What is mysticism? That is the million dollar question.
It is incredibly difficult to define. Wikipedia defines it as the “pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight.” What? By combining all possible definitions into one, they have created an incomprehensible one.
Let’s turn to some closer associates. Hugh Nibley once defined it, quoting Eduard Lehmann, as “an intuitive and ecstatic union with the deity obtained by means of contemplation and other mental exercises.” Professor William Hamblin turns to oft-repeated definitions such as “a domain of religion that deals with the search for and the attainment of a profound experiential knowledge of God or of ultimate reality,” or, “mysticism is … a type of religious experience which involves a sense of union or merging with either God or an all-pervading spiritual force in the universe,” but finds even these lacking. In Kevin Christensen’s recent Interpreter review of Margarget Barker’s book Temple Mysticism: An Introduction he indicated that his “favorite LDS approach” to the topic has become Mark E. Koltko’s essay “Mysticism and Mormonism: An LDS Perspective on Transcendence and Higher Consciousness,” found in the April 1989 issue of Sunstone. We’ll come back to this shortly. Christensen notes that while Nibley’s view tends to be the more conventional definition, Margaret Barker’s own use of the term in her book is very different still, focusing on the experience of “seeing the Lord,” i.e. a temple theophany. While different, there is clearly overlap between the ideas of “a union with deity,” and “seeing God,” as Matthew Bowen also elucidates in his recent article in Interpreter. Koltko’s essay also perhaps helps bridge the gap.
But let me rewind for a moment. Why am I interested in mysticism? It sounds eerily like one of those occult things that we don’t normally discuss as Mormons. It brings to mind crystal balls and gypsies, witches, fortune tellers, dark rooms, and mysterious people called mystics, veiled by fog and smoke. I must admit, I didn’t know much about mysticism not long ago, and I still don’t. But I’m learning. I’ve read some things recently which have peaked my curiosity, combined with recent experience.
About a year ago I had an incredible experience which was very rare indeed. Since I’ve already recorded it, I don’t think it improper to repeat it. I was actually writing a post on TempleStudy.com at the time, on the subject of alethiology and epistemology, when all of the sudden I had a tremendous clarity of mind and thought, but it was much much more than that. I will just quote what I wrote at the time:
I feel completely overcome (literally trembling right now) by the creative muse which seems to have engulfed me. I don’t know where it is coming from, but this isn’t standard Bryce. And I’m not talking only about what’s been happening in this Maxwell Institute debate. It’s flowing like a fire hose into all areas of my every day life, from my work, to my home life, my children, my hobbies, my calling, my wife, my language. Where is it coming from? I feel incredibly sharp, and quick. Words are coming to me that I haven’t ever before envisioned or had slip from my tongue. It’s an amazingly transcendent feeling, which I can’t fully explain. Maybe I can, but maybe not right now.
Another time when I felt so inspired was when I spouted a sonnet, “A Reply to Sonnet 18.” I don’t write sonnets folks. I leave that up to my wife! See also my post on the hymn “Oh Say, What is Truth?”
I went on to spontaneously scribble a short poem about creativity, which tried to describe what I was experiencing. This was without editing; it flowed out of me.
The Creative gift, where does it go?
From the mountains on down, through the rivers flow
Flow through my head, without end
Out of my fingers, without pen
I don’t know, and can’t explain
That which so engulfs me again
The Spirit bloweth where it listeth
To and fro, it won’t ceaseth
Overcome with thought, I imagine
I’ve been here before, my King!
I felt that way for about twenty minutes or so. I still cannot describe it adequately. As I said, I didn’t feel like “standard Bryce” at all. I felt lifted up to a higher plane, where I could think and see much faster, keener, and with immense expanded use of my brain and faculties. I could perceive like never before. I haven’t ever experienced something quite like that. I have had spiritual experiences before, a burning in the bosom, or thoughts come into my mind, but this was different, or at least more intense. Time has squelched my ability to remember exactly the feeling, but it was far unlike daily experience.
