Return Home

[ skip to navigation ]
Spiritual Habits for Real People

 

Prayer for People Who Can't Sit Still
by
William Tenny-Brittian

 

Introduction

My wife is a contemplative. I watch her pray in amazement and I have to wonder how she does it. Her eyes close, her face gets a serene, contended look on it, and she sits there. And sits there.

     And sits there.

          She doesn't move.

               She doesn't speak.

She just sits there listening and communing with God.

     For hours.

Then there's me. I've been a pastor for most of my adult life and I don't think I've sat still to pray for more than five or ten minutes before something distracts me. I hear a door shut and I'm jolted out of my prayers and start to wonder who came home. The distant sound of an airplane flying by sets me to fantasizing about vacationing. And whenever I get distracted I know my prayer time is over—it's difficult, if not impossible, to reengage.

I thought maybe I wasn't spiritual enough. I felt guilty because I didn't think I was disciplined enough. And so my prayer life was pretty much short conversations with God throughout the day—a better compromise than quitting prayer altogether. But through it all, I had this yearning to spend extended times with God. It was something I knew I needed, but I didn't have any idea how to bring it to fruition. So, I pretty much gave up.

And then I met Dr. Heather Daniels. Her husband Terry had come to help plant a new church and after a few weeks I met his wife. She sized me up in about three minutes and asked me how long I'd been ADHD?

I blew her off. In my opinion ADHD was a kid's disease treatable by drugs that chemically lobotomized them. I thought most ADHD kids were really just the result of bad parenting anyway. Besides, I surmised, they all eventually grew out of it and went on to become librarians and such. I wasnt ADHD; it wasn't possible.

But her comment stuck in my head—for over a year. During that time she gave my wife an article on dealing with adult spouses with ADHD. She explained to me that many adults indeed have ADHD—that somewhere between two and four percent of all adults probably suffer from it. And I began to consider the possibility that I might be one of the four percent. The more I read, the more I learned about the disorder, the more things began to make sense for me. I remembered my dad telling me that I never sat through a whole church service when I was a child. It wasn't something I remembered, but probably because I wasn't traumatized by exasperated parents who tried to make their kid sit still for an hour. Instead, my parents would simply take me out to do something else. Back then, I was just considered a rambunctious little boy who couldn't sit still.

Which was a key to my coming to understand myself. I can't sit still. As I'm writing this I'm aware that my knees are bouncing back and forth like they always do when I'm "sitting still."

But I always thought ADHD kids had trouble in school. I had been a good student. I made great grades all the way through school. How could I be ADHD all these years and be academically successful? Dr. Heather wondered aloud how much more successful I'd be if I'd been diagnosed and treated as a child.

And so I conceded that I was ADHD. It was a difficult concession. But not only did I have all the signs, I realized there were areas in my life that could use a little help.

Like my prayer life. That little itch in my spirit was telling me something, but I didn't have a clue how to scratch it. No one ever thought to tell me there were ways to pray other than sitting still and letting my mind do the talking. I found out by accident.

 

The Life of Adult ADHD

It's way beyond the scope of this book to talk much about the nuances of adult ADHD, but let me introduce you to a couple of things most people don't know—including most undiagnosed ADHD folks.

Living with ADHD is both a blessing and a curse. I notice almost everything. When I'm driving, I see every sign that I pass. I'm aware of every car on the highway whether it's next to me or half-a-mile away. And I can probably tell you what the driver's wearing. If it's in my line-of-sight, I see it. When I stand in front of a store display, I can find what I'm looking for a gazillion times faster than most folks. Oh, and I'm given to exaggeration as well! But it's true that whenever my wife is trying to find her size, style, and color of hosiery on the display stand, if I show up it looks to her as if I'd memorized which shelf her brand was on because I reach out and snag exactly what she's looking for almost as an afterthought.

In a restaurant, I'm listening to your conversation. And his. And hers. And theirs. Oh, and I can probably tell you the title and artist of the past two or three songs that were playing on the Muzak in the background. And if I like you, I'll catch the eye of the server and let them know you need a refill on your soda probably before you realize you need one. I just notice that kind of stuff.

If you know exactly what I'm talking about, you may be ADHD too.

Thom Hartmann has suggested that ADHD is a leftover from ancient humanity.1 Once upon a time it might have been advantageous for hunters to be highly alert and multi-sensory aware, in other words, to have ADHD. Although he has his dissenters, much of what he has to say makes sense. There are some advantages to having ADHD. Just not too many of them.

My personal assessment of what ADHD is like is that it's a point on a continuum. At the two extremes of the line are "normal" (whatever that is) and "autistic." Someone who suffers from autism is unable to access their filtering mechanisms in the brain. People on the farthest right are aware of virtually every stimulation simultaneously. In my understanding, in the extreme cases, they hear every noise, see every sight, feel every sensation, smell every scent, and even taste the air they breathe with no ability to filter out any of the stimuli. It seems to me that at the other end of the scale is my wife. When she prays she's aware of one thing and one thing only: her connection with God. I think that I could fall down the stairs while carrying a set of kitchen pots and pans and even with all the clatter she still wouldn't be aware there was anything amiss.

ADHD people are somewhere in between. Our filters can be pretty thin and this creates a plethora of problems for us. For one, we can be easily distracted. If a conversation is anything but riveting (think algebra, early eighteenth century poetry, or the story of antique shopping with Wilbur), we may accidentally tune you out when something catches our eye or our ear. It's not that you aren't interesting, but the squirrel that ran across the road and barely missed getting hit by the yellow BMW sports coupe with the blue-hair driving it was just screaming for my attention for a moment—sorry, what did you just say?

