In my early years as a Christian, I was taught that "right thinking is a prerequisite to right living." It's a statement that has such a nice ring to it, doesn't it? It sounds like it should work. Iron out your wrong ideas about God and life, replace them with the truth, and--presto--you will start living life the way you are intended.
The problem with this statement is it doesn't work.
Merely replacing wrong ideas with right ones doesn't necessarily change us or the way we live. What changes us is when we bring our real selves before God and experience his profound love and acceptance.
Being loved by God in an "undefended state," as David Benner puts it, is the aim of prayer and the catalyst for transformation--for "right living." When we gather ourselves before God, our real selves, and experience God's acceptance of us in our naked brokenness and beauty, we are changed. We are healed by God's love and acceptance; strengthened by God's comfort; empowered by God's grace to live more whole/holy lives.
As a spiritual director, I often listen to individuals who work feverishly to know God and find their way to a better life with God. I also notice them avoiding God. They live in their heads, in their frenetic thoughts, and don't know how to gather themselves before God in an undefended state. They want to change, to be free, and they continue to try to change by changing the way they think. It doesn't seem to work.
My best direction for them is to help them learn how to be real with God and to pray and engage with God in their real condition. I've come to believe that if I can help them quit playing "dress up" before God, and come as they are, expressing their true emotions, questions and motivations to God, they are more likely to experience God.
The obstacle most face, myself included, is turning off their anxious minds and churning thoughts; getting out of their frenetic thinking and into their deeper thoughts and real prayers. And there's no simple step or two that anyone, myself included, can offer. Realistically, pain and heartache are often the impetus that drive us beyond our superficial thinking toward a desperate seeking of God. ("You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart." Jeremiah 29:13)
So, I'd rather not conclude with some antidote in the form of an exercise or spiritual practice that will help you find your way to a real encounter with God. I'd rather simply say that the question, "When have you been real with God?" is a good place to start. Once you identify a time when you felt like you truly connected with God from your true self, then retrace your steps. What led you to this place of raw and honest encounter? Pay attention to what led you and then return to this place again, engaging with God in an undefended state.