I have tried since then to figure out what happened. What caused the experience? Why did it happen? Why did it occur at that time? How could I find it again, and get it back? It was an exquisite feeling, an other-worldly feeling, one that I tried to explain to my wife and siblings, but was without words. Rapture seems to come the closest.
One day, not long ago, when I read that Kevin Christensen’s favorite LDS approach to mysticism was Mark Koltko’s essay in Sunstone, I gave it a read. I found it very insightful, and it identified the type of experience that I had had months before. Koltko describes mysticism as a type of experience in which one is taken to a higher state of consciousness. It was, I learned, a kind of transcendent, transpersonal, mystical experience. Typically these types of experiences can have eight characteristics, although some experiences may have some but not all of them.
- “The ‘ego quality.’ During the experience, the person may lose the sense of self, and feel absorbed into something greater.”
I certainly did not feel like Bryce, as I wrote; “this isn’t standard Bryce.” I didn’t feel like myself at all. I was not Bryce anymore. I didn’t think like myself. I didn’t sense like my ordinary self. My perceptions were far above what are normal for me on a regular day. And it was a regular day. I had done nothing special, except think and ponder very carefully and thoughtfully about the nature of truth.
- “The ‘unifying quality.’ During the experience, the person may feel that ‘everything is one.’”
I don’t know if I felt a sense of oneness with the universe or anything like that, but I did feel that I was part of something much greater than myself. It wasn’t me anymore. I felt like things such as work email were so trivial and inane as to be worthless in the grand scheme of things.
- “The ‘inner subjective quality.’ The person may feel that some things possess consciousness which we don’t usually regard as being conscious, like trees, or the Earth itself.
I didn’t notice if I thought any thing in particular had a consciousness, but I did note some Earthly things in my poem, the “mountains,” the “rivers,” perhaps the “wind,” even “fire.” As I said, I felt part of something much bigger than what I normally do, such that I could call upon such tremendous things to help describe it.
- “The ‘temporal/spatial quality.’ The person may experience time and space differently, and may even feel that the experience occurs outside the normal boundaries of space and time.
I don’t know how long my experience lasted. I thought it had lasted about twenty minutes, but now that I go back and look at the time stamps on my chat messages with my wife, it looks like it spanned somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour. Which means that the time passed much faster than I remember. I also clearly remember thinking that the other tasks I was doing at the moment were so inconsequential as to be almost laughable.
- “The ‘noetic quality.’ The person may feel that the experience is a source of true knowledge.”
I had thoughts and words and language and thought ability far beyond what I normally do, and I felt like it was all coming effortlessly to me. I wish I had that feeling all the time.
- “The ‘ineffable quality.’ The experience may be impossible to express in normal language.”
As I’ve noted, trying to describe the experience is very difficult. It almost has to be personally experienced to be believed and understood. The experience itself communicates what it is.
- “The ‘positive emotion quality.’ The experience may have a joyous aspect.”
I felt fantastic! I felt incredibly alive. I felt energy bursting out of my body, which probably led to the trembling. I could see so much better, both mentally and physically. Everything seemed so clear.
- “The “sacred quality.’ The experience may seem to be intrinsically sacred.”
It did feel like a sacred experience, one that I have not had anything like before, but one that I didn’t get the impression at the time that it was not to be expressed. It was in the very act of writing that the experience came to me, so I just kept writing, describing what was going on, as recorded in the original post. In fact, I felt like I had to tell people about it. I chatted with my wife; I sent an email to my family; I kept on writing, describing, and telling. This was a moment that I felt I had to share. Others had to know about it, although I felt wholly inadequate to express in words what it was exactly. Even though I felt my vocabulary had grown in leaps and bounds, I couldn’t put it into words. (Just to be clear, I had some experiences a few weeks later, and others at different times, which I don’t feel free to share.)
