The Magic of Prayer
Post Written by Markus
Prayer has meant different things to me across my life. From a comforting evening ritual with parents, to a “boring” experience at plenty of conservative churches, to an inspiring and raw experience at some tiny churches, to a very unpleasant and disingenuous experience at some big flashy churches, to a desperate cry for help and reassurance in many of my own dark, quiet, lonely moments. For most of my life I understood prayer to be at best a hopeful, but not guaranteed, petition for some desired outcome - and at worst, a resignation of admittance that I couldn’t handle life on my own and was “one of those weak, pitiful people who needs God for real and can’t handle life on their own.”
That understanding has since shifted, seemingly out of nowhere. One early morning a few weeks ago, an idea in my mind gripped me to write it down because it felt significant in my heart. I expected it to be a relatively brief complete thought, so I just grabbed the closest thing which was my phone. Fast forward to an hour later when I looked up and realized that it was much longer than I had expected and would have been way better suited to typing on my laptop. But there it was, as it had shown up.
Note that I use the word “God” throughout. This is actually not the term that resonates with my heart the most for my higher power - those terms are “Source”, “Love”, “Life”, “Universe”, and “Infinite”. To me these convey the essence of something that is at once very personal - yet profoundly powerful; tangible - yet without boundary, beginning, or end. For me, the word “God” brings with it many associations and connotations that were taught by well-intentioned people but that served mostly to make God smaller and more manageable to fit neatly into a conservative Christian box. That said, using the word “God” in this writing actually brought about a sense of healing for me as those layers of projection began to fade away, leaving a sense of loving compassion instead. These are those words:
When I pray - does God listen? Why is it important to pray and to talk with God? If I’m honest and open with God, what does that do for me? It really doesn’t matter where God physically exists or if God hears those specific words in English that I say out loud or in my mind to God - as one person out of billions of people on the planet today and of trillions of people across all time. It does matter though that I say these things to myself, out loud or in my mind. That I’m honest and open with myself. And what happens then? Who hears these things?
Anything I express - worries, fears, desires, emotions, pain, hard truths about the world, hard truths about myself - I can bring them to God. Even doubt and even anger. Out loud and in my mind I can bring these to God. At that point there’s no denial and no repression. If I’ve named and expressed an emotion, it’s not hiding under the surface anymore. If I’ve taken an honest look about a shortcoming about myself, it’s not hiding anymore. So that’s an important step. That’s not nothing - that’s a massive first step. To be aware. To not resist what is. To let life live thru me.
So who’s listening? Does God hear? Does it matter that I pray beyond just keeping myself out of denial and repression? Something happens thru these moments. There’s something that’s troubling me, usually. Either about “the world” (something outside my self) or about my self. Really they’re both about my self. The world is what it is. It’s my resistance to “what is” that’s the problem.
When I bring these things to God, I’m saying “These are things that exist. Things about the world or about myself. They’re troubling me and right here, right now, I don’t have the answers or the immediate power to change them to be as I wish them to be in this moment.” This may sound obvious. Why even mention this? There’s nothing I can “do” about them - right? So why waste time talking about what I can’t change?
This is the heart of the serenity prayer. To understand what things are outside my control to change. So if I can’t change them, what’s the point of spending any mental time on them, not to mention prayer time? The point is that in these moments, someone is listening. I know and can prove 100% that someone hears these. I’ve always been able to since I was a young child, but that’s not unique to me. When I pray, I am listening. ME. My self. When I pray, I hear these things. Concerns, problems, griefs. And I understand that the ones about the world are not in my control. Though I may wish for a certain outcome, I can’t create it myself and I can’t expect it from God. Maybe there will be a change and maybe not. I can’t control the world or circumstances.
When I talk with God about things in the world that I can’t change, I’m honest about them. I’m not saying that they’re OK but I’m taking a look at them as they are today. There they are and they’re out of my hands. That’s honest acceptance. Seeing things as they are and not as I wish them to be. And taking my hand off the wheel and not trying to force them to be different.
When I bring these to God as things outside my control, it frees up a tremendous amount of energy in me to not carry these concerns with me each moment of each day. Carrying them as concerns is one thing, and putting them down frees up so much energy on its own. Yet even more energy is freed when I don’t carry the burden of responsibility each day too. And that burden is one thing - though even greater is the burden I place on myself for what it means about me to carry that responsibility. If I have the responsibility for these things, then I’m accountable. I MUST be able to change them. But obviously I can’t. So what has that meant in my life to date?
