After an Institute of Religion class, my teacher and I were having a discussion in his office. He asked if he could show me something; he grabbed a book and took his seat across the table from me. He asked me to close my eyes and focus on envisioning what he was going to be reading to me. What he read was a very descriptive narrative of a climb to the top of a mountain that was meant to be imagined from the perspective of the reader.
This simple narrative was amazingly effective at teaching a few important principles that I will cover later. With a few words, my paradigm had been shifted concerning how I approach my Father in Heaven in prayer.
Below is the text that was read to me and since you can’t read this with your eyes closed, I suggest possibly having someone read this to you or for the time being, read it slow and try and project what you are reading into your mind’s eye. Do your best to clear your mind, find a quiet place and simply focus; if you simply skim it, you will get nothing from it.
“Imagine that it is a summer morning. You are in a valley. Gradually become aware of your environment: the air is clean and the sky intensely blue, there are flowers and grass all around you. The morning breeze gently caresses your cheeks. Feel the contact of your feet with the ground. Be aware of what clothing you are wearing. Take some time to become clearly conscious of all these perceptions.
You feel a sense of readiness and expectancy. As you look around, you see a mountain. It towers close to you, and looking at its summit gives you a sense of extraordinary elevation. Then you decide to climb the mountain. You begin by entering a forest. You can smell the pleasant aroma of the pine trees and sense the cool, dark atmosphere. As you leave the forest, you enter a steep path. Walking uphill, you can feel the muscular effort demanded of your legs and the energy that pleasantly animates your whole body.
The path is now ending, and all you can see is rock. As you keep climbing, the ascent becomes more arduous; you now have to use your hands. You feel a sense of elevation; the air is getting fresher and more rarefied; the surroundings are silent.
Now your climb brings you into a cloud. Everything is whitish, and you can see only the mist which envelops you. You proceed very slowly and carefully, just barely able to see your hands on the rock in front of you. Now the cloud dissolves, and you can see the sky again. Up here, everything is very much brighter. The atmosphere is extraordinarily clean, the colors of rock and sky are vivid, and the sun is shining. You are ready to move on. Climbing is easier now; you seem to weigh less, and you feel attracted to the top and eager to reach it.
As you approach the very top of the mountain, you become filled with an increased sense of height. You pause and look around. You can see other peaks near and far, the valley in the distance, and in it a few villages. You are now on top of the mountain, on a vast plateau. The silence here is complete. The sky is a very deep blue.
Far off, you see someone. It is a person, wise and loving, ready to listen to what you have to say and tell you what you want to know. He…first appears as a small, luminous point in the distance. You have noticed each other. You are walking toward each other, slowly. You feel the presence of this person, giving you joy and strength. You see this wise being’s face and radiant smile and feel an emanation of loving warmth.
You are now facing each other: you look into the eyes of [this person] You can talk about any problem, make any statement or ask any question you wish. Silent and attentive, you listen for the answer…”(by Piero Ferrucci “What We May Be” 145-147)
I found that at the end of this of this reading no other thoughts were distracting me and that I was completely focused on the image of this wise person. I immediately drew a connection to this wise person in the story representing my Father in Heaven. I began to think about how God called men to the tops of the mountains and if in prayer, we have a similar kind of mountain to climb to commune with God.
Ferrucci then tells an account of someone who used this inner dialogue and what their reaction was:
“I know everything about you,” says the wise man. “You can be calm, everything is all right, there is nothing to worry about.” I go away happy. He knows all about me: I am not alone anymore. I can return to him whenever I want. He will be there, knowing everything about me. I have an ally. I could fly down the mountain, I feel so light. This feeling has been with me for several days, slowly fading. Dark thoughts again invade my field of consciousness, but because I recognize them as soon as they surface I am able to get rid of them.
Remember, these are men speaking outside the context of the gospel, but isn’t it interesting to note how right-on some of these principles are and how we can find similar applications in revealed truth? Along with these thoughts is a quote that I love which was the inspiration for the name of this site, oneClimbs.com.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place?
Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above.
One climbs, one sees.
One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.
There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up.
When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
~ Rene Daumal
Isn’t this at the core of what we are trying to achieve in the gospel? Ascending higher to gaze upon truth that will guide us in our journey down here below? These are fantastic things to consider and meditate upon.
What I learned from the exercise above was something I experienced right at the end of the narrative. I was amazed at how focused I was, how nothing else was in my mind but the image of this ‘wise being’, his countenance and the peace and stillness of the setting. I came to understand something about the importance of meditation; true, deep meditation where you actually disconnect from your worldly thoughts and focus completely on a particular subject or desire of your heart.
I realized the power of my own mind. Like many, I have past experiences of my thoughts drifting off in prayer. Before I really understood what prayer was, I felt like I was just checking a box off. There was a sincere desire sometimes to make a connection, but I didn’t know how. I would feel like it was just a one-way conversation and other traffic, other thoughts from the day, would distract me from the task at hand; this was a very frustrating thing for me, as I’m sure it is for many. But thankfully, with a little dose of perspective, we can infinitely improve our focus.
