Mormonism and 7 Attitudes of Mindfulness – Nonjudging

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Judge not, that ye be not judged. (Matt. 7:1)

And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. (John 12:47&48)

As announced in the last post, I will dedicate several posts to exploring the relationship of Mormonism and mindfulness. As previously introduced, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes 7 attitudes of mindfulness: nonjudging, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. This post will explore the first one of these attitudes: nonjudging.

Most people would not like to think of themselves as being judgmental. Nor would most of us appreciate being approached by others with a judgmental attitude. Being nonjudgmental is considered a virtue. By this, we typically mean not buying into social stereotypes, not "judging a book by its cover" or prematurely making up our mind regarding another person. Yet, how nonjudgmental can we truly be?

Judging is unavoidable
Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us of a much broader understanding of judging through which we experience and filter our experiences in this world: the virtually constant and mostly unconscious judging that is going on in our mind. These constant judgments do no have to be negative and are indeed often essential for navigating life and making reasonable choices. Some of our judging consists of conscious and deliberate conclusions. On many other occasions, it is a split-second impression derived in our mind through a variety of factors such as our emotional disposition, past experiences, goals and fears, and broader worldview. Trying to consciously fully analyze each of our judgments would be an impossible and paralyzing endeavor.

Upon some reflection, the number of decisions we make each minute of our life is mind-boggling. With each decision we make, we exclude an infinite number of alternatives. How we perceive and judge the world shapes our actions and our interpretations of our experiences, which in turn immensely impacts the future experiences we will make. Alas, while unavoidable, our constant judging can cause us to miss out on experiences and limit our perception. Jon Kabat-Zinn uses the metaphor of a veil through which we experience the world and that is created by our steady inner stream of wants, likes, dislikes, and opinions. When striving to be more mindful, we can learn to become more aware of this constant tendency to judge. The key is that we should not judge our judging, but simply learn to be more aware of these mental processes.

Judging in the Church
At first glance, as any social setting, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints can be a place for a lot of judging. We have fairly clearly defined values, quite specific commandments and standards, as well as social customs and implicit expectations that can lead to a sense of conformity. Through conference talks and temple recommend interviews, we have a fairly clear idea of what is involved in being a "worthy" member of the church. Someone who goes grocery shopping on a Sunday might easily be judged as a spiritual slacker not fully committed to the gospel.

Judgment also plays a significant role throughout the scriptures. We are awaiting a final judgment and we try to live our life in such a way that we will be judged favorably on the last day. While I prefer to understand this judgment as an internal state that we bring upon ourselves, the element of judging remains.

I believe even the most orthodox Mormons would typically acknowledge that judgmental attitudes are perversions of the gospel and unfortunate examples of church teachings gone wrong. At the same time, in the scriptures as well as in church meetings, we are commonly exhorted to avoid judging others and to develop a loving attitude towards everyone. After all, as spirit children we are all considered literal brothers and sisters of our heavenly parents. If God is our father in heaven who cares about us with the love of a perfect father, then it also is apparent that God would not want us to judge ourselves or each other in a negative or destructive way. Besides, if we trust in God and in the ultimate goodness of life, we can learn to accept and appreciate our life experiences more fully without a constant need to judge them. Through prayer and spirutual growth, we try to see ourselves, our fellow humans, and the world around us the way God sees it.

Judgment and the veil of forgetfulness
Returning to a broader understanding of the term judging, Kabat-Zinn's metaphor of our constant judging as a veil through which we see existence readily reminds of the symbolic veil referred to in Mormonism that shields the pre- and post-mortal worlds from our view. According to this understanding, when we came to the earth, we forgot the big picture and for the most part lost awareness of our eternal and divine nature. Some of us may be able to transcend this veil during rare spiritual experiences, and the veil may seem to "become thin" at times. Yet, ultimately this veil is an integral part of our mortal existence, and trying to remove it completely and permanently would be neither reasonable nor necessarily desirable, as expressed by Brigham Young at the funeral of an early church member:

It is right just as it is, that this veil should be closed down; that we do not see God, that we do not see angels, that we do not converse with them except through strict obedience to his requirements and faith in Jesus Christ.

If it was otherwise,

perhaps you would miss the very object of your pursuit of you had this privilege, there would not be the same trial of faith to exercise you, not so severe a part of affliction for you to walk in, not so great a battle to fight, not so great a victory to win.

Much of spiritual practice is aimed at increasing our awareness of what might lie beyond the veil. Becoming more conscious of the veil itself through increasing our mindfulness of it may help in this endeavor.

Thoughts on Mindfulness

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One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may. (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:499)

This is the first part of what may become a short series of posts related to Mormonism and mindfulness – a concept which has increasingly captured my interest and through which I recently came to connect different spheres of my intellectual and spiritual life. I believe for faith and spirituality to have any benefit, we have to take it seriously and truly integrate it into our daily life, which in reality may look vastly different for each person. Hence, I’m excited when I can connect the dots between glimpses of truth in different areas of life and open up a larger overreaching perspective.

Mindfulness and its benefits
I’m part of a profession with an extremely high and rising incidence of burnout. In fact, at least mild to moderate burnout in my profession is all but universal and quite predictable, although still considered somewhat taboo to discuss among colleagues. I have been aware of and interested in this privately for some time. Yet, the true prevalence and impact of the issue struck me more fully during a recent professional conference I attended. The topic of burnout was one of the top 2 issues addressed in the individual sessions. Although discussed from slightly different angles, such as burnout, occupational stress, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma, the overreaching issue is the same, and the message was clear: my profession has a serious widespread problem and we need to start talking about it.

Among the preventive strategies against burnout, one of the strategies consistently discussed by the various speakers of the burnout-related sessions was mindfulness. What is mindfulness? Admittedly, even though I had some interest in the concept prior to this conference, I now realized I had a limited understanding of it. We often may hear the term in the context of Eastern traditions like Buddhism and meditation practices. Yet, there is also a quite Western approach to mindfulness – with or without meditation. And there is a significant body of research to support its far reaching benefits.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered one of the fathers of mindfulness in the Western world who developed a meditation-based stress reduction program that is widely used today. He summarized mindfulness with the following 7 principles (Kabat-Zinn, 2004):
– nonjudging
– patience
– beginner’s mind
– trust
– non-striving
– acceptance
– letting go

“The mother of mindfulness,” Harvard professor Dr. Ellen Langer, takes a non-meditation-based approach to mindfulness and described it as being open to new information and noticing new things (for an introduction to her work see the recent episode on Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being at http://www.onbeing.org).