It’s meant that the responsible person was incompetent; and because of that, this person was bad; and because of that, this person was unacceptable. That person was me. That meant that I was incompetent and unacceptable and bad. I was supposed to do these things and I didn’t or couldn’t. I tried and tried and tried and failed. If I was to look at the situation honestly, I would have agreed with the individual pieces. That I can’t actually change these things and so really I’m not in control. But something there doesn’t add up. Because even seeing these things and agreeing to the individual pieces, I still didn’t let go.
There’s something I’ve clung to here. Desperately. I’d have told you it was about the world, but actually it was about my self. I clung to the deep belief that I was incompetent and therefore bad and therefore unacceptable. So deeply that I look back and see these moments all throughout my life. Being surprised when I’ve succeeded at something because I expected failure - over and over. Declining compliments from others about my self because I believed they weren’t true and that I was unworthy, unattractive, and unlovable. Denying my own needs over and over, needs as basic as food, rest, fun, friendship, and pursuing my dreams - because I believed I didn’t deserve these things. And because I believed very deeply that I specifically deserved the opposite of these.
So I have these two things - things about the world that I can’t change and a deep need to not accept myself because I can’t change these things. That is a need to punish myself and withhold the things that my body and mind need in order to thrive and grow and live the life that my self naturally wants to live. When I bring these to God, someone sees them. I see them. There they are. About the world and about me. They’re both there, in the palm of my hand, and I can turn them over. I can see them as being outside my self, even the ones that are about me. They describe actions I’ve taken or not taken and they describe how I’ve felt. But neither of these is me.
I used to believe that they were both me. My actions and my emotions. What else could be me? I believed that my actions defined me and that if I made a mistake, it meant that I was bad. OK, not necessarily just bad - also stupid, not OK, unlovable, unacceptable, and not deserving of anything good in life.
I missed an important distinction - the problem wasn’t making mistakes, the problem was not recovering from mistakes. I can’t avoid making mistakes. If I do, I’m not living - I’m just cowering in fear - and that’s the biggest mistake of all. I could write volumes about that - I would say that I have more direct experience with that than anything else in life. The years I spent with my number one goal as “just don’t make mistakes” drained my energy and made my existence miserable, endlessly anxious, and very, very small. Everyone falls down trying something hard for the first time - and still makes mistakes many times after that. And accidents happen too beyond our control, even big accidents - ones that can stop us dead in our tracks in an instant. Yet everything is in the recovery. Not the cards I’m dealt but how I play them.
It was true all along but I didn’t understand it. I was focused on not making mistakes so much that I never learned how to recover from making mistakes. A mistake was a verdict about my self and meant that I was bad and unacceptable. At that point, the proof about my self was already there and there was no use fighting it. I was unacceptable. My only hope was to hide those mistakes from others and from my self and use all my time and energy to try as hard as I can to not make any more of them as long as I was alive.
And that’s where prayer comes in. Me looking at these things about the world and about my self and understanding that I can’t change them. I look at what is - as it is today, here, now. Then I lay all of it down. I don’t carry these things. They stay here and I’m not responsible to carry them. They’re not mine and that was never my role, even if caretakers told me that was the case when I was too young to understand they were wrong because they didn’t know. I’m not responsible for the outcomes and because of that, the outcomes don’t mean anything about my self. I do my best and the chips fall where they may.
The point of prayer isn’t to “do” anything - it’s not to affect a certain outcome in the world outside my self. I may consciously believe in the moment that the main “problem” that I want to pray about is the world. Prayer often starts with me talking about the world - something outside my self. That I want to accept the world and circumstances as they are today. But really I want to accept me.
I need to accept me. As I am - today, here, now. A person on this earth who’s here for a very short time and who needs deeply to live freely and to grow toward the light and to express openly and fully the love in my heart. If I don’t accept my self, I can never do any of these things. Ever. It’s 100% guaranteed. I can’t give anyone else something that I don’t already have. What I want and need to give to others is love and an honest open expression of my natural self in each moment.
I realize that projection is heavily at play here. Donny Epstein argues that at least 80% of what we “see” in the world around us (people, places, things) is our projection - not what’s actually there, but what we believe is there. We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. That said - when I accept myself and accept the world as it is (as best I honestly can), I’m able to see easily where I can change things and where I can’t. And those are hugely important distinctions. They’re part of the work I’m here to do. But my work is not my self. My work is not my heart and it’s not my soul. It’s just my work.
Prayer is a moment to look at my self as I am and also to separate things “about me” from my heart and my soul. To accept whatever is there “about me”. To accept it as “OK”, but so much more than just that. To accept my heart and my soul, my true self - to accept it as beautiful, good, worthy, attractive, and beyond all - deeply and truly lovable. This is the real Magic of prayer.