Wednesday, March 18, 2020

An “Educated Conscience”: Principle #2 Pray. Ponder. Meditate.

In my last post, I discussed the first of four principles in developing an educated conscience:

Principle #1: Learn From the Best Books

Books are timeless sources of information but our opportunities to learn are greatly expanded thanks to our Age of Information where sources of learning are abundant, varied, and accessible 24/7.  Sometimes we find ourselves consuming so much that we can easily get overwhelmed and not take the time to digest and clearly process the information coming in.  There is a parallel for this with eating.  Have you ever eaten so much at once that you felt sluggish and sick? You know, where the food just sits in your stomach like a rock and makes you super uncomfortable?  I can list a couple of Thanksgiving dinners--especially as a child--where I definitely overate!  This same over glutting can happen with learning: we are so full of information that we can’t break down and absorb what we’ve just gobbled up.  For knowledge to become useful like food is useful, it needs to be transformed into a new energy in our lives, it must be consumed and processed in wisdom and in order.

As a world, we are currently consuming a lot of chaotic and quickly evolving information through what we are reading and hearing, online and in the news via radio and television, especially in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the economic upheavals trailing closely behind.  The flood of information has led to many waves of panic most recently associated with shortages in vital household products, massive market sell-offs, and stymied business transactions.  Just this morning, I was awakened to our house shaking.  At about 7:13 am, we were jolted awake by a 5.7 earthquake approximately 40 miles north of our home.  Nothing was damaged but we definitely felt it. I was having to process a lot of information in a dazed state.  What’s going on?  Is this an earthquake? Is everyone okay? Am I imagining this?!  Will it get worse? All these thoughts swirled in a jumbled mass through my mind in rapid succession.  But I didn’t panic.  Why?  Because I already have a mental process already in place. It works in times of calm but it also kicks in when times of despair, discouragement, danger, and chaos erupt.  It goes like this: I calm my mind and ask myself,
  1. What do I know? 
  2. What matters the most? 
  3. What can I do? 
It almost happens simultaneously now. This centering of the mind, especially when information is superabundant, is accessible through the second principle of developing an educated conscience.  It is how all information is properly digested so that it can become sustaining, life-giving knowledge. It’s very simple: Pray. Ponder. Meditate.

Principle #2: Pray. Ponder. Meditate. 

The acts of praying, pondering, and meditating are all opportunities to:
  1. Analyze (What do I know?)
  2. Prioritize (What matters most?), and 
  3. Prepare to Choose (What can I do?)
It is during these times of prayer, pondering, and meditation that we can think, be still, and use our imaginations to apply what we have learned to our unique and changing situations.

The noted physicist Fritjof Capra discusses the benefits of pausing to process information in Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way.  Capra says, "During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight."

When are your best times for these activities?  How often do you find yourself processing experiences, events, stories, or ideas in these ways?  Where are the best places for you to do this?

Let's go in order.  Prayer is first in line.  With prayer, I find that I'm a bit of an impatient person.  My formal prayer style definitely reflects this.  They are often marked by private kneeling, reporting in, saying thank you, and asking for the list of immediate needs sometimes for myself, my family, or neighbors and other loved ones.  But I find that I get up right after my prayer and run to my regularly scheduled duties or hop into bed and let it be, content to have it off my plate so to speak.  There are a few instances where I wait in prayer before, during, or after but these are, I’m embarrassed to admit publicly, rare.  What can I say?  I'm a professional mom!  I have a darling cottage, a husband, five busy, quickly-growing-up children, and dreams of my own to act for the benefit of.

Most of the time my prayers are extremely unofficial--meaning, I’m not on my knees in solitude.  I believe in a God who knows all the thoughts and feelings of my heart.  I am aware that nothing is hidden from Him.  And I trust Him.  So, I often express my gratitude, my fears and frustrations, my hopes and distresses, and everything else in my heart and mind in real-time.  Sometimes I say it out loud quietly when no one else is around or I just say it in my head.  The point is, I like to keep myself close to Him.  I think that’s what He wants, too.  And then, I listen to my thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes, I feel inspired to do something.  Sometimes I feel reprimanded or corrected. Most recently I’ve felt comforted and calmed. But above all, I feel centered and at peace.

Next, there’s pondering. For me, road trips are the ultimate in pondering indulgence!  It's the only place I have to literally sit still for an extended period of time without prepping food for a meal, picking up children from school, taking phone calls, answering texts, cruising through traffic or other daily tasks that require immediate concentration and focus.  It's no wonder then that many students who graduate from high school (and can afford to) take a year break to travel.  They need time to ponder their direction before they go at it again in college full-blast!

