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.
Just a quick note before I begin: I have fallen out of the habit of making time to post due to a recent new addition to our family, so determined that the best thing I can do is to post something to kick start the good habit again. There are other posts I have been working on and which I want to write more than this one, but as I gave an Elder’s Quorum lesson on this recently, I’m hoping it will flow quickly.
“Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) That is the requirement. It is a requirement is so deeply understood in Christianity to the point that many sects baptize infants and/or teach that anyone, no matter how good, who is not baptized, is damned. In fact, it is so important to the gospel that even though it is intended for the “remission of sins” (Mark 1:4) Jesus, the only sinless person to live on the Earth, confirmed and clarified the requirement by getting baptized himself.
But there is a second part to that requirement, that of being “born…of the Spirit.” This is a little less clear in the New Testament, but it is there. This refers to the sanctification that comes as a result of the Gift of the Holy Ghost. (Note the capitalized “Gift”.) It is not always mentioned in conjunction with baptism in the scriptures, but there are two places in the New Testament where it is explicit. One is in Acts 2:38 when Peter says “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” The other is in Acts 8, when the Samaritans have accepted baptism but had not yet received the Holy Ghost, and only received it when John and Peter came to them and laid their hands on them in verses 15 to 17.
The LDS Church has some additional clarifying scriptures and doctrine surrounding the ordinances of baptism and confirmation (when the Gift of the Holy Ghost is conferred). First off, we affirm the importance thereof in the fourth Article of Faith and also in referring to them as the “saving ordinances.” We also believe in several technicalities surrounding the performance of the ordinances:
- Baptism must be done by full immersion.
- Both must be performed by someone with the proper authority.
- The individual must be prepared and willing to accept them.
- There is a proscribed prayer.
- It is only done for those who are at least 8 years old.
Needless to say, with all of these technical requirements, and our belief that the proper authority has been in short supply throughout history, it would be unjust of God to place such restrictions on entry into His kingdom. It is for that reason that we believe in and perform baptisms for the dead. Such baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament (1 Cor 15:29), but are largely doctrinally ignored by other Christian sects. For us they fill a very important role in supporting the logic of the Gospel. They allow God to be both merciful to those who would have willingly accepted baptism had it been available to them while also requiring it strictly for those to whom it is available. (I don’t want to get sidetracked into this further in this article, but I have written about it previously in Genealogy According to Mormons.)
As we believe that all will ultimately have the opportunity to accept baptism, I would argue that the central purpose of baptism is not salvation, but rather the covenant we make with God, that, if upheld by us, will result in salvation. The covenant is described several different ways in many different places, but it comes down to this, we are enrolling in the service of God. We become part of His fold and will attempt to do His will. We are signing up for a life of work, of service to our fellowmen, of constant personal refinement, and, in essence, to try to do the work He would do if He were on the Earth. If we make an earnest effort to do this, Christ’s Atonement will be applied and we will be saved.
Yes, the end result is (hopefully) salvation, but that is not the purpose. The purpose is to commit us to making ourselves into people worthy of salvation. This is a principle central to the Gospel as taught by the LDS Church. The purpose of religion is not to set up rules, but is rather for guiding the development of individuals to greater righteousness. That is why the Gift of the Holy Ghost is also a critical piece of the process.
The Gift of the Holy Ghost, as taught by the LDS Church, is only available to baptized and confirmed members of the Church, in contrast to the influence of the Holy Ghost, which is available to all. The main difference between these is that we have the right, inasmuch as we keep ourselves worthy, to the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit. Most people will feel the Holy Ghost when they are doing God’s will, whether they recognize it or not. With the Gift of the Holy Ghost, the gifts of the Spirit, as spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12, are made more powerful. We also believe the Holy Spirit can assist us in all parts of our life, whether or not it is directly related to God’s work; the Holy Ghost can be a source of inspiration in both secular and spiritual endeavors.
The Gift of the Holy Ghost also imparts a greater portion of the fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5:22-23) Through the power of God and the direct influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can find greater love, joy, peace, faith and happiness. Our efforts to find these in our lives are magnified by the Gift of the Holy Ghost.
This is really the core of what drives Mormons to proselytize. We have covenanted, through baptism, to do God’s work, and we are rewarded disproportionately by the Gift of the Holy Ghost when we do so. We have tasted divine joy and want to share. We have experienced the power of God through the Holy Ghost, and have had our lives changed. We’ve seen others’ lives changed through the same power. Our love has grown through the infusion of the Spirit. We rejoice in your happiness. We want to work with you so that we may all gain greater peace and happiness through Christ.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
(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.”
One of the very unique doctrinal points in the LDS church is known as “The Plan of Salvation.” It is sometimes referred to as “The Plan of Happiness” or “The Plan of Redemption.” Essentially, it is an explanation of the purpose of life according to the Gospel as we teach it. Usually, it is taught with the help of a diagram like the one below:
We started as spirits in the pre-mortal existence, were born into this mortal life, will eventually die, be resurrected and will be judged and allowed to enter a “kingdom of glory,” hopefully. As you can see, it’s a much broader view than that provided by most religions, who mostly teach of this life, a judgement, heaven and hell.
I find that having a broader view of how it all fits together explains a lot of the common challenges put to religion:
- Q: How is it fair that God would allow people to be born into such different conditions?
A: God provided our challenges and situations in this life based on who we were in the pre-mortal existence.
- Q: Why would good people who don’t learn about Christ go to hell?
A: They will have a chance to learn about him in the spirit world.
- Q: What’s the point of Heaven if you’re just sitting around on a cloud playing a harp?
A: Heaven is much more than an eternity of praise. It is the opportunity to become like God.
I realize that I am alluding to a lot of different details here that may be confusing if you haven’t already been taught this stuff. I will get to all of this eventually. My point here is to illustrate that the big picture view, provided by the Plan of Salvation, allows us to tie a lot of things together into a context where they make sense, when without that context they don’t seem to make sense in a world with a just and loving God.
This plan was laid out for us before the Earth was formed. God essentially said, “I have a plan to help you all become like me. It will be extremely difficult, will take eons and will result in many of you failing to attain that goal.” We are God’s children, and he wanted to provide us with the best opportunities he could provide. He also desires our happiness. This is why the plan is also sometimes called the great plan of happiness. Even for most of those who fail, the reward is the greatest degree of happiness He can provide.
Ultimately, the main question the plan of salvation answers is, “what is the purpose of life?” The answer is, to learn how to gain true happiness.
Posts in this series: