By John T. Kesler
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: Exploring Meditation and Awareness Practices in the Context of the Restored Gospel: One Mormon’s Story
I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the potential to engender the most profound and comprehensive meditative tradition in the world. This may be a surprising claim as, culturally, Mormonism is very pragmatic, emphasizing doing and agency rather than meditation and grace. Our heroes tend to be those who succeed by the sweat of their brows, rather than those who attain enlightened states of being.
However, I have been on a journey for the past decade that has helped me see how constructively the restored gospel can interact with awareness practices. Mormonism tends to agree in many respects with mystical traditions, but I believe it also has a structure uniquely suited to taking the power of meditation to a whole new level. Following, you will read my attempts at bringing the deep principles and patterns of the restored gospel into conversation with meditation, awareness, and related life practices.
Over a decade ago as an attorney attending a workshop on mediation (not meditation) I wandered into a breakout session led by prominent Zen master Genpo Roshi. He was presenting a new approach to facilitating meditation and deep states of awareness called the “big mind process.” He had generated remarkable states of enlightened awareness with his monks and other students through this process, and he wanted to see how it might impact people who were not trained meditators. (The rationale for this offering in this particular workshop on mediation was that being more fully identified with every person—an experience of enlightened “oneness”—could help one become a more effective mediator.) Even though I had not had any previous meditation training, that brief exposure in the workshop breakout session facilitated me into a state of oneness that lasted for about two weeks.
I contacted Genpo Roshi, telling him of my experience, and he invited me to become a student hoping to help me become stable in my new awareness and more fully grasp what had happened. Though I was not interested in becoming a Buddhist, I understand the restored gospel as encouraging us to be open to all truth, and so I agreed. He was pleased to have a non-Buddhist student and indicated that his goal was to share the power of the big mind process with all people, irrespective of their religious orientation.
So I became a very part-time but consistent student of this new meditative lineage while I remained fully involved and committed as an active Latter-day Saint. In this new school of Zen, I became one of the first four people certified to be a large-group facilitator for the big mind process. Eventually, Genpo Roshi encouraged me to prepare to receive transmission into this new Zen lineage (to become a fully qualified and transmitted Zen Buddhist teacher). He noted that several Catholic priests had become Zen teachers in the past because Zen is a tradition which emphasizes having certain experiences rather than framing them in the context of a set of beliefs. I couldn’t quite see it working out for me to be an active Latter-day Saint and also a Zen master. So having learned a great deal, I phased out of Zen training but with deep appreciation for the insights and guidance it had given me.
During my years of meditation training, it had become clear to me that there was a deep connection between the meditative tradition in Buddhism and the restored gospel. Over time I also became aware of surprisingly consistent parallels between the restored gospel and Taoism, Hinduism, and other Vedantic traditions. I ended up concluding that one of the ways that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unique among Western religions is that it includes the wisdom of the East.
However, as far as I have seen, we have not integrated practices into the mainstream Church that would encourage people to delineate the basic states of awareness which are common knowledge to all meditative traditions: gross, subtle, causal, and non-dual. I have not heard any Church leaders or members describe the non-dual state, which most meditative traditions consider the most advanced. This means that the rank and file Church member has no instruction on how to attain the most refined states of awareness—which are perhaps essential to achieving the highest stages of human development.1 I began to develop my own meditation and awareness practices focusing on integrating the principles and patterns of the restored gospel with practices that promote higher stages of development as defined by developmental psychology and more refined states of awareness as developed in meditative traditions.
Many Buddhist meditative practices involve what have been called mindfulness practices: paying attention and being present in each moment. In the Book of Mormon, Ammaron chooses Mormon to play a historic role after he observes that Mormon is “quick to observe;” in other words, he saw that Mormon was mindful. President Uchtdorf, in his July 2012 Ensign article, “Always in the Middle,” encouraged us to be fully present in whatever it is we’re doing. Indeed, we are constantly reminded to be quick to observe (be mindful of) those around us, and particularly to notice the promptings of the Spirit. When you are fully present, you tend to forget yourself; you enter the “Now” as they say in some Eastern traditions.2 It occurred to me that for most of us in the Church, achieving a profound mindfulness meditation practice would require only a little more focus on its straightforward practice.
