An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘meditation’

Works in Progress

Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 book, The Snow Leopard, helped me survive an arduous month of playing granny-nanny in two households with newborns, mothers recovering from C-sections, and toddlers. In the early mornings or late evenings, I escaped crying children and traveled to Nepal with  Matthiessen’s powerful descriptions of the Himalayas:

Toward four, the sun sets fires on the Crystal Mountain. I turn my collar up and put on gloves and go down to Somdo, where my tent has stored the last sun of the day. In the tent entrance, out of the wind, I drink hot tea and watch the darkness rise out of the earth. The sunset fills the deepening blues with holy rays and turns a twilight raven into the silver bird of night as it passes into the shadow of the mountain. Then the great hush falls, and cold descends. The temperature has already dropped well below freezing, and will drop twenty degrees more before the dawn.

I had little time to sit and meditate for long periods as the author did while his companion, a naturalist doing field research, studied the blue sheep of the high mountains. I did, however, use time pushing a stroller with a napping toddler to free my mind to delight in the peace of a country road—to gaze in awe as clouds swirled and finally released their load of water droplets from the North Pacific onto the hills and vales of western Washington.

Connection with nature fortified me for the three Cs of my life—child care, cooking, and cleaning. While performing my seemingly endless tasks, I thought of the loyal Sherpa porters serving the crazy Americans who insisted on traveling into the mountains in late autumn. In the words of Matthiessen:

The Sherpas are alert for ways in which to be of use, yet are never insistent, far less servile; since they are paid to perform a service, why not do it as well as possible? “Here, sir! I will wash the mud! “I carry that, sir!” . . . Their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake—it is the task, not the employer, that is served. . . .They know . . .that to serve in this selfless way is to be free.

Those words buoyed me as I caught up housework left undone by a high-risk expectant mother, did diaper duty, and told endless tales of the three bears to send toddlers to sleep. Another thought from Matthiessen’s book which helped was the advice given by his Buddhist roshi before he left on the trip: “Expect nothing.”  

Expect nothing! Such a liberating thought. How often we set ourselves up for disappointment by anticipating rewards and blessings so great that only our imagination could fulfill them. Expect nothing leaves us open to simple joys that come our way.

Despite glimpses of enlightenment while meditating in the lofty mountains, Matthiessen retained his human failings—as we all do. Reading his book helped, but no way could I keep a positive attitude for an entire month. Let’s face it—human beings are not perfectible. We can search, study, pray, and meditate, but we always remain fallible mortals—works in progress. I suspect that the most we can hope for is to catch glimpses of something greater than ourselves and try to detach ourselves from things of lesser importance.

Mindfulness and Civility

Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, has a fix for incivility within Congress: Meditation.

Baltimore Public Schools instituted a yoga/meditation program for elementary students ten years. Teachers feel it has lessened fights as well as helped students academically.

Click here for more on both stories.

Be Still and Know That I Am God (D&C 101:16)

“You are not your thoughts,” my yoga instructor said  as she told us to clear our minds and prepare for savasana at the end of class. Her statement made no sense. If I’m not my thoughts, what am I? My mind is my individuality. What else is there? My instructor pointed out that most of us don’t have hundreds of thoughts in a day. We have a few thoughts over and over.

She was right. What I was attached to as my thoughts was pretty trivial stuff running through my head. Mundane plans for running errands, fleeting glimpses of things I wanted or wanted to do, sometimes negatives—wishes for things to be different, for time to pass. Most of what kept my mind from resting was monkey chatter.

My brother, who reads Tibetan philosophy, answered my “What else am I?” question recently. In Tibetan Buddhism, the part of the person that transmigrates is the character rather than the personality. Character includes both positive and negative attributes: kindness, generosity, love, intelligence, greed, sloth, ignorance, and anger. I like the idea of keeping my good characteristics and leaving behind the negatives I’ve overcome, but I would prefer to keep my memory so I don’t have to repeat the same mistakes.