“Pray it” don’t “Say it”
When our relationship with deity becomes casual, we often rush right into repetitious ‘sayings’ instead of offering up true ‘cries’ to the Lord. These ‘prayers’ that we ‘say’ probably don’t make it too much further than the ceilings of our rooms.
I think one of the problems comes from our traditions. There is a phrase that I have made every attempt to banish from my vocabulary forever and it is the phrase “saying prayers”. The problem with “saying prayers” is that is too often what we do; we “say” them.
An illustrative phrase that I sometimes use is “Prayers that are ‘said’ are prayers that are dead.” There is no life, there is no Spirit in them.
God is not some machine that we plug calculated phrases into so we can dispense goodies for ourselves. So in our family, we “offer prayer,” we’ve changed one simple word so that my children hear, “Would you please offer the family prayer this evening?” instead of “Would you please say the family prayer this evening?” See the difference?
Those of us with small children are probably used to hearing something like “DearHemanlyFodder, WeTankDeeOnThisStay…” shot off in a rapid succession and ending in “…NameOfJesusChristAmen!” There’s nothing wrong with it, they’re kids after all, but with a little extra effort, I have been successful to a degree in helping my own small children to think of who they are addressing before the prayer, and what we should pray about. We try to think together of all the things we were thankful for that happened that day and also the concerns, needs and desires of the family. As we have done so, we have been amazed at some of the things that come out of the hearts of the children.
It’s a small and simple thing, but the impact is dramatic. We realize that we are not just ‘saying words’ but that we are offering up deep gratitude and the desires of our hearts. Private prayer should be a conversation, one where we speak as well as listen, one where communication flows in both directions, where we converse with our Father instead of just ‘saying’ repetitive phrases hoping to grow our relationship with the one who loves us most of all.
Principles of Meditation
The Websters 1828 Dictionary defines ‘meditation’ as:
MED’ITATE, v.i. [L. meditor.]
1. To dwell on any thing in thought; to contemplate; to study; to turn or revolve any subject in the mind; appropriately but not exclusively used of pious contemplation, or a consideration of the great truths of religion.
Meditation is work, it is mental work, it is not passive, it takes actual focus, concentration, hunger, thirst and a willing desire for truth. This is not a principle for the faint of heart, it is what keeps a seeker of truth up at night, it drives them to the wilderness, to closets and secret places, to the tops of mountains, to anywhere where the voices of the world can be silenced enough to allow truth to stand independent.
Meditation is a really fascinating principle when you delve into it. A quick search on LDS.org for ‘meditation’ delivers some very enlightening results. Look up ‘meditation’ or ‘pondering’ in the scriptures and see what you can find.
Our average man can join the church, he learns the essentials of the gospel, and functions on a fairly high level. He may sit in Sunday School class year after year, and never sinks his roots deep. He can quote the scriptures, he can teach a good lesson, but he really can’t learn any more. There has to be a burning in the soul, a true desire to know the hidden things of God. They are there for all to have, but a few things stand as obstacles. This work is an attempt to point out the obstacles and to provide the reader with some of the basic tools to process these hidden things of God, should he desire to do so. (pg. 6)
Here’s an interesting comment about the importance of sincerity
The insincere wish to consume gospel principles upon their lust. They demand immediate, and precise answers that require no thought or meditation. They are impatient and demanding, constantly attempting to bend eternity to their narrow views. The sincere seeker of eternal truth accepts all the truth that Eternity is willing to give at this moment, and prepares himself for further insight. Seeking to expand his spirit, free his mind, and conform his spirit to God. (pg. 13)
Here’s another about the obstacles to understanding Eastern thought processes (most of scripture) that are abstract with Western thought processes that are more linear; a subject that I would like to address in more depth in a future article. It is interesting because to really understand revelation, symbolism and the mysteries of Godliness, we have to learn to actually think differently.
Americans think in a mostly one dimensional, logical, and linear way. We don’t process hieroglyphics well. We do process algebra well because we can move through a problem in a logical way. We have verities, or things that don’t change. We can hang our hat on them. Then we have variables. They change, but the change is a calculation of hard facts. Those new to the gospel can choke on the smallest of parables. (pg. 9)
The principle of meditation, pondering and intentional, prolonged thought about a particular issue or issues is an absolutely critical element to understanding and receiving answers from the divine:
“Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord” (Man May Know for Himself, comp. Clare Middlemiss [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1969], pp. 22–23).
David O. McKay taught:
We pay too little attention to the value of meditation, a principle of devotion. In our worship there are two elements: One is spiritual communion arising from our own meditation; the other, instruction from others, particularly from those who have authority to guide and instruct us. Of the two, the more profitable introspectively is the meditation. Meditation is the language of the soul. It is defined as “a form of private devotion, or spiritual exercise, consisting in deep, continued reflection on some religious theme.” Meditation is a form of prayer…”
A few years back I noticed something interesting as I was pondering this very topic. I decided I try to look up every instance of pondering and meditation that I could find in the scriptures. Consider some of these scriptures for yourself:
Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation.
