Sunday, April 10, 2016

4 Meditation Techniques to Bring You Closer to Christ

If you've read my blog over the last few years, you'll know that I love meditating. Though I haven't always been able to keep up a routine, there's nothing that helps me feel more alive, at peace, and at home in my own skin than meditation. Meditation isn't just for mental health, though. With the right techniques, you can actually use meditation to increase your faith in Christ. Here are four kinds of meditation that have helped me come closer to the Savior:

1. Visualization

With this style of meditating, you sit down, close your eyes, and use your mind's eye to picture Christ standing in front of you. You make the picture as vivid as you can. Then, when you have a clear image of him, I try to send out feelings of love toward it. Sometimes it helpd to keep your mind on a word like "love" while you do this.

When meditating this way, I tend to feel a lot of inner warmth, what we Mormons call "a burning in the bosom." I eventually find myself sending love from my heart toward "Christ's" heart. Then it comes back again, making the exchange of love into a circle. This process of sending love to and from an image of Christ builds my love for Him and for everyone else. It helps me fulfill "the first and great commandment": to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matthew 22:37).

2. Icon Meditation

This meditation technique is a lot like visualizing, only in this one you use an actual, physical image placed in front of you. It's best if you use a painting or a sculpture of Christ for this, but really, any form of art that depicts someone you respect (let's call it an "icon") will work. The person doesn't even have to be real. I personally use a statue of the Greek goddess Hestia because she embodies qualities like stillness and self-control, which I value. It also helps to put the icon at eye level.

When you've set up your icon, try just looking at it for a while. Ten or fifteen minutes should work for this. You might find yourself getting bored while looking at your icon, but if you keep going, your gaze will get a bit "softer." The muscles in your body--especially those around your eyes and in your face--will loosen up and you'll start to look at it differently. Instead of looking intensely at the painting or the statue (like you were trying to "break though to it" with your gaze), you'll find yourself becoming affected by it. Instead of forcing your gaze upon it, you become receptive to whatever the icon suggests to you. And icons can suggest many different meanings to you depending on the day. For example, one time I looked at my Hestia statue and she looked, for a split second, like she was giving me a high five. But another time, the same gesture in the statue looked like she was asking for alms.

The differences you'll notice in the icon aren't physically "there," of course; they're projections by your unconscious mind, but those projections are a good way of discerning your spiritual state. If the icon only gives you negative impressions, it's a sign that you've drifted away from a positive spiritual place and that you need to fix something. But if you get positive impressions from your icon, those impressions are a great way of receiving personal revelation. By looking at a representation of positive qualities, you can let the parts of you that resonate with those qualities show themselves to you in the icon. It's like a mirror where good parts of you can see themselves.

3. Ponderizing

In last October's General Conference, Elder Devin G. Durrant gave a conference talk about "ponderizing." To "ponderize," you put a scripture verse in a place where you'll see it every day and ponder its meaning as you go through your week. Though it isn't immediately obvious why ponderizing counts as meditation, it shares many features with the icon meditation I just went over. In each one, you look at a representation of something sacred and ponder the meanings that occur to you. The only difference between them is that one is a picture and one is a scripture!

I like to do it a little differently than Elder Durrant does, though. When I "ponderize," I open my scriptures to any page and see what verses "stand out" to me. One or another will eventually strike me as more "interesting" or full of meaning. And when I've found the right verse, I'll empty my mind and, by seeing what thoughts come to my head from the verse, let the scriptures themselves "teach" me what I need to know. Of course, the real teacher here is the Holy Ghost, and when I empty my mind, I'm actually opening the way for Him to give me personal revelation. That way, reading the scriptures isn't just a chore: it's like a window to heaven.