The established benefits of mindfulness are many and include, but are not limited to, the following (Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School: Benefits of Mindfulness):
– stress reduction
– chronic pain relief
– improved sleep
– improved relationships
– lower anxiety and depression
– increased life satisfaction

Why do we need a body?
During the same professional conference, I was working on preparing a Sunday School lesson on the postmortal spirit world. According to Mormon doctrine, during physical death, our spirit separates from our body and we enter the spirit world where we remain until we are reunited with our bodies during the resurrection. In the process of trying to find a way to present this rather abstract and speculative material in a way that might be relevant to the class, I had been pondering the relationship of body and spirit in Mormonism.

The church teaches that the spirit world is here on earth, that as spirits we will still walk, communicate with one another, make choices, and hope fully progress in the gospel. Those who did not yet receive the gospel or who rejected it remain in spirit prison where they are being taught by the spirits who accepted the gospel. The righteous spirits and those who have accepted the gospel enter a state of rest in paradise.

Why, then, do we still need a resurrection? Why do we still need to be reunited with our bodies to “receive a fullness of joy” (D&C 93:34)? Why are physical bodies considered so essential to exaltation? Why the – to other faith traditions often perceived as strange – emphasis as God as having a body of flesh and bones?

Connecting the dots
During one of the evenings of the conference, while reading and thinking more about the concept of mindfulness in my hotel room, I connected the dots in my mind: in this life, the fullest sense of happiness, satisfaction, and peace requires us to live mindfully, to be present physically and mentally, to experience and connect to the world around us with our entire being, which includes our body. In the light of the well established benefits of mindful living, it then seems very reasonable that even the spirits in paradise would still long to be reunited with their perfected bodies to experience a higher degree of glory. While thoughts about the spirit world and postmortal life ultimately always must remain speculative in nature, the doctrinal ideas can be the starting points for useful insights and implications for our life on earth. Since this life on earth is what we all are currently dealing with, my main interest in theological questions and answers is their relevance and applicability to our mortal journey.

Although mindfulness in not a term typically heard during church meetings or in discussions of Mormon theology (a nice exception is the blog Mindfully Mormon at http://www.mindfullymormon.org), upon some consideration I’m finding Mormonism quite compatible with the concept of mindfulness. Mormonism proclaims to seek after all truth, and I plan to explore more aspects of Mormonism and mindfulness in the future.

Living Tragically vs. Living Heroically

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Reconciling ourselves with the universality of pain seems a crucial ingredient for living joyfully. As long as we seek fulfillment in external circumstances, we set ourselves up for failure and discontent. In fact, as long as we expect to find perfect lasting joy in life, we will surely fail and be disappointed. Life, without fail, is difficult, and full of challenges, and joy is always fleeting. A minor illness or disappointment can quickly remind us of our mortality and vulnerability, but also reminds us to be grateful for our blessings and positive experiences.

Acknowledging this could easily lead to a depressing and passive view of life and our role in it. While we cannot change many of the circumstances of this strange existence in which we find ourselves, we have a choice how to deal with those circumstances – a choice between living tragically or living heroically.

Living tragically
A tragic life seems to imply defeat and giving up in the face of obstacles and pain. Living tragically suggests a sense of hopelessness, despair, and an undue focus on the negative around us. A person who lives tragically often invokes sympathy and a feeling that life is unfair. Remaining imprisoned in ourselves through inflexible personality traits, temptations, doubts or passivity, tends to foster a tragic outlook on life. People with this outlook often consider themselves realists, leaving no illusions about life’s hardships. They consider their tragic conclusions simply logically derived from life experiences and facts and see their negativity as a result of intellectual honesty (google Depressive Realism). Yet, this approach is unlikely to yield joy or inner peace.

Since life is inherently hard, it is ultimately easy to live tragically, for if we look for reasons to despair, we generally don’t have to look long to find them.

Living heroically
If we cannot change our circumstances, what we make of then mentally and what else we make of our life determines if we live tragically or heroically. Like living tragically, living heroically requires struggle and things to be overcome – of which there is never a shortage in life. The difference lies in our attitude and perspective. Living heroically requires making deliberate choices and taking an active stance in life. It implies never giving up hope, and enduring to the end, while we make the best of even the worst of circumstances.

A heroic life can still seem tragic to onlookers, but it is usually accompanied by an element of inspiration and a glimpse into the greatness of the human soul. A heroic life invokes awe and inspires us to better ourselves. Victor E. Frankl’s depiction of his incarceration in a German Concentration Camp in his book Man’s Search for Meaning certainly describes some of the most tragic circumstances ever created by humans, but the author’s account is uniquely inspiring. Similar, Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir A Place to Stand has many tragic elements, but is also immensely inspiring.

Living heroically requires a higher cause
Living heroically requires consistency between what we believe and what we do and dedicate ourselves to. It requires a higher purpose in the face of which our difficulties dwindle. There is a lot of life-affirming and creative power in this approach to life. It requires a faith in life’s ultimate goodness and in something higher than ourselves. It requires courage, joyful sacrifice, and submitting ourselves to something meaningful and larger than ourselves. It certainly does not mean being loud, obnoxious, or arrogant. It involves a quiet, humble, and determined shift in perspective.

Jesus Christ lived the ultimate heroic life and gave the ultimate sacrifice by atoning for our sins and imperfections. He suffered willingly all the pain ever endured and yet to be endured by all mankind, to bring about eternal life and salvation. He acted purely out of love for all human beings, thus making his mission the most heroic and beautiful known to mankind. Learning to live heroically involves learning to embrace our struggles and turn them into something beautiful.

The Mormon perspective
In the Mormon view, life on earth is hard because it is supposed to be that way. A big part of our purpose here is to deal with difficult things that help us learn and grow.

The prophet Nephi in the Book of Mormon writes:

For it must needs be that there is opposition in all things. If not so, […] righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.
(2Nephi 2:11)

And regarding Adam and Eve, Nephi states:

And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. […] [W]herefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
(2Nephi 2:22&23)

Indeed, without the hardships of life, we would have no concept of gratitude, joy, or the inspiring beauty of a heroic approach to life. Even sin – a universal consequence of our imperfect human state, exemplified by Adam and Eve’s transgression, was necessary for God’s plan, which is also called the plan of salvation (Moses, 6:52-62) or plan of happiness (Alma, 42:8).

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
(2Nephi 2:25)

Focusing on the bigger picture
The eternal perspective provided in Mormon theology allows us to focus on a bigger picture. If we see ourselves and others as eternal beings with divine potential who are all highly imperfect, but trying to do our best and trying to figure things out, we can then be much less critical, more kind and forgiving. And we can finally arrive at a point where we can enjoy the beauty of this human experience, including the beauty and strength that can be found in dealing with difficult things.

