Our minds are always working, whether we notice or not. We are constantly making decisions, analyzing our surroundings, planning, creating, etc. Sometimes we are aware of these processes, sometimes we aren’t.
There will always be times when we are not aware of our thoughts, because the circumstances we find ourselves in require our concentration. What we do during those times depends almost entirely on the mental habits we have formed prior to those situations. These moments of habitual response are an insight into our character. If you don’t like how you respond sometimes, you can change your habits with what I am calling “thought training.”
Here are 3 principles of thought training that will help you become a better you.
- Be Aware of Your Thoughts
- Be Responsible for Your Thoughts
- Be Completely Honest with Yourself
I am a Mormon. I’ve grown up with a lot of these concepts and principles phrased in religious terminology. It’s all a part of our “eternal progression,” etc. However, these principles are universal and most people understand them already to one degree or another. My goal in pulling them together and labeling them in this way is to both make them more accessible and to provide terminology that will facilitate discussions that will help us all help each other in doing this more effectively. So, here is what I mean by “thought training.”
1 – Be Aware of Your Thoughts
The more activities and objects we have vying for our attention, the less capable we are of being aware of our own thoughts. Audio and visual stimulation, in particular, tend to be most intrusive for many people. Eliminate distractions, simplify your life, and find time for yourself. Prayer and meditation are great, but you don’t necessarily have to be doing nothing to listen to your thoughts. I do some of my best thinking in the shower. Yoga and other exercise can be good times to think. Crafting, driving, waiting for the bus, etc. All of these are opportunities for you to be aware of what is going through your mind.
I have also found that breaking out of a habit for a day or even an instant sometimes forces me to be more conscious of what I am doing and more aware of my thoughts as I figure out what to do without that habit.
What works for you? #ThoughtAwareness
2 – Be Responsible for Your Thoughts
By “responsible,” I mean both accepting of consequences and intentional. Our thoughts are a reflection of who we are. That reflection may be something we hide from the world or we may constantly speak our minds. Either way, they are what we have to work with. We cannot change ourselves, our lives or our situations without changing our thoughts. The good news is that our potential for improvement here is limitless – literally. We can choose the kind of person we want to become and work toward being that person.
Changing our actions can help us change our thoughts if you want to think of people more charitably, try acting more charitable towards people, and bring your thoughts along for the ride. When you are aware of a negative thought associated with what you feel is a good action, find a more positive thought to replace it.
Another extremely helpful tool in this arena is a mantra. Find a mantra that helps you break out of bad thought habits. I often choose scriptures or concepts from scriptures as a mantra. It can be something you strongly believe, something you desire, or something you know you need to believe – as long as it is helpful to you to guide your thoughts in the direction you want them to go. Here are a few that people I know have found helpful, and some I have used myself.
- “I am a good person.”
- “I am beautiful.”
- “God loves me.”
- “I am a child of God.”
- “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly.” (D&C 121:45) This is the one that lead to the train of thought that prompted this post.
- etc. #MyMantra
3 – Be Completely Honest with Yourself
Thought training is not about deceiving yourself. A mantra isn’t designed to trick your brain into believing something is true that isn’t. Thought training is a process for using your agency (free will) to live intentionally and overcome the natural Darwinian human instincts. A mantra reminds us of what we have chosen to value.
We are not defined by our occupation, or our family, or our possessions, or our appearance. We are defined by the thoughts we allow to control our lives. Change these thoughts, and you change everything. You can decide who you want to be in terms of your character. This does not change your capabilities or your talents, but it can motivate you to do so. However, in order to make significant change, you need to understand the discrepancy between who you are and who you want to become. This requires regular honest introspection.
It is important to note that we have full control of who we want to be as a person, but much less control over what our role is in society. As people, we have character and values, goals and dreams, and those cannot be given or taken by external forces. Our roles in society are often a matter of circumstance and chance. Do not confuse one with the other when deciding what will make you happy. Happiness comes from contentment with who you are, not what you are and what you have. #ThisIsWhoIAm
As I said, I did not invent these principles, I’m just lumping them together and giving them a name. I expect that re-framing them in this way will be helpful to people. I’d love your help in promoting better thought habits. Please use the hashtags defined in here along with #ThoughtTraining to help us all work together.
