The double doors swung open and a stream of boisterous elementary school-aged children filled the camp meeting hall. My two friends and I grabbed chairs as far away from the podium as possible (cool kids always sit in the back, or so we thought). It was the third day of a weeklong YMCA camp the summer between my fifth and sixth grades. I didn’t know the purpose of tonight’s meeting; we just knew that was where we were expected to be.
The meeting started with an unfamiliar hymn. I felt embarrassed not knowing the words everyone else seemed to know, but my lips did their best to pretend they did. While I listened to the invocation, I tried to figure out who was being prayed to: was it Heavenly Father, or his son Jesus Christ? The man offering the prayer kept using the words “God”, “Lord”, “Father”, and “Jesus” as if they were all the same person.
After the prayer, several adult leaders took the podium one-by-one and shared their testimonies. These were very different testimonies than I was used to hearing in Mormon testimony meetings. It wasn’t just the fact that they didn’t include the typical professions of peculiar Mormon belief about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon, it was the intimate personal details they were revealing to us kids: the sins of their youth, the sins of their adulthood. Alcohol abuse, drug addiction, trouble with the law, broken marriages. The speakers didn’t shy away from making themselves vulnerable to the audience’s disapproval. After recounting the numerous ways in which they had fallen disastrously short of God’s expectations, each speaker concluded with the same message: that Jesus had helped them overcome their hardships and heartaches, that Jesus had given them a new heart and a fresh start in life, and that their personal relationship with Jesus was what now sustained them in their better life.
After the testimony-sharing, we were taught and encouraged to say what I would later learn is called the “Sinner’s Prayer”: to acknowledge your sinfulness before the Lord, to express faith in Jesus as your Savior, to ask Him for forgiveness, and to invite Him into your heart. Although the precise form of the prayer was unfamiliar to me, the essence of it was not. I had long been taught in Primary that Jesus is our Savior, and that if we have faith in him and repent, our sins will be forgiven.
Because this was not a LDS gathering, I wasn’t sure whether I should say the prayer I was being encouraged to say. I looked around, and it looked like the other kids were praying. I figured trying to develop a personal relationship with Jesus was probably a good idea, so I said the prayer too. And I truly meant it.
About halfway through the prayer, a powerful, peaceful feeling came over me. It felt the way the speakers told me I would feel if I said the prayer: I felt a sense of relief, I felt like Jesus was my friend, that He loved me, and that He was pleased with me. And that gentle, peaceful feeling remained with me for the next several days. Later that week at camp while on a hike, a Christian boy in my group and I got to talking about that prayer meeting, and we discovered we’d both had the same feeling come over us while saying the prayer. Hearing this boy share his spiritual experience reassured me that my experience was not just my imagination, but was real.
That was the first time I learned firsthand that people can and do have genuine spiritual experiences outside the LDS church. I do not remember being particularly surprised by that realization, but I do think it planted a few seeds in my mind that would come to fruition in my adulthood.
In high school, some of my teachers shared the idea that our perception of the truth is subjective; that people perceive and interpret the same things differently. That made sense to me; it seemed obvious. But what I could not get on board with were the related concepts that the truth is relative, that everyone has their own truth, that one person’s perception of truth is just as a valid as another’s, and therefore nobody has a right to claim a monopoly on saying what the truth is. My teachers explained that meant we all need to listen to each other, to try to understand each other, to put ourselves in others’ shoes and consider their point of view, rather than insisting that our view alone is correct and expecting everyone else to adopt it. That was all too much for my teenaged mind to take. “Of course there is one real truth, and of course someone can know it,” I said to myself. “Sure, people may perceive the truth differently, but that doesn’t mean they’re all equally right. That just means some of them are right, and some of them are wrong!”
Years later when I was serving a mission in Colorado, I was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to give someone a copy of the Book of Mormon. One day while my companions were filling our gas tank, I went into the convenience store and spoke with the man behind the counter. He was a Middle-Easterner and a Muslim, a perfect candidate to receive a copy of the Book of Mormon! But to my surprise, he said he already had a copy of the Book of Mormon that a co-worker had given him at a previous job. Then he caught me off-guard by offering to give me a copy of the Koran. I was intrigued by his offer, so I said yes. He told me to return in one week, and he would have an English translation of the Koran waiting for me.
