M&M stands for “Meditating Mormons.” A fellow conference attendee dubbed me with the witty honor at an educational retreat at Smith College in northern Massachusetts.
We were participating in a session to analyze all the different facets of our identity and privilege. A series of questions about our lives, experiences, occupations, and beliefs were asked to help reflect a picture back to ourselves that we could ponder in the context of others’ responses. It was a way of raising and tempering self-awareness in the diverse social contexts we inhabit.
Turned out my answers to religious belief and practice created quite a quirky profile. “I’m Mormon. Christian — so kind of mainstream, but not the good kind of Christian mainstream… So, I guess kind of marginalized… I also engage in a number of meditative practices… So, I guess that makes me a Meditating Mormon… Probably not entirely temple-kosher. So, doubly-marginal? — I don’t know.”
“Oooh! You’re an M&M!,” someone gleefully shouted.
And the label stuck.
The last couple of decades have seen an explosion in the popularization of old world contemplative practices in the United States, including everyone’s beloved strains of yoga (NOT originally intended for fitness, I’m afraid to announce, but intended as proper preparation for seated meditation).
Scientists, institutes (including Brown, Emory, Stanford, UCLA, and Berkeley) and granting agencies are flocking close behind to document, isolate, and predict reproducible benefits of mindfulness meditation, yoga, metta, qigong, martial arts, beholding, service, deep listening, religious ritual, etc. (see the Tree of Contemplative Practices here). An impressive body of research has begun to accumulate corroborating the emotional, spiritual and physical health benefits of engaging in regular — and even occasional — contemplative practice. These are no longer the wacky, New Age indulgences of your uncle living in Dharamsala.
They are unwieldy things to attempt to define, but contemplative practices “are practical, radical, and transformative, developing capacities for deep concentration and quieting the mind in the midst of the action and distraction that fills everyday life. This state of calm centeredness is an aid to exploration of meaning, purpose and values. Contemplative practices can help develop greater empathy and communication skills, improve focus and attention, reduce stress and enhance creativity, supporting a loving and compassionate approach to life” (definition from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society).
And the beauty of it all, is that most of us already do a bunch of these things on a daily basis through prayer, “ponderizing” (President Devin Durrant’s memorable term), exercising, practicing our art, singing, serving, and more.
But that incessant doing is also our cross, particularly Mormons trying to do it all (unfortunate that President Durrant had to weigh down pondering scripture with capital gains in that 2015 talk). We do, do, do–but with what kind of self-awareness? And in what species of spirit? A calm, quiet, centered, compassionate one?
What’s most radical about contemplative practices — and quiet, mindful meditation in particular — is that they do something better than generating progress spiritually, emotionally, physically, creatively or financially: they actually help remove us from that game entirely. They invite us to step off all our hamster wheels of progress.
Practically all the Mormons I meet do not have a real problem with activity and goal-getting.
They have a problem with being still.
Excess of thought and activity, no matter how scripturally wholesome, is damaging. A long conversation with one of my beautiful sisters exhausted by her calling and familial duties helped to highlight a misleading puritanical equation that most of us in the Mormon community have swallowed hook, line and sinker: blessings and well-being are received in direct relation to the performance of good acts. That is not a linear equation, I’m afraid, but one with precipitously diminishing returns at the high end. In other words, those often the most motivated, well-intended and active are often those suffering the most. In a lay church whose very existence depends on members’ sustained activity, we daily walk the line. Making space for inner peace and awareness is the place from which real power emanates to lift and heal others.
Scripture speaks often of quiet and stillness. Contemplative practices and meditation are effective ways to experience revelations of peace and calm–essential eternal knowledge–that will lead to more abundant living and serving inside the Church and one’s larger community.
President Uchtdorf’s recent talk “It Works Wonderfully!” proposes that we reassess if our gospel activity is benefiting us. It’s a radical invitation to self-inquiry, where the answer might lead us to less of, not more of, the same.
I hope more calm resides in our futures.
“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10)