Yesterday a friend asked me:
What would you say is the first step that we can take to foster mysticism in Mormonism?
I think we could develop a true contemplative practice.
We don’t have a genuine contemplative practice. It is absent from our tradition today. And without a contemplative practice, we have no means of communing directly with God, which is the definition of mysticism. Every major religious tradition has a contemplative practice, whether they call it meditation, centering prayer, the rosary, whirling dervishes, etc—where is ours? What is the Mormon contemplative practice? “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
Some might say that the temple is our contemplative practice. It is the most mystical or esoteric place and practice we have in Mormonism today. Joseph “restored” the temple perhaps so that there would be a place to have these direct spiritual experiences of the Divine, as it seems happened on the “Pentecost” of the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. But unfortunately I do not think it is a genuine contemplative practice, for many reasons, such as the following:
- I attended the temple in the LDS Church for over twenty years, and never had the kind of deep spiritual experiences that I had within just months of starting a daily personal meditation practice.
- The temple is definitely in a mystical atmosphere and environment, attuning the mind to spiritual realities, and towards God, and so it begins in the right direction, but I don’t think it gets there.
- The “True Order of Prayer” in the prayer circle was perhaps a means of engendering mystical states of consciousness in early Mormonism, but it no longer seems to function in this way. The circle was to be a place where the “Spirit of the Lord” could be unrestrained, being poured out on all participants without limit. It doesn’t still do this. Traditionally, prayer circles were ecstatic (from the Greek ekstasis, meaning “standing outside one’s self”) places of incredible energy, spirit, music, love, singing, communion, and even dance, as Hugh Nibley rightly pointed out in “The Early Christian Prayer Circle,” as in The Hymn of Jesus from The Acts of John, or as still preserved in the traditional Greek folk dances (see a YouTube video here). It was a ring dance, a circle dance, a chanting, a rhythmical procession, something which I’m very familiar with from my ballroom dance days, and wrote a paper on “The Genesis of the Round Dance,” a practice which seems to be found in all cultures throughout history. The Mormon prayer circle today seems to be spiritually dead, empty, robotic, a rote carryover from these other traditions that has become largely devoid of Spirit. We go through the mechanical motions, but the motions do not go through us. It is an outward performance, nothing more. It doesn’t transfigure us, or alter our consciousness. It is no longer allowed to be done in the home either, which used to be the case, making it more personal and intimate.
- The temple contains much ritual, liturgy, ceremony, ordinance, watching, doing, doing, doing things, actions, performances, but there is very little time for deep inner contemplative work, in one’s own mind and consciousness. To stop doing, and start undoing. It is mostly all outward external activity, not inner work.
- If you try to stay in the Celestial Room for too long to pray and contemplate, you may be asked to move along by one of the patrons. It’s not a place where one may stay for long periods to pray or meditate.
- Much of what goes on in the temple is kept so secret/sacred that few members understand the mystical depths or symbolism of any of it. It has become largely meaningless to many Mormons, or simply weird and strange. Some are even fearful of going, because of its seemingly occult or Masonic nature. (This is one of the reasons I wrote on TempleStudy.com for many years, investigating deeply its rituals, and their connection to religious and spiritual history.)
- In the early days of the church, the temple may have included the use of entheogens to help facilitate the shift in consciousness necessary to perceive spiritual realities and the Divine. We don’t have those means today in the temple, and we have a Word of Wisdom that prohibits the ingestion of any such substances commonly labelled “drugs” by our culture.
- In the early days of the church, members would spend many hours in the temple, even entire days, and days on end, performing the rituals back-to-back. This length of time in the liturgy may have also helped facilitate the shift of consciousness inward. Today an endowment session is down to about an hour and a half session, and many members perhaps make one visit every month, at best. Many other members only visit once in a lifetime, or very rarely.
What is Contemplative Practice?
A true contemplative practice is usually a regular daily disciplined deep meditative prayer of some kind. It is not a prayer that is discursive, as most Mormon prayers are, speaking to God, addressing God, thanking God for blessings, and asking God for blessings. Our prayers are very transactional; if we thank God for many many things, then maybe God will grant an answer to our prayers for things we seek. In contrast, meditative prayers are usually completely silent, or simply repeat a “mantra” (word or phrase) internally or sometimes vocally, in order to actually change consciousness, our state of consciousness, so that we can intuit, perceive, feel, experience the depths of actual Spirit. The Sufi mystic, Rumi, is attributed with saying:
Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.-Rumi
Through meditative prayer, we come into direct contact with the Spirit, that Divine, that deep inner energy that sustains our very own consciousness.
