This is an attempt to bat some ideas around that I originally picked up here in a mindfulness/fitness context. Your mileage may, and likely will, vary. It’s entirely possible that this post doesn’t apply to you at all. That’s cool.
Sometimes, when people tell me that they are experiencing a faith transition or challenge, when they fail to meet the spiritual goals they’d long ago set for themselves, I hear that they just don’t think they’re the believing type. I’ve felt that way too sometimes. I wonder if people might find more peace of mind if they thought of feelings of religious devotion as a skill to be honed and refined.
There are many strong testimonies out there – I see them all the time. But many people also feel their belief wavering, and overall inactivity rates are high. People seem to think that the secret to making a successful faith transformation is about finding belief. Feelings of religious devotion and spirituality seem to be like some sort of magic wand to wave at anything that challenges your faith or question your place in the community. But tour average struggling Mormon has lots of devotion. They’re motivated as it gets, but it’s increasingly unlikely that they stick around. They might stop going church, feel guilty and lost, then blame a lack of willpower or belief, like how I feel bad about not eating healthy in 2017 despite my resolutions.
Motivation is unreliable. Our feelings of energy and devotion wax and wane like the tides. Motivation and belief — whether to get physically fit or to renew your spiritual energy — are not skills that you can improve. But I believe everyone can find spiritual well-being. This comes (at least in part ) by realizing that spirituality is a skill, like learning to ride a bicycle or play the piano.
First, it’s probably important to talk about how our mindsets might affect our spirituality. If you have a fixed mindset, you might perceive “being spiritual” as an innate talent. You’re born it (or you’re not). Falling away or not feeling the Spirit is the result of a personal deficiency, such as self-control, or intelligence. If you’re not feeling it at Church, it’s because you are defective. But a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed one, believes that success depends on how you use your skills. That is, you can learn, grow and develop your abilities.
Talens writes regarding physical fitness:
Some subjects, like riding a bicycle, are universally seen through a “growth” lens.
If you fell and scraped your knee the first time you attempted riding a bike, you wouldn’t say, “Something is horribly wrong with me. I don’t have the willpower and discipline required to ride my bike,” would you?
That would be silly. Instead, you’d realize that you just haven’t fully developed that skill yet. You’d think about why you fell. Perhaps you didn’t know how to navigate your bike through new terrain, such as a bumpy road or a patch of grass.
Unlike riding a bicycle, however, fitness is almost always seen through the lens of a “fixed mindset.” When people slip up on their diets, they automatically beat themselves up for being undisciplined and lazy, rather than think about why they slipped up and how to prevent this same mistake in the future.
Unfortunately, those with a fixed mindset try to “brute force” their success with willpower, which is a recipe for failure. That’s because willpower is a finite resource; relying on it will not lead to success.
I am curious as to whether this approach applies to a spiritual context. I believe it does, at least in part.
The Five Skills
Talens describes five component skills of fitness that can be improved – I believe each is applicable to finding a sense of spirituality.
1. Knowledge. A correct knowledge of the Gospel helps us understand how to approach God and apply spiritual principles in our lives. We can plan our spiritual lives when we have knowledge. The basic knowledge of the nature of Jesus Christ and the plan of salvation are a good start. Further and more specific knowledge such as details of church history, the interplay between foreknowledge and free agency, or how grace operates in relation to our works are all important. However, the Book of Mormon warns us of the difference between being learned and being wise, and it’s true that delving into church topics only gets us so far. Everyone knows someone in their family or ward who becomes obsessed with some esoteric subject. This does not help us improve. There is more available knowledge about Mormonism than ever before. But knowledge alone has not helped me develop a deep relationship with Jesus Christ.
2. Mindfulness and Self-Awareness. Mindfulness means “focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” In a spiritual context, we may be hyper-aware of our sins and weaknesses but very unaware of what brings us to sin. When I think about the last time I yelled at my kids or fell short, it’s tempting to just think “I got angry” and leave it at that. But that’s not really learning about myself. By practicing mindfulness (which, by the way, can be painful and slow), I can dissect how decisions got made — and more importantly, I can use my mistakes to disrupt my course of action going forward (in other words, I can more fully repent). The past becomes a totem, a way to inform and shape the present. There are many good mindfulness & meditation apps and sites. I recommend Headspace.
3. Self-Compassion. Man, do I understand guilt. A lifetime of repeated sin builds up. Trying and failing, trying and failing. I don’t think I can make it — and I repeatedly prove myself correct. We teach that Jesus saves us, but I also believe that we can prevent Him from doing so when we cannot let go of guilt and shame when we fail. Those feelings can be strong motivators but they are not a substitute for the Atonement. We must be able to exercise self-compassion. Next time you feel the weight of sin, imagine that you are comforting a friend who is going through a tough time. Compare then how you react internally to your own struggles. Show the same kindness to yourself that you would apply to your friend. This is so hard. I don’t feel particularly deserving of the love and blessings I have (and King Benjamin quite rightly would agree that I don’t deserve it). But being aware of a negative bias towards yourself also helps me understand how spirituality is a skill. When my friend sins, do I think he or she is simply not a spiritual person? Or do I perceive a path to developing and becoming a better person?
4. Humility. When I started separating humility from guilt, I felt transformed. I no longer felt defensive of every conviction, and felt more open to new information about myself and the world. For me, this coincided with being able to listen to critics of the church or those who feel disillusioned, without feeling personally attacked every time. I now have a goal of finding out more often where I’m wrong, and being quicker to acknowledge error. There’s so much I don’t know. I have been wrong about women, about race in the church, about so many topics — especially about myself and my own motivations and fears. I’m still learning, but I feel that this humility is key to evolving an open mind and heart. I feel more teachable.
5. Discipline and Habit Building. Decisions are hard. It is exhausting, for example, to resolve to pick up the Book of Mormon and read Isaiah (sorry, Joe Spencer!). But it is clear that decisions are hardest the first time they are challenged: the first time I get back to daily scripture study when I don’t have time, the first time getting back into home teaching. But discipline can help us push from the initial decision towards habit-building. Habits are the flywheel of the mind. After an enormous initial expense of willpower, our spiritual actions can gain momentum and perpetuate themselves. In other words, habits can help us keep going along a path of spirituality during those times that our motivation wanes. This is central to a long-term approach.
What’s next? I don’t know. Some research, some good habits, a plan. What else? Some mistakes. Lots of mistakes. But this time, mistakes and weaknesses accompanied with trying to understand myself and forgive myself. Discipline to keep going. And a healthy sense of being openness to being wrong. What’s worked for you? Or is this all smoke and mirrors?
 For many, faith is simply a gift from the divine. Maybe it makes sense to differentiate between faith as an overarching principle, the hope for things not seen and a manifestation of grace, vs. faith as mere belief and current state of religious devotion. There’s probably a book to be written on this topic.