Western religions teach that inspiration comes from without, from the Holy Spirit. Eastern religions teach that inspiration comes from within. From whichever source, one thing is certain: Inspiration best enters a quiet mind. The value of meditation is that it quiets the mind. I find my most creative ideas arise during or right after meditation.

Emma Lou Thayne, the Mormon poet, finds she can receive inspiration during sleep which sounds like a great timesaver. Before falling asleep, she reflects on a piece she is writing or a speech she is preparing. When she awakens in the morning, the words fall into place for her. This method works wonderfully for Emma Lou, but creates insomnia for me.

A few years ago I began meditating with a small group who met weekly, read and discussed philosophy, and practiced sitting or walking meditation together. I have no desire to be a guru who sits silently for hours each day in the lotus position—I can’t even get into a full lotus—but sitting for 10 or 15 minutes before bedtime, softly chanting mantras to myself—such as “calm/ease” or “love/peace” clears and expands my mind.  I also try to be mindfully present while doing repetitive tasks. Leaving the car radio off while driving, focusing on breathing while doing yoga or walking, and doing housework without accompanying music or radio commentary are all ways to still my mind several times a day.


I asked my Relief Society visiting teachers not to present the lesson while they visited this week. I explained that I had read it and not found it relevant. The “senior companion” proceeded to give the lesson regardless. I do admire her dedication. And I did find one point of the August lesson with which I agree. I think we should all live worthy of worshipping and being in God’s presence—however we define God.

Of course, my definition of worthiness differs from the standard Mormon temple recommend interview.  While I believe that God cares that we are honest in our dealings with our fellow human beings and have good relationships with family members, I’m not so sure He cares much about some of the other items on the checklist. In fact, since we’re all so different—and so good at rationalizing—I’m pretty sure the same list doesn’t work for everyone on a meaningful level.

What works for me is to examine my own mind through meditation. To check out my real, sometimes hidden, reasons for my beliefs and actions. To see if my ego is on a rampage. I really like the Big Mind philosophy taught by Genpo Roshi at the Salt Lake Zen Center. I have also found practicing with Michael Mugaku Zimmerman Sensei rewarding.

I don’t maintain a personal checklist of things I should and should not be doing because that technique—like New Year’s Resolutions—has never worked for me. But when something bothers me, I find peace through meditation. Although I’m not particularly good at meditating, sometimes I’m able to address an emotion such as fear or anger—acknowledge and accept it—then find a way to deal with it constructively.

 My method does not provide me with a card proving my worthiness. And it doesn’t convince my visiting teacher that I don’t need her instruction. But that may be my ego talking.

Easing Mormonism

My LDS faith and associations have supplied some of the polish my mother would have given me had she lived longer. Church has introduced me to uplifting women who mentored me in faith, service, and social graces.  LDS teachings and programs have lifted me to a higher level of commitment, service and devotion. I have even gained a modicum of competency at tasks I dislike—speaking in front of a group—badgering people to do things they’d rather not.

For years I enjoyed Sacrament Meeting and Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society classes—the camaraderie with ward members and the thoughtful, spiritual lessons. I lapped up gems of wisdom from Stake and General Conferences. As I read each General Conference address, I copied choice passages into a notebook. I saved each month’s wrinkled, dog-eared, underlined Ensign and devoured the scriptures assigned for Gospel Doctrine class. The peace of temple attendance drew me back twice a month. I fasted and prayed for my brothers who were not active church members. I wanted them to enjoy the blessings I received from church activity.

After about 25 years of dedicated gospel living, my enthusiasm for church meetings waned—beginning with Relief Society. Reading the lesson before class became pointless. I could recite the whole lesson including comments from the audience as soon as I knew the topic. I began sitting near the door for opening exercises then slipping out to avoid the tedium of the lessons. At about the same time, the Gospel Doctrine curriculum telescoped the study of both the Old and New Testaments into one year each and assigned selected verses rather than complete chapters for study. Not learning anything there, I also gave up the second hour of the block. General Conference talks developed a ring of familiarity. I found fewer and fewer passages to underline and copy. Sacrament Meeting talks deadened the senses as speakers reiterated General Conference addresses for our enlightenment.

