August 11, 2021
By David VanEpps
Only 19 miles to go to the finish line. I just need to focus, one step at a time, pace, form, hydration, nutrition… Hey, there’s a bird! Back to the zone, focus, you got this, just keep going… I wonder what I’ll have for dinner after the race. Ugh!
I think we’ve all had that experience. We need to be in the zone, but we find our minds wandering aimlessly. It takes every bit of effort to reign in the wandering mind and regain a sense of focus.
I’ve been told about meditation and mindfulness for years, and I’ve tried practicing them many times, and the keyword is, “tried.” I used to think I was the least mindful person in the world until I realized that many people struggle with the same thing.
I find the same in my prayer life. I start with the best of intentions, I focus my thoughts on God, but then my prayer for my neighbor, who has cancer, turns into a prayer for her family, and I pray for her husband. Then I wonder if her husband ever got the boat fixed, which reminds me that I need to change the oil on my boat, and I wonder if Saturday will be a nice day to go on the boat, and I sure can’t wait for warmer weather… Again, ugh!
“Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” (Proverbs 4:25 ESV). The physical part of focus is easier than the mental part, but the physical part is a great enabler for the mental.
The Bible also tells us to lock in or fix our thoughts on Jesus. Hebrews 3:1 says, “…fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest.” (NIV) Locking in on Jesus allows us to have a very specific, narrow mental focus. Colossians 3:2 says, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” This too helps remind us to keep our focus away from temporary, earthly things, which often consume our thoughts and mental energy.
Satan, the enemy of our lives, wants us to be busy and distracted. Busyness is one of his most powerful weapons, as it is a very effective tool for keeping us from spending time with God and focusing our lives on Him.
Hitting the Zone
If you ever watch an athlete at the pinnacle of their sport, you’ll see an incredible focus. Anything less will result in defeat. A baseball batter must have the ultimate focus as he aims to hit a baseball coming in at 90 miles per hour and sinking, curving, or even rising at the end. A football receiver must catch a ball being thrown dozens of yards across a football field, while in stride and preparing to be hit by an anxiously awaiting defender.
In my endurance races, I’ve found that there are times when it’s ok for my mind to wander, but there are times when I need to be dialed in with laser-like precision. When my favorite cycling instructor pushes us up on wattage or cadence, she will always call out, “Watch your number! If you stop watching it, it will fall.” And she’s right.
Whether it be in training or a race, when I need to hit the zone, there are a few things I need to do:
- Eyes – I need to have an environment where I can physically see and focus on the goal with my eyes. That may be a certain number, like wattage or cadence, on a bike ride. It may be my pace or cadence on a run. No matter what, I need a place to focus my eyes.
- Ears – I need to have an environment where I’m not distracted by what I’m listening to. I can’t focus while listening to music; others can. I can’t focus as well if I’m on a bike ride and hearing cars coming up behind me and wondering if I’m safe. I need to be safe and free from sound distractions that will take away my focus.
- Body – I need to have an environment where my body is immersed in what I’m trying to focus on. On the bike, I need to be in a tight aero position, and on a run, I need to be locked in on my running form. When I stray from these, my mind goes also.
- Mind – this is the tough part, but I need to create a sense of urgency and intensity, and I need to focus on a purpose. Whether it be holding a number on the bike, holding a pace on the run, or simply just putting one foot in front of the other, I need to convince my mind of the importance and create the necessary focus.
Having struggled mightily with my prayer life for years, I finally learned how to improve my focus. Deep down, I believe that God wants our focus, but He also understands when our minds wander during prayer. I believe God would rather have us pray and get distracted than not pray at all.
In a recent running race, I had taken on one prayer request per mile to bless others while keeping my mind focused on God for the race. I was amazed at the results. I was able to focus my eyes on the path ahead – no distractions. Other than the sounds of nature, there weren’t any audible distractions. Physically, my body was locked in on my running form, and I had to just focus on continuing to put one foot in front of the others. Lastly, I attempted to keep my prayers very direct and focused. I didn’t try to tackle the whole list at once or recite War and Peace. It was just a simple, straight-forward, personal conversation with God. As a visual, I imagined Jesus was running next to me, and He and I were just talking, like friends. It worked.
If you struggle as I do, I urge you to think about the other factors associated with your prayer life. Where are you praying? What are your visual focus points and visual distractions? What are your audible opportunities and distractions? What are the various body postures and activities that enable you to be in the zone? Try it out, see what works, and make it yours. Most of all, think of it as a conversation with your best friend standing (or running) next to you. After all, He is.
Photo Cred: Abyan Athif