything is happening—the creative power of God is secretly at work in us. An awareness of what God was doing may emerge at some later time.

Here are some things to consider that may help:

  1. Set reasonable goals. If you are a creature of habit who can easily start doing something (nearly) every day, set out to do so. If you are not that type of person, set a goal like three to five times per week, or of taking no more than two days off in a row.
  2. Along similar lines, don’t try too much silence at first. If you’re new to it, one or two minutes of silence may be a long time! And it’s a very reasonable goal for now. Over time, gradually increase the length of the silence until it reaches 10 or 20 minutes.
  3. Set a goal that is doable. It is best to establish a plan that you can succeed at. You then can gradually add to the plan so that it grows with you as your spiritual life develops.
  4. Find a quiet spot for your practice. While no place in our daily lives is completely silent, look for a place where distractions will be at a minimum.
  5. If you use a smartphone or tablet, consider trying out one or two meditation timer apps. Some of them include features like silencing all other sounds from your device during your period of quiet, and ending your silent time with a soft, pleasant bell or gong that might be less jarring than a regular alarm. Don’t forget to turn off notifications for your device if your app doesn’t do it for you. One app that we have used is the free basic Insight Timer for Android and Apple devices. (If you have an app that helps with meditation, do let us know!)
  6. Experiment to find a bodily position or physical activity that helps you stay centered. Some possibilities: Sit upright in a straight chair; sit cross-legged on a pillow on the floor; kneel; walk; jog; swim slowly; ride a stationary bike.
  7. There are many practices that might help you stay focused at your center: holding something in your hand(s) such as a small wooden cross, prayer beads, or a ball of clay. A focal point such as a lighted candle, an icon, or a seashell. Singing a chant. A breathing prayer like “Holy Spirit” (inhaling), “live in me” (exhaling). A mantra (a word or phrase that you silently repeat over and over). A sacred word, designated as sacred by you e.g. “Abba,” “Come,” or “Light” that you utter silently as you begin, thereafter only when you catch your mind becoming active.

When establishing a new practice, it’s helpful to persist in it long enough for it to become established. You may feel like a new practice is “no good” or isn’t working. This may be true, but it’s sometimes difficult to know that right away. Give yourself time to struggle and adjust before making radical changes. If aspects of your practice continue to feel awkward, and you have a trusted friend or spiritual companion (perhaps, but not necessarily, a spiritual director or member of the clergy), discuss it with that person. Keep in mind, though, that bad advice can be worse than no advice, and trust in your own self-knowledge and that of friends who are close to you. Sometimes struggle can be an important gateway into a new insight – and, sometimes, continued struggle is an indication that something should change. Try not to jump to conclusions, but be open to the prompting of the Spirit as you discern how to change, modify, add to or eliminate aspects of your practice. Beware of sticking with something only from a sense of obligation.