As the next week went by, I became increasingly eager to return and pick up my copy of the Koran. I wanted to read the Koran because I thought it would help me understand how my investigators felt when I introduced them to an unfamiliar book of scripture. I figured that if I could understand their perspective, I would be better equipped to help them overcome any concerns and recognize the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
I returned to the convenience store exactly one week later, and as promised, the man behind the counter had an English translation of the Koran waiting for me. It was beautiful, bound with a dark green hardcover that was engraved with gold Islamic designs. On each page were verses in Arabic in one column, with the English translation running alongside it. The kind man who had given it to me had marked some Suras (chapters) and scholarly commentaries for me with yellow Post-It notes. I started with the first commentary he’d suggested reading: an introduction to Islamic prayer.
It was a different mode of prayer than the one I had been teaching. As a missionary, I carried a handy flip chart to teach people the correct form of prayer: (1) say “Heavenly Father”; (2) say “We thank thee for . . .”; (3) say “We ask thee . . .”; and (4) say “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen”. By contrast, the commentary in the Koran emphasized the importance of how one addresses Allah (God) at the beginning of one’s prayer. It encouraged the reader to begin prayer by addressing God with praise, suggesting almost flowery language that enumerated His many great works, His justice, His mercy, etc. The purpose of this, the commentary explained, was to begin our prayer by reminding ourselves of God’s greatness and our dependence on Him to set a tone of humility and reverence that would make our prayer more sincere and meaningful, and make our hearts more receptive to God’s guidance.
That night when I crawled up onto the mattress laying on my floor and knelt to pray, I decided to begin my prayer as I understood a Muslim would. Rather than starting my prayer with the words “Heavenly Father” and quickly launching into my normal laundry list of thanks and requests, I tried to cultivate a spirit of humility and reverence by beginning my prayer with worshipful praise. It felt awkward at first, but I did my best.
I was surprised by how much that one simple change improved the sincerity and feeling of my prayer that night, and in the weeks to come as I continued with it. I had of course read scriptures, heard talks, and been given Sunday School lessons teaching the importance of sincerity and humility when praying, but by reading that commentary by an Islamic scholar, I discovered a new way to actually develop that humility and sincerity while praying.
Through this experience, I realized that viewing spirituality from an unfamiliar perspective could deepen my understanding and appreciation of familiar principles, and help me discover new ways to cultivate the spiritual attitudes I desired. Even more importantly, I recognized that the value of stepping into another’s perspective was not learning how to better convert others to my own views, but discovering additional facets of truth that were previously lacking in my own perspective.
After my mission when I resumed my studies at Brigham Young University, I was required to earn a number of credits in Religious Studies. One night as I browsed the catalog of available courses, my eyes lit up when I saw a course in World Religions, and I immediately enrolled in it. My professor, Dr. Choi, was the son of a prominent Presbyterian minister in Korea who dishonored his father by converting to the LDS church. His enthusiasm for the religions of the world was infectious. At night as I walked home from his class, I pondered the words he’d spoken to us in his heavy Korean accent.
By now, I was keenly aware that the “one true church” to which I belonged comprised only a tiny fraction of 1% of the world’s population. While studying the world’s religions under Dr. Choi, I shook off my previous belief that other churches and religions were deceptive Satanic counterfeits of God’s one true church, and came to appreciate other religions as God’s means of preparing the other more-than 99% of His children to embrace the fullness of Gospel one day.
That was not a heretical notion, but rather, it was a concept found in the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith provided a far more “Unitarian” vision of God’s interaction with mankind when he dictated these words to his scribe:
Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?
Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. (2 Ne. 29:7-8.)
