A Hasid once visited the Chozeh of Lublin, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, to complain of alien thoughts that would invade his mind and make prayer impossible for him.
“And what thoughts trouble you?” the Seer asked.
The man then went on to catalog a great list of thoughts: His business was not as good as it could be, his customers owed him too much, his competitors were undermining his profits, his wife was not satisfied with their livelihood, his daughters needed dowries, his son was not the talmid chacham he had prayed for, and on and on.
When he had finished, the Chozeh said, “Alien thoughts? My dear friend, these are not alien thoughts at all. Why, they are clearly thoughts that are quite at home in your mind!”
What are the thoughts that haunt you? Most likely they are legion. Yet, they probably all have one thing in common: They are thoughts of dissatisfaction. Things are simply not the way you wish them to be. Are these alien thoughts? Not at all. They are your everyday musings.
What our Hasid desires is to clear his mind of these thoughts. Can you do this? Or is the thought of a clear mind yet another variation of the same thought that always haunts you: “I am dissatisfied”?
There is only one way to deal with these thoughts: Let them be. If you try to rid yourself of “alien thoughts,” you are only adding more dissatisfaction to your life. If you try to change your mind during prayer, you will only add to the conflict that muddies the mind and makes prayer difficult.
So what can you do? “Commune with your heart and be still” (Psalm 4:5). To commune with your heart is to be present to the thoughts and feelings that arise. Notice them, but don’t engage them. That is what it is to “be still.” Don’t move; don’t run after the thought to investigate it or change it. Simply note it, and let it be.
And do not think that in this way you will be rid of such thoughts. The goal isn’t to be rid of anything but to be present to everything. What you will discover in stillness is not the end of such thoughts but your capacity to hold them without having them take hold of you. You are like the sky making room for clouds and yet not being attached to cloudiness. This is true prayer: communing with our hearts in stillness.
Chozeh: Seer, from hazah “see”.
Talmid chacham (literally, “wise student”): Scholar.