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I tend to daven (pray) without sufficient focus and very quickly. In particular, I find that most of the time that I'm praying, my mind is on things other than the words that I'm saying. And, not that comparison with others is ideal in this realm, but for what it's worth, I frequently find that I am the fastest davener in a given minyan.

I would like to drastically increase my level of focus during davening. Secondarily, and more as a symptom of the primary goal than as a goal in itself, I'd like to daven more slowly. I have made resolutions along these lines in the past, but I find that my mind invariably wanders as my lips speed along, anyway.

Additional data: I was introduced to reading Hebrew and davening as early as preschool. Consequently, I can read prayerbook Hebrew fairly rapidly, have memorized most of the text of davening, and have a good idea of the meanings of most of the Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew words that the davening is made of.

I am looking for techniques for focusing more and speeding less from people who have successfully improved from a similar situation to mine. I am aware that there is plenty of literature, old and new, about focusing on davening, but for this purpose, I am less interested in what has been proposed in theory or proclaimed as successful by saintly sages of old than I am in learning what has worked empirically for regular people of our times.

Consequently, I would most appreciate responses that follow the rough format "My davening was ... So I tried doing ... Now, my davening is ..."

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Two years later, what ended up working for you? (I see your positive comment on one answer and your acceptance of another. Did they both work for you long-term?) –  Monica Cellio Feb 23 '12 at 1:39
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@MonicaCellio, Unfortunately, my performance in this area has been similar to that of a New Year's dieter, so I can't offer high-quality testimony as to the effectiveness of various tactics. I'll let you know. ... –  Isaac Moses Feb 23 '12 at 3:28
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Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/26698 –  msh210 Feb 28 '13 at 21:32
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There is a lot more to davening than the p'shat. Have you considered learn some of the deeper perushim on the words in the siddur? Sometimes when I intend to take longer in davening I will learn something before hand ND periodically will take a short pause and think about what I've learned and how it relates to the tefilla –  Dude Oct 5 at 20:09

16 Answers 16

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Two things have proven effective for me over the years in this regard:

  1. Davening near/behind people who are more into it than me. This is inspirational not for competitive reasons but because it provides constant reminders that if I fall behind in my concentration I am missing out - for, as the other individual demonstrates, there is something to be missed.

  2. Pursuing a deeper understanding of the prayers independently and in context "off-line" (i.e. not during davening).

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I have occasionally experienced #1 and it made a big difference to me at the time -- that time I could more easily focus because I had a good example right in front of me. Carrying this into the rest of my davening has been slow going, sadly. –  Monica Cellio Oct 5 at 19:13

My rabbi told me a very nice suggestion which seems to help me every time I practice it and it's very simple: Follow along with your finger.

If you have your finger below every word that you say, it will make you have to look at the page that you're reading from causing you to slow down and think about the words that you are saying. Even if you don't understand the full meaning or even part of the meaning, you will at least make a association such that your eyes and finger are connected with the words that you are saying making harder for the mind to be somewhere else.

I've found even doing this is not so easy. But when I do it, it really helps.

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5.Keep your fingers on the place –  SimchasTorah Jul 20 '10 at 17:57
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Success! I tried this technique tonight, and it really did help me slow down and focus. At one point, I let my hand rest for a minute (late Mincha on 9 Av, OK?), and I automatically dropped right into speed mode. It was just like my surnamesake's hands at the battle with Amalek. Thanks, Chaim! –  Isaac Moses Jul 21 '10 at 5:17
    
Awesome! Baruch Hashem! I'm happy this worked for you. –  chaimp Jul 22 '10 at 5:59
    
Definitely true for me as well. If you just follow with your eyes, it is easy to skip a word or go by memory. By following with your finger, you are forcing yourself to look at and say every word. It does take practice, though. –  Dennis May 10 '13 at 15:08
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This technique is extremely useful while learning as well. When I find myself in spacey mood, I put my finger to the book and go for it. –  user6591 Oct 24 at 13:44

I was a major sufferer of the problem you describe, and to be honest, I have not completely cured myself of this; however, there are a few things that I have done recently that have made a huge difference in my level of focus during davening. I think it is important to remember, though, that there is no quick fix to this challenge. As you mentioned in a comment, it can sometimes be easy to drop whatever method you are following to slow down, and end up cruising through davening again without even realizing. I believe that it requires a strong commitment over time to improve your kavanah during davening, and simply changing some behaviors will not be sufficient to make you a consistently better davener immediately. That being said, here are a some things that have dramatically helped me become a better davener.

