One of the most common difficulties that we can experience in our prayer lives is dryness and frustrations. Often our desire is to meditate on beautiful and moving things such as Jesus, Mary, the Saints, and other good and holy thoughts. However, when we sit down to pray, things tend to surface and anxieties seem to choke our good intentions. Learning to navigate these motions of the heart takes time, patience, and prudence. However, I would propose a simple way of praying that might help you enter more deeply into the silence.
Psychologists have currently done much research on the medical benefits associated with meditating by focusing on the breath. Although their research is on aspects of meditation which are distinctly not Christian, there is a tradition similar to their insights within Christianity. In particular, Eastern monasticism developed a way of praying in which they focused on the breath while tying the words of the Jesus prayer to this rhythmic breathing. In his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola likewise described a way of praying with the breath using the Our Father and the Hail Mary.
The idea is relatively simply. Breathing in, they would say part of the prayer; breathing out, the other part. In the East, they used the prayer “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” However, this kind of praying need not be confined to the Jesus prayer or any other formal prayer. One can use any words of phrases to tie their prayer to the breath. It could be as simple as “Jesus, I love you,” or anything else that moves the heart.
Another way to pray with the breath is to turn the motions of inhalation and exhalation into a kind of symbol of pray. On the inhale, you can imagine receiving everything from God with an open disposition. On the exhale, you can imagine giving everything to God with the same surrender. You could also use words to make this reality more concrete. Inhale and think, Lord, I accept everything from you with joy. Exhale, Lord I give everything to you. You can even make up your own phrases.
This praying with the breath should also be tied to an awareness of how you are experiencing the world. One should note aspects such as tensions in the body, self-defeating thoughts, strong emotions, and other aspects of experience which surface. The idea is to view these experiences with a non-judgmental awareness. This does not mean we give consent to temptations or disorders, but rather we learn to let them pass.
With this kind of non-judgmental awareness, we neither consent to anxieties and temptations, nor do we try and repress them. Instead, we learn to let them come and go. In this way, our mind returns to a more relaxed state. When we begin to experience this kind of calm, we can pursue the desires of heart. In the silence, we can spend time with our favorite scripture passage, or some pressing concern. We might also decide to simply enjoy the rest and quiet which begins to dwell within our hearts. Such freedom is the joy that we are seeking.