Although these verses from the Book of Mormon comforted me by portraying a God who was far more involved in the spiritual development His non-Christian children than I had previously assumed, I was puzzled by the line that says God speaks the “same words” to every nation. By now, I had learned enough about the world’s religions to know that although they share many common principles, their various books of scripture also make very different, mutually-exclusive truth claims that cannot be considered the “same words” even after stripping away all their particulars and attempting to reduce them to abstract generalities. I was comforted by the idea that God speaks to all nations, but I couldn’t understand why those nations seemed to believe that God has spoken such different words to them.
As I progressed into adulthood, I carried with me the religious curiosity that had been sparked during my studies at BYU. Over time, I read every book of scripture and ancient wisdom that I could get my hands on at the local bookstore: the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Hindu Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, the Chinese I Ching and Tao Te Ching, the Buddhist Dhammapada, and several others. One day while on a business flight to San Francisco, I continued my reading of the Bhagavad Gita. When I came to the passage where a multi-headed, multi-armed deity reveals himself to Arjuna, I had a profound spiritual experience. I was overcome with a sense of awe. I felt small, humbled, and reverent. That spiritual feeling poured over me and into me, totally unexpectedly.
I could remember only one other time I had felt that way while reading about someone’s encounter with divinity in a book of scripture. As a teenager while on a family trip to Utah, I read the passages in the book of Ether that describe brother of Jared’s encounter with Jesus. The spiritual feelings I experienced reading those passages as a teenager were so profound that I found myself sketching a crude drawing in the margin of the page depicting what I had just read, like a prehistoric man etching on a cave wall to record an experience he wanted to remember.
The profound feeling of reverence that came over me while reading the Bhagavad Gita on the plane remained with me throughout that day in San Francisco. After my court appearance that morning, I had a few hours to kill before my afternoon flight home. I wandered through the streets of Chinatown, ducking into shops displaying curious articles in their windows. That day as I browsed the shops, I found myself making extra efforts to treat every person with whom I came into contact with a deliberate sense of reverence and respect.
Hindu and Buddhist scripture teaches that our sense of separateness as individuals is an illusion. That in reality, we and all things are just parts of the same great whole of reality. That peace and harmony are achieved when we overcome the illusion of our separateness and regard all persons and things as if they were a part of ourselves, or rather, as if we were a part of them.
With that concept settled in my mind that day, I found myself going out of my way to show small courtesies to strangers that I ordinarily wouldn’t. Before leaving a shop, I would turn to face the shopkeeper, smile, nod my head slightly, and thank him. I had never seen him before, and I would probably never see him again, but I felt a greater sense of connection to strangers that day than I had ever felt before.
In the days that followed this experience, I tried to fit it into my Mormon paradigm. What puzzled me was how I could have such a powerful spiritual experience reading a book that I did not regard as sacred scripture, but as ancient fiction. I did not believe that Arjuna was a real person, nor did I believe in the multi-headed, multi-armed deity who appeared to him. How could I experience such powerful spiritual emotions reading a book of fiction? And why did it cause me to show a greater degree of courtesy and respect to others?
I remembered a line from Elder Boyd K. Packer’s famous talk about the Holy Spirit entitled “The Candle of the Lord”, in which he states: “the spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that it is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual.” (Boyd K. Packer, The Candle of the Lord, Ensign Magazine, Jan. 1983.) I had long been aware of the concept that it is possible to misinterpret self-generated emotions as being genuine spiritual manifestations. But what troubled me was the realization that if I could have such a profound spiritual experience reading a book of ancient fiction like the Bhagavad Gita, then it was likewise possible that the profound spiritual feelings I had experienced so often while reading the Book of Mormon and the Bible were likewise just powerful self-generated emotions. But as with all other experiences that did not fit neatly into my Mormon paradigm, I pushed these thoughts into the back of my mind and carried on.
The most dramatic, unexpected, life-changing experience in my spiritual life came several years later. One morning in October of 2006, I woke up, sat up on the edge of my bed, and immediately recognized that I felt very different. I had gone to bed the night before as a fully-believing, temple-attending, active Mormon with a Spirit-based testimony and absolute certainty in the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel. I was not reading any anti-Mormon materials, and had only had limited exposure to such materials years before as a missionary. Yet unexpectedly, I had woken up without a shred of confidence in my Mormon worldview.
