Open Communication

June 25th, 2008  |  Published in Mormonism, Spirituality

Welcome to Above Yourself, a blog about self-improvement and faith. If you're new here, you may want to subscribe in a reader or subscribe by email. Many of the topics here are related to my faith in Jesus Christ and Mormonism, but all are welcome to share their own beliefs. Thanks for visiting!

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a training course that focused on Communication Skills. Among all of the things that we talked about in that training, I learned that I needed to focus on being a better active listener and to be direct and straightforward in my own communication. Being straightforward and direct ensures that our message is clear and understood, and it helps to emphasize the importance our message has to us. Active listening means that not only do we hear the message, but we can communicate it back through paraphrasing. As our instructor said, it’s “<em>para</em>phrasing, not parroting”.

Although this was a training class for my job, it was clear to me from the beginning that improved communication skills might help me in other aspects of my life as well. When I put the things I learned into practice in my own personal life I can see the benefits of better communication. When I looked back over some of the course materials this morning, I realized that better communication could help me in the spiritual aspects of my life as well.

A significant part of our personal spirituality can come from our communication with our Father in Heaven through prayer. As we pray to Him, He can communicate with us through the Holy Ghost. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said the following about the communication that can be had through prayer:

As we commune with our Father in humble prayer, our hearts receive the gentle outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Lord tells us, “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).

Those who do not have this light ever struggle with disbelief. They cannot understand the things of God because their souls have little light. On the other hand, as our souls become filled with light, we begin to understand clearly things that once were dark.

-Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Improving Our Prayers,” Ensign, Mar 2004, 24–31

Prayer is an invaluable tool for communicating with God. As we improve the sincerity of our prayers and our own messages to our Heavenly Father, these messages earn increased attention from our Father and help us to be better guided by Him through the Holy Ghost. Our prayers earn new power when we become more open in our prayers, more sincere, and more in tune with our own personal feelings. In the same message, Elder Wirthlin said this about making our prayers meaningful:

There are many reasons our prayers may lack power. Sometimes they become routine. Our prayers become hollow when we say similar words in similar ways over and over so often that the words become more of a recitation than a communication. This is what the Savior described as “vain repetitions” (see Matt. 6:7). Such prayers, He said, will not be heard.

Our beloved prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, has observed:

“The trouble with most of our prayers is that we give them as if we were picking up the telephone and ordering groceries—we place our order and hang up. We need to meditate, contemplate, think of what we are praying about and for and then speak to the Lord as one man speaketh to another.” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (1997), 469.)

Do your prayers at times sound and feel the same? Have you ever said a prayer mechanically, the words pouring forth as though cut from a machine? Do you sometimes bore yourself as you pray?

Will prayers that do not demand much of your thought merit much attention from our Heavenly Father? When you find yourself getting into a routine with your prayers, step back and think. Meditate for a while on the things for which you really are grateful. Look for them. They don’t have to be grand or glorious. Sometimes we should express our gratitude for the small and simple things like the scent of the rain, the taste of your favorite food, or the sound of a loved one’s voice.

-Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Improving Our Prayers,” Ensign, Mar 2004, 24–31

As I focus on increasing my communication skills, I will also focus on increasing the sincerity and meaning I put forward in prayer. Each time we communicate well with others we can enhance our relationships with them by getting to know them better. Each time we pray we become closer to our Heavenly Father and we better know His will for us.

Finding the Right Metaphor

January 31st, 2008  |  Published in Mormonism, Spirituality, Testimony

I often learn best through metaphors. Metaphors take an concept that might be unfamiliar and dress it up like something that I am very familiar with. When we learn, we often visualize things better if they are presented in terms that we know well. When we teach, we try to explain our lessons using terminology that is familiar to our audience. Finding the right metaphor for our own learning or for our audience can unlock a deeper understanding. Here are a few examples of good metaphors that have recently been on my mind:

Tee ‘Em Up - My friend Richard was recently thinking about the way he wrote tasks on his to-do list. He wanted to set up his tasks in such a way that unfamiliar items could be easily tackled. He uses the automatic tees on a driving range to introduce this idea:

Growing up in Las Vegas, our favorite place to hit golf balls was Desert Pines. It was 30 minutes away, but it boasted a double decker driving range and automatic tees. After each hit, the tee dropped into the floor and re-emerged with a new ball. You could hit ball after ball without the pesky work of bending down to tee them. You could keep your stance and stay in the zone.