John Steinbeck felt the pull of the open road when he decided to write Travels With Charley, published in 1962.  He wasn't healthy but he wanted to get on the road, to drink it all in and make sense of it one last time, before he would pass away, which he did only six years later in 1968.  He said of his urge to road trip around the continental United States:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.... A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
Trips are the perfect opportunity to both observe and reflect, to dream and to wonder, as we wander. But trips can cost money and require time away.  Therefore, they aren't always practical.  There have to be other avenues for reflection!

Another place I like to ponder is in my study journals.  I was inspired by Thomas Jefferson who kept what was called a commonplace book.  He was not unique in this.  Students who were classically educated in Colonial and early Post-Colonial America kept a record of their school lessons, favorite quotes, and private thoughts in their notebooks.  The Library of Congress has Jefferson's commonplace books now.  They describe what the commonplace book is:
A commonplace book is not what you might expect from the name. Rather than something ordinary, a commonplace book is a journal or notebook in which a student, reader, or writer compiles quotations, poems, letters, and information, along with the compiler’s notes and reactions. Students from the 1600s through the 1800s were required to keep commonplace books as learning tools. The Commonplace Books series contains two books compiled by Jefferson in his student years. One was a legal commonplace book, compiled while he was studying the law and containing abstracts of important cases. The second was a literary commonplace book, started as a student and maintained until his marriage. In the literary commonplace book, Jefferson included quotations from a wide array of books he read. Entries are in English, Latin, and Greek.
Often, Jefferson would write a quote or an idea that impressed him at the top of a page in his commonplace book and then he wrote his own thoughts under the quote.  Writing, especially in response to another's thoughts, is an important tool for self-discovery. As a teacher, I encouraged all my students to keep a commonplace book to keep track of what they were learning as they read and I kept one myself.  I also had students occasionally write brief journal entries on an online platform in class before having book discussions in order to help them organize and clarify their thoughts.  Writing helped them be accountable for what they were reading.  It works for you and me in the same way.  Get a notebook that you will treasure and that will last for a while.  Keep it close to you as you read.  Record your favorite quotes or ideas.  Respond to them in writing.  Over time, you will be able to see your growth.  You will even be able to flip through it later and find that you are relearning what you may have forgotten you already knew! Look how smart you are!

Interestingly enough, my last (but not least) favorite place to process ideas and listen for inspiration while pondering is when I'm doing the most mundane, non-brain-engaging chores around the house.  I've been a mom for over 23 years and have been doing chores since long before that, so I don't have to really focus on the skills needed to get the job done--it's already in my muscle memory.  Therefore, my mind can wander, browse, and relax enough to make new connections, consider an idea, and develop what's already rattling around up there.  Can I ponder the correct teaching techniques I recently read about and then envision myself applying them appropriately with my children? Yeah! Can I use my creativity to brainstorm ways of making our budget stretch further or brainstorm the next steps of my business? Sure!  Can I make sense of the book chapters I just listened to or the scriptures I just read?  Of course!  As a sidebar, I'm also burning calories while I work and think.  I don't see a downside!

Fortunately, my children are all old enough now so that I can indulge in thinking and pondering while cleaning instead of wondering what destruction is happening in the pantry, or whether or not I put the finger paints and crayons high enough to avoid messy walls, or why it is so quiet in the bathroom when no toilet training has even necessitated its use by that particular child.  I could tell you some stories! But, since those times have passed, I find mundane housework oddly relaxing and useful in gathering understanding and inspiration, of dreaming, and of creating in my mind before I am set to create in the real world.

Finally, there’s the art of meditation.  This is my very weakest skill of the three.  Pray? Absolutely. Ponder? Always. Meditate?  Ummm….  Isn’t that just a fancy word for pondering or for praying?!  I’m not so sure. On January 2, 2018, the Pew researchers David Masci and Conrad Hackett presented their findings of how often Americans meditate in their article, “Meditation is Common Across Many Religious Groups in the U.S.” at pewresearch.org.  They summarize their findings here:



Masci’s and Hackett’s research indicates that although meditation is practiced primarily by those who claim religious affiliations, it is also enjoyed by Atheist and Agnostic identifiers. Meditation is a tool enjoyed across a wide variety of cultural and religious preferences for practisers to feel centered, still, calm and in many instances to find meaning.