Koltko’s essay continues to describe precisely the types of things I experienced, including descriptions of others’ experiences, such as scholar Ken Wilber’s:
Everything was arising moment to moment, and it was arising in me and as me; yet there was no me. It is very important to realize that this state was not a loss of faculties but a peak – enhancement of them; it was no blank trance but perfect clarity; not depersonalized but transpersonalized. No personal faculties – [like] language, logic, concepts, motor skills – were lost or impaired. Rather, they all functioned, for the first time it seemed to me, in radical openness, free of the defenses thrown up by a separate self sense. This radically open, undefended . . . state was both incredible and profoundly ordinary, so extraordinarily ordinary that it did not even register. There was nobody there to comprehend it, until I fell out of it.
I’m not sure what Wilber means by “ordinary.” It didn’t seem like ordinary experience to me, but it did feel natural, like this is the way we were supposed to be, unhindered from the normal mental blocks that swamp us. And it certainly registered – my mind was pegged at what seemed to be 10,000% capacity and speed, and I could do and think things I can’t normally. After a time I too felt like I “fell out of it.”
So what happened? What was this? Was it a spiritual experience? Did the Holy Ghost or Spirit touch me? Inspire me? Did I have a transcendent experience? A mystical one? A transpersonal experience? Was it some form of higher consciousness? A higher level of reality or awareness? Was this the creative Muse? I think the answer is yes - all of the above.
How are we to understand such experiences from an LDS perspective? There is not a lot written by LDS people on mysticism, transcendence, meditation, etc., or at least that’s not the typical vocabulary we use to describe it. Koltko offered his view of the connection, which seems to me to be insightful.
Mysticism, or mystical experience, appears to exist in a wide variety of people, cultures, and denominations. There is Buddhist mysticism, Hindu mysticism, Christian mysticism, Tao mysticism, Sufi mysticism, etc. Many have associated their form of coming to unity with divinity or “ultimate reality” very closely to their form of religion. But it seems that there is something common going on in all of these, such that similar terms may be used to describe them and their practitioners. Professor Hamblin has noted recently in a paper entitled “The Incoherence of Neomysticism” that many in Western culture have gone so far as to create their own form of mysticism by cherry picking from the various traditions around the world, and forming their own flavor of mysticism. Hamblin terms this neomysticism, which necessarily doesn’t really have much resemblance or connection to traditional or conventional mysticism, yet he does concede that there may be “an ultimate shared divine reality behind all of this.”
So what are we to make of this? What may be the “ultimate shared divine reality” of worldwide mystical experience that we can understand from an LDS perspective? Koltko proposes that these types of experiences may be tapping in to a form of consciousness that is known by God, because it is His consciousness, it is the way that God thinks. Koltko offers many scriptural examples of this form of thinking, including from Latter-day revelations, such as D&C 88:41, D&C 38:1–2, Moses 7:36, Ether 3:25, Moses 1:38, Moses 7:21–24, etc. The Lord has expressed, through revelation, how He can see all things at all times, and know all things at all times. Prophets have been given a glimpse of the same type of knowing, and the ability to comprehend vast amounts of information, being elevated to this higher state of thinking. Koltko concludes,
I feel that when a person has a mystical or transcendent experience, that person’s mind is working in the same mode as does the mind of God. It is not, strictly speaking, inspiration or revelation as Mormons usually understand these terms, that is, as some kind of message from God. I feel that it is an opportunity to experience the universe and to think in the terms that God does.
He goes on to explain that as children of God, and Gods in embryo, we have the capacity within us to think the same way as God does, and occasionally we may get a glimpse of that form of consciousness within ourselves. Koltko also offers why, then, many religions may have tied this form of experience so closely with their own religious traditions:
Some cultures which did not have the benefit of revelation turned to mysticism as a substitute, as Nibley points out. Some mystics themselves made the error of substituting this manner of thinking for God Himself. That is, they mistook the experience of seeing things the way God does for the experience of seeing God himself. The widespread idea in the religions of the world that God has a center that is everywhere and a circumference that is nowhere may be simply a confusion between a form of thought that goes outside the normal boundaries of space and time and the Being who can think in those terms. This, then, is the error into which some mystics have fallen, the error of substituting the transcendent experience for God, and mysticism for religion.
