Wednesday, January 29, 2014


I've been interested a lot lately in the idea of silence. You might not think much of this concept, especially seeing as silence is getting harder and harder to come by in today's world. But there is something sacred about the absence of sound, an explicitly divine character which I find difficult to explain directly. Thankfully, others have done it for me. In what follows, I will quote the works of several philosophers and show you their take on what makes silence such a spiritually-important phenomenon.

First, I will quote the beginning of 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's short work Lily of the Field, Bird of the Air:

"From the lily and the bird as teachers, let us learn: silence, or learn to be silent. Surely it is speech that distinguishes humanity above the animal, and then, if you like, far above the lily. But because the ability to speak is an advantage, it does not follow that the ability to be silent would not be an art or would be an inferior art. On the contrary, because the human being is able to speak, the ability to be silent is an art, and a great art precisely because this advantage so easily tempts him. But this he can lean from the silent teachers, the lily and the bird: "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness." But what does this mean, what am I to do, or what is the effort that can be said to seek  to aspire to God's kingdom? Shall I see about getting a position commensurate who my talents and abilities in order to be effective in it? No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. Shall I then go out and proclaim this doctrine to the world? No, you shall first seek God's kingdom. But then in a certain sense it us nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense it is nothing. In the deepest sense you shall make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to be silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is to seek first God's kingdom."

In the scripture from which Kierkegaard's treatise gets its title, (Matthew 6: 25-34) Jesus encourages his disciples to forgo seeking food, drink, or clothing for the eternal goal of salvation. And while this goal may involve reading your scriptures, going to church, or praying, Kierkegaard here observes that the kingdom itself is not identical with any of these things. If we seek to read the scriptures simply for the sake of reading the scriptures, we miss the point of spirituality entirely. These spiritual activities are merely lenses through which we can perceive divine light, meaning that to focus on them alone ignores the overarching goal to which they allow us to come closer. 

To have true peace, we must cease desiring things for their own sake and instead seek first God's kingdom. The desire for Heaven must thus lie at the very forefront of our will, meaning that we should not strive to do anything unless it lies within our desire to follow the will of God. But Kierkegaard doesn't just mean this in the most obvious sense. Instead, we must abandon even our desire for spiritual peace and freedom from sin, for even these are manifestations of our selfish will to change.

You may wonder, then, what it is that a person should do. How can we follow the will of God, after all, if we act selfishly whichever way we turn? The answer, it seems, lies in silence. We must let the loud buzzing of our selfish will subside into quiet stillness, and allow the love of God to work silently within us. For only this love can bring peace.

Next, consider this quotation from the beginning of 17th-century mystic Jakob Boehme's work The Suprasensual Life:

"The student said to the teacher, 'How may I come to that life beyond the senses that I may see God and hear God speak?' The teacher said, 'If you can swing yourself up for a moment into that in which no creature dwells, then you will hear what God speaks.'

The student said, 'Is that near or far?' The teacher said, 'It is within you. If you could remain silent from all of your willing and sensing for one hour, then you will hear unutterable words of God.'

The student said, 'How may I hear when I keep silent from sensing and willing?' The teacher said, 'If you keep silent from sensing and willing of your self, then the eternal hearing, seeing, and speaking will be revealed within you, and God will hear and see through you. Your own hearing, willing, and seeing hinder you, so that you do not see or hear God.'

The student spoke, 'With what shall I hear and see God, if God is beyond nature and creaturely life?' The teacher spoke, 'If you would remain silent, then you are what God was before nature and creatureliness, that from which God created your nature and creatureliness. So hear and see with what God saw and heard in you, before your own willing, seeing, and hearing began.'"

Boehme also believes that silence is divine, but  makes some bolder claims to that effect than Kierkegaard ever does. He believes that Jesus spoke more or less literally when he said that "the Kingdom of God is within you", and that you can access the Kingdom if you perceive themselves as you truly are. But the more we follow the whims of our individual will and the demands of our senses, the more we separate ourselves from this inner connection to God. This also means, of course, the more we abandon our own will and way of looking at things, the more we become able to see past the shallow surface of our ego to the divinity that lies deep within. And this happens through silence.