This does not mean that we continuously try to delude ourselves and turn every hard thing into a joyful experience. Instead, it involves an acceptance that sometimes we will simply be sad, restless, miserable, sick, hurt, and angry. This sense of joy and peace is not a fixed state, but something that must be worked for continuously through a constant wrestling with the highly complex concepts, emotions, forces, and circumstances that make up life. Yet, of we accept the inherent dualism in life with a sense of inner peace and assurance that ultimately life is good and worth our best effort, we have come a long way in the pursuit of joy.

On Inspiration

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We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
Joseph Smith, 13th Article of Faith

Inspiration comes with many faces and in many shapes and flavors, such as..

… The peaceful solitude of a forest before sunrise – its secret liveliness elusive to the careless observer.
… An early morning walk across mountain meadows, overlooking the valley lying below and curves of mountain peaks against the distant horizon.
… The eery sense of recognition and well-meaning understanding when we find a person we can relate to; someone who, despite our ultimate aloneness, appears familiar with our joys and sorrows and seems to have found answers to some of our life questions.
… The great and traffic personal and fictional stories of some favorite poets, philosophers and writers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, John Steinbeck, to name just a few.
… The compelling sense of reality and awareness that emerges from the works of some favorite artists, select few movies, and musical pieces.
… Memories of some of the turning points in our lives: times when we had a significant insight, experienced a genuine sense of meaning or a change of heart, or made some tangible personal progress.
… The great myths, stories, and rituals of religions that – though always inadequately and clumsily – point at things that are beyond our human capacities, yet allow us here and there to gain a brief glimpse of the bigger picture and a profound sense of awe about this human experience.

All of the above can serve as deep sources of inspiration. Growing up, even as a child, I always was drawn to melancholy songs, painful yet courageous life stories, inward and self-contained personalities, art that stirs the soul with a tormenting overpowering sense of a deeper reality. Although I rarely watch movies, the ones I love and value are the ones that leave me wanting to face the world in a different manner: more aware, more mindful, and more purposeful. The same goes for books, art, music, social interactions, and – on second thought – just about any other aspect of life. Even landscapes can serve as such sources of inspiration. I love what inspires me. I crave people, thoughts, and experiences that inspire me to become something better, to think deeper, and to live with meaning and purpose.

Quite often, inspiration comes at the cost of emotional turmoil. What inspires us also unsettles us and stirs up our comfortable existence, the routine we have settled into. Experiences of inspiration make us more aware of ourselves, our fellow humans, our surroundings, and the universe which we are part of. They push us to live more fully, and to define and follow our direction more clearly. Often, this comes with an inner pain and struggle; yet it is a pain that feels heroic rather than tragic.

It would be hard to improve and better ourselves without being inspired first. In contrast to mere elation or happiness, inspiration has a transcendent quality and always involves being inspired by something as well as being inspired to do something.

Inspiration research
According to research conducted by psychologist Todd M. Thrash and colleagues (e.g. Thrash, Elliot, Maruskin & Cassidy, 2010), the following traits tend to be associated with having more frequent experiences of inspiration: openness to experience (but not conscientiousness), work mastery (but not competitiveness), intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, and optimism. Experiencing more frequent states of inspiration seems to foster increased creativity, increased progress toward goals, and even greater well-being, sense of purpose, and gratitude. Thrash et al. conclude that while we cannot will ourselves to be inspired, there are things we can do to set the stage. Preparation, positive affect, effective role models, and openness to experience are among the ingredients that facilitate experiences of inspiration.

Inspiration in religious contexts and Mormonism
Authors and artists and many other professionals relying heavily on creativity often describe a sense of being inspired and feeling like they are accessing a creative source beyond themselves. In religious discourse, holy texts are often considered inspired works. It seems to have become a pattern in my blog posts for me to close by relating the topic back to concepts of Mormonism. After all, this blog is also a way for me to explore and discuss Mormon issues in a way that I can make sense of and that allows me to find richness and value.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we speak of prophets as being inspired. We also call Joseph Smith’s translations of the Book of Abraham, Bible sections, and the Book of Mormon inspired translations, when it is quite unlikely that these were actually translations in the traditional understanding of the term. We also speak of regular church members as being inspired (used almost interchangeably with being prompted or impressed) to certain thoughts or actions. In all of these usages of the term, the understanding is that inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, a member of the Godhead, and thus inspiration involves accessing and communing with the Divine. In the case of the words of the prophets, whether ancient or modern, the implication further seems to be that they were not only written in a state of inspiration, but also facilitate experiences of inspiration in the readers and listeners of these messages.

This understanding really is quite compatible with the insights from the above mentioned researchers. In this context, even the Mormon emphasis on providing the right conditions to be worthy of and attentive to the Spirit’s companionship such as by observing the Word of Wisdom and striving to be morally clean, appears very reasonable. Regarding the scriptures, I do not find it hard to think of Joseph Smith as writing the Book of Abraham in a state of inspiration and do not fell that it devalues the inspired texts even if they are not literal translations of ancient texts. I also cannot deny finding passages in those scriptures that inspire me in turn, by giving me glimpses of something that transcends my understanding, by showing me new possibilities, by changing my awareness, and by making me want to better myself. What more can we ask of religion?

On the other hand, non-official Mormon materials, such as the thoughtful and intellectually and spiritually stimulating podcasts on Mormon Matters (http://www.mormonmmatters.org) can be exceptionally inspiring to me. I will not hesitate to add, as mentioned above, that I encounter inspiration in many other forms and shapes outside a church environment.

Inspiration in the church
So, if inspiration can be found in other places, why seek it in a church setting where the size of the institution and its large audience (among other things) often leads to contradictions, inflexibility, interpersonal friction, social injustice, frustrating dogmatism and the like? This may be a question for a blog post in itself. Yet, very briefly, besides of course the immense benefit of the social church community, I see the original literal understanding of church doctrine handed down from the leaders only as the starting point. The church gives us stories that point us towards transcendence, morality, meaning, and spirituality. Having a correlated church and “official” doctrine facilitates our every-day conversations about these matters in church meetings, to strengthen the community, and to pass down the stories and associated values and insights across society and through generations. Once we are familiar with the basic stories, we are free to wrestle with them in private and let ourselves be inspired by them to find our own questions, answers, and rich life experiences.

Life as an Experiment

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No! Life has not deceived me! On the contrary, from year to year I find it richer, more desirable and more mysterious – from the day on which the great liberator broke my fetters, the thought that life may be an experiment of the thinker – and not a duty, not a fatality, not a deceit! […] “Life as a means to knowledge” – with this principle in one’s heart, one can not only be brave, but can even live joyfully and laugh joyfully!
(Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science, Aphorism 324)

Discovering life as an experiment
Much of life’s journey as I experience it is a constant effort to re-evaluate who we are and re-define who we want to be. This process is especially relevant during our teenage years when our intellectual and physical maturation usually requires significant adjustments to our self-identity. Role models play an important part in guiding us through these challenges and changes.