I’m really not one to diet, but even if I were, I would not go for a cleanse or detox diet, as it is just way to extreme for me. However, the concept of the cleanse diet became useful to me recently.
Life is messy. We all make mistakes. We all have vices and weaknesses. Sometimes we just get into a little rut that is out of character with who we are regularly, or who we want to be. I got into just such a rut recently. It occurred to me that a spiritual “cleanse” – the spiritual equivalent of these diets – might be just what I needed to snap myself out of it.
The general idea of the diets are centered around cleansing all of the toxins out of your body by eating or drinking ONLY a particular food or beverage for a period of days. For my spiritual cleanse, I decided I needed to identify several things that I really wanted to do more consistently, and several things to avoid. I would do my best to stick to this plan for 7 days. Here was my list:
- Church callings
- To bed by 11pm
- Read Book of Mormon
- Aimless web-browsing
- TV (except w/ family)
- Video games (except w/ family)
My main concern was to avoid idle diversions, but I also wanted to apply that time toward things that uplifted me. I needed to pull myself out of the rut I was in and determined this was how I was going to try to make that happen.
And it totally worked. I didn’t even hit all of my goals consistently, but I hit enough of them to keep me focused on the attempt. It got me out of the rut, and helped me improve incrementally beyond that. I didn’t get as much done from the “Do” list as I would have liked, but that was a secondary purpose anyway.
This process came to me in answer to a sincere, repentant prayer. I can’t tell you if this will help you with any rut you’re struggling to get out of, but I can tell you the principles are in-line with the Gospel, and that it worked for me in this situation. Our Savior wants to help us, but we need to do the work we can do in order to metaphorically take the offered hand.
I am truly grateful for the forgiveness available through our Savior’s atonement. Because of it, my rut was only a bump on my road, and not a wrong turn, and I can keep my focus on the road ahead.
The word “discipline” has many slightly different meanings, but they all stem from the same concept – that of learning to follow a prescribed path or set of rules. It can refer to the punishment delivered for not following the rules, or the mastery of a field of study, but ultimately the core of the definition, and what I am interested in here, is the building of self-control in order to make ones actions consistent with ones values.
This kind of discipline is central to the purpose of religion, in general. In fact, I would argue that discipline is a defining characteristic of religions, in that the degree to which they embrace or eschew discipline and the object of the discipline provides substantial insight into the nature of nearly any religion. This is certainly true for the LDS Church.
The LDS Church embraces a high ideal when it comes to discipline. There are several scriptures that set this ideal. First, there is the command to be perfect, as stated in Matt. 5:48 and reiterated in 3 Nephi 12:48. On top of that, we believe that we will be judged by our thoughts, words and deeds. (Mosiah 4:30) So, not only should our behavior be perfect, but also our speech and even our thoughts!
Obviously, that’s not technically possible — at least not for an entire lifetime, and for most of us, even a perfect day is far fetched. Nevertheless, I am grateful for that standard. It means that we will always be able to be a little better, constantly improving ourselves. He wants us to be perfect. More importantly, God promises to help us achieve the things he commands us. (See 1 Cor 10:13 and 1 Nephi 3:7) In this pursuit, of utmost importance is the Atonement that makes up for all of the mistakes along the way, and makes true progress possible. Close behind in importance is the guidance, structure and assistance He provides for us to gain that discipline of body and mind.
That’s what perfection is: discipline. It is being entirely consistent with a perfect model: God and Christ.
When we desire to gain discipline in anything, we start by first learning the rules, often selecting a model or teacher to guide your progress. When it comes to Christianity, the model is obvious, but unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to directly observe Christ. So, we must resort to the scriptures and other religious teachers. As most religious teachers gained their knowledge the same way, the words of Christ and his prophets in the scriptures are the best way to learn His will for us. And so, from an early age, young members of the LDS Church are encouraged to read the scriptures daily.