4. "Just Being"

In "just being," I sit on a chair or on the floor and pay attention to whatever thoughts and feelings I have. Nothing more, nothing less. Eventually, if you do it long enough, you'll find that your mind become empty. But this isn't the "empty" of an empty glass or an blank TV screen. It's more like the openness of the sky on a clear, sunny day. It can take practice to regularly reach this state, but when you do, you'll discover that it's amazing. You don't have to say, do, or think anything. You see the world as if it were the depths of a pool of which, until now, you had only seen the choppy surface. Knowing this, you'll then start to understand what Christ meant when he said that "unto myself my works have no end, neither beginning" (D&C 29:33). For the state you go into in "just being" is one that is that much closer to Christ: where the world looks like it does from his heavenly perspective.


Friday, April 8, 2016

The Hidden Book

2 Nephi 27 is likely the deepest chapter in the Book of Mormon, but I wonder if we Mormons have sufficiently appreciated its importance. True, it's famous as a Book of Mormon "midrash" (a Hebrew literary form), but its significance goes far deeper than that. In fact, I'd say that 2 Nephi 27 tells us more about God's long-term plans behind the Book of Mormon than anywhere else does. And I believe that this long-term plan has to do with another book: one hidden within the Book of Mormon.

The chapter says this clearly in verse 7:

"And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the end thereof."

The Book of Mormon isn't just a "single-layered" text. "Within" the literal events on the surface, there is a deeper meaning with a deeper significance. This deeper meaning is a revelation of the whole world from the beginning to the end, but one that is still hidden. Verse 10 goes on to say that this revelation is "hidden in plain sight," so to speak, since it's right there "inside" the Book we're commanded to read every day: "the revelation which was sealed shall be kept in the book until the own due time of the Lord, that they may come forth; for behold, they reveal all things from the foundation of the world to the end thereof."

To put it another way, I think that the Book of Mormon is only the "surface" of a deeper, more expansive, and more sacred book. And this book isn't just a series of words. The book won't "reveal all things" the way an exposé or a news report does; I believe that this "book of books" will actually show us the true nature of all things as we see them around us. The book will "peel back" the outer layer of the world (or at least our perception of it). In a flash of meaning, we'll suddenly see through the people, trees, and mountains as if they were words whose meaning we were only just beginning to understand. The words hiding within everything will speak and "shall be read upon the house tops" (verse 11). And when everything has been thus rendered transparent to its inner meaning, the world will have become glass (D&C 130:9).

Lest you think me crazy, know that other religious teachings say that this will happen in the near future. The Ismaili sect of Islam teaches that the last of the Imams--those spiritual figures who complement the prophets' work by leading us into the hidden sense of their teachings--embodies and will reveal the inner meaning of all things. The Ismaili Shaikh Abu'l Qasim Khan Ibrahimi explains that their "hidden Imam" will reveal himself to us like the Biblical Joseph does to his brothers in Pharaoh's court. Moreover, I think that the spiritual reality they call the hidden Imam is what we call Christ. When the sacred book hidden within the Book of Mormon becomes revealed, I think that Christ will step forth from among us where he had been all along, hidden like Joseph among his brothers. After all, He Himself said that "I am in your midst and ye cannot see me" (D&C 38:7).

Others have said much the same thing, namely the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who taught that the Second Coming would occur as the revelation of scripture's internal meaning and that, with it, the ancient perception of heaven in the world will be restored. But more importantly, as I have pointed out here, the Book of Mormon itself says this. And more than that, it shows this to be true. Who has read the Book of Mormon prayerfully and hasn't felt intimations of something greater and more profound than the words written on the page? Moreover, who among those hasn't felt God's influence or even presence hidden just beneath those pages?

He's breaking through. Sometime soon, Christ will show Himself to us where He has always been: in the Word, the divine truth within everything which the Book of Mormon declares. Then the dark veil covering everything will be sundered; light will break through. And then, as if waking up from a bad dream, we will truly know what it means to "awake, and arise from the dust" (Moroni 10:31).


Monday, April 4, 2016

Joseph Smith: God's Trickster

Many people accuse Joseph Smith of being a charlatan. And to be honest, that perspective makes some sense: he told several different versions of his first vision story, hid his polygamy, and (according to some) changed the doctrine he taught in various phases over the course of his life. But there's a flaw in this argument. In fact, it's just because Joseph Smith was so "loose" with the truth that he can't have been a swindler after tithing money.