From the age of 14 on, Friedrich Nietzsche was one of my most influential role models. His writings stimulated me intellectually and challenged me on an existential level. My perceptions of him as a person fascinated and inspired me tremendously.

Among my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms was – and still is – the one quoted above. As I had moved from being a devout Catholic child to an atheist teenager, I was struggling to find a convincing source of meaning in life. When I first read of the idea of life as an experiment, I, too, could feel the thought’s liberating effect that Nietzsche is describing.

As an often ambivalent person who tends to see a lot of shades of gray where others seem to see black and white, I have a tendency to overthink things and make life more complicated than it presumably needs to be. Seeing life as an experiment meant I could be free to try out choices, even try out values and lifestyles, and thus discover my own truth by trial and error. Free of God’s presumed control, I was free to try new things. It opened up my horizon of possibilities.

Caveats
If this sounds potentially rebellious, it was mostly just rebellious on an intellectual level. I did not take it to a destructive or self-destructive level of “anything goes.” Maybe I still had a strong enough moral compass – which I ultimately attribute to Christian values of my childhood. Or maybe I realized that seeing life as an experiment should not mean that we leave aside all common sense. Experiences are futile if they just aim at boasting how self-destructive or rebellious we can be. A scientist would not waste time on an experiment that evaluates a proposition that is obviously not in line with accepted and established concepts.

Certainly, there are other problems with this approach. Human knowledge is naturally passed on through the generations. It would not be reasonable for each physician in training to first conduct all the experiments to re-establish all the wealth of medical knowledge we are fortunate to have today. Could the situation for moral and spiritual knowledge be similar? Are there moral, social, and spiritual truths that are passed down through religion over the ages, although due to the vast nature of the topic admittedly in imperfect shapes and forms? How much do we truly have to learn from scratch, and how much can we learn from the mistakes and successes of people who came before us? – Or, one might argue, can something that was a terrible mistake for one person be exactly the right thing for another?

Fruits of experimentation
On some level I still continue to approach life as an experiment. Maybe this is why it was relatively easy for me to make some quite unconventional choices in my life and turn them into uniquely positive and satisfying experiences. Along the process, I developed talents I never knew I had and pursued a career I had never originally considered for myself, yet it all flowed naturally from my larger goals and aspirations. I learnt to try and readily put myself into unfamiliar and potentially intimidating situations and thus to grow and develop into a more balanced person.

More recently, I believe this approach allowed me to again open my atheist mind to religion. I re-discovered the value of religion at a more mature and expansive level. More specifically, I felt free to choose Mormonism – not because I believe it to be the only “true” church, but for a variety of other reasons such as the fascination with the lifestyle and theological ideas, the spiritual framework to wrestle with existential themes, and the positive results it brought to my life. I felt free to try Mormonism until I felt ready to commit myself to it – for I do believe in commitment.

Continued experimentation
I’m still experimenting in many ways, although many of my experiments are merely thought experiments that never see the light of day. I’m still continuing to find my place in life, in the human community, in church, in family relationships, in professional, academic, and leisurely settings. I’m still discovering and developing my needs, talents, and beliefs, and I’m still experimenting with arranging my life according to any humble insights I might have.

To members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, there is a familiar duality between obedience to church leaders on the one hand, and seeking personal revelation from God on the other hand. Some members seem to focus more on obedience, while others emphasize personal revelation and spiritual confirmation. In my opinion, the idea of personal revelation and developing a direct relationship with God clearly wins. It’s an experimenter’s approach of sorts. We think things through, seek spiritual confirmation, then make a few steps is the direction that feels right, and re-evaluate through introspection, intellectual analysis, and connecting with the divine, feeling free to leave the presumed safety of the pre-existing social expectations if we feel called to do so. It is not a smooth process, but one full of setbacks, road bumps, mistakes, small insights, and occasional leaps of growth or moments of clarity that make it all worthwhile.

I believe what ultimately matters the most in life is for us to live in such a way that on a deep and honest level we can truly be at peace with ourselves and with God. As long as our path brings us this sense of profound peace and we are secure in our relationship with God, the specific aspects of our individual lives can differ widely from one person to the next. In fact, at times the socially most accepted patterns might also be quite limiting, whereas if we tread a path of thoughtful experimentation (much emphasis being on thoughtful), we may travel a vastly different journey that we can truly claim, because it is uniquely ours.

The Joy of Sacrifice

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The term sacrifice typically seems to come with a connotation of pain and struggle. We often tend to think of sacrificing as something we would rather not do if we can avoid it. Why would sacrificing anything be a joyful action? And what does it have to do with happiness?

Examples of sacrifice
No doubt, we have all made sacrifices. I have sacrificed a lot of time, money, and other activities for my education and career. I have sacrificed sleep to take care of sick animals. Every Sunday morning, I choose to sacrifice other interests for attending church service. Certainly, parents typically know a lot to tell about sacrifice. According to Christian doctrine, even God Himself sacrificed for mankind by sending his Son to die and atone for our sins – a powerful concept.

Right now, I’m sacrificing my time and my mental energy for this future blog post. This blog, as insignificant it may in reality be, is of value to me, and creating and maintaining it requires the regular deliberate choice of directing some of my resources towards it. For the most part, I do not perceive it as painful, but rather as quite satisfying.

Sacrifice is the evidence of true love
One common denominator in the examples above is that all sacrifices are made for something else. When we make a sacrifice, we give up something good for the sake of something else of higher value. The thing of higher value is simply our reason for doing something. Sacrifice means dedicating our resources – such as our time, mental, physical, or emotional effort, finances, and energy – toward something that is important and dear to us.

The common usage of the word sacrifice actually always has positive implications. If someone’s drug addiction leads to divorce and loss of parental rights, we would hardly say the addict sacrificed his family for his addiction. Sacrifice implies a focused and deliberate choice. If we give up something good for something of lower value, we would not call it sacrifice, but rather an unfortunate decision based on poor judgement.

Everything worth doing – every goal we actively and consciously pursue – involves sacrifices, because it requires for us to invest some of our resources. The less conscious an action is, the less would we be inclined to think of it in connection to sacrifices. We would not usually think of someone who spends all day zoning out in front of a TV as making sacrifices, because such a person does not appear to be actively pursuing a goal or a positive higher value.

The following quote by Elder John A. Widstoe (LDS General Conference April 1943) explains beautifully what sacrifice means:

Sacrifice is the evidence of true love. Without sacrifice love is not manifest. Without sacrifice there is no real love, or kindness… We love no one unless we sacrifice for him. We can measure the degree of love that we possess for any man or cause, by the sacrifice we make for him or it.

