When things hurt inside, there are two ways most of us end up responding – often without even thinking: First, we frequently try to make the pain go away – doing everything, and anything, to get out of it.
And second, we can also resign oneself to the pain – embracing, and yielding to whatever’s dragging us under: “this is awful, but it’s just how it’s going to be.”
That’s true of depression and anxiety. It’s true of relationship problems.
And it’s true of faith crisis too, which is why mindfulness provides such a refreshing alternative in all of these cases – highlighting a path forward that neither acquiesces to dissonance and discomfort as reflecting inevitable reality nor tries to wrestle these to the ground and force them to stop.
Neither of those other options work so well – not for emotional health, not for relationship health, and not for spiritual health either.
Why not? Because as Dr. Mark Williams from Oxford University puts it, “the brain doesn’t like to be forced – and when we pursue that course anyway, we won’t end up liking what comes from it.”
Whatever good might come in the short-term from efforts to force, fix and control our deeper pains and distresses, a kind of rebound happens later on as our unresolved questions can come back with a vengeance. And whatever good might come in the short-term from embracing these grapplings as “my new, painful reality,” can likewise complicate matters in the long-term.
If it’s true these two alternatives – avoidance and acquiescence – are limited in what they can offer, what would a “middle path look like” that avoids both?
In what follows, we outline what we consider to be five foundational underpinnings of a more spacious, less-reactive approach to faith struggles – a path that is no mere abstraction, since it’s been well traveled by many over the years. Among the many names this path might be called, we are calling it here a “mindful way through faith crisis” (with special emphasis on that preposition).
We’re not attempting here to map out this path comprehensively, as much applying some broad brushstrokes – drawing upon some of the other voices who have been pointing in this direction as well. We are not the first to write about this. Thomas McConkie, for instance, has elaborated helpful insights about a non-reactive approach to faith crisis for several years now. And others like Bruce and Marie Hafen have articulated many of these same points without calling them “mindfulness.”
Still others have placed the “mindfulness” label on Americanized visions of self-acceptance far afield from wisdom teachings trusted by so many over the years. In this first article, we draw out several of the more substantial contrasts between what we consider a legitimately mindful approach to faith struggles – and what has become promoted under the “mindfulness” banner today. In doing so, we draw substantially upon the Hafens’ new book, Faith Is Not Blind – as an insightful example of encouragement to hold space for complexities that can move, evolve and even brilliantly resolve, compared with so many others who encourage an embrace of complexity, paradox and uncertainty as an end goal.
In a follow-up piece, we will go deeper into additional, key contours of an approach to faith crisis that avoids both glorifying and suppressing the many dimensions of this rich, stretching experience. In additional articles and videos to come shared in the Uplift community online, further details of these will be propounded, expounded, and illustrated more fully. We look forward to hearing responses and feedback.
1. Allowing things to be exactly as you find them is not the same as “accepting things as they are as true, good or exactly right.”
When students begin a mindfulness class, it’s common to start lying down or sitting in a still posture – with an invitation to focus attention on some aspect of experience that is easy to feel in the body: the breath, or physical sensations in the body.
When the mind wanders – as it inevitably does – the invitation is to bring attention back to the object of focus. Again and again.
Doing this over and over helps develop a greater ability to be present – right here. But the practice doesn’t stop there. Once people are settled into the stillness, we almost always add something like this, “Whatever you’re noticing in your body, mind, and heart…allowing things to be exactly as you find them. Not trying to force things to be any different – at least not now – and with no need to fix or control anything in any way.”
Many find that a relieving suggestion – a bit of permission to stop resisting or fighting what is.
And instead, to just be with it. Whatever that is – and no matter how you feel about it – to accept that it is here. And maybe that’s okay – at least for now.
Yet as Jon Kabat-Zinn is quick to point out, this kind of acceptance is not the same as “resignation.” For many reasons, you may be eager for some – or many aspects – of your day-to-day experience to change. That is certainly true of those facing serious faith questions – as it is for many other painful experiences, like emotional health problems or relationship tensions.
