There is some mystery about Jesus’ life before he started his ministry. Some believe that he went east in those years and encountered Buddhism. Frankly, this makes sense because it is very easy to re-interpret much of what Jesus taught and did from a Buddhist point of view.
I would like to look at some basic Christian ideas from a particular perspective (mine) that has some (moderate) Buddhist influences.
What I get from Buddhism and Mormonism is this–joy is accessible if we open up to it. As Lehi taught his sons “men are, that they might have joy.” However, feeling joy, or feeling the spirit in an ongoing way can only come from a disciplined practice, or, in Buddhist terminology, skillful thinking or mindfulness. Feeling joy or feeling the spirit is best achieved when we are totally present in the moment, and we are not distracted. Distraction (unskillful thinking) is what prevents joy (the spirit) from dwelling in us constantly. A joyful (spiritual) state is actually our most natural state. It is what exists when we remove all the distractions.
So what then is sin? Sin is unskillful thinking that distracts us from feeling joy. When we are spiritually pure, we are free of sin, and are open to joy. We Mormons think of sin as something that is intrinsically bad, and displeasing to God. I would argue that the main reason it is displeasing to God is because it distracts us from feeling joy (the spirit).
Obviously some acts are morally bad. For example, if an action hurts another person such as murder, aggression or stealing, then it is clearly immoral. But many sins aren’t morally bad, they are simply sins because they distract us from feeling the spirit. They consume our thoughts at the expense of being ‘in the moment’ and feeling joy (the spirit).
A Buddhist might say desire is the cause of all suffering. A Mormon might say sin prevents us from feeling happiness. These two perspectives can be merged into one by looking at it in the following way. When we feel desire we are not living in the moment. We are looking toward the future. We can only truly feel the spirit (joy) when we are present in the moment. Thus, this distraction of desire, could be considered the sin.
Let’s take ‘lust’ as an example. All Mormons agree that lust is a sin, and most would agree that it interferes with feeling the spirit. But there are many other less obvious examples of desires that distract us from feeling joy (the spirit), and many of these are not morally bad. Let’s take a more complicated example, ‘ambition’. Ambition is admired, and is considered an essential part of our lives. However, ambition can also be a huge distraction. It can clearly prevent us from living in the moment because it is totally oriented toward the future. Thus, if not kept in perspective, ambition can become a barrier to feeling joy (the spirit). From this perspective, ambition, which is not immoral, could become sinful by being a distraction from feeling joy (the spirit). Other examples such as ‘worry’ or ‘regret’ might be seen positively or negatively but are not usually seen as immoral. However, these too would easily fit this definition of sin, because they are surely distracting us from feeling joy (the spirit).
As you see, some sins are morally bad and others are not. But all sins prevent us from feeling joy (the spirit). It is a little harder to realize that those desires that seem beneficial (like ambition) can also be distractions. We really do need to keep them in perspective because any desire can turn into a distraction that keeps us from feeling joy (the spirit).
The trouble with our usual perspective on sin is that it induces shame and guilt. Unfortunately, shame and guilt have proven to be counter-productive and often end up making us more distracted and less able to control our thoughts and actions. Living joyfully is a much better motivator for avoiding sin than shame and guilt. When we are joyful (full of the spirit) we lose interest in immoral behavior. We are not focused on our desires. Instead we are mindful of the moment, feeling our natural state of joy and enjoying the presence of the spirit. These desires that distract us from joy and from the present moment, are the same desires that drive immoral actions.
There is actually a large body of research that supports this idea. Happiness research has started to develop tools that help us understand what leads to happiness and what mental states are most conducive to happiness. One consistent finding in this research is exactly this–distraction interferes with happiness. Happiness can’t be maintained when we are distracted. The most joyful (spiritual) people are those who master their desires. Jesus saw the benefit of this when he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. However, most of us aren’t at that spiritual level yet, but taking a break from indulging our desires is certainly a useful technique, and most Mormons already do this with food on fast Sunday. Meanwhile, even if we can’t fast for 40 days and 40 nights, we can adopt perspectives and habits that help us spend more of our time in a joyful (spiritual) state.
For example, let’s take this perspective to our intimate relationships. A lot of us are in meaningful, intimate relationships that include sexual satisfaction. Well, as it turns out, being in a satisfying relationship that allows us to satisfy our sexual longings ends up substantially freeing us from our lust or desire, and thus allows us to spend more time in a state of joy (full of the spirit) (free of desire).
Even during the sexual act we can be in a state of full presence and full awareness and thus feel more joyful. I think anybody who has ever had good sex knows that it is only good when neither one of you is distracted. The distraction interferes with the enjoyment. Well, this is true of everything really. We should enjoy our spouse after sex too. We should enjoy our spouse the next day when we are doing something else with them. And even if we don’t have a spouse, we should enjoy our friendships. We should enjoy our families and our communities. We should also enjoy our meals. We should enjoy the sunset. We should enjoy the clouds, the rain, the wind, the birds. We should enjoy the traffic jams and the city noises. We should enjoy our times of solitude. We should let ourselves feel joy as much as we can. This is true communion with the spirit.
So I propose that we replace the western idea of sin with the eastern concept of unskillful thinking or distraction. The pain I feel from succumbing to distraction arises because it prevents me from connecting with joy (the spirit). I don’t need to feel guilty because I succumb to distraction, rather I can feel motivated to learn skills and practices that help to decrease distractibility and increase my ability to access joy (the spirit). This what God wants for me. God isn’t mad at me when I fail. God isn’t punishing me. He doesn’t need to. Joy is the reward. It is up to me to choose it.
An experience I had yesterday illustrates how distraction (sin) takes away from joy. In the morning I was feeling happy, but in the afternoon I started thinking about a friend I was supposed to see, and I started getting annoyed about the fact that he owed me money. The more I thought about it the less joyful I felt, and the annoyance managed to get me totally off track for the rest of the day. This fixation was from a genuine frustration, but more skillful thinking would have allowed me to let go of the anger so it wouldn’t continue to distract me. In this case, ‘resentment’ was the distraction (sin) because it was keeping me from joy (the spirit).
We need to practice living a life free of distractions. The best thing we could possibly do is to spend every day full of the spirit (or full of joy). This is what a meditative practice is for. Some Mormons master this in their personal prayers and in their temple and church worship. Some need to find outside tools and turn to meditative practices like mindfulness. Some people find joy by concentrating on the beauty of music, or the beauty of service. Some find joy by concentrating on the beauty of a hobby such as climbing or golf. Some people find it in creativity. Some people find it in a simple meal. Most people find joy when engaging in a deep conversation or enjoying an excellent movie. Most people find joy watching a beautiful sunset. These activities are joyful when they are experienced with total involvement, passion, and single-mindedness. People who are expert at it can find joy in the many simple things that they encounter throughout the day. They can engage. They are in the moment–the eternal now. They can see beauty or patterns and be amazed or curious. Bringing presence to our daily activities allows the spirit (joy) to dwell inside of us.
I encourage everyone to learn how to spend more time free from distraction so they are better able to feel joy (the spirit). I also propose that we change how we look at sin, and the consequences of sin. The idea of obedience out of guilt doesn’t work. The idea of giving your life over to Jesus (like the Born Again Christians) or giving up your desires (like the Buddhists) or living so the spirit can dwell in your heart (like us Mormons) is fundamentally about letting yourself feel joy. It is not about obedience to an angry God, but about allowing God the pleasure of giving us joy. It is a skill and a practice. Distraction interferes. Let’s focus on learning and on skillful practice instead of guilt-induced obedience.
–Thanks to Debbie Nielson Perez for her substantial input into this essay.