AK Reader: “What is Prayer?” (2004)

I composed this essay, which details the evolution of my own relationship to the divine, in response to Sagewoman‘s theme for Spring 2004, “Prayer.” 

As is usually the case, when I began the essay I had no idea what I would say. The language moves through me, pulsed by some kind of force that at this point I must acknowledge, despite my brief foray into “atheism,” seems to herald  from some kind of larger order. 

“Praying Hands,” Albrecht Durer


What Is Prayer? (2004)

by Ann Kreilkamp


When I was a child, I prayed in church on Sundays, asking for things I wanted. Kneeling with head down, eyes shut, hands folded and in a state of chronic guilt, I tried to hook up with God.

I look back now at all those children and adults in church, apparently deep in prayer, and wonder: did others, like me, wonder if God was really there? Not that I wondered if God existed — heaven forbid!—but if He was there for me. Worse, how could I tell if He was there? Shouldn’t I feel some kind of zap, a sudden flood of feeling? What if I’m not prayerful enough or saintly enough for God to bother with? What if all my sins have disgusted Him? I keep quarreling with my brothers and sisters. Sometimes I talk back to Mom and make excuses for not making my bed. I’m always mean to Marnie — for no reason! I try not to hate her, but I do.

Screwing my eyes tighter, I redouble my efforts, focus so powerfully that God has to hear me.

Maybe I’m going about it all wrong. Maybe, though it looks like I’m praying, I’m not. Not really. My mind keeps skittering off . . . I’m mad at myself for being too lazy to ride my bike to church and go to confession. If I had just gone and done it yesterday, I wouldn’t feel so guilty today. At least those sins would be gone. I’m hoping I got an “A” on Friday’s religion test; I wonder . . . can I can get Mom to drive me out to Robin’s farm this afternoon?

Suddenly, my mind telescopes back from its wandering; I “come to,” still kneeling, hands tensely folded, eyes squeezed tight, head down, just like everybody else. How long was I gone? Could anybody tell I was gone? Nobody else seems to go. Or maybe they do! Maybe they’re just like me, daydreaming when they should be praying. No! NO! Don’t think bad thoughts about others. I’m the only one. I’m sure I’m the only one. The only one who feels like a fake.

We were all kneeling in supplication, postures nearly identical. Some of us cheated, butts propped on the seat of the pew behind, but mostly we were all straight backed. Now I ask: Did the others secretly fear they were the only ones who kept trying, and failing, to dial direct? And did they also deny this feeling, fall into pretending? Did their pretending in church spill over into daily life, in their need to seem correct, no matter what the cost to authenticity?

It took me a full decade to process the trauma of the masks I used to wear. I wanted to discover what was inside them. Wanted to tear them off and, in the vernacular of the time, “let it all hang out,” “do my thing,” “be here now.” Like others of my generation who came of age in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I was determined to act spontaneously, intuitively. Change was in the air.

I not only refused to pray, I hated all ritual, so much did any hint of it remind me of the tedium and hypocrisy of early church-going years.

But of course I did have some rituals, and of course, given my proud headlong flight into the new, I refused to acknowledge them. My rituals took the form of addictions — to substances, mostly, but also to certain behavioral patterns. During the following decade my shame and disgust with being controlled by something outside myself did finally lead me to release the most glaring addiction — to cigarettes. That I could actually let go of that chronic craving still amazes me. Indeed, I date the beginnings of genuine self-worth to the day when I realized I had actually succeeded in what I set out to do.

That was almost exactly 20 years ago. Had I not been able to stop smoking, I would probably be dead. Not, I imagine, because of some dread disease, but because the lifelong burden of guilt and self-hate would have attracted some kind of “accident” to release me from that death-in-life.

I might date the time when “prayer” re-entered my life to the day, six months earlier, when I made the decision to let go of “trying” to stop smoking, and handed the task to my “higher self.” At the time, I did not know that this approach to releasing addiction was somewhat similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. All I knew was that I had been trying to stop for so long, and that every time I stopped, and then started again, the addiction gripped me even more tightly, as the guilt in which it was embedded settled in at an even more bedrock level.

There was nothing else I could do! I had hit bottom. The situation was out of my control. All I could do was let go.

On that day I surrendered, not to the AA “God” or “higher self,” but to the addiction itself, giving myself permission to smoke as long and as much as I wanted. By transferring the problem of my addiction to my “higher self,” I intended that, if and when I did stop smoking, it would be effortless.

It had become obvious that my ego was not strong enough to overcome my body’s constant need for a “fix.” Trying to stop had not worked. Another approach was needed.

Years before I had discovered this “other self,” as an inner voice that boomed at me during critical crossroads of my life. The first time I heard it I was in the hospital, on my way out with apparently terminal abdominal peritonitis.  I never forgot the startling alacrity of this voice, nor its singular message: LIVE OR DIE, IT’S YOUR CHOICE.

24 hours later, my body miraculously cleared of disease, I walked out of the hospital, stunned. I date my understanding that “body follows the spirit” to that experience, and view specific physical symptoms as symbolic expressions of the soul’s yearning.

After that uncanny and miraculous initial contact, I heard the voice a few more times, each one at crossroads where to follow it was to set out in a direction which, though unfamiliar and frightening, was, if the voice was to be believed, necessary — if I wished to unfold my authentic nature.

