We often try to spiritually ground ourselves with daily prayer and scripture study. However, our commitment to these practices is sometimes irregular at best. During prayer, it’s natural for our minds to wander; when reading the scriptures, our attention often drifts to what we’re going to do next. Not surprisingly, it’s easy to feel spiritually empty and apathetic.
Faced with these problems, an important breakthrough for me came as I began practicing the art of meditation. Latter-day Saints often use the word “meditate” to mean something like “ponder.” But the type of meditation I discovered indicates a more intentional approach to bringing stillness and focus to our distracted minds. It is this purposeful cultivation of inner peace and quietude that, I believe, President McKay referred to when he said, “Meditation is the language of the soul. . . . [It] is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord.”
Meditation, however, is not just a 10-minute activity in the morning. It entails an entire way of viewing and encountering the world. In my own spiritual life, I have found many of the truths taught by meditation masters have deepened and enriched my understanding of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our True Essence
One of the central ideas of the philosophy of meditation is that at the core of every human being is an infinite soul. In the Hindu tradition, this essence is called the “atman.” The atman is a kind of divine spark, a piece of God inhabiting a human body. Human beings are experiencing a temporary sense of separation from God but can reunite with Him as we remember our true nature as divine beings.
These ideas ought to resonate with Latter-day Saints who also understand that we are eternal beings and that our truest, deepest self derives from the same substance of God. We learn that “man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” It was in reference to this inner light that the Savior taught, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
The Natural Man
Then why, if our inner self is “the light of truth,” is it sometimes so difficult to feel the presence of God? The complications come from our embodiment as human beings. When we come to earth, we “fall” from the paradise of God’s presence and enter a harsh realm that demands survival. We lose our sense of being in harmony with creation and instead become a “me” in competition with “others.” This selfish sense of self is referred to in meditation studies as the ego.
The ego is roughly equivalent to what the scriptures call the natural man. Just as meditation masters have identified the ego or “false self” as the thing that separates us from the presence of God, the Book of Mormon describes the natural man as the “enemy to God,” or in other words, the thing that creates enmity between ourselves and our divine origin. We must “put off the natural man and become a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.”
The innate instincts we are born with cause the natural man to react quickly to unpleasant situations. Someone insults us, and we feel offended before our religious training tells us we shouldn’t be. If someone hurts us, we want to hurt them. Something scares us, and we want to run or fight. Stimulus, response. Action, reaction.
In the meditation tradition, the natural needs and fears of the ego are called “attachments,” and they are singled out as the principal cause of human suffering and impediment to spiritual progress. The Savior referred to attachments as burdens that cause us to be “heavy laden” and labor under their weight, and he taught us to live without them. He invited the rich young man to unburden himself of his riches. He questions Martha’s need to be “careful about many things.” He said, “Take no thought for the morrow.”
Attachments cause us to live in a state of anxiety and dissatisfaction, because to need something is to fear not getting it. Meditation is a method of spiritual training that helps us eliminate our attachments and awaken our spirits. Our natural bodies and natural minds are like wild horses, powerful and strong, but potentially dangerous and destructive. Our spirit intelligences are like trainers, sent from the presence of God to guide the evolution of this wild animal until it becomes a temple in which the Spirit can dwell.
There are many different traditions and approaches to formal meditation, and there is no single “right” way to meditate. I suggest researching different approaches with the spirit of discernment to find what works best for you. Even basic principles of meditation, when applied to everyday spirituality, can be transformative.
The small space of holy silence cultivated in meditation is a powerful place for the Atonement to work. We become “at-one” with God every time we are mindful of the natural man and return our attention to the Lord’s grace. When we meditate, with our “eye [or attention] single to the glory of God,” our “whole body shall be full of light.” The Atonement can be seen as a kind of burning away of the darker, Natural man energies within our being as we reunite our inner light with the Savior’s light. This process has a self-reinforcing, upward trajectory: “He that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”
This influx of light allows for the flow of grace, wherein we do not check off lists of commandments or become depressed with setbacks or obsessed with perfectionism. In the meditative life our “confidence wax[es] strong in the presence of God” because when we practice abiding in the light for a few minutes every day, then returning to that light every time we wander, the habit will become internalized. This process of sanctification allows the transformation of body and mind until we finally “put off” the natural man and “become a Saint through the atonement of Christ.”
This article initially appeared in the 2014 May/June issue of LDS Living magazine.