Spirituality as a Skill, Not a Talent

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 [1]) 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?

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[1] 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.

Comments

  1. I expect you’ll get a lot of push-back, because this sounds suspiciously close to the “pray, scriptures, commandments, meetings” first line of response from the Church to the person in a ‘faith crisis.’
    For me the necessary pivot is that this is about spirituality, and not necessarily about getting back in the boat. For everyone I know who appreciates and seeks spirituality, it’s not about a particular destination or for that matter any destination. It’s about the journey. For the journey, this is good stuff, especially the bold headings and even though I’d probably write the explanatory text differently.

  2. Right, Christian – I think that’s where I’m going as well. And I would fully expect that every person might approach this stuff differently.

    As for the ability to resolve a faith crisis by reading, praying, etc…. I think we both know the limits of that approach. However, I am not sure that a person can hope for long-term spirituality without some discipline and habits. Scripture reading and prayer are pretty fundamental things in Christianity.

  3. Hmmm… The part of me that loves checklists and goalposts really appreciated this post.

    At the same time, for me it is letting go of the checklists, the ‘correct understanding,’ the habits, that led me to a place of Peace. I’d say my experience falls under the heading of Humility, perhaps Mindfulness as well.

    But overall, experiencing Peace and Grace is way less about building something (even within myself) and way more about releasing all the things that get in the way.

  4. Yes! I like that a lot. Losing the semblance of control.

  5. No question (from me) that habits and discipline are important. I gave a whole talk once about the value to me of kneeling in prayer. The kneeling part.

  6. I seem to have lost track of what is meant by “spirituality.” The word seems to be used in multiple ways and I’m rarely sure I understand. Some people seem to think it means churchiness. Others think it quite independent of churches. The 5 headings in the OP are all things important to me and my sense of well-being, but I’d appreciate any elucidation of “spirituality.”

    Chris, I’d be very interested in the value of kneeling in prayer. I didn’t think it was important until after knee surgeries that have prevented it. Now I miss it, but don’t know why.

  7. JR, yeah. I’m pretty fast and loose with the defined terms. That’s intentional, both in order to let people take their own definitions and also because I’m a lazy and sloppy thinker.

  8. JR: The talk itself is lost to the 20C version of the cloud. As I recall (and would say again), at a multi-syllabic philosophical level it amounts to a rejection of mind-body duality and argues that we are our bodies, that our consciousness and awareness and spirituality is a function of the body, that patterning–standing and sitting, bread and water, shaking hands, kneeling, to name a few–have significant and lasting effect on how we think and feel. When I kneel I humble myself, I recognize and play out an ancient pattern, I bow before my Lord, I am ‘broken’ in a figurative and a literal sense, I am a petitioner, I am not in charge, I am defenseless. It’s all happening in real time in this world in my body informing my self. In my experience, imagining the same is not the same. Action speaks.
    But for someone who can’t kneel any longer? (I am sympathetic even though it’s not me, not yet.) I recall on my mission at one particular house finding a spot on the roof where I would retire to pray every evening. It became a ritual and I could play out a dozen ways it was significant–place and time and a small awkwardness and so on. In the memory of that experience I believe we can make our own rituals, but ‘testify’ to the value of ritual in which we–our bodies informing our selves–imbue meaning.

  9. Ultimately, submission before God.

  10. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Achieving, maintaining, improving spirituality is actually hard work. I does require a lot of effort. And it seems to be harder for some than for others. A person prone to depression has to struggle mightily just to get to the point where he/she can even hope to feel any type of spirituality. And sometimes I think that there are people towards the other end of the spectrum that are cursed with a “what me worry” frame of mind that they never feel the need for spirituality.

    However, I do not believe that a fleshed out knowledge of Church Doctrine, church history, etc. are necessary to becoming spiritual. My wife is not well versed in the Church doctrine, nor is she highly educated, but she is a very spiritual woman. That so scorned manta of scripture study and prayer works for her.

    But I do agree that a healthy dose of humility really helps. The willingness to be taught rather than believing that one already knows most of the answers.

    I also believe that you are onto something in your note about self compassion. One of the problems with real repentance is the crushing remorse that accompanies the early phases of that process. When that remorse is never allowed to abate, even when forgiveness has been earned is a roadblock to attaining or recovering lost spirituality.