As Joseph Smith wrote:
And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings…
(If you enjoy this writing and content, please consider giving a Gift. If every reader gave just $1, it would be sufficient for my family's needs. I am deeply grateful to you for your kindness and generosity. 🙏 —Bryce)-D&C 88:11
Or as John said:
The true light gives light to everyone that has come into the world.-John 1:9
In meditative prayer, we get in touch with that Light within us, the Light of “Christ,” that oneness within us, that Kingdom within us (Luke 17:21). We realize our at-one-ment in God, directly, first-hand, immediately, personally. We “learn how to be a God ourself,” as Joseph said in his King Follett discourse.
Types of Practice
There are many styles of meditation, I practice vipassana which comes from Buddhist tradition (I once led a guided meditation in this method). The word means “insight,” or “clear seeing,” or perhaps what Mormons know as seership. It is “insight into the true nature of reality,” seeing things as they really are (Jacob 4:13). In Christianity in recent decades there has been a restoration, a resurgence, of contemplative practice that is truly meditative and contemplative, such as Thomas Keatings’ Centering Prayer, and John Main’s Christian Meditation. Other forms of Christian meditative prayer are the Jesus Prayer in Eastern churches, and the Hesychasm in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Such forms of Christian meditation have a long history, perhaps even dating back to Jesus himself, who was known to often go up into the mount or out into the desert to be in solitude, what President David O. McKay called the “mount of meditation.” Jesus also taught:
When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.-Matthew 6:6
Or as I have translated the verse:
Instead, when you commune, go into the silent chamber of your mind and soul, and shut out all external distractions. There you contemplate your Source, which dwells in that hidden inward Holy of Holies. And your Source, which perceives the Truth inwardly, will restore and renew you outwardly.-Matthew 6:6, BHT
A well-known Christian contemplative of the 20th century, Thomas Merton, described this kind of traditional prayer as one that is “centered entirely on the presence of God.” Saint Gregory the Great, from the 6th century, described it as “resting in God.” It doesn’t thank God for anything, or ask God for anything, but simply seeks to be aware of God in the present moment. We know that God is present with us in every moment, even if we do not know it (D&C 38:7; cf. John 1:26). Contemplative prayer is a way of attuning our consciousness so as to become fully aware of that Presence, here and now, deep within our own being. We open ourselves, mind and heart, to God, and God opens to us, unveiling its Self in Grace.
Mormon Meditation Objects
There may be many forms of meditation, but they are all basically focusing our attention on the present moment of our experience, and when we get distracted by thoughts we return to the present moment. Sometimes a meditation object is used to help focus our attention. I think Joseph Smith used a seer stone as a meditation object to facilitate him entering contemplative visionary states of consciousness, so there is precedent here in the Mormon tradition. As he said himself, as attested by Brigham Young, “Joseph said there is a [seer] Stone for every person on Earth.” Why don’t we use seer stones anymore? We’ve lost this foundational contemplative practice.
There is nothing magical, supernatural, or superstitious about a seer stone; it is a meditation object, an aid, a tool, an instrument, like many other kinds of meditation objects that spiritual people have used as a center of concentration, attention, and focus in many spiritual traditions. Other traditional visual meditation objects are a candle flame (as practiced by modern Christian mystic and Catholic priest Richard Rohr), a dish of water, a crystal, a blank wall, or any other singular point that you can focus on intently and intensely, with an “eye single to the glory of God,” until consciousness shifts into a meditative mystical state of awareness. Consciousness may actually be absorbed into the meditation object, until spiritual light begins to illuminate the mind, insights or revelation emerging from the unconscious. David Whitmer described Joseph’s experience in this way:
Joseph Smith put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine.-David Whitmer, “An Address to All Believers in Christ,” (1887)
In that meditative state, we come to know the Divine, “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12; cf. 1 John 3:2). We are no longer merely talking to God, but coming to know God directly and to realize our oneness in God, communing in God, in God’s Presence, being at-One in that Love, which is the whole point of the gospel, as taught by Jesus (John 17:3, 11, 20-23; 1 John 4:7-21).