First of all, the times when I paid the least attention to my davening were always when I was tired. When I'm barely awake and just saying the words to get through them, I would often find myself completing the entire shmoneh esrei in just barely over one minute with hardly any recollection of having said it at all. It was like the feeling that you get when you drive somewhere and pull into the parking lot and realize that you have absolutely no recollection of the entire drive that you just completed. The approach to fixing this is simple: make sure you are getting enough sleep. But be careful not to oversleep, because if you roll straight out of bed into shacharis, you will be drowsy and unable to focus. I daven in a very early minyan, but I am careful to always arrive with enough time to have at least 5 minutes to prepare myself and get situated before davening begins after I have put on my tallis and tefilin. This made a big difference.

Second point is something that I have been doing for a while and it has been quite successful. For all of the brachot of shmoneh esrei, I add my own little bit to the bracha. For shevach brachot, I add my own bit of shevach. For bakasha, my own bit of bakasha. For hoda'ah, my own bit of hoda'ah. In each case my little bit is related to the particular bracha that I am attaching it to. This makes me focus on the meaning of the bracha in order to come up with something to add. I do not allow myself to add the same thing from day to day in order to prevent myself from simply having added to the formula that I speed through without thinking. As always, CYLOR before adding words to brachot. My rabbi told me to not say any extra words out loud for shevach and hoda'ah brachot, so for those I simply add in my head.

My third point is something that I have only started since Shmini Atzeret (a week ago as of writing this post). Before starting shmoneh esrei, I pause to remind myself to add "mashiv haruach". At that same time, I also remind myself to go slowly through davening and focus on the words. So far, this has been very effective. I do not know how effective this will be once I am once again in the habit of saying "mashiv haruach" and no longer need to remind myself at that point.

These three things have helped me tremendously. As recently as a year ago, I was always one of the first people to finish davening, especially in the ma'ariv minyan that I attend. I would finish and then sometimes wait as long as 7 or 8 minutes after I was already done before one of the rabbis of the shul would finish and the shaliach tzibur would start kaddish. Since then, I really feel that I have come a very long way. I was inspired to answer your question because I thought of it when I had a little "mini victory" tonight at ma'ariv when, for the first time, the rabbi finished davening before I did. And it wasn't just because I was davening slowly without paying attention.

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Without checking sources: Psukei DeZimra (the psalms and passages from Baruch SheAmar to Yishtabach, before Shema) should be recited slowly, as though one were counting money. Try to pronounce each word separately (in a low whisper), with a pause after each verse. Don't stretch the words out, but savor them (like good wine). The same applies to Shema, and to the Amida. (perhaps Aleinu, too). On the other hand, don't pray so slowly that you always miss out on certain parts of the davenning with the minyan - answering Kaddish, Barchu, Kedushah. Another approach is to arrive earlier at shule, and daven slowly in such a way as to arrive at Shema or the Amida at exactly the same time as the Minyan.

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Perry Zamek, Welcome to mi.yodeya! Thanks very much for the advice. Is it based on your own experience, or only your memory of the sources? –  Isaac Moses Feb 1 '10 at 5:45

I recently tried enunciating the letter ע more while davening. This makes you go slower, at least until you get so used to it. Then, once you're going slower and paying more attention to the words, you end up having better kavanah.

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I've tried to do that too (not specifically for this reason, but to be more precise in my pronunciation), and I've found a helpful side-effect: I'm getting better at spelling! (Because if I write a word just from memory I often get homophones wrong.) –  Monica Cellio Oct 26 at 17:56

I read the following piece of advice in a pamphlet somewhere, and I tried it and it worked for me.

Concentrate on the meaning of Hashem's name whenever it comes up. You can pick whichever meaning you want for it to work, although Halacha has an opinion about which one is the main one.