Sacrificing everything for God
Coming back to the topic of joyful living, recent experiences and insights have lead me to understand that ultimate contentment and fulfillment depend on truly sacrificing everything we have for God. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, this is referred to as the law of sacrifice. I remember very well how I felt the first time I was exposed to this idea. It sounded a bit scary, overwhelming, and frankly just a bit extreme and weird. I was not at all sure that I could or wanted to make such a commitment. Why would anyone even seriously expect this of me?

Since then, I came to understand that this law of sacrifice is not only perfectly reasonable, but even a logical requirement and a guide towards a consistent, focused, and fulfilled life. Let’s assume that everything that is good comes from God (according to Moroni 7:12), meaning in reverse that God is the source of all goodness. Our joy then fundamentally depends on our relationship with God. To be fulfilled in life, God – the source of everything good – has to be our highest value.

Sacrificing everything for God means putting God first and submitting our will to His – another concept I only recently came to understand (although in truth I’m sure I’m really just beginning to grasp it). Submitting our will to God’s will can also sound intimidating, especially to someone as stubborn and independent as myself. Actually, it simply means aligning all our values, goals, and actions with our highest value: God. It means if something is not in agreement with our highest values and standards, we will reject it. There is nothing automatic or easy about arranging our life this way. It is a process that requires continuous scrutiny and awareness. Without being deliberate and very aware of our choices and motives, we will be pulled in many directions, pursue many goals half-heartedly, only until something else comes along or until a spur-of-the-moment decision throws us off our chosen path. Putting God first requires persistence and careful introspection.

This deliberate and careful approach to life with clear priorities, values, and goals, offers a formula for continuous positive growth and for becoming the person we want to be: the best version of ourselves that can look us in the eye and say he/she honestly tried his/her very best. It is not a simple process and does in no way provide the answers to all our questions. It remains up to us to fill in many of the details and flesh out the scaffold that this concept provides. Therefore, the life that results from it can vary widely from one person to the next.

Fulfilling the measure of our creation
Thus, sacrificing everything for God helps us analyze our life and make decisions that are congruent and consistent with our highest values. As human beings, we generally strive for internal consistency and avoidance of cognitive dissonance. A consistent life requires a clear ultimate value according to which we arrange all other aspects of our life. This then allows us to be consistent and genuine, which has everything to do with being joyful and content with who we are. Arranging our life this way – and following through with living it accordingly – requires us to develop, appreciate, and strengthen qualities that are uniquely human, such as thorough self-reflection and creative intelligence. Therefore, sacrificing everything for God even seems like a necessary ingredient to fulfilling the measure of our creation and human existence.

Authenticity and Vulnerability

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I have been thinking about authenticity and vulnerability for some time now. When I was struggling with discouragement and disillusionment about life and started planning this blog, I sensed that part of the solution to my problems would lie in allowing myself to become more authentic and vulnerable. As a strong introvert and a very private person, sharing my personal life has never come easy for me. In addition, my professional roles require clear boundaries and do not allow for much personal sharing. Plus, some things are simply not very accepted to talk about in certain settings. I have been called distant, stealthy, and of course quiet. The feeling of leading a double life or a secret life is very familiar to me.

Inner congruency
While I felt that the concepts of authenticity and vulnerability had a lot to do with the answers I was seeking, for some time I have not quite been able to apply them to my life to bring about the change I needed. Being authentic and making ourselves vulnerable go hand in hand. One is not possible without the other. Being authentic means acting according to our beliefs, standing for something, being open and honest with ourselves and with the world around us.

It is well established that as humans, we generally have an inner need for consistency and congruency in our values and actions, our inner and outer lives, our mental state of awareness and our communication. This concept was originally developed by psychotherapist Carl Rogers. When I first heard about this in a philosophy class over a decade ago, I was impressed by this simple and intuitively sensible truth. We want our values and actions to align. In other words, we have an inherent need for authenticity. A truly fulfilled life requires authenticity, which to me also implies integrity and being genuine.

Need for authenticity vs. fear of rejection
As we strive to meet this need and live authentic lives, vulnerability naturally follows. Making ourselves vulnerable involves bearing parts of our soul, making our true self visible to others, and consequently opening ourselves up to judgement and rejection. The more we try to avoid rejection, the more invisible we become. It can be nice to blend in and not be noticed, but if carried to the extreme, it can also become limiting and lead to stagnation.

We all need to find the right balance between authenticity and vulnerability, and people’s comfort level with these concepts may naturally vary among different personalities. Yet, on a deep level we all desire to be seen, understood, and accepted for our authentic self. – What holds us back is the equally strong fear of rejection.

Degrees of authenticity
Our level of authenticity depends on many factors, and the degree of appropriate vulnerability may vary widely from person to person and situation to situation. Extroverts may appear to have an easier time being authentic than introverts. However, extroverts may also be at a higher risk of being distracted and affected by outer influences, whereas introverts generally tend to be more in touch with their true self and less susceptible to distractions (see Susan Cain’s book “Quiet” for many more insights on introversion).

Our social roles may also have an impact. A very public professional figure may not be able to share certain personal things as easily as someone who is less scrutinized by the public eye. There is a wide spectrum between over-sharing and overly isolating ourselves out of fear of rejection. There may also be legitimate secrets to be kept in certain contexts.

Lessons in authenticity
During a recent event, I received a great lesson in authenticity, modelled by others, and the liberating power and strength that comes with it. I also experienced the inspiring power of vulnerability. I learnt how it makes us more complete, more credible, and more human. After this experience, about which I deliberately remain vague here, I bore my testimony in church on Fast Sunday. I spoke authentically, openly, and allowed the real me to glance through my masks – doubts, fears, struggles and all, along with the renewed hope and excitement about life I had developed.

The reactions from church members after my testimony were overwhelming and unlike anything I had anticipated. For the rest of the morning, people thanked me for my testimony, including many people I never or rarely had talked to before. One person asked me for a written copy of my testimony, another encouraged me to submit it to a church magazine, others shared their own personal experiences with me. People offered their support and invited me for lunch. I realized that on some deep level I had connected with people, and it caused them to open up to me in turn. It was a very new experience for me, and one that confirmed that if I have the ability to inspire people, I should continue to find ways to do so.

Healing power of authenticity
My journey of becoming more authentic is in no way finished. To give a more concrete example, I recently witnessed a touching scene of one woman comforting another. Of all places, it happened in the Mormon temple. A woman who likely was fairly new to the temple experience was obviously a bit lost and uncertain about what she was supposed to do. Another woman readily and patiently helped and supported her. After the ceremony was over, the helping woman walked up to the one she had helped, hugged her and offered words of encouragement. The other woman opened up, and both cried and held each other in an embrace while talking in a whisper for what felt like a good 5 to 10 minutes.

I was touched by the first woman’s boldness, sincerity, authenticity, and warmth, and by the beauty in this scene. Briefly, I felt a sense of envy, because I don’t see myself as warm and nurturing like this woman. Does it mean I’m less of a good person? I believe God wants each of us to become the best version of ourselves, and perfection looks different for each of us. While I can strive to make baby steps in that direction, it is very likely that I won’t ever be quite like that woman, and that’s okay. I have other strengths to develop, other weaknesses to work on, and my manner of being authentic may not look the same as her’s. I may not reach the same people that she is reaching. Yet, I may be able to connect in different ways with different people than she is connecting with.

Navigating the path between authenticity and vulnerability
Finding the right balance between authenticity and vulnerability was for a long time the main issue that kept me from starting this blog. Should I blog anonymously or use my real name? What level of personal sharing was appropriate? I wanted to let my answer be guided by the question: What will allow me to most effectively inspire others? The answer to that is that a higher degree of openness would breed a stronger potential for inspiring others. I’m also realistic enough to know that my impact is very limited. I don’t expect a large number of readers. My insights are mostly humble reflections, and my many other roles and responsibilities do require some level of privacy. Thus, I settled for using a pseudonym, and setting clear boundaries regarding what is or isn’t blog material before I for stated. This can certainly change over time, yet I chose to err on the side of caution.

I suspect for most people, and certainly for myself, navigating the path between authenticity, vulnerability, safety, and privacy is a lifelong project that requires regular reminders, re-evaluation, and self-reflection. Writing about these concepts is the easy part; as so often, the challenge lies in applying them to daily life.

Exploring the Value of Faith and Religion

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“Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at any moment.” (Franz Kafka)

As a former atheist and avid reader of Ayn Rand and especially Friedrich Nietzsche (both of whom I still hold in high regard), my story of conversion to the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints might be among the more unusual ones. This is not the place to share all the details of my conversion story. Yet, the outcome is that I’m an active Mormon, with a church calling and weekly attendance of Sacrament meeting, Sunday School, and Relief Society. I hold a temple recommend, adhere to the Word of Wisdom, strive to keep the Sabbath holy, and try to support the missionaries. Although I’m childfree, career-oriented, and often don’t quite fit the stereotypical mold, I’m an earnest and faithful Mormon.

Reconciling agnosticism and faith
The truth is, I still consider myself an agnostic at heart who is wavering about the most basic concepts of Christianity and simply cannot believe many of the claims specific to the Mormon church. I cannot – nor would I want to – blind myself to my doubts or will myself to believe. Yet, I can choose to live by faith. My doctrinal skepticism no longer troubles me. I have come to love the church and the gospel. I have developed a love for our Savior, and the church has become an immensely enriching influence in my life.

Due to my intellectual and personal background, I knew before ever reaching out to the missionaries that a strictly literal understanding of doctrine would not satisfy me. In fact, in some ways I feel that I joined the church not because of, but despite the missionaries. Through reading about topics such as neuroscience and religion, meditation, and prayer, I worked my way from atheism to agnosticism. This was followed by a lot more online reading and listening: talks by Ravi Zaccharias (http://www.rzim.org) – not a Mormon, but an insightful Christian apologist -, websites such as Mormon Scholars Testify (http://www.mormonscholarstestify.org), and John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories Podcasts (http://www.mormonstories.org). I did lots of private thinking, and was inspired by the occasional insightful comments from other members.

Often, the comments I needed to hear the most were the ones suggesting to me that my approach would be accepted in the church; that I did not need to have a burning testimony of the church’s literal truthfulness in order to get baptized. Maybe somewhat ironically, I felt at home on websites such as the Stay LDS Forum (http://www.staylds.com) before ever joining the church. Slowly, I developed an approach that may be slightly nontraditional, but works extremely well for me. I truly believe that following the church’s counsel has blessed my life, and I’m steadily working on increasing my faith and my spiritual strength. I actually feel like the key to increased inner fulfillment lies here.

Accepting Christ
Even as a newly baptized church member, I continued to struggle with trying to grasp the full significance of Jesus Christ. A breakthrough in my understanding came once I logically broke down what is really involved in “accepting Christ” – a concept I had never really understood previously. Accepting Christ means accepting the idea of Jesus Christ being our Savior who died to atone for our sins and being about our salvation. This acceptance is so powerful because of the many other assumptions it encompasses, including:

– Acceptance of our imperfection: the realization that we are in need of a Savior if we are to reach perfection; that we always fall short of our best intentions and ideals; that on our own we are fairly powerless and cannot take full credit for our successes. This realization makes us humble, teachable, and changeable.
– The desire to do what is morally right: accepting the reality of sin involves an acceptance of our accountability and the reality of right and wrong. In Christ, we are also given an example of moral perfection to follow, and we are shown a way to overcome the natural man.
– Sense of self and direction: the divine figure of Jesus Christ provides a role model, which improves our understanding of who we are and what we should become. The gospel offers an outline of where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going.
– Sense of being accepted: God loves us enough to sacrifice his son for us. This is a powerful concept. Out of his free will, Christ chose to endure the most intense agony for our sake (I also long did not understand that his true agony was not experienced on the cross, but in the Garden of Gethsemane). Our Heavenly Father loves each one of us individually and accepts us the way we are despite our imperfections, even while wanting nothing more for us than our continued growth and eventual exaltation. He takes genuine interest in us and wants the best for us.
– Sense of community: the Savior died for everyone else just like he did for us. Everyone has divine potential and is profoundly loved by God, so we should treat them with mercy and kindness and be quick to forgive. Thus, acceptance of Christ connects us to society and to our fellow humans. It causes is to feel more connected to our fellow humans, and to want to get more involved in doing God’s work in society.
– Compassion: we are as inherently flawed and imperfect as everyone else, and in need of salvation. Thus, we should avoid judging others and sleeping negatively of them, and instead extend the same kindness we would wish for in face of our own shortcomings.
– Life’s inherent goodness: there is a plan to life, and we are guided by divine beings that care for us deeply. Thus, we can have faith in the present, courage in our choices, and hope in the future.
– Meaning in struggle: Jesus Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, showing that suffering can be necessary and noble to bring about a higher good.

The list could certainly go on, and each of the items would be deserving of more contemplation. However, this outline should suffice to show why “accepting Christ” can indeed be profoundly life-changing and bring peace into our life. Once we stop intellectually fighting against the message of Christianity but open our minds and hearts to it, the gospel can truly change hearts and lives.

In fact, I now believe that true peace is not possible without faith in life’s inherent goodness and purpose. Even while I was an atheist, I was not willing to accept the lack of meaning inherent in atheism. Instead, I realized early on that in order to fulfill my need for meaning, I had to live as is life was meaningful, as if I had freedom of choice, and as if my decisions matters in the bigger scheme of things. I felt as though I had to commit an act of intellectual deceit to arrive at a state of meaning that I needed in my life.

The human experience
In the meantime, I came to believe that any approach that is not coherent with my actual intuitive and natural experience of life is ultimately irrelevant. All the intellectual arguments for life’s meaninglessness aside, there is no doubt that my human experience is that of a constant decision-making process, a steady oscillating between choices, some of which are undeniably far less desirable than others.

I recoil at moral ugliness, cruelty, and blatant violence, whereas acts of remarkable kindness, strength, and courage warm my heart. I can get intensely touched and inspired by positive human examples, works of art, literature, or musical pieces. I marvel at our not at all self-evident ability to be self-aware, to reflect, and seek after truth. The magnificence and simplicity of nature inspired me with awe. I’m increasingly more open to the idea that there is a “right way” to living joyfully. While the details may vary widely, I believe aligning one’s life with God’s will is crucial for fostering true contentment.

Any theoretical constructs requiring me to negate these basic perceptions and feelings associated with my experience as a living human are ultimately irrelevant and have no practical value in the pursuit of a fulfilled life. While I firmly believe God expects us to use our brains, I have also come to believe that our worldview should have practical applicability and serve to make us better people. There is enough destructiveness in the world. It is easy to tear down meaning, and yet much harder and nobler to build it up. Even if Christianity is not true in a literal way, if it is based on good principles, leads to peace and joy, and inspires people to be the very best they can be and lead the best lives they can live, then it is worth pursuing wholeheartedly. This explanation may not satisfy a staunch atheist and may get me accused of intellectual dishonesty, but for me it actually is the result of desiring a coherent approach to life.

Reflections of a Desert Creature

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In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.” (Stephen Crane)

I do not know when exactly I first read this poem, but I remember how I instantly loved it, even felt a sense of familiarity with it. I felt understood by it, the way I tend to feel when a work of art offers a glimpse of something deep within myself that I could not have expressed equally well.

I loved the poem enough to want to learn more about its author Stephen Crane and read more about different interpretations of the poem. With some surprise, I discovered that many, or rather most interpretations seem to perceive the creature in this poem as a negative and vile character. That is not what I see at all. To me, this bestial creature had always been an inspiring and comforting figure.

Nothing left to lose
The creature is described as naked and bestial – beast-like, in a desolate desert seeing. I see someone with literally no worldly possessions, likely with little to no ties to the rest of the civilized world. I see someone who, by choice or circumstances, had to truly tread his own path in life and has nothing left to lose outside himself; nothing left to hold on to, to deceive himself of the utter aloneness we humans try so hard to deny or forget about; someone who apparently has been alone long enough to grow distant from the civilized world in manners as well as appearance. I can’t help but wonder what lead to this point. Was he simply a social deviant who did not fit into society and thus chose to tread his own path? A mentally ill person who could not find help in the civilized world? Did a sudden crisis throw him into his current state? Or was he once an average member of society, who became gradually disillusioned through a series of personal tragedies and losses? Did he seek solitude to try and find himself, only to realize that he had withdrawn himself beyond the point of no return, and that in the process he had lost everything?

A bitter heart
We are told this creature has a bitter heart, upon which he is feasting in seeming contentment. Lacking worldly possessions, he apparently has no food either; all he has left for nourishment is his own heart, his own inner world. Whatever lead up to his current circumstances – he is bitter about life and about himself, maybe melancholic, frustrated, disillusioned. Without outside simulation, and likely with an abundance of contributory experiences, he cannot help his bitterness, cannot fully shake himself out of his low emotional state.

Life simple and plainly is hard, and he has no illusions about it. This is where many interpretations seem to conclude he is simply a bitter and disgruntled being who is unwilling to let go of his hurt, but instead clings to it and wallows in self-pity. This is not how I have always seen it. Instead, I see this creature as someone who has no illusions about life and his utterly lost stance in the world, but instead of despairing, embraces his struggles and finds some sort of meaning in them.

Bitterness is all this creature has at this moment, and without shying away from it, he takes time for introspection. Within the hardest and most desolate of circumstances, he still has a sense of healthy self-worth and satisfaction. He likes his heart’s bitter taste, because it is his heart. Reduced to the most basic elements of existence, he appears strangely content and at peace with himself. He is content with who he is. He can hardly be called a happy person, but he has risen beyond happiness, able to find meaning and a mature sense of joy even in his most terrifying of sorrows.

The privacy and universality of pain
I imagine we are all able to think of times in our lives when we felt drained, with parched souls and thirsty hearts, when existence – far from joyful – felt dull and filled only with struggle. An older person might generally be able to glean from a wider variety of experiences, thus fostering a greater ability to see the big picture and put the peaks and valleys of life into perspective. Yet, age does not automatically bestow this sense of wisdom (although this ability may play a role in the increased level of happiness that tends to occur with aging, see for example Chicago University’s Yang Yang, 2008).

Some people seem to more or less dwell in this dark and low state most of their lives, while others bounce back quickly. Some may despair in the face of outward tragedy, easy for everyone to understand, while others are struggling with their inner demons with the same intensity although seemingly leading an outwardly sheltered life. Others yet seem amazingly good at pretending happiness, even while they contemplate ending their life in despair, whereas others’ composure crumbles over apparent banalities. – The point is, joyfulness is an intensely private topic and appearances can and do often deceive.

Our low points in life may not always be as desperate and desolate as this creature’s, leading to total isolation, withdrawal, and social deprivation, although one might be reminded of the paralyzing isolation of the clinically depressed, or even the self-chosen exile of someone trying to find answers to life’s hardships.

Dealing with adversity
We all have those low points; the difference lies in how we deal with them. Despite pain’s universal nature, its experience is highly private and personal. We each need to find our own way through those dark times, and doing so requires a good deal of introspection and honesty with ourselves. Will we be able to bear taking an honest look inside our wounded heart? Will we shy away from the ugliness we are about to be confronted with, and will we instead numb our senses with distractions? Will we try to turn inward in the hope of finding ourselves? And will we only find that maybe in total isolation, we, too, are nothing? If we find bitterness in our heart, will we turn vengeful, angry, and rebellious at whatever we choose to blame: ourselves, strangers, loved ones, fate, bad fortune, or God Himself?

It can be hard and all but impossible to will ourselves to change our mood without any positive outside input. How easy is it to get stuck in a negative mood until we encounter someone or something that speaks to our heart, triggering “something” inside us that enables us to climb out of our abyss towards new heights and new joy. Still, we should try to be prepared for our next dark times that are sure to come, by steadily practicing and strengthening our ability to be content and joyful in the moment. This, of course, in itself, opens up many questions, but I do believe preparation and practice are part of the secret of a joyful life. That, and our relationship with our ultimate rescuer and the source of our salvation – Jesus Christ.

Finally, will we be able to own our pain instead of rejecting it or shielding our eyes from it? Will we be able to savor its bitter sweetness and cherish the growth that comes from it?

Emotional completeness

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The overreaching theme of this blog is inner joy and fulfillment, with its many aspects and subtopics. Unlike many self-improvement blogs, I do not focus much on specific external circumstances that may or may not lead to a joyful life. While I believe we all need a higher purpose and relationship of some sort (whether it be with fellow humans, with God, with animals, with works of art, or simply with nature), most of the specific variables can vary widely.

Beware of distractions
While idle distractions can silence our questions and lead to temporary “fun,” a life filled with constant distractions could hardly be considered satisfying in a deep and lasting sense (in fact, I would submit that satisfaction is never lasting, but requires steady work, vigilance, practice, and awareness). In this context, I consider anything that keeps us from pursuing our highest form of contentment as a distraction.

Distractions can come in many forms. Wasting one’s life away in front of a TV screen seems like an obvious case. In a similar category (in my mind) are video games, emotional overeating, numbing one’s mind with alcohol or drugs, or sleeping excessively to avoid having to face reality.

A different category of distractions may involve activities like compulsive shopping, grooming, or cleaning. At least these pursuits create an outward image of “worthiness” and require a somewhat more active stance in life. But the sense of satisfaction we may gain from those activities will not last, and if we are honest with ourselves, we will one day have to admit that we wasted a significant time of our life and missed unretrievable opportunities for more meaningful activities.

Even apparently noble and valuable pursuits can serve as distractions. For myself, work can be such a distraction. While I’m working, I’m engaged in purposeful activities with clear structure and usually feel quite content. Yet, in the long run, when I work excessively, signs of burnout begin to creep in, and my attitude at work and overall satisfaction with myself and with life suffer.

As another example, I came to realize that academic pursuits can degenerate into distractions. At a time in my life, when, after a decade of struggles, I had reached many of my goals, I started feeling a strange sense of discontent. Being ambitious and at times prideful about my academic abilities, one of the first solutions I considered was that I might need a new academic goal, such as a doctoral degree. Surely, that would have kept me busy for a few more years and may have silenced the nagging sense of emptiness a little longer. Most people no doubt would have considered it a positive and worthy endeavor. Yet, I came to understand that in my case another degree would have had little benefit to justify the sacrifices involved, and I’m now convinced that it would not have increased my contentment, but would only have distracted me from more important and fulfilling pursuits.

Aligned with our highest purpose – God
Instead of mere distractions, then, I believe true fulfillment is the result of a deliberate life with mindful choices, conscious values and priorities that are aligned with our highest purpose – also known as God. In addition, to brace us against life’s ultimate unpredictability, fulfillment requires a certain inner steadfastness and a good measure of completeness within ourselves.

If we rely too much on external circumstances for our joy in life, we are building upon a precarious and fragile foundation. Family members can and will die, our health may and will fail us one day, partners can leave and disappoint us, our livelihood may be lost due to tragedy overnight, natural disaster may literally leave us with nothing but the clothes we are wearing; we may even get wrongly sentenced for a crime and spend decades in prison due to no fault of our own. If we forever run after a new external goal upon which to base our sense of self and happiness, we set ourselves up for failure and ultimate despair.

Once the feeling of emptiness crept into my life after many reached goals, I went through a period of trying to make different adjustments in my life: if pursuing another degree was not the solution, then maybe a new hobby would help (it did, but it did not fill the emptiness); or maybe volunteering (it also did, but the void remained); maybe cutting back on my work schedule (again, it did help, but was not sufficient). I became more involved in church. My faith was sincere yet fragile, since I still had many doubts and much skepticism in my heart. When, in the course of this searching process, I started questioning some of my fundamental choices in life, I was thrown into a state of utter confusion and anguish that humbled me more than ever before and raised the intensity of my seeking to a new level.

After about two weeks of confused struggle, indecision, tears, apathy, guilt, and grief over the anticipated loss and damage of my self-concept and worldview, I reached a new point of clarity and resolution. I realized that my past choices, while at times unique and for many people hard to understand, were not the problem, and that making fundamental external changes at this point in my life would do nothing to increase my happiness, but only add more pain (I’m not saying fundamental changes cannot be necessary or beneficial, but it was not what I needed at that point in my life). Instead, the problem lay in me having begun to take my many blessings for granted, and having tried to find satisfaction in external goals. I then was able to re-align my priorities accordingly and instead start focusing on becoming more emotionally complete.

What is emotional completeness?
What do I mean by emotional completeness? A sense of satisfaction with ourselves and our life that is mostly based on the kind of person we are. It includes leading an intellectually coherent life, and choosing what is morally right over what is convenient or might bring some sort of fleeting enjoyment. Living life in such a way shields us maybe not from sadness and disappointment, but from utter devastation and despair. It comes from becoming the sort of person we want to be.

If our satisfaction is based on the kind of person we are – a person of integrity with consistent values – we may not always follow the latest trends and our choices may at times be unpopular. We may even make choices that cause other people to shake their heads. But at the end of the day, our moral and intellectual honesty will lead to a deeper contentment with ourselves. Not all people may understand such a life, although I do believe most respect it and many even tend to be inspired by it. We human beings in general are remarkably good at justifying our actions and desires, whether or not they would hold up to moral scrutiny. Yet, we are quick to notice and point out any seeming inconsistencies in others.

We seem to have an intrinsic sense of being justified, a denial of our highly imperfect state and our need for salvation. Our own desires and pains, even if we do not comprehend them on a deep level, still make intuitive sense to us. We understand our motivations and actions, even our selfish, hurtful, and cruel ones. We often do not feel like we are bad people when we act in a way that we would quickly recognize in others as negative and inconsiderate. (I believe that generally most people want to be good, but are very skillful at justifying their shortcomings, based on professor Dan Ariely’s research on moral reminders, which I plan to discuss more in the future.)

When another person confronts us and holds us to stricter moral standards, we easily feel offended, hurt, and misunderstood. It can be difficult, yet uniquely satisfying to consciously choose not to fall into these patterns. It requires a lot of vigilance and self-reflection, self-awareness, reminders, humility, and a good deal of courage. There is a special joy in learning to trust our own judgment, and leading a life that is primarily consistent with our values rather than with social acceptability. Emotional completeness also involves being self-motivated and self-directed instead of overly relying on the praise and criticism of others.

Needless to say, this concept I call emotional completeness is a broad subject and one that no doubt will show up repeatedly from different angles in future blog posts.