On the other hand, if we get into a task that calls for high creativity and if we're fascinated in it, we might come to bed at two-thirty in the morning without having stopped for lunch, dinner, or the appointment we had scheduled with you downtown at six—oops.

Another serious problem is that although we see everything, in some ways we see nothing. We miss details others see. For instance, I get in trouble far too often for not only being a bit tactless, but for being insensitive when I've stepped on someone's emotional toes. Everyone else in the room probably saw the grimace of hurt when she asked if the skirt made her look fat and I said it wasn't the skirt. But I didn't, so I expounded on the kind of skirt that would help her look more slender. Then I told her how I tended to wear dark clothes because they easily cover up ten pounds. And as I was about to tell her that by purchasing clothes that were a half-size too big that everyone would think she lost weight, my wife kicked me. Hard. That clue I picked up on. The other I didn't. Not because I'm an insensitive jerk, but because I've never seen the clues of facial expressions that apparently everyone else sees. But not us ADHD folks.

Living with ADHD is challenging no matter what. I did a year on a medication2 that gave me the opportunity to learn how to cope better with the issues. I learned better how to pick up on facial and verbal clues. I learned how to tackle tasks more effectively. And I learned to like myself a lot better than I did before because I finally knew what the deal was.

But no one taught me how to pray.

 

Kinesthetic Prayer

I learned about kinesthetic pray accidentally. My wife was doing research on a religious movement in Georgia and she invited me to attend with her one afternoon. We drove to a farm south of Atlanta where, according to the press, twenty-five thousand of us gathered to hear a woman bring us a message from the Virgin Mary. We weren't Roman Catholic, but someone gave each of us a rosary and we sat in the middle of a field with the other pilgrims praying the "Our Father" prayer over and over.

After an hour or so, I realized I was staying in touch with the praying. Using the beads on the rosary in counting the prayers had a satisfying tactile sense to it. The beads moving through my fingers provided just enough sensory stimulation to keep me focused on praying. It was a revelation that was pretty well lost on me at the time, though. Probably the fact that prayer beads weren't typically associated with non-Catholics got in the way of my discovery and it wasn't for many years that I would revive the practice in my own life.

My breakthrough moment came when I walked a labyrinth about a year after I'd been diagnosed. The ancient practice of labyrinth walking had experienced a revival during the late nineties and I did some research into the phenomenon. In 2001 I actually constructed the first labyrinth I ever walked because there weren't any available locally. I spent forty minutes of some of the best prayer time I'd ever experienced as I slowly made my way to the labyrinth's center and back. For the first time in my prayer-life I could feel the literally presence of God for an extended period of time. God was so there. It was amazing.

Suddenly it all came to me. I remembered the prayer beads. I thought about the times I felt close to God when I was writing. And I understood why it was that God seemed to show up when I was busy doing something while I prayed. I was a kinesthetic pray-er.

 

Prayer for Those Who Can't Sit Still

This book was written for those adults with ADHD who feel the need to get connected with God in prayer, but can't sit still long enough to do it. I'm convinced that prayer is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal, but one of the most underutilized. Prayer changes things. For one, it changes my heart and enlivens my spirit. For another, whenever I've been in the presence of God I come away with a sense of well-being that is nearly indescribable. And I've seen enough prayers get answered that I'm one of the crowd who believes our prayers somehow empowers a Godly response.

But I'm also one of the crowd who believes that if our prayers are going to be effective, we are going to have to spend some time with the Divine Presence. I suspect that most of us would have a lousy relationship with our spouse, our kids, our friends, or our wider family if we only spent the amount of time with them that we spend with God. How can we build a serious relationship with anyone, let alone God, if we only spend less than three minutes a day with them? A relationship takes time together.

That time together doesn't have to be sit-still time. Some of the best hours spent with my wife are when we walk together. Why wouldn't that be true of us and God?

So this book offers ten different kinesthetic prayers for those who want to get into God's presence, but don't have the contemplation gene.

In doing research for this book, however, I discovered a side benefit. Many of these kinesthetic prayers work well with children—ADHD or not. In my experience, kids don't sit still any better than I do, so when I took the ideas for kinesthetic prayer to Jr. Camp, with children ages nine through twelve, I was surprised at how much they got out of praying when we exposed them to these tools. In some cases we saw serious heart-felt prayers offered with tears and crying out as these children connected with God on perhaps the deepest level they'd ever experienced. It was a moving experience for both child and camp counselor.

So, whether you use this book for your personal prayer life, or to introduce kinesthetic prayer to your children, children's ministry, or youth group, my prayer for you is that the experience brings you closer to God than ever before.


Order the Book Here! 

1 Thom Hartmann, Beyond ADD: Hunting for Reasons in the Past and Present (Grass Valley, CA: Underwood Books, 1996).

2 It seems counter intuitive, but the medications they give for ADHD are stimulants. Turns out that most of us ADHD folks self-medicate with coffee or caffeinated soda in order to better cope. A friend of mine has an ADHD son who was driving her nutty at bedtime—he couldn't sleep until his body literally shut down his mind. I suggested she let him something with caffeine in it before bed. Today she gives her son a vanilla espresso every night before bedtime...he sleeps all night like a rock and he goes to bed as early as 8:30.

Go to top of page