In our previous article (see Part I here), we discussed some misconceptions about mindfulness and how these can influence our trajectories and final outcomes in relation to faith crisis. In this installment, we hope to outline some transformative possibilities that are often taught by mindfulness practitioners who are also fully believing Christians. For many readers, these ideas will likely resonate deeply as things we have been taught in various ways in the scriptures, in conference talks, and through our experiences serving in the church. Each represents a possible pivot in how we relate to challenging moments in our faith journeys.
1. When a confusing mixture of emotional pain and mental distress arise in connection to faith challenges, it’s significant whether we take these thoughts, and feelings as a reflection of “reality” or our identity (or not). The alternative to doing so is to consider all of this as an experience we are having that includes mental and emotional content we can work with in different ways.
Faith crisis was famously characterized by St. John of the Cross as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” This sense that the edifice of one’s faith has crumbled completely is often regarded as the most emotionally devastating experience of one’s life. This is true even among people who have known deep hardship and loss. Among committed members of a community of believers, aspects of our participation in the community — including learning, teaching, sacrifice, and the development of deeply meaningful relationships — often become experienced as core elements of our identity. The community’s shared epistemology (accepted ways of knowing what is true) forms the basis for our decisions about what we believe to be true.
There are numerous experiences that can cause deep disillusionment with those elements of our faith identity: exposure to seemingly reasonable (natural, secular) alternative explanations for spiritual phenomena; betrayal by trusted church members; encounters with people whose experiences differ sharply from our own; learning that revered faith leaders held erroneous views; and so forth. Compounding the pain of these experiences, detractors from our faith community often use accusatory terms such as “victim,” “fooled,” “harmful,” and “complicit,” leading those of us in faith crisis to wonder if we are not just confused truth-seekers, but rather participants in a dangerous and damaging fraud.
Mindfulness encourages a recategorization of these experiences as exactly that: experiences. Rather than viewing betrayal, confusion, trauma, gender dysphoria, or major adjustments to our worldview as realizations about “reality” or our identity, it is possible to view them as experiences that are legitimately happening – but not necessarily take them as reflections of either who we are or what’s really true in the world. Among other things, this shift in perception can create mental and emotional space for transitioning to an identity based not in our grievances, our experiences, or even our community connections, but rather in our relationship to Heavenly Parents. This is a transformational step toward healing, growth, and mature faith.
2. When painful, sensitive matters arise (anger, lust, sorrow, fear, guilt), although our tendency can be to judge any of these harshly (adding a further burden), it’s possible to observe and watch what’s happening with more curiosity and compassionate acceptance of one’s present experience.
One of the most surprising and helpful experiences for an individual in faith crisis is to be heard by another person, without judgment. Every culture and community encourages judgments to delineate norms of thought and behavior that align with the group’s values and priorities, and to develop and maintain cohesion. Given that, to completely avoid the judgment of others is not a realistic aspiration for anyone who wants to belong to groups or maintain normal human relationships. With that in mind, faith communities like ours with deep roots in scripture and history have to work hard to encourage judgment that is compassionate, fair, and gentle. Even then, believers often face an immense challenge in reining in punitive, petty human judgments about worthiness, bad intentions, and personal character.
Throughout Christian history, accidents, depression, varied human physiology, tragedy, and irony – all of these have sometimes been quickly interpreted as expressions of God’s displeasure or as the consequences of sin. If we are not given good role models of faithful critical thinking in our formative years, we can often develop this same knee-jerk tendency to render hasty judgments in order to make the world around us explainable. Someone didn’t recover from an illness? They must have lacked faith. A tragedy occurred in a neighborhood where people are not religiously observant? That tragedy must be the judgments of God being visited upon that neighborhood. Are people living in poverty, or suffering? They must not be living in a way that earns God’s favor.
This view of divine cause-and-effect is a brittle construct that, left unchallenged over time, can be a significant contributor to faith crisis as more and more of our human experiences and observations defy simple explanations. This is especially true when our own experiences are characterized by irony, what Neal A. Maxwell called “the crust on the bread of adversity.”