LDS scholar Terryl Givens recently noted in a lecture at BYU, “I am not a saint, and I am not a mystic.” Why not? Why are the Latter-day “Saints” not saints, not mystics? He noted several times in his lecture that the mystics of history seemed to have directly realized God. Where have we gone wrong? Why have we not realized that Saint within us, as our own scriptures tell us is possible (Mosiah 3:19). Perhaps we have been too focused on externals, outward things, intellectual ideas, and have neglected the inner work of coming to God in our heart, our center, our consciousness, our spirit. We have done a lot of talking to and at and about God in Mormonism, it is perhaps time that we realize our at-One-ment in God, not as a distant dualistic figure on a planet somewhere, but as the One that is the most intimate being within us. It is time we restore the personal experience of our own First Visions, realizing God within our own mind, as Joseph did.
A New Mormon Practice: The “Ahman Prayer”
So now that we’ve looked at some of the background of what meditative prayer is, both in our tradition, and in Christianity generally, what might a modern Mormon contemplative practice look like? How could we begin to develop one anew, restoring this direct communion? Here I’ll present a possibility. I’ll call it the “Ahman Prayer,” to make it uniquely Mormon.
Ahman is a word that Joseph Smith used to refer to God (perhaps related to the Abrahamic religions word amen, which points to truth), but perhaps also to refer to the servants of God, as “Ahman Christ.” William Clayton recorded in a meeting with the Council of Fifty (Joseph’s inner circle) that Joseph said the word “signifies the first man or first God, and ‘Ahman Christ’ signifies the first mans son” (source). So the “Ahman prayer” is a way in which we can get in touch with and commune in that first man or first God, and God’s “Son.” It is a way that we may come into the con-templation of God, in God, that “temple of God consciousness” (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19).
The form of the prayer will be similar to many other traditional forms of meditation, taking particular cues from the Christian forms, from modern secular author and philosopher Sam Harris, as well as ideas from Mormon mystic Philip McLemore who has already presented such in his Sunstone articles, such as “Mormon Mantras: A Journey of Spiritual Transformation” (April 2006).
“Ahman Prayer” General Guidelines:
- Choose a meditation object. This could be one of many different things (see below for ideas of “Mormon” objects).
- Find a place to sit where you won’t be disturbed, that’s comfortable, but not too comfortable. You don’t need to sit on the floor or on a cushion, or in any particular cross-legged posture. A regular chair will do fine.
- Close your eyes (or if you are using a visual meditation object, look at that object), and focus on your meditation object. If it is a word, begin to repeat it silently in your mind. If using a visual object, find a point on the object, and gently stare at it, keeping your full attention on it. If it is your breath, pay attention to its sensations.
- When your mind wanders, notice that as soon as possible, acknowledge the thought, and gently bring your attention back to the meditation object.
- Repeat this process, over and over again, until your meditation time comes to an end. Eventually you’ll be able to focus for longer and longer periods of time on the object, without mind wandering. You may want to set a timer, such as with the Insight Timer app.
What to use as a meditation object?
- The new name given to you in your first endowment session in the temple, which you may use as a mantra word (see D&C 130:10-11). Such key words, sacred words, new names, are often given in sacred secrecy from guru to disciple upon their mystical initiation to actually use in their meditation practice, as in many Eastern traditions.
- Another sacred word or phrase, such as “Ahman,” or “Adam-ondi-Ahman,” the name that Joseph gave to a place in Missouri, “where the Lord visited Adam and ‘administered comfort’ to him.” You will be the “place” where the Lord will visit. Ahman is remarkably close to Om or Aum, which is a popular meditation mantra word in Hinduism, as well as the name Brahman (and Atman), referring to God in the Hindu tradition. You may even combine this word with the breath, splitting the word into “ah” on the inhale, and “man” on the exhale. Or you could use the Psalmist’s phrase “O God! Hear the words of my mouth” (Ps. 54:2); the Mormon temple tradition already presents this as a possible mantra that should be repeated, even as part of prayer. See Philip McLemore’s Sunstone article for other ideas of words/phrases, such as “Love,” or “God.”
