Anyone who decides to get serious about prayer and the spiritual life soon knows the discouragement of struggling with distractions during the time of prayer. They may be useless or even sinful, or just an intruding awareness of the next thing we have to do during the day.
To be distracted when we try to pray and recollect ourselves in the Presence of God is one of the ordinary and most useful trials in the spiritual life. Dealing with the annoyance and disappointment of distraction can help us accept the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and allow Him to draw us deeper into the Blessed Trinity.
That being said, what should we do if we find ourselves unacceptably distracted in prayer?
Outside of the time of prayer
First of all, if we are distracted at the time of prayer, it may be because we are distracted in our life in general. Mindfulness is critical in the spiritual life. Age quod agis, as the saying goes: "Do what you are doing," and not something else.
There can be no hope for prayer if we spend the rest of our day in a state of distraction, with the attention of heart and mind thrown about by every little thing that presents itself to them. A life of prayer demands that we begin to practice "watchfulness of thoughts" and "guard of the heart." We must work with our thoughts, inclinations, and affections throughout the day, practicing the letting go and breathing out of those that are useless, vain, or sinful. If we do not at least begin to discipline our interior attention and affect throughout our whole day, we cannot hope to just turn off the chaos during the time we have set apart for prayer.
Second, we need to practical about planning out our daily prayer. At what time of day is our mind most clear and at peace? For many the early morning is the best time for prayer, when the dawn or pre-dawn--the summo mane as the rubrics for the Liturgy of the Hours put it--recall the Resurrection and the whole world is quiet. For others the best time is the evening, after the day has been dealt with and stress has been worked out. For parish priests who often have a kind of crepuscular, bi-phasic workday, the best time may be in the quiet of the afternoon. We should seek the time for prayer that suits our particular temperament and circumstances best, so that we set ourselves up for success, praying when our mind and heart are most at peace.
Within the time of prayer
Even when we have organized the rest of our lives in service to our prayer, we we will still have to work with distractions while we are praying. It is good that we have to do this, because it trains us in our prayerful intentionality and will leave us more free from the tyranny of our thoughts during the rest of our day.
The most basic response to distractions in prayer is to simply let them go. Thoughts wander into our consciousness without our consent, and we are under no obligation to pay them any attention. If we don't, they will continue on their way. Images are sometimes helpful here. One that I like compares our mind to a river and our thoughts to little boats. I think I got it from Thomas Keating. Imagine the consciousness during prayer to be like a section of a river. Thoughts and distractions are like little boats that come floating downstream. If we don't pay them any attention, they float by and are gone. If we put our attention into them, or worse, weigh them down with an emotional reaction, the little boat gets heavier and moves that much slower. The more attention and emotion we put into the little boat, the heavier it gets and the more sluggish it becomes in floating away.
The purpose of an imaginative exercise like this is to help us learn that one of the real purposes of prayer is dis-identification with our thoughts. Our conscious thoughts do not exhaust our real identity, any more than our body does.
In order to make the letting go of thoughts and distractions work, we need to give up control. As long as we try to force thoughts out of our consciousness, we will only introduce more distraction. The point is not to push them out by force, but to let go of control and to dis-identify with the thought-stream altogether. We are not the thoughts, but the spiritual being that has the thoughts. Just as control is opposed to love in relationships between people, so control is opposed to prayer in the interior person. Let go. If distractions want to be there in our mind, let them be there. It is none of our business. When we don't worry about them or pay attention to them, they will go somewhere else. Control is the opposite of prayer.
Practicing in this way has tremendous spiritual fruit in our life outside of prayer. As we become less identified with our thoughts and feelings, we find ourselves less controlled and determined by our thoughts, feelings, and "tapes" as we go through our day. We become free from what we thought, half wrongly, was our "self."
Now sometimes it happens that we will be overwhelmed. Distracting thoughts come that have such an emotional charge or urgent intensity that they drown out everything else. At this point we sometimes have to simply surrender to the distraction and pray with it instead. As pain in the body is meant to make us deal with an urgent issue, so it sometimes happens with the soul. If distractions are so intense that we cannot let go of them or work with them, we have to start praying through the issue the distraction presents. But we shouldn't resort to this too readily. To let go of thoughts and distractions is a much more fruitful practice.