Silence is more than just the absence of sound. For Kierkegaard and Boehme, it actually represents a viewpoint in which nothing separates the soul from reality, where the dichotomies of great and small, sacred and common, and even subject and object become erased. When we become silent, we bring heaven down to earth, or rather, we perceive that heaven and earth were never really separate to begin with. For all dichotomies are a form of noise, an oscillating vibration that becomes still in the embrace of silence.
Silence lies at the very heart of reality. When a person rests in silence, they never concern themselves with going anywhere; they realize that they have only ever been here, and they are perfectly content with that. They realize that silence is the mother of all opposites, and that being silent is a way of transforming opposition into love. Finally, they see that this world is much greater than it seems to most. For behind all the traffic, the pedestrians, and the TV, there does not only lie silence, but the brilliance of God's light. 

To achieve this transcendent state, we must offer up to God our selfish desire to change the world by our own efforts. This world, after all, belongs to God, and our attempts to usurp His power merely add ripples on its figurative surface.The only way we can ever hope to achieve peace, hope, or salvation is to silence our individual will, and so let the eternal will of God become revealed in us. The world, after all, is a kind of river, and the will of God is the current that continually ushers us forward to our individual destinies. If we try to swim in a direction that makes sense to us, we will only end up exhausting ourselves in an effort to swim upstream. For the only real way to be at peace in this life is to stop striving for it. We must learn to be still and trust the stream, knowing beyond all question that God will always lead us forward to the place we are meant to be. 

Embracing silence is hardly naivité or blind faith. It is rather a profound trust of reality, a deep acceptance of God's biblical declaration that "the world is good" (Genesis 1:31). When we find peace with the silence behind all things, we will suddenly find that the world becomes noticeably smaller: not in a claustrophobic way, but in the sense of knowing that "all things will work together for our good" (Romans 8:28). Instead of feeling the existential anxiety that comes from seeing the world as absurd, the silent person comes to see the universe as nothing more frightening than a nursery in which to grow and learn. And instead of perceiving the conflict of opposites, they will see each form of opposition as a kind of embrace.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Forms of Meditation

In one of my recent posts, I talked about how I use the Book of Mormon as a form of meditation. I have thought about this idea at great length, and it occured to me a few days ago that I could put together a whole post on the subject of meditation and its various forms. So that's what I'm going to do.

I should probably give you a definition of the term, shoudn't I? While I may wax ambitious by trying to define something as broad as meditation, I believe that all forms of meditative practice have a simple and overarching commonality. I will present this shared trait in the form of a quotation from the Book of Mormon:

"For he hath answered the ends of the law, and he claimeth all those who have faith in him; and they who have faith in him will cleave unto every good thing [...](Moroni 7:28)

When you "cleave unto every good thing", you don't just display a naive optimism or cheeriness, but rather exercise one of the primary fruits of faith. Since all good things come from God, this occurs because having faith in Him will cause you to have faith in all of his creations. Everything would therefore gain an almost infinitely greater value, since you would see a divine hand in all things. 

This "looking for the good" constitutes the essence of meditation. More specifically, I believe that meditation involves looking for the good where it isn't immediately apparent. By trying to find value in things they would otherwise neglect or pass over, the student of meditation will eventually learn to find value in everything around them. Moreover, this process involves actively trying to avoid judgment, for only if a person becomes willing to avoid prejudice will they find good in the things they previously rejected.

That said, I will divide meditation into two overarching categories: "inbound" meditation, and "outbound" meditation. Practicing "inbound mediation" involves placing yourself in a nonjudgmental attitude toward the external world. Every moment you live your life, you take in incredible amounts of data from the people, objects, and activities that surround you, and it is precisely this intake of information that constitutes the essence of our experience as human beings. However, this faculty of perception hardly occurs uniformly. As a part of the human condition, you and all other human beings favor some perceptions above others, and this naturally means that some perceptions will get suppressed. For example, we here in Utah have long since forgotten what it's like to look at our mountains with "fresh eyes". We think of them as simply "there", meaning that we can never experience the outsider's wonder at, say, Mount Timpanogos.