In additional to mindfulness, I based my developing awareness practice significantly on a principle shared by both Mormonism and Taoism. 2 Nephi 2:11 teaches us that there is not only an opposition in all things, but that literally everything is “a compound in one.” Similarly, Taoism is grounded in a sense of the interaction between universal polarities (i.e. yin and yang). When the Book of Mormon and Taoism speak of polarities or oppositions, they are not just referring to the opposites of good and evil, or even healthy and pathological (which are not true polarities, anyway). A true polarity involves two energies or positions that contradict one another on the surface but that are ultimately deeply interrelated, such as an in-breath and an out-breath, or desire and aversion.3
As we seek to become more mindful, we’ll typically start out only being able to see one pole at a time—for example, we are aware of either desire or aversion. With some practice, we can begin to see both poles simultaneously though we can usually only identify with one at a time. When we reach higher levels of cognitive maturity, we begin to see how the polarities interpenetrate one another, how they can be experienced as a compound in one. Indeed, Abraham Maslow, a pioneer in developmental psychology, noted precisely that highly-developed, “self-actualized” individuals live in just such a state with regard to polarities. This polarity-based approach has become a central element in the framing of much recent developmental psychology. I have named my practice “integral polarity practice” (IPP) to reflect this foundational reality.
I’ve identified many primary polarities that are central themes at successive levels of human development, such as agency/communion, control/submission, and alignment/deviation. As we journey through life, we will find ourselves faced with each of these polarities (and, frankly, thousands more). Our first instinct is often to repress the half of the polarity we find less appealing, but each part of the polarity serves an important purpose. Each should be consciously functioning in our lives; otherwise it will be functioning unconsciously, often throwing our lives into disarray.
For instance, returning to the example of desire/aversion, when we are driven by our carnal desires (the state of the natural man) we are vulnerable to addictions and other destructive behaviors. We react to our desires and aversions often without fully knowing why, without understanding what role each can play or how we can integrate them into our thought and behavior. Indeed, both desire and aversion are there to be of service, to fulfill our beings, and to bring joy. If we can transcend yet include both of these aspects into our awareness and be fully present in the moment, we can guide our desires and aversions. When one has truly transcended and included this (or any) polarity, the poles are no longer separate and no longer need be balanced or prioritized; they are complementary qualities of the same capacity and energy which can intuitively play an appropriate role in the moment (especially when we are guided by the Spirit).
Desire/aversion is a particularly interesting polarity because Mormonism approaches it so much differently than do most meditative traditions. Many traditions consider the body something that must be transcended and repressed. The brilliant insight of the restored gospel is that though we must transcend the carnal proclivities of the natural man, the body in its full and righteous functionality is actually essential to our spiritual progression and a source of great joy. This “transcend and include” pattern is fundamental to the restored gospel.
But there is another step even beyond “transcend and include.” I learned from the restored gospel that there is a spiritual dimension to every aspect of our beings. With this in mind, over the years of developing IPP, I discovered a middle place where the essence of a polarity’s whole energy converges into a still point. So, for instance, the still point centered in the integrated wholeness of desire and aversion is “Contentment.” When one is content, one does not desire anything; neither does one try to avoid anything. Contentment is this polarity’s “spiritual center;” not its negation but its powerful essence where the full capacity of this aspect of ourselves is primed to act appropriately in the moment from a place of deep inner peace and sense of abundance. Holding the still point of a polarity gives one a sense of timelessness, peace, and Spirit. Though it is a meditative place, one can also cultivate the ability to hold that still center at all times, moving through the world with a more peaceful, spiritual presence.
The first time I presented this concept of developmental polarities with spiritual still points in a multi-faith environment, Sofia Diaz, a hatha yoga master, came up to me at the end of the presentation quite excited. She told me that in her Vedantic tradition, chakras involve similar polarities. She said that the polarities I had described (the foundational polarities of IPP) matched the initial polarities in her tradition’s chakra system. It goes to show that authentic exploration will often make discoveries similar to those from other quests for truth, which is undoubtedly due to the influence of the Spirit.
Over time, it has become clear to me that when centered in a still point, we become more fully aware of and open to God, the Spirit, and the Holy Ghost. This is reflected in the scripture: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We are more open to inspiration because we’ve provided an opening into which the Spirit can flow, enabling us to achieve a sense of stillness, peace, and fullness far beyond our own capacity. That is why I capitalize the still points; they represent a more direct connection to the Transcendent, to the Spirit.
There are a couple of polarities that I have found particularly helpful in achieving a deeper prayer experience. In the agency/communion polarity, the still point is Trust (in God). The polarity that emerges just above that is control/submission—the polarity that collectively amounts to “will” and “power” which has a still point of Peace. When I enter these still points of Trust and Peace, I find it much easier to submit myself and my will to God and God’s will. I use my full capacity for agency to commune with God and my fully capacity for control to submit to God. In other words, each pole has fully interpenetrated the other, and they now function as one. I have found this approach to be much more powerful than simply using the capacities of one pole or even balancing them.