There are two reasons why I think it works. One is that Hashem's name comes up often enough that if you just refocus every time it comes up, you'll be on track for most of Shemoneh Esrei. The other is that I think the phrase ברוך אתה ה sends many people, even if they are putting effort into focusing, into "auto-pilot," after which they stay that way. If you consciously invest in focusing on the "auto-pilot" triggers, then you'll avoid the problem.

I also used to have something I would do before Shemoneh Esrei (which maybe writing it here and preaching it to others will inspire me to resume), which I instituted based on some reading of meditation techniques. One of the most basic techniques of focusing your mind in meditation is to execute subconscious processes consciously. So I used to take a few seconds (or longer at Mincha, when there is more time immediately before Shemoneh Esrei if you start Ashrei early enough) to focus on my breathing, counting 5 seconds to inhale, 2 second pause, 5 seconds to exhale, and I found that this helped to settle my mind and help me focus.

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Sometimes, (when I'm feeling particularly not into it,) I pause before I begin every beracha of amida and ask myself:

  • Do I want to say this beracha?
  • Why do I want to say this beracha?

Helps me a lot, and I hope it can help others too.

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The Koren-Sacks siddur can be worth a try.

Also worth a try is a siddur with a different version of the text than the one you're used to (Nusach Sefard, real Sfaradi, etc). Makes it much harder to plow through the text.

Of course, it's certainly possible you just adapt to this over time, and then need some other trick. But it's a start.

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I was going to suggest Nusach Sefard also, but was wondering if there are any halakhic implications? I know that if you are in a shul davening Sefard, than you can also, even if you regularly daven Ashkenaz, but if you are Ashkenaz in an Ashkenaz shul, is there room to change minhag? –  Jeremy Mar 16 '10 at 15:05
    
Yes, there is a halachic problem with switching Nusach's. There is basis if you are going to switch to Nusach Sefard (or vice versa) permanently, but lechatchilla one should not bounce back and forth. An alternative would be to daven at a minyan which uses an alternative nusach, in which case there are poskim who say you should use the kehillah's nusach for out loud portions, but you should consult your Rav about the implications first. –  Yirmeyahu Apr 9 '10 at 6:13
    
I don't know how long the effect would last, but along similar lines, I was once slowed down by a different edition of the same siddur I was used to -- so it was the same text, but the line breaks were sometimes in different places (different margins I guess?) and the pagination was different. I was much slower that day. –  Monica Cellio Oct 5 at 19:18

I too had this problem. I bought the Artscroll Interlinear siddur. It slowed me down a lot and imbued much more meaning into my davening.

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This is a great question that touches on an area that is so fundamental.

Before mentioning any specific technique that has worked for me, I'd like to share a perspective that has significantly boosted my Tefilla.

People use the expression "the elephant in the room." In Tefilla, I felt that for a long time I had been missing the "God in the room."

While the approach of deepening one's understanding of the words of davening and making a personal connection to that meaning can be of some value, for me, it was much more uplifting to begin pondering in awe the One Who is hearing my supplications.

The way I began thinking of this perspective (in a succinct enough way that I could recall it easily at any point during Shmoneh Esrei) was: I am not standing here to think about me, but You (or even simpler: not me, You). For after all, aren't all of those drifts from our kavanna some concern or another about ourselves? The frequent times that we say אתה might be a good time to infuse this thought.

Often all we need to snap out of a Shmoneh Esrei daydream is a gentle reminder that for these precious few minutes it's not about our relentless plans and desires, but about deepening our appreciation of our Maker.

But the questioner hits on the crux of the problem: Whatever tactic we try and implement, after time we always seem to become reduced to that spaced out davener that we were beforehand. How to improve the Tefilla and keep it on a steady upward trajectory?

The truth is that this is one of the central challenges of life: how to always stay inspired. There of course is no magical trick to staying inspired, but a huge part of the work is in clearly defining to ourselves that this is an important goal in life.

The Gedolim are always seeing and observing things with a new and fresh perspective; they see in every facet of Hashem's Creation powerful inspiration; and it needn't be said that they constantly become inspired by Hashem's Torah.

It takes massive diligence to ALWAYS be inspired but we should work on the belief that it is worth it. For one of the sweet dividends is Tefilla that always soars.