Of course, discipline can’t be said truly to begin until you do something with what you’ve learned. We start out following the rules because they are the rules, in other words, through obedience. We try to follow the rules we’re given and the examples of our models and teachers (remember, I’m talking about those who desire to learn discipline).
As we make a regular practice of following rules, we often gain an appreciation for and an understanding of the rules. We also start to form habits. From an outside perspective, this may achieve a primary goal of the discipline, but there is a danger in stopping here.
Ultimately if we wish to master a disipline, we need to fully understand the reasons for the rules, so that we can extrapolate necessary or desired behavior in situations where the rules may be ambiguous or insufficient. In order to make this extrapolation a clear understanding of both the model and the rules is necessary. With this understanding, we are able to act in a way that effectively aligns us with the model, but where our adherence to the rules happens not because they are rules but because we understand how they help us to obtain the perfection we desire.
As human beings, our capacity for error is literally infinite. We cannot say that even mastery is the end of the road in terms of progression. We must continue to do one thing that we need to do throughout this process — constantly guard against and correct deviations from the model as we discover them or they are pointed out to us. We must both accept correction, and self-correct every step of the way.
When we apply this processes to attain a certain level of discipline within a religion we call it discipleship. Religions generally aim to make all of their followers disciples. This is certainly true in the LDS Church. Many of the teachings and practices recommended by the Church serve to foster such discipline. The teachings are certainly not unique to the LDS Church, and using them in any religion or even outside any religion at all, will also result in increased discipline.
The first is daily prayer. We are encouraged from a young age to pray over all parts of our lives. In the morning, at night, at meals, before and after meetings, even before and after sporting or cultural events. In fact, we are encouraged to pray always. One benefit of prayer, is that it serves to re-focus us on what is important, and provides a time for us to examine our lives and identify where we need to make corrections.
We are also encouraged to study the scriptures daily. We must know Christ in order to use him as our model, and there is no better way to know him than through scripture study and prayer.
Every week at church, we take the sacrament. For us, this is a time to renew our covenants (entered at baptism) to try to live as He taught and to take His name upon us – to be true Christians. We need these weekly opportunities to re-commit ourselves, to move past last weeks failings and focus on the good we can do in the coming week.
The Church has also designated the first Sunday of every month (though it is moved on occasion) as “Fast Sunday,” and encourages us to fast for 24 hours (or as much as we are able), and to give the money we would have spent to the fund the Church uses to provide food, clothing, housing and other critical assistance to members of the Church (and community, at times) in need. Fasting itself is one of the best ways to learn discipline. Through it, we learn that our spirits/minds can be more powerful than our bodies. That is the key to true discipline. If we allow our human impulses and urges to govern our behavior, or worse, believe that we have no power to control those impulses, discipline will always be beyond our grasp.
These tools are the basics for putting us on a path to discipline and discipleship. They allow us to tackle the more advanced, abstract concepts of self-control, integrity and sacrifice — all of which are ways in which we practice discipline.
We know we will always be imperfect. The great thing about discipline is that you CAN be perfect for short periods of time in some things. We are not required to be perfect to attain salvation. We are required to work on becoming more perfect. We call it “eternal progression.” When we are making progress, we are on the path. When we are helping others, we are on the path. When we are learning, we are on the path. If we get off the path, Christ is always there to help us back onto the path.
Discipline is an interesting thing. No matter how disciplined or skilled we are in a discipline, maintaining that level of discipline is a daily effort. Daily effort + daily discipline + eternal progression = perfection.
(For those picking up here, you may want to read the overview first.)
The LDS view of mortality is not nearly as unique as our teachings on our existence prior to and following it, but is, perhaps, more clearly defined than most other religions’ teachings in terms of purpose.
As I noted in the previous post on the pre-mortal existence, the long-view purpose of mortality is to gain a physical body, and to learn how to independently use our agency. Inasmuch as we learn to do these things in ways that are in harmony with God and His plan of happiness, God will help us. He has provided a way for us to return to His presence.
