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The Prohibition Against Asking for Help

Updated: May 3, 2022

I was on a powerful retreat in the Devon countryside a few weeks back and I had a startling flash of memory from my childhood. I recalled a phrase that my mother used to say to me: “Ask Doesn’t Get”. And by that, I assume, she meant that children who ask for things , don’t get them.

It’s one of those vague shimmering prohibitions that float through the dusky light of childhood and rarely get brought out into the daylight. But in the sharp clarity of the retreat, I suddenly felt the full impact of this crazy statement.

Was my mother really telling her child not to ask for things? And that communicating a need was somehow wrong?

Is there a couple of generations of British people who are afraid to ask for what they need?

I wondered for a while if I had mis-remembered it until I happened to bring the phrase up in one of the morning sessions on MSPS and Patti, a meditation stalwart, said that her mother had said something similar: “Good children don’t ask for things”.

Then a few other meditator also chipped in with their version of this barmy prohibition against children communicating their needs.

Is it a British thing? Some variant of the “stiff upper lip” / “children should been seen and not heard” trope? Is there a couple of generations of British people who are afraid to ask for what they need? A pandemic of people unable to ask for help.

The reason this came up was because we were exploring the spiritual practice of Asking for Help. Calling on the “Buddhas, bodhisattvas and realised ones of the ten directions” to come and help us in our practice. This is a peculiarly tantric Tibetan practice of constantly asking (or supplicating) the forces of enlightenment to come to your aid.

Ask Doesn’t Get

Tibetan practitioners (who have turned this “Asking for Help” into a beautiful art form) make no bones about the fact that attaining enlightenment is not something we can do on our own. Indeed, I get the feeling that many Tibetan lamas teaching in the West are baffled by our insistence on “doing it ourselves”.

But our fierce self-sufficiency is perhaps the flipside of that phrase, “Ask Doesn’t Get”.

If our parents are telling us not to communicate our needs by asking, then they are also telling us that our needs are not appropriate, others are not be bothered or relied upon and we should learn to figure things out ourselves.

(My mother was probably taught some variant on the same theme from her parents, I’m not blaming her by the way. And I can also sympathise with mothers and fathers whose nerves are shattered by a never-ending stream of requests, demands and outright manipulations from their children. I don’t have children, so I am in no position to cast stones of blame.)

Nonetheless, I am interested in how this prohibition against asking for help plays out on the meditation cushion.

You have to be shameless in your asking.

We mostly come to meditation because we feel something’s wrong with us (or perhaps something’s wrong with the world) and – if we’re British, apparently – we never ask for help. And we struggle and sweat trying to solve the problem ourselves because “Good Children Don’t Ask”. Then perhaps someone offers the possibility of asking. So we brace ourselves and get over our British inhibitions and we ask. But then nothing comes back. “I knew it!” we say to ourselves. “My mother was right…”

But it’s not enough to simply ask once (under our breath, while no one is looking) and then crumple back into our unbelieving slump of solitude. You have to be shameless in your asking.

The Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche is funny on this subject. He says that you can be quite cheeky. The buddhas and bodhisattva’s only job is to come to your aid. They are sitting, twiddling their enlightened thumbs until the call comes. At which point they tumble over themselves, like celestial superheros, eager to get to your call-for-help first.

And if they don’t come, if you don’t get a sudden perspective shift, if something doesn’t occur then you can chide them: “Come on guys. Get a move on. I really need your help”.

Just because the answer doesn’t come back in a clearly addressed letter doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Naturally, they don’t have to be Buddhas if you don’t believe in Buddha. You can call on on Krishna, Christ, Kali, Tara, St. Francis or St. Cecilia. You can ask for help from God, from Allah, from the Dharmakaya or from the most impeccable atheistic Universal life force.

The important thing is to get back into the habit of asking. And then of being curious to see how the help is appearing. Just because the answer doesn’t come back in a clearly addressed letter, or in 20m-high neon letters, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

For example, one of the things I often ask for these days is to be surprised. To be shown what I need in unexpected places.

Often we’re longing and longing for something but simply looking in the wrong place for the results. We want a pot of gold and we’ve been praying for decades to get it and searching endlessly in the one metre square in front of us: “Where is it? Why does no one hear my prayer? Why am I always disappointed? Where is it?” And then someone points out that it’s just behind us. We didn’t need someone to give us the pot of gold, we actually only needed them to gently turn our heads to see that it’s always been there, patiently waiting for us to notice it.

The important spiritual practice is to ask and to ask shamelessly.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter if the answer doesn’t come immeditately or obviously or at all. The important thing is to break the prohibition against asking. To ask and ask and ask. And slowly to relax into the faith that there is field of benevolence waiting at our shoulders. This is our ‘face before we were born’. It is the delicious recognition that many of us had as children that – no matter how blank and unhelpful our environment may have seemed – there is a ‘big space’ that we could magically rely on.

In childhood, this is the realm of “imaginary friends” (who are, of course, not imaginary), of teddy bears, favourite dollies, secret gardens and tree-houses. In adulthood, it can be the realm of buddhas, bodhisattvas, Gaian forces or universal consciousness. Different names same thing. 

The important spiritual practice is to ask and to ask shamelessly. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, another Tibetan teacher, says the ultimate request is to become like these wonderful beings who have already discovered enlightenment and have it in their bones:

The most important prayer […] is when you are praying: “Make me you.” Basically, that’s what you are saying. “Make me you, make me you. And make me and you inseparable. Make you me, make me you.” You understand? That’s the prayer that you have to have been doing.

The joy and relief come in the connection that asking creates.

This is what we can begin and end our practice sessions with. Enlightenment is what we long for. To feel the bliss and emptiness of Buddha consciousness all day long. Not (just) because it’s fantastic and it transforms our ‘everyday’ world into a sparkling display of cosmic beauty. But also because it stops us from getting caught up in the boring tangle of our normal thoughts and allows us to truly love and help all the other beings in the Universe.

But we can’t do it on our own. It’s like trying to build a boat while you’re sailing it. Better to get a shipwright in who knows how these things work and then sail away together with them. Which is why the art of asking is so essential.

Ask, ask and ask again. And the asking becomes the gift. We don’t actually have to keep a tally of whether our requests have been met. The joy and relief come in the connection that asking creates. We feel buoyant because our constant asking has made us more and more confident of the deep sustaining waters all around us.

Forcing myself through the fire of Asking for Help allowed something precious to arise.

On my recent retreat, I forced myself to ask for help from one of the retreat caretakers, something I never ever do usually. And the extreme discomfort I had in asking was matched by the exhilarating sense of connection I felt when I did ask and then received help. Somehow, forcing myself through the fire of Asking for Help allowed something precious to arise.

Was asking prohibited where you grew up and has impacted your spiritual practice? Is it just a British thing or is it universal?

Let me know below!

I’d love to know your thoughts about asking for help. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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