As a people, Mormons aren’t particularly concerned with being like everyone else.
Our history is one of actively seeking “set-apart” status–sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Maintaining a trench between ourselves and the “world” is an integral part of our pulpit narratives, but what do we do when something from the outside, particularly from another faith tradition, offers practices or beliefs that are truly vivifying? Do we crowd out what we feel and think to be true only because we fear to violate our own religious border policies? Do we pass over or even denigrate the life-enhancing–even life-saving–practices of other traditions solely because of their foreignness or our own fears?
This is the first blog in a series that seeks to give voice to Mormons with hyphenated belief and practices. No attempt is made to synthesize or coordinate responses into a kind of consistent representation or manifesto (which would be antithetical to the purpose of magnifying individualized meaning). It’s for that reason that I have foregone the convention of tying up this piece with the pretty bow of conclusion. This entry revolves around recent conversations with three Mormon-Buddhists (whom I affectionately refer to as Peter, James and John).
The concept of hyphenation got off to a rocky start in the late 19th century. To be a hybrid was to be insulted and rejected by American civil society and the political process. Theodore Roosevelt put it horribly well in 1915:
“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.”
Fortunately, this highly exclusionary, puritanical attitude doesn’t cut it anymore in any institution. On the individual level, we are all full of variation and contradiction, wholly shot through with hyphenation. While it is the wish of all organizations to minimize the dissonance of individual difference in the name of group efficiency and solidarity, any attempt at its overt eradication, exclusion and extinction is nothing short of tyrannical.
In recent decades, humanists and social scientists have sought to focus on and celebrate complex and varied identity and ethnic profiles, largely in response to human suffering associated with homogenization and correlation. The recognition of hyphenated identity allows for more honest and authentic growth, as individuals move in and out, and up and down the range of categories society can only crudely design for them. Claiming one’s hyphenated status reinforces the agency we all have as individuals to blaze unique paths to happiness and resist the Sirens’ call for abdication of freedom and creativity to ready-made systems.
I am reminded of Christ’s teaching that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In other words, honor but be wary of lashing oneself to the Law.
Peter was outright with me from the moment I picked up the phone: “Meditation saved my life.”
Peter had inherited a laundry list of conditions that had driven him to the edge early in life. Doubling down on Church doctrine and activities only made things worse. At a certain point, he became extremely suicidal and no quantity of correct belief or priesthood interviews were of any help.
He had served a mission in Japan, though, and minored in Asian Studies in college. The Daoist and Buddhist traditions he’d encountered there offered a different paradigm for living in the world and he began experimenting with meditation, particularly in the Soto Zen tradition.
Immediately, the painful storm of thoughts in his mind died down. Peace arose from the realization that he was meant to live for the present moment, that happiness needn’t be delayed. Suffering for some unforeseen future reward wasn’t life-sustaining for him in the present. Meditation helped Peter to gain control of his life and to care for his soul in a way that could not be addressed from the outside. The hysteria produced from trying to fit the mold and obey all the rules and laws of the Church was replaced by quiet confidence and self-acceptance found in the self-guided interior work of meditative practice.
In the end, Peter found in Zen Buddhism a personalized alternative to a centralized, top-down structure that prescribed a one-size-fits-all solution, one which happened to be threatening his very existence. Zen provided freedom to treat himself as the starting point to spiritual healing and comfort, giving rise to a kind of personalized medicine.
John’s recent inactivity in the Church was fueled by serious disagreements with its central authorities. When he stopped regularly attending meetings, he knew that he would miss most the community aspect of his religious life–seeing and supporting his brothers and sisters. People close to John suggested he visit other local faith groups, but he was disappointed to find hierarchical structures and monied expectations there as well.
A therapist had suggested he look into Buddhism. John acquired a number of books and began to educate himself in the history of the Zen tradition and meditative practices.
He remembers in striking detail a revelatory experience he had meditating one day. While calmly watching his thoughts and anxieties pass through his mind, consciously anchoring himself in his breath, a strong impression in the form of a single word arose from within: “gentle.” The word traveled through all aspects of his life, attaching itself to the many roles he plays: “gentle father,” “gentle husband,” “gentle friend,” etc. The message he received was what he desperately needed at that moment. In addition, the experience had taught him the power and potential of what was already residing within him that interior work like meditation could free to the surface. It was a lot like all other powerful revelations with the Holy Ghost he had previously experienced.
Because John was still battling with authoritative structures, discovering that he could access profound, unmediated inspiration was also a great blessing.
James finds in Buddhism fundamental beliefs and practices that both resonate with and accentuate the best aspects of Mormonism.
The Buddhist concept of a world born into suffering and confusion he finds particularly powerful when paired with Mormon certitude and conviction. It is difficult to maintain humility and an open perspective as a people when we are always sure of our own stories and narratives. We can be reluctant to admit our own variability (beams-in-the-eye), clinging to a rhetoric of constancy that can marginalize ourselves and others.
Buddhism maintains that all beings are born into delusions, a concept not too unlike Christianity’s fallen state. A Restoration doesn’t automatically dissolve these delusions–we carry our fun houses around with us all the time. The suffering we inevitably experience is rooted in our fundamental inability to live outside of our stories. However, if we deeply accept our own confused and flawed nature as a primary truth, than we are better prepared to face our own and others’ fantasies, and to succor all as they suffer. This isn’t a belief inviting us to callous relativism, but, in fact, to deeper listening, becoming quicker to understand and lend aid.
As for mindfulness-based meditation, James experiences it as a conduit of communion with the Divine. We know that the still small voice resides in tranquil moments. Meditation helps the mind to find its repose, to synchronize body and thought, and to become wholly present in the moment to see, feel and understand God’s will. We are more aligned and alert to our own needs and God’s inspiration when we are still and settled. “If we are lost in worries of the future or the past, we are somewhat lost to Him.”
God is the Great I Am, not only the Great I Was or Will Be. He lives for us now–in some sense, only now.
In light of that, James suggests, we should treat all our religious rites and meetings as sacred spaces to cultivate stillness. The Mormon checklists of all the things we need to do and things we’re failing at needs to fade from our worship. We need to jettison the Mt.Dew approach to Mormonism–we need to be “done with the ‘get it done language'” of religious devotion, and realize that every moment is the most important one to commune with Father in Heaven.