However, receiving God’s love, power, and Spirit is not enough. We are each responsible for living in accordance with the truths and Spirit to which we have been exposed. As with most of us, I suspect, I have found that I have a less than optimal ability to do exactly what I should in every respect—even with the greater capacity of deeply interpenetrated poles. My weaknesses still affect me, which makes me endlessly grateful for a gospel of repentance. For instance I can center myself in the still point of Contentment and feel of the Spirit, but of my own power still not have adequate control of my all my desires and aversions. I have much more success when I hold that still center and allow the will of God to be in charge. In this regard, the still point acts as a portal through which the Spirit and God’s will can be invited in. When I am successful, I can tell that I am acting not by my own power, but by God’s—but only to the extent that I have the courage to truly step aside, fully opening the portal and allowing God’s Spirit and will to take charge.
In other words, I have to acknowledge that only by God’s grace can I overcome anything significant—not by my own will or power. My will is only helpful insofar as it aligns itself with God’s will. My sense is that we Mormons tend to stress our own ability to accomplish things rather than to fully embrace the centrality of God’s grace in our lives. Our potential to fully realize our divine capacities is primarily rooted not in our ability to accomplish things through our own will but in our courage and willingness and control to submit to God’s will. It is my belief that only by learning to channel God’s light, love, and life through full submission to God can we grow optimally from grace to grace, and in the process become more evolved, as God is. Utilizing IPP has helped me progress in this direction more than I would have been able to do otherwise.
Latter-day revelation (especially teachings about the pre-mortal life) has clarified that there is no one who has ever lived or will ever live that is exactly like each of us. Compelling teachings about this “unique self” have also been found recently in the ancient Jewish Kabbalah. This understanding shows us that we have the opportunity to contribute to each moment in our own unique way. This is our opportunity and responsibility. In this context, life becomes an aesthetic experience of playing our own melody (guided by the Spirit) while also becoming a contributing part of a larger symphony of shared lives and communities.
Recently, Elder David A. Bednar authored a book entitled Increase in Learning where he defines our cognitive learning as “knowledge,” and terms our spiritually informed and heart-centered learning “understanding.” Aligning our being and doing in the world with our “understanding” is “intelligence.” The intelligence that we fully integrate into our beings is what we take with us into the next life because this is, in a real sense, who we have become. As one moves into adulthood, mere “doing” out of obedience or following the rules is not enough. As we let our actions and thoughts be guided by the Spirit, we eventually transform into higher, more divine beings, and our actions become a natural manifestation of who we are. Charles Penrose of the first presidency stated that “God is a person who has passed through all gradations of being and who contains within himself the fullness, manifested and expressed, of the divine Spirit.”
For instance, if one is centered in the still point of Contentment, one naturally becomes more and more grateful (becoming) and consequently practices generosity in all ways (doing). As I practice gratitude and generosity, I can enter more deeply into the center of Contentment, becoming more open and connected to the Spirit. Gratitude and generosity are in turn mutually informing and transforming and help me access deep Contentment. Practicing such virtues can help push the smallness of our egos out of the center of our lives, and open us to the Spirit. In the context of IPP I have learned that customized non-egoic virtues of doing and becoming naturally emanate from every polarity when I hold the still point of that polarity.
The restored gospel reflects two particularly powerful polarities. One is evolution: moving toward a sense of communion and unity with the Divine. The other is involution: embracing multiplicity. Of course, we must engage both poles, and the restored gospel guides us to do so. Focusing on becoming one with the Divine in prayerful, meditative bliss at the expense of engaging with the rest of the world is an unbalanced approach, though it is a hallmark of many meditative and mystical traditions. Similarly, focusing on an involutionary path—worshipping only nature and ecologies—is incomplete without adequate connection to the hierarchies of Godly transcendence. Being constantly engaged in the processes of evolution and involution becomes an endless cycle of transcend and include, which helps generate a person who is always connected to the Divine, but also fully and compassionately engaged in the world—a state exemplified by so many mature Latter-day Saints.4
Another important polarity is that of male and female. It is manifested powerfully in the Vedantic/Hindu tradition and in Tibetan Buddhism, but the restored gospel adds more depth and profundity. A husband and wife can become priest and priestess and God and Goddess, but they must do it together. The fullness of divinity is achieved only by combining the divine masculine and the divine feminine. This integration must also take place within each of us. For instance we understand that men can only effectively exercise the priesthood with gentleness and meekness, which are often seen as feminine qualities. Men who integrate their feminine side in this way become not only “gentle-men” but supremely powerful males by becoming refined channels of God’s power. Similarly, Latter-day Saint women possess an inherent ability to lead with great competence and power—often seen as a masculine trait. Integrating this “male” aspect of themselves with the potent gifts of their divine feminine qualities can endow them with a unique and crucial leadership style. The Church has recently given more recognition to this essential polarity by creating a more inclusive leadership council form where, in my experience, the unique, complementary, and powerful contributions of women are more fully embraced.