- Find a seer stone. Joseph already gave you “permission” to have a seer stone, and it was clearly the way he himself found mystical communion in God. Above is a photo of one of my stones I call “Urim” (oo-reem), a Hebrew word meaning light or lights. This can be any stone that has personal meaning or significance to you, perhaps a crystal. There is no need to also get a white stovepipe hat to put the stone in, like Joseph, but if you would like to, feel free! The reason for that was to help Joseph block out external distractions, and further aid focusing his consciousness on the stone. You might choose to just close the window shades, or turn down the light in the room. Note that Joseph once said that using the seer stone could begin to make his eyes “sore” after staring at it for extended lengths of time, perhaps because of dryness and/or “bloodshot.”
- Or simply use your breath as the meditation object. This is my usual practice, connected to vipassana (or more specifically anapanasati). The breath has a long tradition in Judeo-Christianity as being connected to spirit. The very word “spirit” in the Bible is the translation of the Greek pneuma and Hebrew ru’ach, which also mean “breath.” God breathed into “Adam’s” nostrils, and he received the breath of Life (the Spirit), becoming a Living soul. Focus on all the sensations of the breath.
Some other recommendations:
- Try to do the practice first thing in the morning, if you can, before your mind has been filled with the thoughts, ideas, concerns, and problems of the day. You are trying to silence your mind, bringing consciousness to stillness, like a “sea of glass” (D&C 77:1; cf. Rev. 4:6). When Joseph’s mind was agitated, he also could not contemplate with his seer stone. There is an account where he was bothered with something his wife Emma had done, and he could not translate, and so he had to go out into a field and pray, returning to make amends with Emma, before he could enter the meditative state again.
- Try to practice for at least 30 minutes. It may take some practice to work up to that length, beginning with 5 or 10 minutes, and increasing the length over time. If you can, increase the time up to an hour per session, twice a day (perhaps morning and evening). Again, we are trying to bring the mind to stillness, where thoughts arise less often, and the mind becomes silent and open to the awareness of reality as it is. There are many benefits to meditating for short periods of time, but if we do not meditate for longer periods we are unlikely to shift consciousness radically into the deeper mystical or contemplative state, and experience transfiguration in that state.
- If you would like, begin your practice with a short discursive prayer, noting your intention to commune with God, to open yourself fully to God’s Presence, to “hear” God’s voice deep within you, or to become aware of Ultimate Reality as it may become known to you, in you.
- When you get distracted, and you will most definitely get distracted by thoughts or other disturbances, as soon as you notice the thought or distraction, be aware of what the thought was. Realize it was a thought, an idea, something in your mind, but not your consciousness itself. It arose within you, but it was not you. In this way you begin to put some distance between the essence of your consciousness, and the thoughts that arise in it. Do not dwell on the thought, but gently return your focus to the meditation object again.
- When you notice distractions, do not judge yourself. It is easy for us to want to criticize ourselves for having lost attention on the meditation object. We may feel like we are a failure at the practice for having lost concentration, and having followed a thought for several minutes or longer. But we must recognize that this is part of the practice, and judging ourself as being a failure does not help our practice. It only reinforces the ego. The ego is that voice that says you are doing it wrong. It is not you. You are the one that notices you the distraction, that notices that you have been thinking. You are the conscious observer, the awareness in the background that knows the thought. A much better approach than judging is to recognize the thought, and congratulate yourself for having noticed it, for having awakened from the dream of the thought, and returning to the present moment of awareness on the meditation object. The more you notice the thoughts, and become aware of them, the more you awaken to the present, to your consciousness of the present reality.
- At some point you may not need to actively pay attention to the meditation object anymore, whether it is a word, or object, or the breath. Those may naturally fall away from your consciousness. You may simply become open and aware of the present moment, in all its qualities. This is sometimes called choiceless awareness, and is a deepening of meditative awareness. Just be open to that. If can become quite blissful and peaceful in that state. If you find yourself beginning to be distracted by thoughts again, return to the meditation object as the center of your focus, to be present.