Yet regardless of what happens – or may need to happen in the future – the encouragement in this practice is to do as Paul McCartney once serenaded us all, and Let It Be.
Even when a moment calls for intensive effort or urgent movement in a certain direction, this kind of present-moment acceptance can be both emotionally relieving and practically helpful. In fact, ironically sometimes the quickest way to make progress in a thorny challenge is to cease trying-so-hard to make the progress happen!
As the poet Osho once wrote,“Sitting silently, doing nothing, the spring comes and the grass grows by itself”
Or as Dr. Mark Williams of Oxford puts in a more scholarly way, “When we stop trying to force pleasant feelings, they are freer to emerge on their own. When we stop trying to resist unpleasant feelings, we may find that they can drift away by themselves.”
That’s why acceptance is powerful – especially this kind of acceptance. As noted earlier, there’s another version of “acceptance” popular these days in the broader culture – one that celebrates a much different kind of radical self-embrace. Compared with the message of “allowing things to be exactly as they are,” this acceptance calls for us to embrace “who you are, exactly as you feel – as just right…even perfect.” In turn, this acceptance inveighs against anyone who would dare question that self-concept – “too bad others can’t learn to be accepting of the way things are.”
If you’ve never heard a distinction between these two, it’s because within the predominant narrative, there is no distinction. We’ve heard more than one well-intentioned Latter-day Saint propose this very laudatory, self-congratulatory notion as reflecting “mindful” or “compassionate” acceptance.
But to be clear, most mindfulness teachers wouldn’t agree. Nor would the Buddha himself – who encouraged people to pursue not only for a lifetime of “enlightenment,” but also what he called “right speech, right action, right understanding, right thought, right livelihood, and right effort” – among other things.
Not quite the “everything is right” mantra of American popular culture, right?
Even while loving us right where we are, Jesus Himself, of course, calls us towards the “mighty change” of spiritual rebirth and “becoming a new creature”: hardly a program of radical self-acceptance.
To summarize, then: allowing things to be “exactly as you find them,” is not the same thing as accepting things as forever good, right and perfect. The former is welcome relief on the journey of growth, while the latter is an endorsement of resignation and potentially rejecting a path of growth as a disciple on the covenant path altogether.
2. Encouraging continual learning and growth is not the same as being hardly, endlessly dissatisfied.
In some of the popular portrayals of mindfulness today, invitations towards ongoing progress such as are ubiquitous within the gospel of eternal progression, get sometimes characterized as “ceaseless, unhealthy striving.” Far less acknowledgement is given to the way personal growth can be God-inspired, grace-filled and supremely gentle. It was to address precisely this misconception that an entire chapter in The Power of Stillness was focused on competing narratives of eternal progression:
Our aspirations toward heavenly things simply don’t require us to be constantly, naggingly dissatisfied with the present moment. We can get away from a pressure-filled, stressed-out, self-loathing approach to growth and progress without abandoning the idea of progress and growth altogether.
After noting that growth is an “inescapable part of mindfulness practice,” we say in the book, “there is nothing that says the pursuit of profound change on the pathway of eternal progression cannot also be experienced as compassionate, spacious, grace-filled, and shot through with love…in another word, mindful. We believe that is just as Christ would intend it.”
Drawing on an adult developmental framework, Thomas McConkie also recasts faith crisis as a potential opportunity to grow and transform – likewise underscoring the doctrine “eternal progression” as an radically evolutionary viewpoint
Rather than being a pressure-filled, guilt-fueled endeavor of chronic dissatisfaction, then, we go on in the text to further highlight there the many ways which Christ and His Church encourage a gentle, grace-filled quest that can fill our lifetimes with incredible learning and growth – not to mention overflowing love.
3. Making compassionate space for doubt is not the same as embracing these doubts as good, true or a reflection of higher reality.
Undoubtedly, it can be valuable for anyone to make a little more space around doubts – therefore, not adding to the added burden invoked by adding harsh judgment upon us (or a loved one) for their existence. As the Hafens put it, “Growing deep roots requires that we learn to work through uncomfortable realities” – proposing we need to do a “better job of introducing our children, young people, new converts, and others to the process of learning how to deal productively with complexity” (12, 20).
