Some years ago I read a valuable piece of advice: frame your prayers in the present tense.
You wouldn`t believe the difference it makes.
Six years ago doctors diagnosed my friend, Lynn, with terminal cancer. She was 41 years old with two young children. The news shocked her, and her family and friends. Prayers bubbled up from all of us, because in circumstances like that, prayers just happen. They can`t be helped.
My first prayer was for Lynn to live. Then, when I read the present tense advice, the prayer changed to “Lynn lives.” With a shock I realized that my prayer was already answered! No matter what happened the next week, or the next month, or the next year, at that moment, Lynn lived. My prayer changed from a plea of desperation to a celebration of gratitude, a “seize the day” motivational expression of wow. It took me out of the victim role, passively waiting for an outside force to act, and put me in the active role of celebrant. It encouraged me to savour every moment with my friend.
So many prayers come out of on-our-knees times of desperation. “Powers that be, please give me the strength to get through this,” we pray. But if we change that to “I have the strength to get through this,” instead of feeling helpless and overwhelmed, suddenly the strength we seek infuses us, and we rise from our knees renewed.
Now, I can hear the shouts of protest now. Critics will say, “Lady, you are crazy. What if I don’t have a job but desperately need one? If I say, ‘I have a job,’ I don’t suddenly and miraculously have a job.” True. But, maybe if you say, “I have a job” you will go to your next job interview with calm assurance instead of discouraged desperation. Maybe that will help.
Or someone else might say, “What if I want a red Porsche? If I close my eyes and say, ‘I have a red Porsche,’ when I open my eyes, there won’t be a shiny car in my driveway.” True, but if you say, “I have a red Porsche” over and over again often enough, maybe it will motivate you to start setting the money aside in a special fund. Maybe you’ll start browsing used car sites until you find the right one. Maybe it will help.
If you pray in the present tense, you might be surprised how often you answer your own prayers. The present tense:
- opens our eyes to the gifts of the moment
- infuses us with strength we didn’t know we had
- relieves our stress and desperation and fills us with calm assurance
- motivates us to work toward a goal.
A year ago yesterday my friend, Lynn, passed away. I grieved, for sure, because I missed my friend. I watched two teenagers lose a parent. I watched her husband lose a spouse and become a father/mother overnight. It was hard. But it was just that titch better because I had spent the previous five years celebrating her life in present tense every single day.
Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker published study results on this topic in the October 2012 issue of Psychological Science. Their experiments showed that awe prompts a feeling of being ”rich in time.”
“Time stood still.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? When we experience awe, we stop what we’re doing, soak it up, and allow well-being to permeate our defenses to our very soul.
“Mediation analyses revealed that these changes in decision making and well-being were due to awe’s ability to alter the subjective experience of time. Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.” —”Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” Psychological Science, October 2012
Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker provide experimental evidence to support centuries-old spiritual practices: Buddhist meditation, the Judeo-Christian “I am,” the Be Here Now“of Ram Dass, and The Power of Now of Eckhart Tolle.
Let’s practise awe-chasing
We benefit, and the world benefits, when we allow ourselves awe. We benefit, and the world benefits, when we pursue activities to converge with it. Whether it’s through awe-inspiring science, stories, prayer, or meditation, slow down, and open your mind.
A 10-year-old boy rocks from one foot to the other in right field. The thought of a ball flying through the air at great speed toward him terrifies him. His fear of dropping the ball and failing in front of his team and his father sitting in the stands paralyzes him. Please don’t hit the ball to me. Please don’t hit the ball to me. Please don’t hit the ball to me. The batter knocks a grounder to the shortstop. Phew! Thank goodness.
A Grade 11 girl slumps in her chair in math class. She had intended to do her homework the night before, but she had basketball practice after school, then she worked at the store until 9:00. She got home and finished the English essay due that morning. Math just didn’t get done. The teacher says, “OK class, let’s look at last night’s homework assignment.” The girl melts into her chair. Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me. The teacher crosses to the other side of the room. “Logan, what did you get for question one?” The girl closes her eyes. “Thank you.”
A young mother rocks her 2-year-old in the waiting room of a busy medical centre. The toddler’s feverish face presses into her chest. The mother watches as person after person enters the room ahead of her. A nurse appears at the door. Please let me be next. Please let me be next. Please let me be next. The nurse calls her name. Oh, thank God. The mother grabs the diaper bag and follows the nurse.
No kneeling required
In my post last week I wrote, “I believe that prayer is innate and that we all do it.” A reader told me that I was wrong, which, of course, I could be. But I don’t think so.