I think that really good sense, and perhaps explains why so many religions believe in God the way they do, as an all-pervading force in the universe. Their experiences which have transcended normal thought gave them a glimpse of how God’s mind works, which they mistook for God.
So how does this apply to Mormons? Well, Mormons can have transcendent, mystical experiences too. But, as Koltko points out, we may have neglected this aspect of God, and this quality within ourselves. I think we may have also termed these experiences with different words than others do, which may have contributed to the discrepancy. We usually call experiences such as these “spiritual experiences,” being “touched by the Spirit,” and the activities that can lead to them as “prayer” and “pondering.” But it is true that we, perhaps, do not seek out such experiences as often as we should. Koltko notes,
It is only fair to point out, though, that many Mormons have made the reverse error, of substituting religion for the transcendent experience. That is, some of us feel that because we have the true gospel, we have no need to be involved in contemplative practices or transcendent experience. I feel that this is a great mistake.
Indeed, Joseph Smith seems to have been able to call upon these types of experiences often to receive revelation, when he notes that the “eyes of our understanding were opened,” and “our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God” (D&C 110:1; D&C 76:12; D&C 76:19). Joseph was being elevated to a higher state of consciousness in order to understand the things of God. He was having transcendent experiences, coupled with revelation, or which allowed the revelation to come. Koltko notes that the Latter-day Saints might do well to study, with discretion, the meditative practices of other cultures to learn how we might better cultivate our minds, to more often elevate our own minds, and perhaps also increase our own personal revelation. We do not study much how to ponder, how to meditate, in our LDS tradition. The scholar Ken Wilber, for example, was studying Zen meditation when he had his transcendent experience.
The last few months I’ve been interested in meditation, even before reading Koltko’s article. It seems that in all the busyness of our daily life that meditation might offer a retreat, a way to relax our minds from the constant deluge of information, tweets, news broadcasts, television, phone calls, and emails we go through every day. My wife and I watched a TED talk some time ago, wherein Andy Puddicombe described the basics of meditation, and some of the healthy benefits from doing so on a daily basis. I’ve given it a try a few times, and I must say that it does seem to calm my mind.
I’ve picked up a couple books to read on the subject, including Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana, which describes a form of meditation called vipassana, from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. It describes how in certain forms of meditation, tools can be used to engage the mind, to focus it, and to guide it into elevated states of consciousness. These tools are a single object, and focus of concentration, and can include things such as a stone, a candle flame, a syllable, etc.
I’d like to take just a moment to reflect more carefully on Joseph Smith, and how he had such experiences. I recently read another article in Interpreter, Roger Nicholson’s “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation,” which does a fantastic job of exploring what tools and instruments Joseph used in the translation process. Such tools may have been means to an end of helping Joseph achieve the transcendent experience of knowing God’s will and mind. Joseph used seer stones, which he owned before his calling as a prophet, and later used in the translation process. These may have helped his mind focus to such a degree that he could achieve the transcendent divine mind state described above, and therefore was prepared to receive revelation from God. The use of instruments or tools in this way is often called scrying, which is another word for seeing or peeping. Nicholson notes Joseph’s explanation of what happened when he looked in the stone:
Not only did Joseph possess a seer stone prior to receiving the Nephite interpreters: He was already quite familiar with the manner of its use. Matthew B. Brown notes that, “Joseph Smith reportedly said in 1826, while under examination in a court of law, that when he first obtained his personal seerstone he placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place, and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing Eye.”
Brown goes on to note that Brigham Young confirmed this view, “When Joseph had a revelation he had, as it were, the eyes of the Lord. He saw as the Lord sees.”