Inbound meditation is how you avoid favoring some experiences above others. Through its various forms, it can teach you to see the good in all outer phenomena, regardless of their outer appearance or worth in the eyes of the world. Naturally this leads to a greater enjoyment of life. Because it can cause you to have less of a prior prejudice against certain types of experience, inbound meditation gives the practitioner a greater appreciation for all things virtuous, lovely, or of good report.

But how does one practice it? I actually think that many activities capture the spirit of inbound meditation, but they all have a common structure, which goes as follows: the practitioner focuses on something he or she thinks is inconsequential, and by repeatedly trying to find the "good" in it, the person finds that they can better find the good in all things. Generic mindfulness meditation falls quite nicely into this category, for when people focus fully on some object of focus like the breath, they generally find it increasingly easy to enjoy sensations in the world (or "be present"). The breath does not hold a monopoly on this kind of meditation, though. Even when seated in traditional meditative positions, you can also choose to focus on a specific spot in your field of vision, a repeated short phrase or "mantra", or even a simple, repetitive song.  (See this article for an excellent treatise on mantras in a Mormon context)

Inbound meditation need not always have such an oriental character. From my perspective, any object in the external world which is both simple and constant can act as the requisite focus for this kind of activity. I have already mentioned the Book of Mormon as such an object, but in fact, many activities can have this effect. For instance, I believe the process of coming to believe a doctrine or teaching qualifies as inbound meditation. Likewise, the act of loving someone in a romantic context can have this kind of effect (perhaps the reason why a certain Beatle didn't hear the bells on the hill "till there was you").

However, you can also practice "outbound" meditation. Just as inbound meditation involves being nonjudgmental of those things that come in at you from the world, you practice its opposite when you avoid judging those things that come out into the world from you. This might strike you as odd, seeing as most people think that we should avoid saying or doing certain things at all costs. But we cannot avoid the fact that most, if not all of us repress certain things about ourselves. In other words, there are parts of you that, despite the fact that they exist and have needs, are buried and repressed by the conscious mind. 

To give an example, suppose a person identifies very strongly as a clear-headed intellectual. He or she would picture themselves almost exclusively as a person who can reason through ideas logically and deductively, and this person's self-image would depend entirely on their capacity for thought and reason. However, since human beings are almost never completely lopsided, this hypothetical intellectual (who, by the way, is not me) would almost certainly repress a  human capacity for emotion and connection. This is not something abnormal, however. In fact, it is the very fact of their talent that ensures the presence of a corresponding weakness.

Though I intend to talk about this much more in a following post, it should suffice to know that everyone favors certain things about themselves at the expense of others. However, those rejected parts of your identity are far from dormant; they want very badly else to have more of a voice in the congress of your conscious mind and to have a say in what you do. The process of listening to it and giving it what it wants is essential to psychological well-being, and I believe that what I call "outbound" meditation is the best way to do this. 

In short, outbound meditation involves being nonjudgmental of whatever comes out of your mind. In the process of our day-to-day lives, we explicitly reject certain thoughts or behaviors because they are somehow "unacceptable" or "irrelevant". However, more often than not these spontaneous eruptions from your mind represent the cries of its buried unconscious, and you will not achieve much psychological progress until you learn to find the good in them. 

The way to do this is simple: pick a medium of art, and spontaneously and uncritically create. Don't care about how good you are or about whether or not people will like it; all you need to do in order to practice outbound meditation is to treat everything that comes out of your mind with value. However, you should also try to somehow create from a feeling, as if you let that feeling create for you. In this way, the psychological "energy" that lies behind it can have a means of expression, by which it can vent off some of its inner pressure.