I can understand if readers are unable to relate to the experience I am attempting to describe; I am still trying to understand it after years of reflection. The best way I can explain it is to contrast how I’d felt before that morning, and how I have felt ever since. By nature, I am an emotionally passionate person. Whatever I feel, I feel it strongly, whether happiness, sadness, excitement, boredom, love, or anger. Much of my life has been spent reveling in, or wrestling with, my interior emotional world.
In my teenage years and in my adulthood, I had numerous powerful spiritual experiences in a Mormon context, and I interpreted those experiences the way I had been taught to interpret them: as manifestations of the Holy Spirit confirming the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel. Over many years of these spiritual experiences I developed a sense of absolute certainty in the correctness of my religious convictions. Before that morning in October of 2006, I had never in my adult life wrestled with any real doubts about Mormonism; I had received the witness of the Holy Spirit far too many times, far too often, for any doubt to take hold in my mind. And the truthfulness of my testimony was confirmed for me every time I taught a lesson or gave a talk, not just because of the way I’d felt while teaching or speaking, but also because ward members would almost unfailingly go out of their way to thank me afterwards and tell me how inspired they had been by what I had shared.
But that morning in October of 2006, it was all gone. All of it. I felt like a totally different person. And in casual terms, it totally freaked me out. From within my Mormon perspective, the only concept I could think of to label this experience was “a loss of the Spirit”. I immediately searched my conscience for what I had done to displease the Lord so much that it had caused the Holy Spirit to withdraw from me so suddenly and completely. But I knew I hadn’t committed any major sins, nor any sins that were any different from the ordinary shortcomings I’d always struggled to overcome as a fully-believing, fully-committed Mormon. Those failings had never prevented me from feeling the Spirit and having a testimony before, so why would they begin to do so now?
In attempt to restore my testimony, I committed to be more diligent than ever in prayer, scripture study, and service. In addition to my regular calling, I volunteered to teach a weekly English-as-a-Second-Language class at the church to prove to myself that I was still a good person, that my heart was still the right place. But in the coming weeks and days, I began to notice something else that did not fit into my traditional Mormon paradigm. I noticed that I was still feeling the Spirit strongly and frequently, but that those spiritual feelings no longer gave me any sense of conviction about the truthfulness of Mormonism.
That realization deeply puzzled me, because in Mormon thought, feeling the Spirit is often equated with identifying the truth. But in my case, I was experiencing what I had thought to be impossible: I was feeling the Spirit, but without regaining any conviction about the truthfulness of Mormonism. And in Mormonism, saying you feel the Spirit without experiencing any accompanying sense of conviction about the truthfulness of Mormonism is like saying you jumped into a swimming pool without getting wet.
When I began paying careful attention to when I was and wasn’t feeling the Spirit during church meetings, I came to realize it depended on the topic that was being discussed. I noticed I would feel the Spirit when someone was speaking about universal principles like charity or forgiveness, but not when someone was speaking about a uniquely-Mormon doctrine like the Restoration. It occurred to me that these disparate reactions to what I was hearing at church might be explained by the fact that I still believed in good principles, but still did not believe in prophets, priesthoods, or institutions. And recognizing that distinction between what I still believed in, and no longer believed in, caused me to wonder whether “feeling the Spirit” is more a product of belief than a source of it.
When I shared my loss of faith in Mormonism with an LDS friend, he shrugged his shoulders almost dismissively and said: “It’s just body chemistry. Our body chemistry changes significantly as we get older.” Maybe so, I thought. But as I later told my Stake President, who thought there might be some validity to my friend’s theory, if a change in my body chemistry was to blame for the change in my spiritual experience, wouldn’t that imply that my previous spiritual experiences were just body chemistry as well?
These discussions made me curious to learn more about human psychology and body chemistry. I came across scientific studies that identified correlations between a person’s dopamine level and his propensity to believe in the supernatural and paranormal. I learned that even when atheists and skeptics are given dopamine, they become more likely to express belief in the possibility that supernatural and paranormal claims are true. I learned that levels of certain hormones, like oxytocin, can become elevated when we have a shared experience in a group setting, or when we receive praise, appreciation, or even just a warm friendly touch (in the hallway at church, for example). I learned about a part of the brain that, when stimulated with a device in the laboratory, produces feelings that test subjects describe as “feeling God’s presence”.
