Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why Would You Let Your Mind Get Like That?

Last week, I read something that has revolutionized my thinking. Literally. I decided to "liken" some ideas to my life that I had come across in my studies. I kept a record as I did that I will share here. But first, the words that moved me.

It began with a passage like this one I read in a book my dear friend gave me:

Our main concern here in these chapters is understanding and identifying within ourselves the thought-world of the ego because it distorts our mind through a variety of ways... It must continually have an opinion, or be approving or disapproving of events, people or things--creating a narrow mental world... While one labors in the inner chaos of the ego, he remains in a sort of spiritual unconsciousness or spiritual sleep so as not to see the truth about what he is doing... the objective of the practice is to awaken inner awareness... The task then is to recognize the ego at work and practice to transcend and replace the common human failings that are inherent in its structure... the Lord's way is to re-educate our awareness while at the same time we pursue a practice that uncovers our true self and cultivates the goodness of the God seed... Our spiritual practice trains us to be centered and nourished in His presence, a state of peace, rest, and self-acceptance, rather than in the quests for love, approval, appreciation, power, or self-esteem that run the world and keep us in confusion and anxiety. The ego's forms of self-fulfillment can become completely empty to us. (Godseedpg.142-143)

It was such an interesting and new approach to use the language she did with an LDS perspective.  So much of what she spoke of therefore felt hidden from me. It wasn't common language to the culture I am immersed in. I knew what she must be describing, but it felt like something important was hidden from me. I was missing any experience with much of what she described. That became more and more clear. Many curious passages intrigued me. I mulled the ideas over in my mind and my curiosity and desire to more fully understand her point of view grew. 

What is this "inner awareness" she speaks of? Do I have it? How can I know? What kind of spiritual practice is she speaking of? It feels like she means something more than study of holy texts or prayer. The unfamiliar ways she describes these things made me curious. What does "ego" really identify? What does it mean to "re-educate our awareness"? 

Later, I came to this passage:

Dr. Daniel Brown, a psychologist and researcher at the Harvard Medical School... and a group of psychologists came to interview the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. One of the Americans asked the Dalai Lama, through the translator, how Buddhists deal with the issue of negative self-talk, talk like "I'm not good enough." The translator and [the Dalai Lama] then began a long discussion in their language. The American psychologists, sitting there, began to wonder what was going wrong. Finally they learned that these Easterners did not understand the idea of negative self-talk. [the Dalai Lama] turned to the psychologist who'd asked the question and said, "Why would you ever let your mind get like that?" (Godseedpg.198)

Really? Is negative self-talk such a foreign idea to people of that culture? He implies a control over the mind I'm not sure I can imagine. 

I realized when I read that, that I had viewed the mind as something like a lung or a heart. Mostly it just is and I have no control over it. But here the Dalai Lama spoke of the mind as if it were a muscle that could be shaped and trained, strengthened, or allowed to weaken. I guess I have believed that all along, but this reply by the Dalai Lama implied a whole new level of control unfamiliar to me. 