The famous psychologist Carl Jung called this process "active imagination". He believed that it was a manifestation of a sort of mental "transcendent function", by which the conscious and the unconscious parts of your mind work together. As a result of this cooperation, he says that you build a bridge between those warring parts of your psyche, so as to better "integrate" those parts of you with which you don't identify.

But this is all very theoretical. To speak more practically, know that I practice this kind of outbound meditation, and that I have benefited greatly from it. By writing directly from my inner centers of conflict and stress, I am able to come to a greater understanding of what that part of me wants, and moreover, what to do about it. I am a writer, but this also works in the context of painting, sculpture, dance, and music. It can also occurin a religious context. When I kneel down to pray, I pour forth to my Father all of my worries and and my inner conflicts, and almost immediately I feel a greater sense of inner peace and calm. Moreover, the journal-writing which the general authorities have encouraged us to do fulfills this same function, for it lets us relieve externally much of the pressure we feel internally.

To sum up, these two kinds of mediation are mirror images of each other. One of them takes a divided and lopsided perception of the world and unifies it by bringing it into our consciousness, and one of them takes a divided and lopsided consciousness, and unifies it by bringing it out into our perception of the world. By using these two forms of meditative practice, I have found my life much more enjoyable and easier to manage. I would wholeheartedly recommend both of these activities to anyone who finds that their life is hard, or even to anyone at all.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Observations on the Book of Mormon, Part 2

Hello again!  As promised, here goes the second part of my Book of Mormon analysis. This post will differ from the previous one in that it will focus on the process of gaining a testimony, as opposed to merely the text itself.

3.  Gaining a testimony is a way of accepting the unknown

While I am quite interested in the efforts of Book of Mormon archaeologists, I can't help feeling that they are somehow missing the book's point. They may find a great deal of similarity and correspondence between this work of scripture and the history of ancient Mesoamerica, but there will always remain equally powerful arguments against the book's historical validity. This is as it should be. The intellectual arguments for and against the Book of Mormon's historicity will always invalidate each other, meaning that humble seekers after truth have nothing to rely upon except faith.

The Book of Mormon's historical reality is what I like to call an "epistemically neutral proposition". Because no one can find a conclusive argument to prove or disprove it, anyone who wishes to decide one way or the other will inevitably find frustration. If someone wishes to get out of this double-bind, they must choose one of two options. 

The first is to tell yourself that the Book of Mormon has no evidence (a proposition which is absolutely false) and by doing so cling only to those things which are undeniable "common-sense". But when someone rejects the Book of Mormon, they do so because they are uncomfortable staying in the no-man's-land of intellectual ambiguity, and this occurs in turn because they do not like the idea of the "unknown". This presents a problem. Not only is the historicity of the Book of Mormon empirically unkowable, but also many things which are crucial to our existence as human beings - the future, the unconscious part of our psyches, and even groups of people with whom we are unfamiliar. If a person has an adversarial relationship to the unknown, they will face these uncertainties with fear and hostility. They will take drastic efforts to control things which cannot be controlled, will try to beat all parts of themselves which they do not like into submission, and consider all strange people as enemies. This is the basic human condition, the scriptural "natural man". When someone rejects the Book of Mormon, they merely perpetuate the adversarial attitude of all natural men and women toward things they do not know or understand. However, there is another way.

When someone believes the Book of Mormon to be true despite all epistemic ambiguity, something remarkable begins to happen. Instead of rejecting those parts of the book which lack evidence or don't make sense, he or she learns to wholeheartedly embrace them, and show faith even when it seems impossible. By continuing to read this book regularly, they work at their acceptance of the unknown like training a muscle. Soon, their attitude toward the world begins to change, allowing them to become more loving of others, more accepting of themselves, and more able to go with the flow of life. I have felt this process myself. The more I read the Book of Mormon, the more love and acceptance I can show to both other people and myself, for real love requires the same patience and faith we exercise while reading that amazing work of scripture. In all honesty, I can think of no better way to overcome fear and hatred than by using the kind of practice inherent in this struggle for faith.