- Don’t expect great things to happen at first. It can take a significant amount of practice before the mind relaxes, and allows you to enter deeper states of consciousness. Trying to force spiritual experiences, demanding a “First Vision” from God, can actually be counterproductive. It is your ego, the “natural man” (Mosiah 3:19), that is seeking these special states, your thinking mind, the “carnal mind,” and by its very seeking, it is actually veiling them. You cannot make such spiritual states happen. They come as a Grace as you let go of mind, as you let go of your “self,” as you “put off” that “natural man,” as your mind comes to stillness and rest in the Present moment of Now.
- You may get bored, you may fall asleep, you may come face to face with your ego, your dark shadow, deep emotions and experiences and memories that you have repressed from your past, pushing them down deep in your unconscious mind. They might come back to meet you. You may experience all kinds of emotional states from extreme joy to loneliness to pain to terror. Trust, let go, be open. Breathe. If you need to, open your eyes and re-ground yourself, as Joseph did in his First Vision experience, and then enter back into prayer.
- If you can make it work in your life, I highly recommend going on a meditation retreat, such as those offered by S. N. Goenka’s Vipassana organization, which is the second 10-day silent meditation retreat that I did myself. It is in the vipassana tradition, but the method is very much like I have outlined here, with the addition of noticing closely all the sensations of the body, and how the spirit moves through the body. You spend up to ten hours a day in meditation, usually no longer than one hour at a time. This length of time is a great way to allow the mind to settle, to transcend the thoughts of our busy lives, to move beyond them, to overcome them, to overcome the ego, and to experience deeper states of consciousness. It usually takes me at least 2-3 days of near continuous meditation before I breakthrough into these deeper states of peace and bliss and insight/revelation, and “light” enters my mind, or rather the “Light” is unveiled in my consciousness, as my consciousness.
- If you would like to meditate with others, which can often help as a support to our personal practice, I offer group meditation online here at ThyMindOMan.com every weekday, currently at 8:15am Mountain Time. You are welcome to join me and others. Simply open your browser, and go to the Meditation Room. We meditate together silently for 30 minutes, after which we have time for open sharing with one another of insights, inspiration, ideas, questions, concerns, thoughts, feelings. It is a beautiful time to be with one another in communion.
The Parousia of Christ’s Coming
Eventually that Parousia may happen. You may experience the Second Coming of “Christ” in your own consciousness, as Joseph Smith did, or as the Apostle Paul did on the road to Damascus (Gal. 2:20; Acts 9:3-9), or as Jesus himself did at his “baptism” when the heavens opened, or as any number of other mystics, prophets, sages, gurus, saints, and others have experienced. Jesus promised that same “Comforter” would come to his disciples (John 16:7), which is you! You will be born again in the Fire of the Spirit, realizing yourself in Spirit, as Spirit, as God’s Spirit, that your spirit is and has always been God’s Spirit, that you are One in God, even as Jesus prayed (John 17). You will realize you are “a God,” as Joseph Smith promised you could, “as all the other Gods have done before you.” You will find your Self in Love.
As Mormon meditation teacher and mystic Philip McLemore has rightly pointed out:
I have a Second Coming warning for you. And it’s not that it’s coming next week. It’s that it’s here now and you’re missing it.—Philip McLemore, 2018 Sunstone Symposium
Some might think “but no one knows the day or hour, not the angels or even the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36).
I think the key here is that no one knows when it will happen for you. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened a million times already, and even now for many people across the world. If we merely wait for it passively, thinking it’s many years away in a distant future, we may miss our opportunity to know it.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.-Matthew 24:42
Keeping watch is perhaps an alert and active paying attention, awareness, and observant readiness. It is perhaps meditation and contemplation.
“But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ [is in a far off future day, many years away],” that servant is devastated.-Matthew 24:48-51
The “the hour is coming, and is now come, is now here, and has already come…” (John 4:23, 5:25, 16:32).
God is here and now, if we will open ourselves to it, as we can through the Ahman Prayer. May it be a useful contemplative practice for Mormonism, if God wills it to be.
The photo at the top of this post is the “Adam-ondi-Ahman Trail,” a trail or “way” running to and through Adam-ondi-Ahman in Daviess County, Missouri. May the Ahman Prayer be such a way, guiding us into God.