Gradually, I came to believe that the spiritual experiences I’d had throughout my life were probably attributable to something other than what I had been taught I should attribute them to. I came to believe that we humans are fundamentally “spiritual creatures” in that, since ancient times, no matter where in the world we live, we experience powerful, mysterious emotions. I came to believe that the world’s religions, including Mormonism, represent differing human attempts to identify the cause of those spiritual emotions, to produce them through various spiritual practices, and to interpret their meaning. And when we who live in the modern age read the accounts of those living in ancient times who recorded their spiritual experiences, their words resonate with us, and we identify with them, because we too have had the type of profound, mysterious experiences they described. And that common bond of spiritual experience with our ancient cultural ancestors leads us to accept what the ancients said about the ultimate source of those spiritual experiences.
This new perspective turned my more-than 30 years of experience within Mormonism on its head, but it answered the questions with which I was wrestling more satisfactorily than any other possibility I could imagine. It explained for me why billions of people commit themselves to different spiritual paths, and why people in all religions report having spiritual experiences. It explained for me why various spiritual promptings and impressions I had experienced, or that others had told me they had experienced, had led us to make decisions that never achieved the results that “the Spirit” had promised us. And it explained for me why I was still experiencing powerful spiritual feelings, but without regaining any testimony of the truthfulness of Mormonism.
Ultimately, I found a new spiritual home in Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice, and I began attending a local meditation group. At the end of our meditation sessions, we would sit in a large circle and take turns sharing whatever insights or experiences we’d had during our meditation. And I was immediately struck by how similar the participants’ comments were to the testimonies I’d heard every month in LDS testimony meetings. Setting aside the affirmations of peculiar LDS truth claims, the comments expressed in our meditation group were virtually identical to those shared in LDS testimony meetings. “I feel such a special peace here.” “I’ve had a really rough week, and I really needed this today.” “This is exactly what I’ve been trying to find for years.” “I can’t imagine life without being able to come here—this is what sustains and centers me.” “I’m so thankful for all of you, even though I don’t know most of you.”
As I thought about these similarities between two very different groups taking two very different approaches to spiritual practice, I think I discovered something about spirituality. And it all comes down to one thing: experiencing a sense of Connection. Connection with God. Connection with other people. Connection with the natural world. Whether kneeling in prayer or seated in meditation, listening to testimonies in Sacrament meeting or at a YMCA camp, snorkeling in Hawaii or standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, we can suddenly experience an unexpected sense of connection with someone or something else. And when we experience that sense of connection, we momentarily lose our sense of existential isolation as individuals, and catch a glimpse from a new perspective within a greater interconnected reality. In other words, in those spiritual moments, what ordinarily seems outside us can seem inside us, and vice versa, causing us to feel we’re a part of, or in the presence of, something greater than our individual selves. And because that momentary sense of connectedness is such a stark contrast to our ordinary individualized experience, it can produce feelings of awe, humility, reverence, and comfort—sometimes even ecstasy. (As a side note, I recognize how these ideas could apply to sexual experience as well—certainly no shortage of body chemistry involved there!—and perhaps may help explain not only why sexual experience is so amazing to us, but also, why many traditions regard sex as a sacred, even spiritual, experience.)
In closing, I want to make clear to readers that I make no claim to having solved the mystery of spiritual experience. These thoughts are only my current tentative, speculative conclusions, and they could change radically in the future. Neither science nor religion has solved all mysteries; both religious scripture and scientific publications acknowledge that what we do not know still far exceeds what we do know. But regardless of whether there is or isn’t a God or a pantheon of gods that explains our spiritual perceptions, one thing is certain: human beings have had powerful, seemingly other-worldly experiences since ancient times, and despite our various attempts to identify their source and interpret their meaning for thousands of years, human spirituality remains the most profoundly mysterious common experience of humankind.