Agreed, if you think of prayer as kneeling by a bedside with hands together and head bowed, or as sitting in a pew with eyes closed, then, no, not everyone does that. If you believe that prayer requires structure, organization, a certain body position and intention then, no, not everyone does that.
But there are many ways to pray, and I believe (that is your cue to go along with this, or not) if one way to pray could be defined as sending a plea out to the universe for events to sway in a way that helps us along, then we all do it. If another way could be thoughts of gratitude sent out to the universe, then we all do it. I believe that unconsciously, reflexively, unintentionally and every day, we all do it.
Please and thank you
The stories I started this piece with are fictional but true. If you’ve never experienced any of those situations yourself, then you likely know someone who has.
My fictional characters above had no idea that they were “praying.” If someone, in casual conversation, asked them if they ever prayed, they might say, “No.” And, almost certainly, if someone strolled up beside them and said, “Let us pray” they would freeze and withdraw. But pray they did, unconsciously, reflexively, unintentionally. We don’t need to be stuck, alone, upside-down, overnight in a cold combine to pray. We do it when rush-hour traffic makes us late for a court appearance. Please, please, let me get there on time.”We do it when a glassy-eyed man reeking of alcohol reels down the aisle of our city bus. Please don’t let him sit next to me. We do it when we’ve taken refuge in a coffee shop to spend a peaceful hour reading and relaxing and an entire playgroup of preschoolers pops in. Please let them do take-out. We certainly do it when we’re pulling for our favourite sports teams to win. Please let the Blue Jays come back in the bottom of the ninth.
If you monitor your thoughts, I mean really think about what you think about, you might notice how often your thoughts include “Please” and “Thank you.” Thoughts not addressed to anything or anyone in particular, just supplications and gratitude to the universe. I even believe that you can’t prevent yourself from doing this. When our first plea goes unanswered—when we find ourselves enveloped in alcohol fumes next to a glassy-eyed man on a bus—we just move our request up a notch. Please don’t let him talk to me.
I believe that prayer is not a religious action, but a human action. Because it seems that we can’t help but pray.
Earlier this week, Ray Como of Alberta fell into a combine. This piece of machinery, for those unfamiliar with farm equipment, harvests grain crops. It cuts the stalks and separates the grain kernels from the straw. The grain stays in a holding tank while the straw shoots out the back onto the field to be baled later. To do such work, the inside of a combine is a complex arrangement of rotating blades, wheels, sieves, and elevators. (The wonderful people at Green Tech Ag & Turf Inc. in Richmond let me climb up and have a look.)
When 82-year-old Ray Como bent over a little too far, fell into his combine and found himself hanging upside-down, he tried to use his arm strength to push himself back up, but he wasn’t strong enough. He then tried to climb down and turn himself around, but he only succeeded in getting himself more tangled. He was stuck. Helpless.
According to the Postmedia News article printed in the Ottawa Citizen, “Never much of a religious man, he began to pray.”
Ah, there we go.
Like the word “God,” the word “prayer” raises people’s hackles. In recent years I’ve had many discussions with friends about prayer. Some point to the selfishness of prayer, asking for material goods or for events to swing our way, often to the detriment of others. Others, who didn’t have their prayers answered, or at least not yet or in the way they expected, say prayer is pointless—never does any good anyway. My atheist friends dismiss prayer derisively as unscientific.
I believe that prayer is innate and that we all do it.
It is so easy, from a position of comfort, to say that prayer or religion is for the weak, for those who can’t summon the power from within themselves to muddle through. It is so easy, from a position of comfort, to feel oneself invincible and able to handle whatever life throws your way.
That is arrogance, and I think that the greater weakness is believing oneself to be invincible. Someday, someway, life will tackle you like a Saskatchewan Rough Rider linebacker. Someday, someway, you will close your eyes and say, “Please, oh please.”
What Ray Como discovered, hanging upside-down in his combine, is that sometimes we don’t have enough physical strength to cope. Sometimes the constraints in our environment prevent us from moving. When we’re alone, and we can’t move, and our body presses up against cold metal, and the hours stretch into darkness, and the temperature dips close to freezing, we pray.
Anybody would. Everybody would.
It wouldn’t matter if the plea were addressed to anything or anyone in particular. Muslims would talk to Allah; Christians to God or Jesus; atheists would think, “What am I doing? I don’t even believe in God.” But they would pray.
When the Saskatchewan Rough Rider linebacker of life comes your way, sends you flying, knocks the wind out of you—oomph—and you find yourself doubled over whispering, “Please, oh please,” know that you’re doing what anybody would do in those circumstances; what everybody would do. Because, it seems, we can’t help but pray.