These descriptions from Joseph sound very similar to the mystical, transcendent experiences, particularly the temporal/spatial quality, where “the experience occurs outside the normal boundaries of space and time,” and perhaps also the unifying quality, where everything seems like one great whole without borders. It is also interesting to note that when he achieved this state, Joseph said that he possessed one of God’s attributes, the “All-Seeing Eye,” even “the eyes of the Lord.” This is the same explanation that Koltko uses to describe transcendent experiences, of achieving the same consciousness or state of mind as God.
Some people, such as B. H. Roberts, seem to have believed that the stones Joseph used had special properties which enabled him to unlock hidden knowledge, perhaps radioactivity which might have made them to actually shine physical light. Don Bradley engages the subject in his recent paper, “Joseph Smith and the Technologies of Seership,” where he notes that it seems even Joseph himself believed the stones to have special properties because of what they allowed him to do.
Smith viewed his seer stones as tools enabling him achieve things he otherwise couldn’t, that is, as technologies.
However, Bradley notes that
…more recent Latter-day Saint interpreters, like Brant Gardner, have downplayed the stone, confining it to the psychological role of helping Joseph Smith induce a state of trace, or high concentration. (Perhaps found in Gardner’s book, The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon.)
Nicholson seems to also favor that it was Joseph’s own perception of the stones that gave them their power:
[Joseph's] idea that the Nephite interpreters were a more powerful version of [his] seer stone is interesting, since it implies that there was something special about the stones themselves. It is more likely, however, that it was Joseph’s own perception that the stones were superior because these stones had been consecrated by God for the purpose of seeing things.
It seems to me that the translation depended more upon Joseph’s state of mind than on the stones themselves, because they seemed to “function” only when he was in the proper state of mind. The stones perhaps helped guide his mind to that state, but not if his mind was distracted. Nicholson quotes David Whitmer:
At times when Brother Joseph would attempt to translate, he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed, he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He told us that his mind dwelt too much on the earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very strict the Lord is, and how He requires the heart of man to be just right in His sight, before he can receive revelation from Him. (emphasis added.)
This is corroborated by the fact that Oliver didn’t seem to be able to use them in the same way as Joseph. If the stones themselves held the special properties that enabled translation, then it would not matter as much who used them, the result would be the same. Nicholson notes this, and the subsequent revelation from the Lord as noted in D&C 9. Nicholson states that the method that Oliver used to try to translate was probably similar to that which he had witnessed Joseph use.
How, then, did Oliver attempt to translate the plates during the period of time prior to being a witness? What translation instrument did Oliver use? Although Oliver’s translation attempt does not fit the scenario in which the Nephite interpreters are employed, it does fit perfectly well with the use of the stone and the hat, with Oliver and Joseph sitting in plain view of one another and the plates covered…
Did Oliver attempt to translate using Joseph’s seer stone? This is one possibility. Another possibility is that Oliver possessed his own revelatory instrument and attempted to use it to translate…
Since Oliver had used his divining rod to receive revelation in the past, it is not unreasonable to assume that Oliver may have attempted to use his own revelatory instrument during his attempt to translate.
Whatever instrument Oliver used in his attempt to translate, it was ineffective. It wasn’t the instrument itself that did the work; it was in the mind of the translator, as explicitly stated in D&C 9:7–9:
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
It was the mind of the translator that was at intense work in order to get to a state in which one could translate, and the seer stones seem to have been instruments to allow one to reach that state of concentration and focus. The instruments didn’t independently do the work in a magical or special kind of way, which is what Oliver might have thought. They guided the mind into deep thought and concentration, where one could then ask the Lord for the revelation. If Koltko’s explanation is accurate, being in the same mode of thinking as God would greatly facilitate the receipt of the revelation from God.
It is also interesting that other Saints had seer stones during Joseph’s day, and used them for “seeing” beyond their natural capabilities, particularly to find lost objects. Joseph is even reported to have said that every person should have their own seer stone, presumably for the same reasons that Joseph had it, to focus their mind such that they could see the things of God. Brigham Young recorded the meeting with the Twelve in December of 1841:
[Joseph] said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it. (Millennial Star 26, February 20, 1864: 118-19)
There are obvious perils in using such instruments, as Joseph noted, and as played out in the incident with Hiram Page (see D&C 28). But that does not, however, negate the fact that Joseph recommended them and used them himself, in the translation process, and in receiving revelations from the Lord. He used them to achieve the “eyes of the Lord,” the “All-Seeing Eye,” and “seeing as the Lord sees.”
Nicholson notes that eventually the Prophet seems to have outgrown the need of the seer stones, Urim & Thummim, or other instruments to do his work as Prophet and Seer. Practically speaking, he may have become so experienced in achieving the transcendent elevated mind state that he didn’t need a tool to get there anymore. It mattered more what was going on in his mind and soul than to be in the possession of any external physical object. He could skip that step and achieve the same results.
Joseph initially received revelation through the Urim and Thummim (either the spectacles or the stone), but eventually learned that he did not need a physical aid in order to act in the capacity of prophet and seer. One of the important lessons taught to Joseph during this process is that the use of these instruments required faith and humility, in order for Joseph to know the Lord’s will.
Returning to meditation, I think there is something we can learn from it, as a tool, an instrument, similar to Joseph’s seer stones, to cultivate and prepare our minds for these types of experiences. But we must be careful. As Professor Hamblin notes in his paper on neomysticism, the cobbling together of mystical practices and traditions into what most people see as meditation and mysticism today has largely distorted what traditional mysticism was and is, and tends to focus more on having these “peak experiences” than on what good can come of them in the minds and lives of their practitioners.
One great example of this is what has come to be known as Transcendental Meditation, or TM. Through this popular program, which has been endorsed by celebrities, people are said to become happier, peaceful, and more aware individuals. Unfortunately it is one of those neomystical practices that seems more devoted to its commercialization than following traditional mystic tradition. One must spend between $1500-2500 to go through a course of study with a certified “teacher” in order to learn the technique. Hamblin notes:
The commercialization of neomysticism is alos, to my mind, another serious problem. The true mystic has disciples, not clients. True mystics don’t make a living at mysticism. They certainly don’t make a fortune at it. The commercialization of mysticism–where one can buy and sell the tokens of mystical knowledge–is one of the great spiritual tragedies of the twentieth century.
There is one particularly interesting anecdote from someone who participated in one of these TM courses which illustrates how these practices have become merged together with other esoteric practices. They titled their piece, “Transcendental Meditation: How I Paid $2,500 For a Password to Inner Peace”:
After the completion of the course, there was a special “graduation” ceremony in which students were given individual mantras to use in our practice. This was the first real whiff of spirituality. I was told to bring an offering of flowers to meet the instructor, who now appeared wearing a robe. He solemnly told me that he had a special word to give me that was mine alone and would be the key to my successful practice of TM.
“I know something about you,” he said, staring meaningfully into my eyes. “And that’s why I’m giving you this particular mantra.” I was no longer a student in a class, but an initiate into a special order of enlightened beings…
Transcendental Meditation is just a fancy name for a common variety of meditation in which a mantra – a word or series of syllables – is repeated with the intention of creating a meditative state. Pretty much any word or syllable will do, despite the hype of TM, which insists that a mantra can only be given by a “qualified” instructor. The TM initiate is told never to reveal her mantra under any circumstances, lest its magic be lost.
In other words, the practitioner, or initiate, of TM is given a secret key word, and are told they must never reveal it to anyone else, but only to use in their meditation sessions in order to gain enlightenment. Sound familiar?
We can, and should, meditate, but we should do it in the appropriate way. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, notably,
Pondering, which means to weigh mentally, to deliberate, to meditate, can achieve the opening of the spiritual eyes of one’s understanding. (“Pondering Strengthens the Spiritual Life,” Ensign, May 1982, p. 23. Emphasis added.)