    Glenn

  11. I know people who are naturally “spiritual”–that is, naturally sensitive to spiritual things and promptings– but I think that’s different from spiritual devotion–that is, practicing certain things like prayer, scripture study, mediation, etc.–which seems more a product of effort. Though practicing spiritual devotion can make us more spiritual, I find it helpful, personally, to maintain the distinction. I’ve accepted that I’m not spiritual person, that God doesn’t speak to me in dreams and visions or unsubtle promotings (though I’ll never say never), but I can practice spiritual devotions–that’s within my reach.

  12. JKC, the distinction you draw may prove helpful to me. The concept of “promptings” I understand. But what does “spiritual things” mean to you in the context of “being naturally sensitive to spiritual things?” Is it dreams and visions to which meaning is ascribed? (My dreams/nightmares don’t seem to have any coherent or revelatory meaning.) Or is it more than that?

  13. Yes, I think’s what I mean. I rarely even remember my dreams when I wake up, but when I do, they seem entirely random. I know other people who hear the voice of God through dreams. That’s not the way it is for me.

  14. Jkc, I think that sort of spiritual life is extremely rare. It’s a gift or innate talent. I do not think that we could develop that sort of spiritual life by habit and discipline. But we can have a fulfilling and rewarding relationship with God. That is sort of what I’m looking for here.

  15. Yeah, I agree, Steve. You probably said it better than I did.

  16. Steve, Regarding the way you define spirituality, as developing, nurturing, and maintaining a “rewarding relationship with God,” could it also include developing a rewarding relationship with some other transcendent force, power, principle, etc.? Or is God a requirement? Thanks.

  17. Gary, good question. I suppose it could work with a different belief system. Of course as a Christian I tend to think that Jesus is the best way to go…

  18. “I know people who are naturally “spiritual”–that is, naturally sensitive to spiritual things and promptings– but I think that’s different from spiritual devotion–that is, practicing certain things like prayer, scripture study, mediation, etc.–which seems more a product of effort.”

    Oh, I love this! I’ve never quite thought of it this way before, but it absolutely resonates with me. Spirituality for me is absolutely the first, which is why I find removing obstacles to spirituality to be so important. I then struggle with the second.

    It’s interesting to me to read the comments on the importance of kneeling for prayer, etc. I can see that is very powerful for some people, but I know from experience that it is a negative for me. I spent a number of years trying to live/worship with exactitude (which is a very LDS way of approaching spirituality) and ended up miserable and depressed. It created too much tension and weight in me. I’m guessing it doesn’t create tension in other people and may even release tension. It is hard for me to understand that, but I can see it is true.

    In some ways, I think I’d like both in my life. I’d say I haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate spiritual devotion (beyond meditation). I feel like the church makes it harder for me to figure out because I have to fend off all the “We should all be…” statements and the sheer weight of pressure to do it the way everyone else does. I think I’d be much happier in a church where spiritual devotion happened alone in a small room just between me and God. And Yes, I recognize I can create that myself. But to be a Mormon, I can’t do so at the expense of the greater Mormon experience which is an endless uphill battle for me.

  19. ReTx: Great–as in useful, valuable–comment. I’m sure we will never have a face-to-face conversation, but it’s clear that without identifying the difference (type one vs type two spirituality, to coin a phrase) we would talk past each other endlessly and you would probably think I was a Philistine. Acknowledging a difference is a first step to understanding.
    I’m reminded of a few friends for whom I would say “the veil is thin.” There seems to be a spiritual experience of a story-telling type daily. (Not the finding keys and parking spaces type.) For me, I’ve had a story-telling experience about once a decade. That’s not zero, which is important. And they have sometimes been life-changing events. Which is important. But those friends and I hardly speak the same language when it comes to works of the Spirit.

  20. Chris, It would be helpful to have an example of what you mean a “spiritual experience of a story-telling type.” How is that different from the finding-keys or parking spaces type? Thanks.

  21. I think that one form of spiritual exercise from which Mormons are largely cut off, partly for doctrinal reasons but mostly for cultural reasons, is the use of composed (written) prayers. Mormons just don’t do it. I remember as a missionary in a Spanish-speaking Catholic country actively denigrating the practice. I have since come to appreciate it.

    It seems to me that composed prayer shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for a people that puts great stock in using hymns as a way to address itself to God. And it needn’t supplant extemporaneous prayer. But Mormons are like free-weight purists in a gym, scoffing at anyone on the Nautilus machine.

  22. I regret my Nautilus machine analogy. (I’m out of my depth on the subject of physical fitness.) A musical friend of mine came up with a better analogy: “Mormonism is a noodly jam band that just can’t appreciate good songwriting.”

  23. gst, Mormons also use composed (written) prayers for the sacrament and for temple dedications. I think there is no doctrinal reason opposed to their use. There is a common, and often mis-, understanding of “vain repetition.” By that cultural standard, our sacrament prayers would often be “vain repetition” but I decline to categorize them that way.

  24. You are quite right, JR. I intended to limit my observation to personal prayers, which seem to me to be most relevant to the subject at hand, developing personal spiritual skills. I don’t think the use of composed prayers in personal (or family) prayers is done much at all in Mormonism.

    As to the repetitive nature of even extemporaneous prayers, my musical friend addressed that too: “As with any noodly jam band, our supposed improvisations all sound the same most of the time.” So if we’re going to end up being repetitive anyway, maybe better to incorporate some thoughtfully composed repetitions?

  25. I’d prefer to focus, I think, on individual actions and not perceived institutional limitations. I recognize that there is serious interplay between the two.

  26. gst, I agree. My favorite vain repetition in LDS personal prayers is the prayer to bless the sugary refreshments (whether at church or FHE) to “nourish and strengthen our bodies.” It seems to be the closest we come to believing in trans-substantiation! For me the lesson is that a composed prayer does not indicate lack of thought or intent and a non-composed prayer does not indicate a presence of thought or intent — or spirituality.

  27. JR at 11:59: I suppose you “caught me” in that some people do tell stories about finding keys and parking spaces. But not my friends, at least not the ones I was referring to.
    My “story-telling type” is actually an uncredited (but now credited) reference to Elder Rasband’s talk “Lest Thou Forget” at the last General Conference, including this line from Deuteronomy:
    “Keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons.”

  28. Some of the greatest and most life-changing spiritual experiences described in scripture do not fit into this pattern. I am thinking of when Saul of Tarsus got knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus. Or Jonah got swallowed by a big fish and barfed out on a beach. Or Balaam’s talking ass. (maybe not the last one).

    We cannot cut deals with God through a method. He deals with us on His terms, not ours. We do not bind God by doing what a person tells us He says to do. I do not raze or consider agnostics as somehow less spiritual than me. For His reasons He visits some of His children at times and in ways of His own choosing. It is not mine to judge if or why God has not (yet) knocked an agnostic brother or sister off their donkey.

    Not that I think the above suggestions are pointless. We can gain much with our own efforts. At the beginning, middle and end of the game God holds all of the cards and blesses us or challenges us as He sees fit. We pray to understand and accept God’s will, to know and do His will, not to change it or prove worthy of it. We cannot put obstacles before God, they are as castle walls made of feathers. God can blow them all away with one whiff.

    A better appreciation of the power and greatness of God would improve our prayers. We believe in the traditional heresy that we can become Gods, not because God is less than what others believe, but because we believe God is able to pull off even this impossibility.

    John the Baptist in prison sent two of his followers to ask Jesus if he was the Christ or should we seek another. In what state was his faith and relationship with God at that point? Not good. Doubters take note! Did God rescue him? Indirectly, by allowing wicked women and a weak man to behead him. How is that for a success story of an answer to a desperate prayer? Any amount of spiritual training and spiritual skill development going to do any good when that sword falls on your neck?

    Jesus cried from the cross: my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Yes, even Jesus was forsaken. We will all be forsaken many times and to believe otherwise is not honest.Forsken means your spiritual life is in ruins. This in spite of our best efforts.The life of a disciple of the Lord is one of suffering more than warm rosy relationships and acquisition of spiritual skills.The life without God is one of suffering also.

    Carry on and know that God is great.

  29. Ok.

  30. On a lighter note, re: your comment “submission before God”, did you know that Arabic has a specific word for that concept?

  31. On a lighter note, re: your comment “submission before God”, did you know that Arabic has a specific word for that concept?

    Today, you win the intertubes.