Saturday, May 15, 2004

Vain repetitions

The scriptures counsel us to avoid “vain repetitions” when we pray. I understand the word “vain” in a manner consistent with its usage in the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain. I think this means something like what God condemned as generally true in Christianity: having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.

As a practical matter, we typically say this means not to use the same phrases in our prayers in a thoughtless manner. Repetition per se is not condemned, only vain repetition. It seems to me that we should have the same concern regarding our actions as regarding our prayers. It is easy to “go through the motions” of taking the sacrament, for example, without making it meaningful.

But one problem that arises for me, at least, and I suspect for some other people, is that repetition itself can tend to make the repeated activity routine. I suppose this can be a good thing; good habits are better than bad habits, and probably better than no habits at all. But when something is a habit, how do we avoid making it a “vain repetition?” How can we make sure that our (good) habits of scripture study, prayer, Family Home Evening, partaking of the sacrament, temple attendance, and so forth are really meaningful each time, and not vain repetitions?


  1. It seems to me that there is a fundamental inconsistency between habit and mindfulness. I think of habit as the development over time to repeat an action without making a conscious decision to do so.

    I believe that we can exercise free agency with regard to whether we choose to develop a particular kind of habit or not. For example, in the extremis of discovering that none of my pants from a year ago fit me any longer, I have committed myself during the past three weeks (and, hopefully, for the next five weeks or so) to developing the habit of exercising each day, no matter what. I want to get myself to the point that I am no longer exercising free agency each day in deciding whether I will exercise. I read somewhere that for most people, developing a "habit" of a particular daily practice takes about six weeks of repetition.

    So perhaps a fruitful question would be this: are we able to develop and operate within the structure of good "habits," while, at the same time, attending mindfully to what we do within those structures? The answer, surely, must be yes.

    How to proceed? I like Thich Nhat Hanhn's proposal: practice being aware. When we are doing the dishes, experience doing the dishes, rather than thinking of something else. When we are praying, experience prayer, rather than letting the mind wander. At the core of some of his teachings is the idea that the mind can be disciplined, just as the body can be.

  2. change the analogy, what about food vis-a-vis prayer? The one thing I really dislike is having to decide what to eat. I love all food & am more than ambivalent re: which restaurant I eat at when with others. I.e. I don't want to exercise my agency re: something as unimportant to me as food.

    In contrast, prayer is communication. While "getting into the habit" of X might be ok with where you go to eat, what you don't eat so you can fit into size X, etc. it doesn't seem appropriate to turn a "relationship" into a habit.


  3. You pose a great question...I've been thinking about that a lot myself recently, especially regarding the written-out and oft-recited prayers of other religions.

    For me, it seems, that as long as the repetition doesn't become vain, it's fine -- it's the feeling and the intention and the attention that matter. But how do we keep it from becoming vain? That's the good question. Let me, rather than answering, ask instead: what purpose can be served by having these functions (taking the Sacrament, for example) that we repeat over and over again if repetition inherently leads to vainness?

    I'm going to echo the "practice being aware" thought. It's possible -- difficult, I understand, but possible -- to use these constant repititions to develop our awareness. When my mind starts to wander and I'm not paying attention to why I'm taking the bread and water, then it's become a vain thing. But if I take the opportunity to realize that my mind has wandered and then -- without getting frustrated over it, as that's a negative sort of feeling -- bring my attention back to Christ and to the Atonement, then I've come one step closer to being able to keep my focus deeper/more/longer for the next time.

    I guess my point is that, yes, repetition can lead to vainness -- but as boring as I find running two miles every day (which I don't do mainly because I find it boring), it also helps to build up my strength and my ability to run further/longer/harder. I think the same can hold true with our attention to the purposes and intentions of our oft-repetitive words and ceremonies.

  4. So, greenfrog and Arwyn, how do we practice awareness? If I slip out of awareness of doing the dishes while I am washing them, it seems that I do not recognize the shift in awareness until later. Are there techniques that one can profitably use to improve in this regard?

    I find this especially difficult in silent personal prayer -- my mind just wanders all over the place.

  5. I'm not sure how others do it, but I've been meditating since I was in middle school and find that has been very helpful in increasing my awareness of everything I do. Sitting silently in a quiet room and practicing awareness of my breath -- the technique I prefer -- spills over into my daily life as awareness of my actions and my thoughts, especially when the latter are horrible wanderers.

    I know meditation of that sort isn't a terribly Mormon thing to do, but if we play by the "anything good, virtuous, lovely, or of good report, we seek after these things" rule, then I can't deny an increase of awareness to be anything short of that. I can point you in the direction of more info, if you're interested.

  6. Arwyn, I'm definitely interested; fire away!

  7. The technique I've studied is called Vipassana meditation -- it's a form of Buddhist meditation, but doesn't in any way require any sort of conversion or belief to practice. The practice itself is difficult to describe -- which is why it's a practice and not a sermon, I guess -- but basically involves sitting quietly and being aware of your thoughts, your breath, and what you're feeling without becoming frustrated or angry and without developing attachments, either. The goal is to be living in the present moment -- not thinking about the past or the future, but in the very present moment, because only then can you really be aware of what you're doing rather than what you've done or what you want to do/will be doing.

    I've found the result to be increased awareness and calmless. Tying it back in to the initial post, the awareness I've learned helps me a lot when it comes to being intent and focusing in prayer (in avoiding vain repetitions, especially) and the Sacrament (keeping my thoughts focused on Christ so that it's not just a habitual taking of the bread and water), etc.

    The people who teach it offer 10-day courses at a lot of different locations -- there's more info on it at, a short essay sort of on what it's about at, and a good video introduction at