Here's my reasoning: if Joseph were really a "con man," he would have chosen a version of his first vision story and stuck with it. It's the same with the doctrine that changed over decades: if Joseph wanted to fool people, he could have done it a lot more easily by avoiding apparent contradictions between doctrines of the Godhead in his teachings. No, Joseph wasn't a swindler. A con-man can slip up by contradicting himself, yes, but he would never do it intentionally. And yet, that's what Joseph seems to have done. If one version of his First Vision story involves just an angel and another involves God, the theoretical fraudster-Joseph couldn't have been trying very hard to keep his story straight. It wouldn't have taken very much effort to do so, either! He would have just needed to write the story down somewhere and memorize the details.

Joseph did contradict himself, but deliberately so. I also think that he sometimes lied, using our normal definition for the word. But none of that counted as "lying" to him. Pregnant in Joseph Smith's teachings is a sense of the ineffable. Whether instituting temple ceremonies that must not be outwardly discussed or transcribing Book of Mormon phrases like "that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory" (Helaman 5:44), it's clear Joseph knew that the heart of reality and the divine is beyond the ken of words. Moreover, as his quote "by proving contraries, truth is made manifest" demonstrates, he knew that the ineffable, divine heart of things takes on mutually contradictory forms as it incarnates in the human sphere. In short, I believe that Joseph Smith saw past the game of words we're all normally caught in.

But the trouble is this: when you intimately know the "unspeakable glory" at the heart of reality, how do you communicate it? You can say the words that come to you as you describe that divine reality, but people will ultimately misunderstand your meaning. They will take the words you use (which are necessarily symbolic intermediaries to the ineffable) as the literal truth. Or you can stay silent and keep your visions to yourself, but that helps no one. In truth, I believe that Joseph Smith went another way: since he knew that speakable truth can only ever be a single facet of the inexpressible heart of being, he made it a habit to never get attached to a single version of truth. This has a few consequences. For one (as with paradoxical Zen koans), it trains the mind to think in ways that go "beyond" or "beneath" words. Moreover, it actively dissuades those who are too attached to the "superficial" parts of truth from coming on board with Joseph's spiritual project. Like a parable, only "those with ears to hear" can appreciate the divine life at the heart of Joseph's prophetic career.

I have a few more pieces of evidence for this belief. For one, it resonates with Joseph's strong emphasis on continuing revelation and a never-ending acquisition of truth. A truth that is held too tightly--with too much certainty--is already an idol. "Wo be unto him that saith: We have received, and we need no more!" (2 Nephi 28:27). Moreover, both this and the doctrine of eternal progression implicitly emphasize not only continual progress toward a goal but, as a part of that progression, a necessary continual undoing of outdated truths. To welcome in the new we have to deconstruct the old. As much as Joseph Smith was a revealer of divine truth, he was also a "demolisher" of human truth! He smashed away the human to make way for the divine, and he recognized that we have to do it again and again in order to stop idolatry from crusting over our words.

There is a Jungian archetype for the type of person I have just described: the Trickster. Never "evil," he turns up in cultures all over the world as a playful, rule-breaking anti-hero who goes against convention to reveal the fundamental relativity of all pretension to certainty. Br'er Rabbit is an example of this figure in folklore, as is Anansi, Hermes, or even Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp." Though they seem outwardly foolish and immoral, they conceal a deep inner wisdom and knowledge of the sacred that they never reveal all at once. Joseph does this, as demonstrated above, but I want to make it as clear as I can that this is not a sign of evil or immorality. Just as we need Joseph, we need these figures in our lives. Without the Trickster, we would have gotten stuck to the hardened truths we make into idols long ago. Like Joseph, these Tricksters deconstruct what we're too fond of and, by doing so, open the path to heaven's spacious light once again.