As we’ve seen, the idea of polarities is an ancient one; however it is also surprisingly modern. Developmental psychology has recently started to frame its findings in the language of polarities. It argues that particular polarities emerge at a corresponding level of human development. For instance, desire and aversion arise in our infancy, driven by pleasure and pain. It is a polarity we deal with our entire lives, but though it arises from very rudimentary parts of our being, it is also deeply attached to our highest spiritual yearnings. People can tell where their current developmental level is located by noting which polarities are arising for the first time.5
Developmental psychology argues that we manifest the truths we understand through the structure and limitations of our current level of development. For instance, how fully do you manifest the Golden Rule in your life? Do you naturally look for opportunities to love and serve people whether they are interested in the restored gospel or not; do you reach out to the marginalized and despised, as the Savior did? Your depth of alignment with this principle says much about your current level of development. We have some extraordinary examples (such as President Monson) of people living at the highest point of this level. (Again, there are practices which can help us stretch and grow in this regard.)
In the cognitive arena, many of our best and brightest young adults are beginning to ask questions from a level developmental psychologists call “context awareness.” Even in recent decades, fewer than 10% of adults tended to emerge into this stage, but recently that number has been increasing. The first stage of context awareness is reflected in postmodernism, which has the ability and propensity to deconstruct assumptions and question hierarchies of value. The next stage of context awareness is often called “integral,” meaning that the person begins to re-integrate his or her knowledge into a larger, more embracing synthesis.
At the moment, as far as I know, very little, if anything, is done to help local-level Church leaders recognize the inevitable disorientation that arises in anyone who is moving into the first stage of context awareness. Many Church leaders have not evolved to that level themselves, leaving a puzzled bishop, for example, to instruct the newly context-aware ward member to repent and read the scriptures more instead of helping him or her navigate this new level. The conversations among adult leaders and some of our best and brightest young adults end up looking like ships passing in the night rather than an instance of meaningful communication. This context-aware level of development will likely arise more and more frequently among Church members, and it behooves us to be more prepared to engage with them constructively, helping them emerge into the integral level and beyond. Though the transition seems chaotic to begin with, we will help bring forth many more individuals who have reached higher levels of cognitive and spiritual development, and our congregations will be stronger because of it.6
Developmental psychology tells us that the vast majority of adults stop growing developmentally in their twenties, though they sometimes begin to grow again later in life. This means that we are often squandering our precious time in this second estate. We should take advantage of not only the restored gospel’s teaching on development, but the findings of developmental psychology and the benefits of a consistent awareness practices such as IPP.
After IPP took form, I began to share it as an awareness practice designed for Mormons. However, after a few years I began to realize that this approach might have the appearance of encouraging Church members to practice our religion in a way that is different from the official teachings of the Church (which I never did nor intended). So I stopped offering IPP as a practice for Latter-day Saints and began to share it non-denominationally with the general public. I share it simply as a practice to support anyone who wants to become a bit more aware, integrated, open to the Spirit, and growth-oriented. Although I have not yet overtly marketed IPP, I been invited in recent years to share IPP throughout North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand, primarily by groups comprised of non-members.
I have no illusions that my efforts will make a significant difference in the Church during my lifetime, and I realize that I am developing just one of many possible complementary practices. However, I hope that I am planting seeds which will eventually help develop awareness, meditation, and virtue practices which are consistent with the restored gospel, supported by the science of developmental psychology, and rooted in the wisdom of many meditative traditions. As we integrate these practices into the principles, covenants, and ordinances of the restored gospel, I believe we will grow unto Christ even more fully and effectively. The restored gospel uniquely invites each of us into the deepest and most profound spiritual experiences; it supports each one of us in taking fuller advantage of the grace of God and unleashing the capacity for endless growth, particularly in charity: the pure love of Christ.
At this point in our history, I feel that most of us in the Church are only beginning to tap the potential that God is asking us to grow into. I am confident, however, that as the years go by, revelation, together with deeper scientific understanding of human growth, will guide more and more Church members toward higher and fuller development while in this second estate, making them an even more significant force for good in the world.
1.However, we must keep in mind that focusing on states alone—which is the case with all major meditative traditions—may help refine one’s consciousness, but will not necessarily result in human growth. For meditation to be fully efficacious, it needs to be part of an artful combination of structural growth as measured by developmental psychologists as well as state practices.
2.Recently, the fruits of mindfulness practices have become big news in medical and mental health research. It is always better to be more aware about both what is going on inside of us and in the world.
3. Much of this same wisdom around polarities can be found in many Vedantic traditions.
4. IPP has a series of practices that help one be conscious of the importance of embracing both of these poles. Being rooted in your deepest unity with the divine, you embrace those around you more deeply and less egoicly. This is another way of submitting one’s will to God.
Such submission can become increasingly natural as your will comes closer to God’s.
6.IPP has been designed to help people keep growing into context awareness and beyond. It helps one to appreciate the different type of narrative and the reciprocity dynamics that are required to communicate with those at each stage of human development.