My young adult son, Mason, has learned how to meditate and practices it nightly before going to bed.  It helps him to control his thoughts, realign his priorities, and calm his feelings.  I interviewed him and here’s what he does: (He promises that it’s simple and just takes a little practice to get started! Wink. Wink.)
  1. Find a place where you can be alone.
  2. Close your eyes. (Turning off the lights can help.)
  3. Focus on your breathing. It should be steady and relaxed.
  4. Neither discourage nor encourage any particular thoughts.  You simply watch them pass like you are a mountain and they are passing clouds.  This allows your thoughts to become detached creating emotional distancing from any problems in your life while also helping you feel peaceful. (This lasts for about 10 minutes for him.)
  5. To end his meditation, he reads inspiring quotes for an additional minute or two and tries to preserve that feeling of peace and centeredness.  
  6. Then he goes to sleep!
For him, prayer is like a conversation where he is communing back and forth with God whereas meditation, to him, is solitary.  In meditation, he envisions his place or context in relation to the world and the forces at play in his life. He shared a personal experience with me while meditating followed by prayer and gave me permission to include it here:
About a year ago, as a student, I went to a meditation room at UVU [Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah].  I didn't realize they had one and when I stumbled into it I found that it was empty and I entered.  The clock was ticking and I found myself able to to sync my breath with the ticking of the clock.  During the meditation, it felt like I was going down into the meditation like I was walking into deepening water.  It was one of the most relaxed points of my life.  I was there for about 25 minutes and felt completely still and at peace like when you walk out of a movie theater with a friend after seeing a great movie together, or like being on a beach after a rainstorm, or the feeling I get when hiking up a mountain and then reaching the top. Adjacent to the meditation room is an outloud-prayer room.  There were prayer rugs and slits of natural lighting. It was a small enough room that it felt cozy, intimate, and inviting. It felt familiar and peaceful--a safe, happy place.  In the outloud prayer room I was also able to be alone and had a chance to pray to God out loud after I had been able to center my mind in the meditation room.  Unlike my meditation experience where I could observe my thoughts and feelings as they exist in a detached way, in the prayer room I could talk to someone about those feelings, to a God who perfectly understands me, cares about me, and knows my name. During the prayer, I felt like all my fears and my problems were seen, understood, and being taken care of.  I also felt that those problems were going to be finite--I would be able to deal with them, they wouldn’t go on indefinitely, and they were not too big for God.  It was very personal.  I felt like I was talking to someone I knew and who loved me.  Tears ran down my face.  But the cool thing was that it happened in an instant and all the emotions flooded over me in a flash. I was completely covered. I felt an infinite love that I couldn’t understand like I could never find the edges of it; there was always more.  Mediation was the perfect segway to the most purposeful prayer I had experienced in a very long time.  Both were spiritual experiences but in different ways. In my most painful moments, when I’m processing the information of life, I remember that it will ebb away.  I’ve also learned that often, the more intense the emotion, the faster it tends to fade away.  It felt surprising to me. Usually, with strong emotions, they feel like they are going to take over but once you can observe your emotions without fear, they just fade. 
Thanks, Mason!  I know this is a personal story but it has given me insight into a new method to still my mind and find an inner balance that can help my prayers and my ability to ponder improve.  Thank you for trusting us with it!

Prayer, pondering, and mediation are private and personal but they are also foundational to growing an educated conscience.  They are important ways for us to process, analyze, and prioritize the flood of information that comes to each of us daily.  Some of that information we need to be actively seeking through the very best books.  Other information will come from living and will be beautiful, uplifting, and orderly, or may also be chaotic, unwanted, or unwelcome.  Principle #2 is about how we digest the information we receive through prayer, pondering, and mediation.  As you pray, ponder, and meditate, remember the purpose of these steps is to apply your new knowledge to your own life.  They are tools to help you:
  1. Analyze: What do you know? 
  2. Prioritize: What matters the most to you? 
  3. Prepare to Act: What can you do? 
What are your experiences with prayer, pondering, and/or mediation?  How has it helped you to think more clearly, make important decisions, or change negative or unhealthy behavior?  If you’d like, please share your own story in the comment section below.  I’d love to share your stories with my ever-growing list of readers. You never know who you may help or encourage!

While many of you, like me, are choosing (or are having) to stay in seclusion during the pandemic, I hope you’ll take the opportunity when it presents itself to avoid the prevalent despair that comes with panic, by using prayer, pondering, and meditation.  Until next time, stay healthy, stay safe, and…

Live Beautifully!

Heather Butler
Founder and CEO of Beautiful Living Systems, Inc.

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