1 Nephi 1:11
For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot…
And it came to pass that Nephi went his way towards his own house, pondering upon the things which the Lord had shown unto him. And it came to pass as he was thus pondering—being much cast down because of the wickedness of the people of the Nephites, their secret works of darkness, and their murderings, and their plunderings, and all manner of iniquities—and it came to pass as he was thus pondering in his heart, behold, a voice came unto him…
Doctrine & Covenants 76:19
And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.
Doctrine & Covenants 138:1,11
On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures…As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great…
I lay musing on the singularity of the scene, and marveling greatly at what had been told to me by this extraordinary messenger; when, in the midst of my meditation, I suddenly discovered that my room was again beginning to get lighted, and in an instant, as it were, the same heavenly messenger was again by my bedside…
Now note the circumstances involved with most of these instances. The pondering in 1 Nephi 11 led to Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life, in Helaman, another Nephi ends up receiving the sealing keys from God himself, in D&C 76, “The Vision” was received by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon and they saw the degrees of glory, in D&C 138, Joseph F. Smith beheld a vision of the spirit world and how Christ’s work goes on there, in JSH, the young Joseph Smith received repeated visits from the angel Moroni who would reveal the Book of Mormon to him just a few years later.
Imagine what the Lord will reveal to you with a little meditation.
What I like most about Ferrucci’s exercise is how he uses the symbolism of a mountain. Anciently, prophets would sometimes ascend a mountain to meet God and receive instruction from him. This physical journey was meant to also reflect the spiritual journey of the traveler.
The idea was that after man has literally ascended as high as he could, God would condescend and meet him the rest of the way. The physical act of the climb is an exhausting one, it’s dangerous, it requires focus and determination; but once at the top, there is perfect quiet and stillness.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to climb a ‘mountain’ near Las Vegas (I’m from the flattest part of Texas originally, so this was a mountain to me). I made the ascent with much difficulty; I couldn’t breath, which made my muscles weak, but I desired very much to reach the top. Once there, I felt a great sense of accomplishment, I was impacted with how otherworldly the stillness and silence was and as I looked around I was filled with the awe of God’s creation. I then understood why God called men to the tops of mountains to commune with them and while there I offered my own prayer to the Lord as it felt like the natural thing to do.
We may not have to scale mountains today to experience the same benefits, we can travel to our ‘mountains of the Lord’, our temples and experience a similar ascent. But even outside the temple, we can prepare ourselves for a mental climb of meditation, as illustrated in Ferrucci’s exercise. We can find a quiet place, even our own bedsides, and pause for a moment and let the world drift away while we focus on heavenly things.
Even in public prayers, such as the invocation at the beginning of church, I have found it most beneficial to not begin to pray immediately when I reach the stand but to pause for a moment, even a few seconds to focus on who I am addressing. Any time that I pray in a group, even family prayers, this short pause to reflect brings so much focus to the task at hand.
Intention not Elevation
The Book of Mormon records the words of an ancient prophet known as Zenos who taught that it doesn’t matter where we pray for the Lord to hear us (Alma 33:4-11):
Thou art merciful, O God, for thou hast heard my prayer, even when I was in the wilderness; yea, thou wast merciful when I prayed concerning those who were mine enemies, and thou didst turn them to me. Yea, O God, and thou wast merciful unto me when I did cry unto thee in my field; when I did cry unto thee in my prayer, and thou didst hear me. And again, O God, when I did turn to my house thou didst hear me in my prayer. And when I did turn unto my closet, O Lord, and prayed unto thee, thou didst hear me. Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men, and thou wilt hear them. Yea, O God, thou hast been merciful unto me, and heard my cries in the midst of thy congregations. Yea, and thou hast also heard me when I have been cast out and have been despised by mine enemies; … And thou didst hear me because of mine afflictions and my sincerity…”
God hears us from the vast expanse of the wilderness, to the confined secrecy of our closets, in a vast crowd of people or when we have been cast out and despised. There is a climb that must be made, but it’s more of a struggle of the mind, the heart and the will than it is a struggle of muscle.
When we open our mouths or minds to address deity, are we addressing God as if face to face in authenticity, humility and gratitude or do we simply parrot off our requests using the same language we use in casual conversation? These are the questions I ask myself when I am approaching the almighty in prayer.
There is much more to prayer than just words, there is preparation, intent, humility and desire involved. Even though we struggle just trying to fight the distraction of our own thoughts, God somehow is able to sort through the incomprehensible chorus of prayers and completely focus on the desires of each soul.
Hopefully the more we study how we converse with deity, we can improve the communication process as a whole and narrow the divide between ourselves and God. He hears, he comprehends and he answers, but how well are we tuned in to the response?
Updated: Sept 27, 2010