In particular, many have found that added space, openness and curiosity can do a great deal to decrease suffering often associated with doubts. Such an appeal, however, ought not be confused with another popular message that characterizes doubts as reflective of a higher degree of enlightenment or integrity – granting the possessor of said doubt a higher mantle of insight due to a “willingness to question,” and the “integrity to challenge” or “grapple with hard things.”
Whatever inspiration may find us in our doubts, it most often overstates the case to frame these doubts as themselves “inspired.” It was Christ Himself who encouraged people throughout HIs ministry – in his own loving ways – to cultivate faith more than doubt.
Others, of course, raise their voices to encourage just the opposite – with many who “love to ‘enlighten’ those who are stuck in idealistic simplicity,” as the Hafens note, “offering them the doubt and agnosticism of complexity as a seemingly brave new way of life” (13).
That’s the direction many have been pressed today – all of which effectively distances them from their formerly precious faith. Yet another option exists: nurturing conditions where something else more beautiful can grow.
And even when, despite our best cultivation efforts, some doubts arise – that’s okay. No need to panic. Let’s stay curious, believing and open to further guidance.
Once more, to be clear: all of this kind of making space for doubt is not the same as turning the whole field over to these doubts to seed and cover over everything else we’d been planting.
4. Appreciating new insights and growth prompted by challenging questions is not the same as glorifying and valorizing critiques as a higher level of enlightenment.
Thanks to some of the voices praising doubt as a reflection of enlightenment, it’s very common now to see many embracing them as a courageous new reality. As a result, as the Hafens put it, “one’s acceptance of the clouds of uncertainty can become so complete that the iron rod fades into the surrounding mists, and skepticism becomes not just a helpful tool but a guiding philosophy.”
In turn, “a person viewing life only from the perspective of complexity will often eliminate his or her upward view of the ideal and focus exclusively on the real.” Whatever beneficial questions may arise in this place, the Hafens raise concern that those who see “complexity as the end of the journey of faith” have, tragically,, “lost” their “vision of the ideal.”
As they summarize, “the ability to acknowledge ambiguity, an important step in our spiritual development, is not a final form of enlightenment – it is only the beginning.” The beginning of more growth and learning – especially if we keep going. As they continue, “the best response to the gap of uncertainty is to keep growing – to a place where we don’t just see the real and the ideal; we also hold on to each perspective – with eyes and hearts wide open.”
From that place, so much is possible! As they put it, “Looking through the lens of this simplicity beyond complexity, we can take action even when we wish we had more evidence before deciding what to do” (12-14).
“Whatever one’s issues with the Church might be,” the Hafens go on to invite people “to see those disappointments” as part of an in-process, middle-stage complexity that can help you learn and grow into something even more, “rather than a force so gigantic that it replaces the Restoration’s cosmic grandeur.” (110)
In this way, it’s possible to “make calm of the chaos.” Not in simplistic fashion – but in a rich, powerful way that stretches minds and hearts alike. As have many prophetic leaders before, the Hafens hold out hope that the challenging questions can bring forth something good: “Our sometimes cloudy tunnels of uncertainty are there to teach us, not just to torment us. And there is light at the end of those tunnels: the Light and Life of the world” (2, 28).
5. Seeking to evaluate evidence fairly and truthfully is not the same thing as escaping a particular vantage point and perspective. For that reason, discussions of evidence do not remove our own choice of who (and whose interpretation) to trust
As a final point, the effort to evaluate data and evidence – both historical and scientific – is a welcome and common part of the search for truth for so many today. Yet however much we all love to believe that historic or scientific evidence will conclusively prove – once and for all – the truth of a matter, those most familiar with research in both areas are quick to raise a caution.
Modern philosophers of history and science today are under no illusion that research “speaks for itself” – depending, as all data does, on a human interpreter coming from a particular standpoint. This is true for individual researchers and commentators. And it’s true for us as well. In the end, we must all rely on our own interpretations of what is going on – ascertaining that which we believe to be true.
