To read more from Jacob, visit his blog: Publish Peace

A Japanese Zen master named Nan-in lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). During his days as a teacher, he was visited by a university professor curious about what he was teaching. Being polite, Nan-in served the professor a cup of tea.

As he poured, the professor’s cup became full, but Nan-in kept on pouring. As the professor watched the cup overflow, he could no longer contain himself – exclaiming, “It is overfull. No more will go in!” Nan-in turned to the professor and said, “Like the cup, you are too full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you [more] unless you first empty your cup?”

That story hit me hard after hearing it years ago. I wonder how often we likewise can’t receive anything more (insight and inspiration we dearly need), because we’re so full-of-other-stuff?

Growing faith by calming down. On October 15, 1915, the son of a religious bishop in Utah was run over by a freight car in a freak accident. That morning, this twenty-something young man had kissed his mother good morning, taken his dinner bucket, and gone up City Creek Canyon for his job as a switchman on a train carrying logs up the canyon.

Before noon, his body was brought back lifeless, leaving his mother inconsolable and “refusing to be comforted” like Enoch in Latter-day Saint scripture.

One afternoon days after the funeral, this bishop had gone into the office to attend to his work duties piling up. His bereaved wife lay in a relaxed state at home on the bed, still yearning and praying for some consolation.

This mother writes in her history how her son appeared and said, “Mother, you needn’t worry. Today I come to you to give you that comfort [she had been seeking] and tell you that I am happy.”

“I went to father soon after [the accident],” her son (now a spirit) said. “But he was so busy in the office I couldn’t influence him. I couldn’t make any impression upon him, and I tried again.” He then said, ‘Tell Father that all is well with me, and I want you not to mourn any more.’” (italics added)

“Don’t you get so busy … that spiritual forces are not able to reach you,” President David O. McKay taught, after retelling this story at a funeral sermon in 1943 (Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953, pp. 525-26.)

In reference to the same account, President Ezra Taft Benson said, “The whisperings of the Spirit….most often come when we are not under the pressure of appointments and when we are not caught up in the worries of day-to-day life.” (“Seek the Spirit of the Lord,” Ensign, Apr. 1988, p. 2).

We live in a day when this kind of stillness is uniquely challenging. “It is possible to consume an endless diet of content today—podcasts, blogs, movies, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snap Chat, Hulu, Netflix, and cable channels galore,” taught Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew, before asking:

“What happens to our hearts and minds when we consume hours, days, even years of words—with most of them,” she added,” coming from those with very little knowledge of spiritual realities (her entire talk is worth checking out, “Celestial Training in a Telestial World”).

I had an opportunity to speak on this topic recently during our local Paradise 3rd ward commemoration of the 182nd anniversary of the Relief Society’s founding (a female-led organization established in 1842 in the earliest days of the Church of Jesus Christ – with a mission to minister with Christ-like love to those in greatest need around the world).

I was grateful for the invitation, and focused the time on an inventory of sorts I had developed – copied below – to help someone appraise how well they are doing on this question of mental overload, specific to spiritual development. Simply put:

What do you need to do less, in order to build your faith? 

Qualification: Before diving in, I want to point out that there are many times that we all, in fact, need to do more, learn more, stretch more. In my own experience, however, very often I’ve found that lots of other less important doing-doing-doing can get in the way of things that matter most. The series of question below is designed to help you assess how well you’re able to push back on lesser things that tend to dominate attention, as you make space for the better stuff.

1.  When an opportunity for a little quiet arises (at home, in the car, or a grocery line), how often do you reach for some digital distraction or other noise?

2. Is there anyone in news media, the podcasting world and influencer culture that you have been following-and-listening-to so much that you’re starting to think or feel like they do about life?

3. Over the last month, have you gotten angry and fired-up about some national media or political figure – so much so that this made it difficult to focus on other things in your life?

4. When was the last time you experienced deep and replenishing mental and emotional rest?

5. Do you regularly experience an intense emotion – fear/anxiety, sadness/depression, anger/frustration, craving/hunger – that crowds out other potentially beautiful feelings?

6. Do you know the difference between good, better and best appeals for your time and attention?

7. In the course of your normal daily schedule, if you’re interrupted by an unexpected text, email, call, visit, or spiritual prompting…do you have enough headspace to give it genuine, undivided attention?

8. Are you able to hold serious questions about faith or family with humility, compassion and generosity?

9. How often in a normal day do you have a chance to spend time alone with God?

  1. Have you felt God’s love for you personally in the last month?

Bonus questions:

  • Can you tell the person next to you what the sunset looked like last night, or how the food tasted tonight?
  • Is there anything in your physical diet that is overly absorbing attention (sugar, caffeine, comfort food) or impacting your cognitive ability to focus?
  • When you interact with people at home, at church, or other places, are you able to be with them fully? (vs. “continuous partial attention”)
  • Do you have space in your schedule, mind and heart to be interrupted by God?
  • If there was something God new or different wanted you to seriously consider in your life, are you open enough to his influence to be willing to change something up?
  • Is there enough space in your life to take a few minutes to write feelings of gratitude, sacred experiences, or cherished memories?
  • When a family member (sibling, spouse, child, or parent) does something or says something that you don’t like, are you okay? (meaning, you’re able to sit with your discomfort, notice the feelings, be aware of how it chafes against your expectations…without jumping down their throat?)