Sure it sounds lofty but-what if? What if- we really could make ourselves inspired people to the point that we tremble with excitement before beginning to daven? What if- God's infinite power and kindness could bring us to tears?

What if- we relished every word of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah? Not only would we have overcome our mind-wandering nature, we'll have something very special to hold on to for eternity. Lofty? Yes. Worth it? Yes.

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Hello shmuel. Thanks so much for your perspective! The question is looking for practical tips for improving tefila, so so you have any suggestions on how to keep oneself inspired? –  Daniel Oct 27 at 12:24
    
@Daniel Sure: In my answer I mentioned the tactic of thinking "not me, You." For each bracha, what works for me, is to use the bracha (e.g. He Who heals the sick) to deepen my appreciation of the aspect of Hashem it refers to (e.g. our health is completely in Hashem's hands). –  Shmuel Wise Oct 27 at 14:13
    
@Daniel (continued) But the main practical advise I am suggesting is a long term plan of: a) developing a deep and focused goal of always being inspired, and b) following our former and current Torah sages' lead in developing an ever-renewing depth of understanding and appreciation of the myriads of Divine gifts that we receive daily (be it wonders of Hashem's Creation, Divine Providence in our personal lives, or wisdom of Hashem's Torah- His very thoughts, etc.). –  Shmuel Wise Oct 27 at 14:18

Copied from my answer here:

  1. Take a minute to clear your mind and try to fee the presence of Hashem all around you.
  2. Daven to Hashem to help you daven with Kavanah
  3. Every time you catch your mind straying, ask for Hashem's help again
  4. Keep reminding yourself that Hashem and all the Heavenly hosts are counting on you.
  5. Keep your fingers on the place.
  6. Learn the meaning of what you are saying
  7. Say only one phrase at a time.
  8. Daven aloud and if you are able try singing the words.
  9. Invest each Bracha in Shmoneh Esrai with personal details
  10. Specify your indebtedness to Hashem,embellish your praise and detail your requests
  11. Try to daven near those who pray with Kavanah

This is very basic summary, and additional answers to those already provided. (From: Ezras Nashim)

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learn about the greatness of G-d. study in depth shaar yichud of chovos halevavos, shaar yichud v'emuna in tanya and moreh nevuchim

also study the marks of divine wisdom in nature. the more you will know the infinite wisdom of God the more you will be humbled and prayer will become meaningful.

This is what I have found from personal experience.

I also wrote an article to force myself to study the divine wisdom in nature. It is available at:

http://dafyomireview.com/425

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Could you edit this answer to address I am less interested in what has been proposed in theory or proclaimed as successful by saintly sages of old than I am in learning what has worked empirically for regular people of our times. Consequently, I would most appreciate responses that follow the rough format "My davening was ... So I tried doing ... Now, my davening is ..."? –  Isaac Moses Oct 24 at 13:41
    
@IsaacMoses ok, but strictly speaking this is not an answerable question. primarily opinion based. –  ray Oct 24 at 14:19
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Experience is something one reports, unlike opinion, which is something one makes up. –  Isaac Moses Oct 24 at 14:42

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in Jewish Meditation discusses visualizing the words as black fire on white fire. Focusing on visualizing one thing on its own is very hard. Doing it for the whole prayer takes a LOT of practice. This slowed me WAY down.

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I've tried many of the above answers. Each has worked.. for at least the first day. What works best for me is the simplest. Simply change your routine! The best is to use a new siddur that you're unfamiliar with. Change place -preferably next to someone that says the birchos hashachar alous so that others answer amen, and sings through pesukei dezimra. Find something that changes the monotony and that works for you!

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i heard from Rabbi Aharon Feldman to put your finger every time you see a shem Hashem ahead

he said at least it will save you from saying many shemos without kavana. some have suggested similar answers here but not quite exactly the same.

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Put your finger where? –  Scimonster Oct 26 at 17:51

I have a similiar experience with my davening (...where did you learn how to daven?...oh, what a coincidence...)

Recently I started learing Reb Shimshon Pincus's sefer on tefilla as suggested by a friend and its working already... Here's a link.. no I don't get a conmission

When you start to understand what and why your davening, it makes a world of a difference

Hatzlocha!

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