While acknowledging the act of evaluating and making sense of our experiences as a natural human tendency, mindfulness raises the possibility of being more aware how exactly we’re doing that – and even making a little more gentle space in how much we identify and attach to our current judgments and understandings. There is tremendous relief of psychic tension in being able to simply say “this is what I’m experiencing now – and that’s okay,” instead of ruminating constantly over possible reasons for our and others’ present realities.
Rather than automatically judging one’s confusion and disillusionment as good or bad – the result of this or that mistake or problem – this opens up the possibility of viewing our present reality with more patience, space and compassion. This is a vastly better mental and emotional state than the reactive, “quick-fix” mindset that drives us to fearful and frantic consumption (and interpretation) of information. Among people who have returned to faith out of crisis, it is very common to hear stories of breakthroughs in understanding and insight that have occurred in moments that seem almost accidental and serendipitous – even in spite of intense efforts to resolve concerns. Resisting the urge to pronounce final, definitive judgments on our confusion or disillusionment can create space for more of these kinds of reassuring “eureka” discoveries.
3. Rather than presume only two bifurcated options in response to challenging questions, we might better appreciate the way in which apparent conflict between ideas can still live together in an integral whole.
Binary thinking is the tendency to see only two possibilities for any given question. We view historical or religious figures as sinners or saints. We view events as either miraculous or ordinary. We view sources of information as either perfectly reliable or wholly unreliable. We view opinions as either fatally biased or undeniably objective.
By recognizing binary thinking as a tendency – one among many – other modes of thinking become possible. Saints can also wrestle with departing the sinful life. Miracles can happen through natural processes, so it should not surprise us to see that some are explicable in naturalistic terms. And bias is a universal human condition, even among people who are doing their best to communicate factual and objective reality.
Discussing his transformation in perspective that occurred during his imprisonment, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn famously observed that “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”
Of course, the very existence of “good” vs. “evil” is increasingly critiqued as a belief that is overly simplistic – hinting, as people do, that higher enlightenment would recognize the “nondual” or nonbinary nature of reality. This is different than the point we’re making, since this would question a core underpinning of the Christian worldview.
One can recognize the reality of good as separate from evil, without falling into simplistic characterizations of both – for instance, our tendency to portray anyone righteous (anciently or presently) as never wavering, and anyone wicked as never having any desire for goodness. The capacity for good and evil in every human heart is a complicated truth that challenges our insistence upon simplistic, binary judgments of people. This is just one of many apparent paradoxes, relevant to faith crisis, where two things that seem contradictory are in fact simultaneously true. And in the language of mindfulness, these perceived conflicts between principles or truths need not be viewed as problems to be solved, but rather as healthy tensions to be curious about and navigate. Latter-day Saint Zen teacher John Kesler is an internationally known expert on how to work with apparently conflicting “polarities” – and navigating our way through them.
As Elder and Sister Hafens write in Faith is Not Blind, “It is one thing to know about Him or even to see Him – but quite another to know Him.” That greater degree of knowing usually comes, they add “after complexity” and indeed, often “because of the complexity.” Citing the Apostle Paul’s story, they note that “he needed to become blind in order to see.” Subsequent tribulations deepened and refined him, with it clear, as they put it, that “Paul came to know God in his extremities” (92-93).
There are other shifts in thinking that can help us to transcend our unhealthy attachments to paradigms that contribute to faith crisis. In their book Who is Truth, Latter-Day Saint authors Jeffrey Thayne and Edwin Gantt address a widespread and fundamental mistake that creates fertile soil for crises of faith – namely our tendency to approach faith as primarily an abstract set of ideas, rather than centered on a personal relationship. When we view God as a set of propositions instead of a person with whom we can experience relationship and communion, our faith will only ever be as strong as the assumptions, definitions, and biases that underlie our propositions. The authors correctly observe that “Our trust lies not in universal, abstract principles that we apply to differing contexts, but in a Living Truth who dwells with us intimately in the here-and-now.”