At the time, I believed the loss of meaningful experience with church meetings was the “milk before meat” approach to instruction. I wanted the church to change, to meet my needs. I tried correcting historical misinformation and sharing new ideas in church classes, but found my efforts unappreciated, even annoying to ward members. Oddly enough, the status quo satisfied most of my church associates.

It’s true the church changed somewhat, but I had changed more. I had gleaned most of what my birth faith offered and needed further spiritual food. My brother had married a Zen Buddhist. My dad sent the missionaries to teach her and I wondered what benefit the LDS Church could give Kato or my brother? Kato’s peace and compassion exceeds that of most LDS women I know. My brother has gained much peace from joining her meditation and yoga practice. What would the LDS Church add to their lives besides increased time and money commitments?

Inspired by my sister-in-law’s example, I began yoga practice and joined a meditation group. I find  answers to my current needs in Buddhist philosophy. For me the concepts of nonattachment and mindfulness work better than trying to keep everybody on board for an eternal Family Home Evening. I value the contribution Mormonism has made to my life, but have eased my relationship with the institutional church. Just as easing myself into a yoga pose allows my muscles to stretch, easing my commitments to Mormonism allows me time and energy to exercise my agency, seeking further light and knowledge.    Spiritual development is a process. A particular religion or organization can facilitate growth only to a certain level. When that level has been reached, wisdom says, “Move on.”

Spiritual Experiences

I grew up believing the LDS Church was the only true church. Everybody I knew told me so, but I had no spiritual experiences on which to base my faith until I married and moved from Utah. We moved into a small ward in Wyoming that needed and cherished every warm body, no matter how eccentric or unorthodox. Third Ward needed Primary teachers and a Scoutmaster. Neither our civil marriage nor George’s smoking counted against us.  Church provided instant friends who shared their testimonies. I no longer attended church to avoid guilt. I attended to participate in the social and spiritual experiences available there.

We moved on to Washington State and I became a stay-at-home mom and attended Relief Society for the first time, back in the days of weekday morning meetings. Again, the sisters in the ward substituted for my deceased mother and the sisters I never had. Attending meetings and fulfilling callings enveloped me in warm, loving spirituality.

Eventually George overcame cigarette addiction and we were sealed as an eternal family—the most spiritual experience of my life to that point. I loved the peace of temple worship, but was disappointed that it made so little difference in my everyday life.

Eventually, the silent, subservient portrayal of women in the temple nagged at me. For a while I substituted initiatory sessions for the endowment, so I could partake of the temple spirit without the distracting message. At the same time the Curriculum Committee began recycling Sunday School and Relief Society lessons. Regardless of which prophet or which scripture was studied, the lessons varied not. I could predict to the moment when Sister Virtue would share her experience of returning to the supermarket to hand over a nickel of extra change the checker had mistakenly handed her. The three-hour block became a burden rather than a blessing. Each Sunday I left church feeling less spiritual than when I’d arrived. Once the kids grew up and left home, I couldn’t find a reason to attend meetings.

Personal scripture study had a perverse effect. The more I read the Book of Mormon, the less convincing and spiritual I found it. Only personal prayer satisfied spiritual longing. Fortunately, I found yoga, meditation and Buddhism at this time.  They have been my “growth religion.”   From them I have found the peace that comes from focusing on the present and accepting life as it is.

I know devout Mormons gain spiritually from LDS meetings, and I have no wish to undermine their testimonies. I value the spiritual growth the Church gave me earlier in my life. I maintain my membership because I value my family, friends, and neighbors who are active members. I value the social contacts and opportunities to help needy neighbors which my membership gives me.

My spiritual growth comes from new insights and ideas rather than from repetition of previously learned doctrine. On Fast Sunday I usually attend Testimony Meeting to hear unrehearsed spiritual experiences shared by members. Other Sundays I visit the Zen Center to meditate, attend the Unitarian Church for uplifting thoughts and music, and commune with the Spirit at home or on a walk alone. My spiritual growth is my personal responsibility. I cannot delegate it to an organization.

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