Compared with a once-soulful experience of prayer and scripture study, many of us know what it’s like to find spiritual practices becoming impoverished, superficial, and thin. Although it’s easy to conclude that prayer or scriptures themselves are somehow limited, it would be shortsighted not to also consider ways in which larger tendencies toward distractedness, stressful busyness, and an accelerating pace of life might be playing a role.
Interestingly, the roots of the Chinese character for busy point to some of the deeper effects of an over-hectic way of life: namely, the death or loss of the heart. Could we be “losing the heart” of our spiritual practices in large part through the exhaustion and frenetic pace of our modern lives? If so, what kinds of changes does this call for?
Stopping as a Radical Act
To start, we might ironically first need to stop. But, immersed in nonstop news and entertainment, many find it a lost art to be able to pause and deeply rest. Have you noticed how getting in even fifteen minutes of reading can seem almost impossible these days? Rather than blame a “boring book,” maybe this says more about us.
If that’s true, what would it mean to experiment with fresh, creative ways of approaching our lives?
Reaching a better place may not be as impossible as we may imagine. One thirty-something couple wrote about remembering a time “when things did not move quite so fast. When it wasn’t expected that everyone was reachable at all times.”
Finding a better balance doesn’t mean “sitting in a rocking chair on a farm for twelve hours a day,” they added, but rather finding a healthy pace of life filled with good accomplishments, without simultaneously feeling like “we’re constantly drowning. Shouldn’t that be a reasonable thing to want?”
We think so.
Welcome to the New Counterculture
Given these broader trends, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a new revolution is afoot in America and the Western world as a whole. Rather than opposing technology or efficiency or work or stress (all of which can be welcome parts of life), this is an uprising against the depletion of our inner world when any of these come to dominate our attention.
This revolution invites people to slow down, stop more, and cultivate more stillness and silence in their lives. “While the rest of the world roars on,” Carl Honoré writes, “a large and growing minority is choosing not to do everything at full-throttle. In every human endeavor you can think of . . . these rebels are doing the unthinkable—they are making room for slowness.”
This hunger for more space is evident in popular books such as Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, & Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives; Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book About a (Really) Big Problem; and How to Have More Time: Practical Ways to Put an End to Constant Busyness and Design a Time-Rich Lifestyle.
While these books grapple with life in an accelerating society, other important questions remain: How is this hyperstimulated, rushed culture influencing how we experience the quiet message of Jesus? In what ways could it be changing our experience of gospel practices? And what happens when a certain spiritual practice doesn’t “stimulate” us or “meet our needs” or “make us happy” in the ways we’ve come to expect with so many other things in our culture?
Exploring these questions may shed light on why some people are “not feeling it” when it comes to faith, while at the same time many others are feeling more enriched and restored as they approach these “same” faith practices.
Our experience has been that infusing any of these spiritual practices with more stillness, space, and silence changes them profoundly. Sabbath becomes more of a restorative retreat, temple worship a deep immersion into non-doing, and prayer a contemplative practice of quiet communion.
That depends, of course, on our being willing to approach these practices with fresh eyes—and perhaps even breaking from ingrained habits of efficiency.
Are you willing to become even more countercultural in this regard?
Central to this rebellion is something called “mindfulness” in the United States—reflecting an East-Meets-West love story in full bloom. Mindfulness has been defined as “paying attention, in the present moment, on purpose, and non-judgmentally.”
In its basic form, mindfulness is simply awareness—the skill of being aware of what’s actually happening inside and around you: thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and what the traditional five senses notice about the tangible world. This is an awareness of what’s unfolding in the present moment, without overanalyzing the past or predicting the future. Thus, mindfulness has also been described as “conscious affectionate awareness of the moment.”
As you can see, this is not cold, robotic observing—it’s noticing with compassion. Compared to the death or loss of the heart evoked by the Chinese character for busy, the character for mindfulness is a combination of two separate characters for now and heart, which, when combined, suggest bringing the heart into the present, or the act of experiencing the present moment with your heart.
Although many world religions emphasize the value of building this skill in the context of spiritual growth, mindfulness is most often associated with Buddhism because Siddhārtha Gautama was especially masterful in offering guidance for how to train and steady the mind. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American physician trained in Zen meditation, helped translate these teachings for the Western world in 1979 when he developed a stress-management class to assist patients with chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts.
The Mindfulness Inherent in the Church of Jesus Christ
To propose, however, that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints need to look primarily outside of their own tradition for mindfulness would be to miss something big: namely, the degree to which invitations into mindfulness are already inherent within the restored gospel. Since Christ’s teachings and relationships powerfully model stillness, pondering, reverence, full presence, and wakeful openness to revelatory insights, of course, it should be no surprise that these mindful skills and traits are also embedded in His restored Church.
But do we recognize them? Catholic leaders Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton once described meditation “not as a newfangled innovation, let alone the grafting onto Christianity of an Eastern practice, but rather, as something that had originally been at the very center of Christian practice and had become lost.”
It’s been remarkable to see how much mindfulness is already threaded throughout Latter-day Saint faith and practice, even if we don’t always realize it. Each of us coauthors has felt for some time separate nudges to gather insights about mindfulness in the Church of Jesus Christ. Jacob was introduced to mindfulness by his neuroscience adviser in graduate school and fell in love enough to train as a teacher and explore ways this could help deepen healing from depression. Carrie felt spiritually prompted to study mindfulness during a divorce. She has found it helpful in navigating a difficult calling, reducing back pain, and negotiating significant life transitions like having children and changing jobs—and she now shares it with clients as a therapist. Ty felt prompted to “learn meaningful solitude” during graduate school in Texas—and was subsequently introduced to mindfulness as a mental health intervention. After finding the practice spiritually transformative, he trained as a teacher and shares it with his clients in therapeutic practice. Kyle first found mindful approaches early in his youth within the pages of traditional Chinese philosophical texts before later rediscovering it as a professor with his students in Kentucky, practicing meditation, yoga, and qigong as ways to nurture quietude and compassion in the face of life’s many demands.
Ultimately, our hope is to advocate for and to help foster a meditative space where Latter-day Saint doctrine and language are embraced as a foundation of the practice—and where teachings from Joseph Smith, David O. McKay, and Gordon B. Hinckley can help illuminate words from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Thomas Keating (and vice versa). As John Kesler, one of the most seasoned and well-respected Latter-day Saint mindfulness teachers has said, “I believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the potential to engender the most profound meditative tradition in the world.”
From our own life experiences, we know that the gospel of Jesus Christ can look and feel remarkably different as it’s infused with greater stillness, silence, and space. We’re convinced that this can deepen and enrich the faith of many active Latter-day Saints. And for people who have at some point walked away from an impoverished experience of Latter-day Saint practices, mindfulness can also introduce new enriching and nourishing possibilities. We also hope that the larger mindfulness community not identifying as religious may benefit from understanding a uniquely Latter-day Saint perspective on mindfulness, with the many interesting synergies that exist between “the doctrine and the dharma.”
Lead image from Shutterstock
Learn about other ways you can bring more peace into every part of your life by reading the brand-new book Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints by Jacob Z. Hess, Carrie L. Skarda, Kyle D. Anderson, and Ty R. Mansfield, available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.