Many of the events traditional Christianity consider tragedies of God’s plan having been derailed by people, we consider to have been part of His plan all along. From the Fall of Adam & Eve to the Crucifixion of Christ to the Martyrdom of the prophets, we see God using the agency of people to provide conditions that He could not directly produce as they would be contrary to His nature. Though the Fall and Crucifixion were central to the plan, the various martyrs throughout the Bible were necessary to testify of the Gospel and were allowed because His plan was really more about agency than anything else. To punish or prevent wickedness overtly would have been to diminish agency. His justice is delayed to allow us to make our own mistakes in order to learn from them.
These major events in Christianity were central in making his plan work, but the plan is ultimately meant to be applied individually. Each of us is responsible for our own salvation. We must all choose to follow the path Christ provided for us. We can and should try to help others come to Christ, but we cannot force them. We are responsible for our positive and negative influences on others, but only as this is part of our individual responsibility for our own actions given our individual circumstances.
Inasmuch as God wants us to become like him, and becoming like Him will bring joy and happiness to our lives, He has provided teachings and ordinances to guide and help us. As we follow the teachings, we develop attributes that bring us closer to God. It is the development of our character to be in harmony with God that is the true purpose of this life and is also what brings us the greatest joy.
This is made difficult both by temptation and by what Mormons refer to as the “natural man.” “The natural man is an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) To develop godlike attributes usually means overcoming our natural tendencies and instinctive desires. It is not easy to follow God’s teachings, and it is not enough to be better than someone else, or good at only one thing. We must improve ourselves constantly. This is at the core of what the Church calls “eternal progression”. We are instructed to be perfect (Matt. 5:48), which is ultimately impossible in this life, but, used as the goal, provides the target for our daily improvement.
Humility is an essential attribute as we strive to become closer to our Savior. Through it, not only do we recognize our need for our Redeemer’s assistance, but we also increase our compassion for others. Recognizing our own mistakes and character flaws is not always as easy as it perhaps should be. Sometimes it is easier to see these things others. However, when we truly have a desire to become better, and to repent of our mistakes and imperfections, we begin not only to become better through that process, but are also able to understand the illusion of perfection — that is at once unattainable and required by so much of our society — and gain an appreciation of the difficulties others go through in reconciling behavior to that standard.
Another trait that is essential in finding peace and happiness in this life is gratitude. The modern world runs on generating discontent for the purposes of enticing people to buy things in an attempt to satisfy that discontent. By design, this does not work. The only way to find contentment is to choose it. When we are grateful for the things we have to the extent that we do not feel the need for anything else, we are by definition, content. Gratitude is a matter of discipline. To increase our gratitude, all we need to do is consider the things we have that we appreciate. Our discipline can become powerful enough that we can even be substantially content when real needs (food, shelter, safety) are not met.
Above all, the attribute most important to our progression is love. Not just the love of a partner or within a family, but the true love of Christ, or as the scriptures call it, charity. It is a love that extends to every living thing: our friends, colleagues, strangers, enemies, even animals and plants. It is manifested in respect, compassion, care-taking, courtesy, honesty, responsibility, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness, sharing, service, and kindness. It is through love that we will find the greatest happiness in this life. Without love, we will never find true happiness.
Though those attributes are the most important in terms of what to develop, through faith we can learn how to develop these characteristics. It’s our faith in Christ that keeps us going and motivates our progress. It is so very easy to get discouraged and become cynical. Faith helps us maintain our optimism about both the future and our own capabilities. It motivates us to develop Christlike attributes, and gives us access to His help to do that.
Through our faith we are able to access the power of the atonement. This is what changes us to the core. When we have truly experienced the change of heart associated with a conversion to follow Jesus Christ, “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2) This does not mean that we are perfect or that we do not make mistakes, it just means that we truly and deeply desire to do what God would have us do. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a permanent state. As Mormons, we do not believe that people so converted are “saved” in the same sense that many other Evangelical churches teach. We believe that after conversion we must also “endure to the end.”