On Asking

Where did you get the idea you aren't allowed to petition the universe with prayer? You are part of this universe, Liz. You're a constituent – you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe, and to let your feelings be known. So, put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me – it will at least be taken into consideration. Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m a vicar’s daughter, and I went to a boarding school for daughters of the clergy. I spent every Sunday of my childhood and adolescence in church, we said grace before every meal, and I witnessed my father’s prayers over and over – overheard in his study, on the telephone, late at night in a hot and sticky car as we finally pulled into our drive after family summer holidays, in reports brought back from deathbeds (I might even have found half-composed prayers scrawled on notes left around the house, but this could also be one of those unreliable memories that say more about my desire, as a writer, to find similarities between me and my father, than about what really occurred). And yet, when I first read Liz Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love in my early thirties (and I say first read because it is a book well-worth re-reading, and I have), this passage was the first time I really, fully understood what it might mean to pray. And despite not being at all sure of what I believe in spiritually, I ran with this conception of petitioning the universe in the same way I run with all the shiny new ideas of my lift: excitedly setting out way faster than my level of fitness might allow. And then, for exactly the same reasons, I stopped.

Flash-forward a decade and I’m in my first six months of self-employment, a jump from a secure career that has had me face my relationship with faith and faith’s doubting sibling fear on, at the very least, a weekly basis ever since. The move has also prompted a wider reappraisal of what is important in my life, about the things we hold onto and why; indeed, I’ve thought here previously about what wealth means to me, and by extension generosity. And so it follows that this line of enquiry might eventually lead me back to the things I need, and what it might mean to ask, even if this is much less easy to think about.

Because asking is hard, isn’t it? It’s one of the reasons I sometimes find myself holding my breath the first time I meet someone in therapy, because that first moment of asking is a sacred thing and I feel the same reverence towards it as I do when I walk into cathedrals. Asking takes us straight into the vulnerability arena Brené Brown describes in her book Daring Greatly; an arena into which we usually arrive limping or covered in mud or naked. We ask because we do not have, in some way, and we are generally asking because the other does, in some way. And so there can feel like a power imbalance. In asking we are offering over enormous amounts of trust.

And because asking is hard, it’s sometimes easier to go about it in an oblique way, isn’t it? There’s a wonderful Tori Amos lyric on this: there are some, some whose “give” twists itself to take... I say wonderful despite the fact it makes me wince every time I hear it, because I know I have done this, and on so many more occasions than I care to imagine, however unintentionally – it’s so damn easy to do. Or there are those other times when I’ve left all manner of hints, rather than risk asking in a more straightforward way, in the hope that the other might pick up on my need, and then found myself feeling frustrated or hurt when they don’t. I’ll say it again: asking is hard.

And yet sometimes we have no choice.  For a whole variety of reasons I’ve had to do a lot of asking in the last year. Most recently a plumbing issue in my flat that has necessitated several trips to friends’ houses with rucksacks full of essential laundry to wash in their washing machines, and even though it’s not the biggest or most difficult asking I’ve ever had to do, on one of the occasions, as I sat on one particular friend’s kitchen floor surrounded by my underwear, I couldn’t help but think that it was the perfect metaphor for everything Brené Brown describes: this is me at my most intimate, please help.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that all this thinking has led me to reflect on the ultimate in asking: prayer. I still don’t know what I believe in, spiritually (though I increasingly know I believe in something), and, as my thinking has returned to this arena, I’ve also realised that I still don’t really know how to pray. But Liz Gilbert’s conception of petitioning the universe has felt like a good place to start. And so every night as I’ve lain in bed (yes, just like children do!) I’ve made my first stumbling requests and asked my first uncertain questions, blinking into the quiet darkness, and then waited.

The first thing that has struck me (again – I remember noticing this before), is how similar these petitions are to worry (which, as is commonly the case, is a trap I can also fall into at night), only with the syntax and semantics of each plea ever so slightly rearranged. So the worry what if I don’t have enough money this month becomes the request I would like to be sufficiently provided for. The other thing that I’ve noticed, almost immediately, is that my sleep has improved.

But have any of the petitions themselves been answered? Well, in many ways this depends on our definition of answer. Sometimes the simple act of asking has been answer enough. Other times I have had to ask several times before anything close to an answer has made itself known. On a couple of rare (but stunningly beautiful) occasions an answer has quite literally landed in my lap as though it really did come from above. But mostly the answers have become clear within me, and I think this is kind of the point. In this way the act of prayer – its focus and practice and intention – feels like some kind of gentle dilation, through which things – the gifts we all hold within ourselves – eventually become manifest.

Ah, but. Am I not a CBT Therapist? And don’t we say all sorts of things about thoughts not equally facts, and about how magical thinking is unhelpful, and isn’t manifesting just an example of that? Well, no. At least I don’t think so. In fact, I think the whole idea of intentionality is actually very CBT – our thoughts really can and do determine our reality, and both are therefore entirely open to change. So, just as worry or rumination might lead us into dark and anxious places, it follows that prayer or petitioning the universe or manifesting (or whatever else we want to call it) has the potential to take us places, too. And for now that is a good enough answer for me.