The issue of my smoking had bedeviled me for a long time. My body was suffering from lack of energy. I couldn’t smell or taste. I hated myself for my “weakness” and knew I had to stop. And I knew I couldn’t stop. So this was the day when I actually asked this other self for help; in so doing, I began to consciously not just admit, but to actually work with the notion that there was not one, but two selves, one of them larger and more powerful than the other.

At the time, of course, I didn’t know if my desperate and novel approach to addiction would succeed and, in fact, I was willing to smoke the rest of my life, two packs a day, in order to find out. I put my life on the line that day, in order to discover if there was more to life than dreary guilt-ridden tedium.

My approach did “work,” and I have been “praying” ever since. By this I mean I have been in relationship to what I consider “the divine.” I am not always consciously aware of this relationship, but I do have access to it, and can call upon it at any time.  This relationship connects my normal everyday “ego” with that other mysterious locus of awareness inside me. And because that larger Self does not seem to recognize limitation, I sense it is also outside me. In fact, there is the little pinhole ego me, and there is the great fullness of Being, utterly alive birthing creation with every breath.

“Praying,” now, to me, is not asking for what I want, but surrendering to this larger order, so that my will and the will of the universe are one. And in this surrendering, ritual has come to play a very important part. Small, repeating actions help to center me, just as smoking cigarettes, a small repeating pattern, was itself a disguised attempt to center me. Even during those years when Marlboro Lights were always at hand, I would joke that smoking was a “fucked up pranayama,” i.e., a breathing exercise meant to hook me up to the universe, but instead filling me with poison. I did see the irony in my situation. I did cynically realize that each time I lit up a new cigarette, the first inhalation was an instinctive attempt to fill myself with whatever lies beyond. But then, of course, the disappointment in myself, as time after time after time I deliberately allowed my lungs to absorb noxious gases in a doomed effort to pacify the churning anxiety underneath.

At some point during the process of letting go of cigarettes — it began three months after I had surrendered to the addiction, and was, to a great extent, effortless! — I began to realize that even if I did succeed, I was temperamentally an addict; that I was condemned, because of my somewhat obsessive compulsive nature, to addiction; that my choices were confined to whether my addictions served or denied life. In short, would I be a slave to good addictions or to bad ones? Thus my consciously chosen rituals now, as deliberate daily exercises in the awareness of centering my own small ego in the vastness of the real.

When my husband Jeff Joel died, not quite one year ago, I was filled with gratitude for the ritual I had established over the last few years. That ritual was a lifeline in those early months, assisting me in taking the edges off, first shock, and then subliminal, anxiety-producing chaos. No matter what unpredictable peaks and troughs of feeling I was facing, this ritual helped set a rhythm for that day, and I remain convinced that it sculpted a channel for my nervous system which moderated moods.

Now, each morning at dawn, as I finish my hour-long round of yoga/chi kung/tai chi, ending with a prayer of blessing to the four directions, I remain immensely grateful for this centering practice which guides me as I continue to work through the intense and prolonged process of grieving.

Only on the actual day of his death did I not do tai chi. Indeed, so extraordinary was that day that, when I woke up on the second morning, I was stunned to realize I had skipped my morning practice the day before. That was when I knew just how deep the shock of his death had been to my system. For this practice is something I do every single day, no matter what, and has been, for the past three years. Even if I have a 6 am plane trip, and must arise at 3 am to drive to Indianapolis to make it, I will set my clock for 2 am in order to do tai chi before leaving.

That morning of the second day of my new life, though I was still, of course, in shock, I followed my body into the studio and watched it get out the yoga mat, then lie down and begin to breathe in the long, slow, deep way that signals initiation into this most sacred hour in my day. No matter what, no matter how much cataclysmic change I would have to endure, this practice would hold me true, help me stay the course as I navigated rough waters ahead. My body knew that, even if my mind, at that point in the early days of my grieving, was too numb to care.

Every morning I move first into yoga’s stretching and balancing, waking up every single cell to the new day; yoga seamlessly segues into chi kung’s ultra-slow-moving postures, activating the tingling and flow of chi throughout the body’s energy pathways; then, finally, entering the dance form of tai chi, slow and methodical, straight-backed and knees bent, “as if sitting on a horse,” toes pointed slightly inward, shifting from one foot and that side of the body to the other, over and over again, arms like tree limbs in wind, waving energy in and out, from heaven to earth and back again. Feet grip earth like a lover, head shoots to the stars.

This ritual sets the tone for each day. If someone were to watch me, they might think, “Ah my, she has her act together.” Just like in church, when I assumed everybody but me was really praying. But the cycle has turned round to the beginning. Now, 50 years from my early church-going years, I am still caught in monkey-mind, still endeavoring to train my everyday awareness to not spin out into hope or regret or nostalgia, not latch on; once I do notice that my mind has left my body and lost itself in imaginings, I gently pull myself back, to right here, right now.

Yes, I must admit that hooking up to the universe is still a sometime thing, intermittent and episodic. But once in a while, time does stop and grace steals in, to bestow its subtle fluid blessing. I thank whatever is this mysterious divine order which dissolves the veil between inside and outside, for attuning me to Oneness, for its persistent patient reach into my wayward soul.










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