4. There are two Books of Mormon

I previously quoted Grant Hardy as saying that the Book of Mormon is "better than it sounds". Since then I have reflected upon this quip, and it suddenly struck me that his remark has more truth than meets the eye. How so? I actually believe that it is true because there are not one, but two Books of Mormon.

Seeing as the number of the book's copies far exceeds two, you may become confused at this point. However, instead of actually counting the number of books in physical existence, I simply mean that every edition of the Book of Mormon contains two versions of the text within it: one external, and one internal. The external Book of Mormon is a tediously-written story about the origins of the Native American people. It is awkwardly-worded in parts, potentially racist in others, and contains an overall sense of condemnation. This external text is all some people will ever know about the Book of Mormon, for many only concern themselves with what lies on the intellectual surface. Little do they know that such "chloroform in print" (to quote Mark Twain) conceals another book within.

To reuse an idea from the Little Prince, no one can read the "internal" Book of Mormon with their eyes. This inner book escapes all attempts to read it critically or while trying to compare it to external criteria, for we can only learn its teachings with an eye that "cleaves unto every good thing". This principle of "looking for the good" in all things is actually the key to the Book of Mormon. In fact, I daresay that it is nothing less than a Urim and Thummim for we who read. When we exercise this love for all things good, the Book of Mormon suddenly changes from a mass of incoherent language to a beautiful testimony of all that is good and true.

If you allow me to speak directly, you stand in Joseph Smith's place. Each and every reader of the Book of Mormon has been invited to unearth an ancient record from beneath the built-up earth of time, and while it may take years of patience to actually be in a place to comprehend its teachings, we can all eventually begin the arduous task of translating it. By using the twin interpreters of love and faith, you can slowly begin to peel back the seemingly objectionable surface, until you finally stare face-to-face with what lies within. And what lies within is glorious. Beneath each and every flaw lies pure goodwill, incommensurable truth, and above all, the blazing fire of love. But this fire does not stay put. Its embers constantly fly out to those in its presence, and when you behold it in even portion of its glory, it will captivates you with an erupting flame. Soon after everything catches fire, and you will begin to see in everything the brilliant love of God's heaven. Everyone around you will become nobler, each and every idea will contain more truth, and even the very colors surrounding you will shine will a brightness you haven't seen since the days of your childhood. 


That's that. I've actually decided that this will be the last post in this series, as opposed to the three that I tentatively promised you. But before I go, I'd like to say a few words to you in summary.

If you learn to have faith in the Book of Mormon despite all its imperfections, you can better see past the imperfections of all things. This wondrous work of scripture is a perfect laboratory, a remarkable training ground in which you can fearlessly grow the seed of your faith until it blossoms into a veritable Tree of Life. But with faith comes love.   By embracing the strange and the unknowable, the arms of your love can reach even farther than you can see with your eyes. In fact, the Book of Mormon will teach you not only how to extend your love to the unkown reaches of the world, but also to that strangest thing of all - yourself. 

I bear your my testimony that the Book of Mormon is true. While it may seem strange and needlessly complicated, it conceals within it a roadmap to the eternties, not only in the hereafter, but in each and every moment. It is the iron rod, and by clinging to it through the darkness of doubt and temptation, it can lead you straight to the source of all good and truth: the love of God. I have tasted this love. As such, I can testify to you that it is greater than all things, for it not only burns brightly beneath this book's pages, but in your heart, and in the eyes of each and every one of God's children.

I am suddenly inspired to offer a challenge to you, the reader: if you love only what you can see with your eyes, or if you fear and despise what is strange or unknown, I invite you to step out of your comfort zone. Read the Book of Mormon, and if you encounter something that  rubs you the wrong way, bring it to God. Either vocally or in your heart, bring the contention you feel to Him, and He will turn it to peace, love, and openness. By doing this you will learn to love without prejudice all that is good and true. You will face the obscurity of fear and hatred, and you will find that it suddenly turns into the brilliance of love.

This I testify in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.