President David O. McKay offered this:
I think we pay too little attention to the value of meditation, a principle of devotion. In our worship there are two elements: One is spiritual communion arising from our own meditation; the other, instruction from others, particularly from those who have authority to guide and instruct us. Of the two, the more profitable introspectively is the meditation. Meditation is the language of the soul. It is defined as “a form of private devotion, or spiritual exercise, consisting in deep, continued reflection on some religious theme.” Meditation is a form of prayer. We can say prayers without having any spiritual response. We can say prayers as the unrighteous king in Hamlet who said: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
The poet, contrasting the outward form of worship, and the prayer of the soul, said:
The Power incensed, the pageant will desert,
The pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole;
But haply, in some cottage far apart,
May hear, well-pleased, the language of the soul,
And in His Book of Life the inmates poor enroll.
(Burns, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.”)
Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord. Jesus set the example for us. As soon as he was baptized and received the Father’s approval, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17), Jesus repaired to what is now known as the mount of temptation. I like to think of it as the mount of meditation where, during the forty days of fasting, he communed with himself and his Father, and contemplated upon the responsibility of his great mission. One result of this spiritual communion was such strength as enabled him to say to the tempter:
Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written. Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (Matt. 4:10).
Before he gave to the Twelve the beautiful sermon on the mount, he was in solitude, in communion. He did the same thing after that busy Sabbath day, when he arose early in the morning, after having been the guest of Peter. Peter undoubtedly found the guest chamber empty, and when they sought him they found him alone. It was on that morning that Peter said:
. . . All men seek for thee (Mark 1:37).
Again, after Jesus had fed the five thousand he told the Twelve to dismiss the multitude, but Jesus went to the mountain for solitude. The historian says, “when the evening was come, he was there alone” (Matt. 14:23). Meditation! Prayer!
I once read a book written by a very wise man, whose name I cannot now recall, which contained a significant chapter on prayer. The author was not a member of the Church, but evidently had a desire to keep in close communion with God, and he wanted to find the truth. Among other things he said in substance:
In secret prayer go into the room, close the door, pull down the shades, and kneel in the center of the room. For a period of five minutes or so, say nothing. Just think of what God has done for you, of what are your greatest spiritual and temporal needs. When you sense that, and sense his presence, then pour out your soul to him in thanksgiving. (Conference Report, April 1946, p.113, emphasis added.)
It was while Nephi was pondering (i.e. meditating) that he had a vision from the Lord:
For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot. (1 Nephi 11:1, emphasis added.)
President Joseph F. Smith had his vision of the spirit world while he was pondering (or meditating), which has even been canonized in our scriptures:
On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures;…
As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. (D&C 138:1, 11.)
President Smith was elevated to a higher level of consciousness, even perhaps the mind state of the Lord, wherein he could see the vision he did.
It is when Joseph Smith meditated on the scriptures found in James that he received the the First Vision. Significantly, Joseph once taught:
The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity — thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart! (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith , p.137)
It is worthy to note here that Joseph seemed intimately acquainted with “the thoughts of God,” perhaps because he had experienced that mind state so many times himself. Joseph believed that it is through stretching “thy mind,” through “ponderous and solemn thoughts,” that one “commune[s] with God.”
It is perhaps through these types of meditative and pondering activities that we can gain these mystical, transcendent experiences, even to be touched by the Spirit of God, and can come to know the mind of God and the will of God in our lives. We can do this even while in the temple, to have mystical experiences there, to better understand the Atonement of Christ, even to “see God.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell wrote:
We are not merely to attend the temple mechanically to do the work for our dead, but when we go, we ought also to meditate and contemplate, perhaps having spiritual experiences there while at the same time we are doing what may seem to be a rather routine duty. (Notwithstanding My Weakness (1981), p.111)
Here is an excellent collection of thoughts, compiled by Bruce K. Satterfield, on pondering and meditation, from General Authorities and other Church leaders: