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.

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