And that means choice. Inherent in the act of interpreting is choosing: What to believe. Who to trust. And what is true.
Dr. Richard Williams of the BYU psychology department has highlighted this choice of who to trust as a fundamental, often overlooked issue – for all of us, whether religious or not. As the Hafens put it, “especially with sensitive and complex subjects, it’s easy to get bogged down in details and differences” of whose evidence is stronger – debates “that divert attention from the ultimate and very personal process of deciding how, where and to whom we should give the benefit of the doubt in close cases” (120)
As they continue, “We can’t ‘prove’ enough about [difficult] questions to answer them with certainty. So the Lord wants us to choose where to repose our trust, through a demanding, searching, personal process that connects us to Him. He wants us to consider what all of our experience teaches us about whether we can trust Him.” (122)
This is a question of the heart – as much as the mind. As William James once said, “The question of having moral beliefs is decided by our will. If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” James added, “You make one or the other of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust – both universes having been only maybes” before you made that choice.
Recognizing the centrality of our own choice of interpretation might encourage many of us toward greater humility – and an outward reach towards higher inspiration to guide us. While acknowledging the inability for most of us to stop the actual noise in our lives, the Hafens express their hope that “we can help you learn to listen below the noise – the noise in the world and the noise in you” – even for His voice. (2)
Referring to one couple that navigated challenging faith questions, the Hafens note “they didn’t have a complete answer, but they sensed enough to lay their complexity at the Lord’s feet. Their prayerful meekness allowed them to give Him the benefit of their doubt.” (27).
Rather than holding on to a suspicious, accusing narrative, this act of consciously “giv[ing] the Lord and His Church the benefit of the doubt” is significant for obvious reasons (15). Citing the example of a sister missionary who continued to persist in faith even amidst questions about gender roles and LGBT issues, they noted, “When we are surrounded by complexities and fears, if we don’t choose to give the Lord and His church the benefit of the doubt…we probably won’t walk far enough down the road of faith and sacrifice to discover the simplicity of peace within the love of God” (99)
This willingness to act – even without fully understanding why – turns out to be consequential for whether any of us come to understand more. The Hafens quote a wise father’s advice to his son, “As you continue your search for faith, please keep the commandments. Otherwise you will bias your search. If the affections of your heart are attached to the vices of this world, your head won’t make you – perhaps won’t even let you – believe in the virtues of God’s word.”
The Hafens also recount the inspiring story of African convert Khumbulani Mdletshe’s decades long choices to trust (again and again) despite opportunities to turn away, as beautifully “reflect[ing] both the process and the fruits of exercising a faith that is not blind – choosing to trust the Lord amid real complexities, showing trust by acts of real sacrifice, and seeing Him open real doors that He couldn’t open, even for our benefit, if we didn’t offer Him our trust” (115).
We can sometimes speak of this act of trusting simply, as in “see how easy? Just do it!” But the Hafens note, “Often, probably too often, we speak of real sacrifice far too glibly, not acknowledging the ambiguity and anxiety we might honestly feel before bowing our heads in submission before God – especially when we can’t possibly understand all the reasons why we must sometimes give so much when we know so little.” Quoting John Tanner’s description of families who sacrifice much, “in stories like these it is easy – too easy – to see the faith and miss the fear. But you can’t miss the fear and trembling when it is your own history” (44).
The larger, simple principle is still true, however – that our heads end up seeing only what our heart, choices (and faith) allow. Citing Mosiah’s teaching that “because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God,” the Hafens underscore that“believing precedes understanding. Understanding does not precede believing.” (87)
What a remarkable, soul-stretching process this is! An experience, as the Hafens and Alma both remind us, that requires remarkable effort and patience. How wonderful that we don’t have to pursue this on our own – that we have brothers and sisters all around us in the fellowship of our faith. For those seeking additional assistance from faithful members who have grappled with faith crisis themselves, visit the Uplift community on Facebook as well.
That concludes our first discussion of key contrasts that matter especially for working through faith crisis. In our next installment, we will go deeper in exploring some of the broader contours of a less reactive, and more gentle and spacious “mindful-oriented” approach to faith struggles.