I know that this is becoming a bit of a pet rant, but I am increasingly convinced that the problem with our practice of the Catholic religion is that the faithful have not been taught the sacred mysteries in such a way that they become practically portable into their individual lives. I get the feeling that people look upon the great mysteries of our faith--the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the Lord--as beautiful and miraculous events to which we are spectators. The Word of God descended into our humanity in order to provide our humanity with path into God, not just to give us something beautiful to contemplate in itself.
One area that reveals to me the lack of basic spiritual formation for the average Catholic is the question of "bad thoughts." Many times people say that they are troubled by their evil thoughts and worry that they are sinful. To me this is a very unfortunate situation, because evil thoughts are actually one of the most useful things in the spiritual life.
Every time an evil suggestion pops into our head, whether it comes from the world, the flesh, or the devil (to name the classical suggestions for sources), we have the gift of an opportunity for worship and obedience. By rejecting the evil suggestion rather than nourishing it, we make a beautiful act of worship and recognition of a God apart from ourselves. Even better, if we replace the evil thought with a good one, we are practicing metanoia, changing our minds. This is the practice that the Buddha called "changing the peg." If we practice this over and over in our lives, we will eventually not only convert our minds from evil to good, but we will become that much more free of the tyranny of our thoughts and detached from our own internal discourse.
This freedom and detachment will be invaluable in our prayer. I once went to hear a meditation teacher and during the question period some kid asked him about being frustrated by distractions. The teacher said, "You are too possessive of your own mind." I didn't get it then, but I get it now. The teacher was pointing out that the problem is not the presence of absence of distractions, but being overly-identified with our own thoughts. I'm not exactly my mind, just like I'm not exactly my body. I'm certainly not the stream of conscious thoughts that roll through my head all day. Let go of distraction by letting go of all your thoughts. As Thomas Merton said, "In an age when everyone talks about 'being yourself,' I reserve the right to forget about being myself."
Evil thoughts aren't a good thing, but we can use them to discover the freedom and conversion that God wants to give us.