Likely because of exposure to these ideas, another book caught my eye as I made my way to the cash register weeks later at a book store. I took it home. This passage in the opening chapter lingered in my mind for weeks and still affects me:
       As an LDS boy, I had heard numerous testimonies proclaiming, "I know this Church is true." I never doubted this; I maintain my boyhood faith to this day, but I think I assumed when I heard or said these words that truth was one, and it was ours. It took a good measure of spiritual maturity for me to realize that the great question of mortality was not really to find the one true church among all the false ones; rather it was to discover where truth and goodness and beauty had reached their most mature form and plant my fixed foot there. That is the critical starting point: Where will we place the fixed foot of our life's compass? There can be no true or complete circle without a center. Having studied most religions, philosophies, and approaches to life, I believe and I affirm that truth and goodness and beauty in their most mature form are found in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth... Furthermore, I believe that the Restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith is the best lens with which to understand, apply, and internalize our Savior's life, teachings and mercy--and the most secure pathway to happiness. Here I will place the fixed foot of my compass... 
[But] we have another foot to consider--what will we do with the searching foot?... Truth is too grand to be found in such small dimensions. It is scattered around the world, God distributing his wonders as widely as the sower throwing grain. God would have the harvest cover the whole field. Light is given not only in the scriptures or through prophetic inspiration, but in multiple ways. Our Father in Heaven is a light-giving God and dispenses it as widely as the stars... I have learned that there is a tremendous amount of truth we can circumscribe if we reach out with the searching foot. Is this not as important as planting the fixed foot? We need to get them in the right order, of course... 
... In our own religious faith we are told to control our thoughts. Benjamin acknowledged that it is critical to "watch yourselves, and your thoughts" (Mosiah 4:30). Jesus warned that to lust after a woman was to commit adultery already in our thoughts. Isaiah has the Lord teaching, "My thoughts are not your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8), with the understanding that one must change his or her thoughts and bring them in line with the Lord's. The Doctrine and Covenants tells us we must "cast away [our] idle thoughts" (D&C 88:69) and "study it out in your mind" (D&c 9:8)... the point is that controlling our thoughts is an important part of our mortal stewardship, but once we've been impressed with the importance and the magnitude of the mind and the necessity of controlling it, we leave each individual to his own strategy. We speak of pondering, but there are no essential religious practices in our faith that specifically deal with focusing and controlling our minds. Usually when we speak of our thoughts needing restraint we focus on specific negative thoughts, including avoiding excessive anger, covetousness, or dwelling on improper sexual images. These negative thoughts, we are sometimes told, can be cleansed from the mind by singing hymns, or otherwise replacing the bad thought with a good one. 
This is good counsel, but we are not masters of dealing with the mind. Our faith's focus lies more in behavior, in service, and in active participation in goodness. However, Eastern religions--Buddhism in particular--teach one how to deeply control mental processes, not only to remove unwanted thoughts, but also to instill positive, compassionate, empathetic ones. One learns to quiet the mental busyness, the darting, egocentric, racing mind, and open up the calmer, more serene, and joyful one. This is the state that invites insight and, in our terminology, revelation. The mind is a wonderful instrument. In this particular area Eastern religious practice has achieved a higher maturity than we have... 
I can recognize God moving in their lives to the benefit of myriads of people.... God has many voices. I believe he desires to get as much goodness, beauty, and truth as he can into the lives and hearts and minds of the people of this world... "Know ye not that there are more nations than one?" the Lord asked (2 Nephi 29:7). Let us answer, "Yea Lord, we know. We have reached! We have searched! We have found thy divine footprint among the nations and in the lives of humanity! All of the world's beautiful truths reverberate in our souls." (S. Michael Wilcox p. 2-3, 9-11) 
As I pondered this passage it was like a door opened to new paths of exploration I had not been conscious of before. I browsed on Kindle and bought the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. While reading that it made me want to read the Bhagavad Gita. Wow. The Gita was nothing like I thought it would be. With my fixed foot centered in a belief in Christ as my savior, I saw him everywhere in the Gita. So much about mastering the mind, and about focusing on the Lord as the path to salvation. It gave a whole new dimension to the words in the sacrament prayer to "always remember him."  But there was also so much that was foreign to me. I appreciated the help of the prefaces to each chapter written by the editor of the translation I had purchased. After reading the Gita I found myself curious to look up more books by the editor, Eknath Easwaran. 

In the end, following rabbit trails like these led me to three ideas Easwaran advised in a book discussing meditation. There are more I have yet to read, but I didn't feel I could go further in the book until I tried these three. I've come to think of this practice as my "meditation in motion." To paraphrase, the three principles I chose to practice are:

1. The use of a mantram (or mantra) to still the mind and focus on the present moment and center in Christ (at least that is my interpretation with my "fixed foot" where it is, and for my application purposes, I used a short phrase drawn from John 15:4).

2. The choice to focus on one thing at a time throughout the day.

3. The practice of giving your full attention to that one thing with continued use of the mantram to recenter you in the present when other thoughts distract or pull you into thinking about/regretting things in the past or worrying about/yearning for things in the future.

I have to say, my interest was so peaked from the things I had read before encountering these practice suggestions that even though I was hesitant and doubted the wisdom of these suggestions (or the possibility of finding any value in them--one must multitask eventually, right??), I decided in the end that I would devote a week to such a practice. After all, a belief that has proven powerful in my life is that you must plant a seed to know if what grows from it produces good fruit or not. Plus, I just couldn't shake the feeling to give it a try. I've learned to trust those feelings.
Before the first day was over, I was in awe of how quickly putting these things into practice changed my perspective on all I had read before. What seemed a bit convoluted or hidden from me now began to make sense and have merit. I had actual experience to draw understanding from. I became aware of deficits that lay in shadow before. It has been humbling and immensely helpful. Most importantly, I see how such a practice has already and will continue to increase my awareness of God's guidance in my daily life.  

Throughout each day, I dictated or fingered into my phone the ideas, questions and answers that came and the things that happened. But as this post is getting too long, I had better leave that for part two. 

To be continued...

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