In the absence of this relational view of truth and an authentic connection with God, our response to a crisis of faith can devolve into an endless, even compulsive consumption of contrary propositions put forward by critics and apologists, as if the reality of God could be ascertained through heated debate.
Nathaniel Givens recently observed the tendency of many in faith crisis to exchange their abstract propositions about God for a new set of abstract propositions: “How many people who once believed that they believed in God walked away from Him forever when, shaken by some jarring realization or tragedy, their brittle belief shattered?” Raising the possibility that their former belief was “not genuine faith,” he adds, “how much harder might it be to convince them that the ‘faith’ they have rejected wasn’t the real thing and that they should reconsider the existence of God? I make no claim to have found the one, true cause of all faith crises, but this is certainly a factor.”
Givens continues, characterizing this process as “serial dogmatism,” or the tendency to respond to disillusionment with one dogma by replacing it with another dogma. For example, among the formerly-believing, this tendency often manifests itself in the creation of a new mental construct of Jesus, who only serves to confirm their new worldview.
Givens offers the prescient observation:
If the purpose of life was to fill out a list of correct beliefs, then God would not have made the answers to basic questions so hard to find. God hides His very existence from casual observation not because He is toying with us but because the pursuit of Him is the point.
All of this is not to suggest that there aren’t any specific truths about God that can be understood; that is simple agnosticism, which is a common destination for many who hold an abstract and propositional view of God and then experience faith crisis. It is rather to suggest that God is not understood using the same mental processes of observation and rational assent that allow us to arrive at a correct understanding of geography or botany. This shift in how we conceptualize faith is echoed in scripture, such as Jesus’ response to the “right-thinking” people in Matthew 7:22-23, to whom He gives the haunting rejoinder “I never knew you…” If partisan religious zeal and its opposite in agnosticism can both represent equal barriers to our knowledge of God, then surely a better way is epistemic humility and a view of truth in the form of a God who can be personally known.
This reorientation of the soul away from craving abstract ideas about God, and instead toward a relationship with God, is most possible if we are first, aware (or mindful) of our own cravings for certitude and control; and second, willing to embrace all of the mystery, surprises, challenges, and growth that come with a living, breathing relationship with our Father.
4. As religious teachings are sometimes processed in an exhausting personal framework of achievement, comparison and busyness, mindfulness helps to reorder our personal religion to prioritize inner transformation, conversion, and a joyful, liberating personal surrender to God’s grace.
A life of faith is a life of action, prompted by action-oriented phrases like “Come, follow me” and “Choose ye this day.” In our religious community, this drive to action can manifest itself in the development of programs and systems that encourage action in the direction of faith: study, service, goals, participation, and many other things that members do. When all of our religious energy is oriented horizontally (toward other people in our community), meeting the community’s expectations and assenting to the community’s views can become the focus of our efforts, the measure of our religious satisfaction, and even the core of our identity. With a horizontal, community-oriented identity, it is easy to function as long as we look and act and seem to think the same as the people around us.
But what happens when we don’t think or feel the same? Faith crisis has the effect of destroying that comforting perception of shared experience and solidarity with the community around us, and creates a constant painful perception of outsider status.
If it’s true this outward orientation towards faith can set us up for problems, then we might appreciate the degree to which mindfulness places value on different things and carries a different vocabulary: stillness, contemplation, surrender, acceptance, and other concepts that lead to authentic union with God.
With God as the center of one’s identity, other people’s expectations become what they should be: only one aspect of life, instead of our primary concern. When other people behave in ways that disappoint us, we can respond in intentional ways that reflect our highest values because other people are not our moral compass. Grace, one of the primary character traits of God, can become more of a dominant, motivating perspective toward ourselves and others, including figures of the past who at times behaved in ways that we find disappointing or upsetting.
Surrender — the willingness to relinquish our need for control — does not mean passivity. In spiritual terms, to borrow Thomas Keating’s phrase, it means “consenting to God as God is.” The need for idealized prophetic figures; the need for neat and tidy historical narratives; the insistence that sacred history be immune to rational counter-narrative before we are willing to believe; the inability to experience joyful worship and church service in the absence of some particular set of reforms – all of these are manifestations of our desire to control the terms of our encounter with God.
Jesus, by contrast, taught sacred surrender: take no thought for the morrow; consider the lilies; return good for evil. To forgive enemies and bless those who curse us requires that we face reality and abandon the lie that we can somehow exert control over people who disappoint us by keeping them in our emotional debt. These and other realities of the Kingdom can only be perceived by the converted: people who have experienced inner transformation that allows them to see the world with the openness and humility of a child.
For someone whose religious identity is horizontally-oriented, these principles are a burden to be avoided because they point to the lie of the false identity we have constructed for ourselves: if my identity is no longer based in achievement, in resentments, in victim narratives, in my heritage, and all of the other things that comprise my horizontal perspective, then who am I? Going beyond these things to embrace a more vertical identity as a child of Heavenly Parents may seem like giving away important parts of ourselves, but it is in fact a renewal, and an especially liberating experience in a life of faith. Mindfulness can facilitate this joyful disengagement from erroneous, horizontally-based notions of our identity.
5. In contrast with the human tendency toward suppressing mental distress in an effort to avoid suffering, even small steps to embrace the transcendent value of healthy suffering can ironically reduce that suffering measurably.
M. Scott Peck taught that “Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.”
Perhaps the most universal and constant approach to avoidance of suffering is to focus on the past and the future: imagining alternative pasts where things are different and therefore the present is without our same form of suffering; or imagining possible futures that are free of present burdens and struggles. In our efforts to avoid healthy and productive suffering, we devote immense mental energy to constructing and inhabiting these two alternative existences that have no basis in reality.
A simple reorientation in focus to the present enables the best possible thought processes for anyone in faith crisis. Much of the frustration and disillusionment of faith crisis is rooted in ruminations about the past: why did a scriptural or restoration prophet say or do certain things that are so upsetting? What was a particular church leader thinking when he made a troubling decision? How could a scriptural figure have been so wrong about important concepts? Why did I not ask questions earlier? Why was I not taught certain things?
These questions are not without value; we can certainly derive helpful lessons from our thoughtful study of other people’s pasts and of our own. But trying to ease our spiritual and emotional distress by ruminating constantly over what we or others should have done in the past is one of the least productive uses of our mental and emotional energy.
Similarly, faith crisis often leads to unhealthy focus on the future: will it be possible to fit in at church again? Will it be possible to believe again? What will that look like? How long will this confusion and pain go on? What adjustments will need to be made for family and for circles of friends?
By contrast, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell thoughtfully observed, “We need to concentrate on what has been called ‘the holy present,’ for now is sacred; we never really live in the future. The holy gift of life always takes the form of now.”
A focus on the present allows for new questions: are there thoughtful and informed people in the church today who are thriving while also being aware of difficult issues? What insights do they have to offer for those of us who are struggling in our faith? Are there good reasons to believe that God is involved in the work of the church in the present? If so, can this fact shed light on questions about the past? Do our experiences listening, reading or participating right now confirm we are led by men and women who are good, decent people? Are the church’s organizational growing pains normal and typical for organizations with broad reach and a varied scope of effort?
This focus on the present has a tremendous epistemological benefit (in helping us know and see more clearly). Why? Because each of these questions about the present are verifiable right now. People in the past, and their thought processes and actions and experiences, only exist for us in the abstract. People in the present do not exist in the abstract; we can actually sit down with them and talk with them and discuss their thought processes and experiences. One of the best possible indicators that our sacred histories are based in fact is the reality that sacred history is being made in the present. It can be verified in our own experiences and in the ongoing and diverse, collective witness testimony of credible, sober-minded believers around the world.
For people experiencing a crisis of faith, these are some of the helpful ideas and possibilities connected with mindfulness teachings that we believe can transform the experience from one of shame and distress to one of self-compassion and growth. In light of our own experiences and our personal interactions with numerous individuals struggling in their faith, it is our hope that we as a faith community can increasingly embrace and appropriate these concepts earlier and more often in our lessons, our talks, and our lived experiences.