Imagine “teeing up” your tasks. Thoroughly prepare each task so the actual work of doing it is a simple, fluid stroke. Poorly prepared tasks require you to lean down. Well-prepared tasks are ripe for the hitting.

Bad: “Do taxes”
Good: “Find W2 forms and receipts in folder. Call accountant to setup appointment.”

Bad: “Christmas shopping”
Good: “Spend 10 minutes with pen and paper brainstorming what David might like for Christmas. Ask Mom for suggestions. Wait a few days to think about it. Order it online.”

Richard K. Miller - Tee ‘Em Up

Baseball and Perspective - Chelsea tells of a metaphor she heard in a talk at church that was presented by a BYU physics professor who wanted to explain “how he reconciles scientific theories with his testimony when they appear to conflict”.

 Say you got a ticket to a baseball game, but you got a seat where you could only see the pitcher and the batter. You couldn’t see the umpire, the catcher, the other fielders, or even the other bases or the scoreboard. This is a really terrible seat!

But as you watch the game, you start to notice patterns. This is like a scientific theory. You figure out that when the hitter hits the ball, he takes off running. You figure out that there must be a catcher, since the ball keeps being thrown back to the pitcher. And after a few games (you got a season pass in this awful seat), you start to figure out more technicalities, like balls and strikes. You start feeling really confident in your theory. Every time the ball is thrown, it fits into your theory of baseball.

But then one time when you’re watching the ball, there are three strikes and the runner takes off towards first base. What?! That doesn’t fit into your theory at all. So you modify your theory. You add the “third strike drop” rule that accounts for when the catcher drops the ball on a third strike, then the hitter gets to run to the bases. Now your theory works again.

But do you really understand what it is to watch baseball? Do you really understand all the rules? I’m sure you don’t. But from your terrible seat and limited perspective, you’ve done a lot to figure out what’s happening.

Scientific laws and theories are actually both theories. Newton’s Laws are called laws because that’s what HE called them. And they’ve been proven to be wrong in some situations, but they’re still called laws. Then we have Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which has never been proven wrong but is still called a theory, because Einstein called it a theory.

So going back to the religion thing. How can someone believe in the Big Bang theory, the theory of evolution, AND Adam and Eve? Well, it all comes down to perspective. We don’t know exactly how anything worked out. The account of the creation in the Bible is very brief and doesn’t go into too much detail on HOW things were created. And from our limited standpoint, we’ve found a lot of evidence that supports the scientific theories. Should we just throw away that evidence because we can’t make it fit in what we know to be God’s truth? No. But neither should we throw away God’s truth just because we found some evidence supporting some theories that seem to contradict it.

Fishing for Chelsea: Baseball and Perspective

How to Develop a Sense of Scale - In an article on his website BetterExplained, Kalid uses metaphors to help us put things in perspective. Here are his tips for understanding big numbers using smaller numbers that are more familiar:

Instead of looking up at the “big numbers”, we can shrink them to our level. Imagine the average person makes 50k/year, and a rich guy makes 500k/year. What’s the difference?

Well, instead of visualizing having 10x your money, imagine that things cost 10 times less. A new laptop? That’ll be 150 bucks. A new porsche? Only 6,000 dollars. A really nice house? 50k. Yowza. Things are cheap when you’re rich.

To understand Bill Gates’ scale, don’t think of 50 billion dollars and 5 billion/year income — it’s just another large number. Try to imagine having things cost 100,000 times less (and 100,000 is a pretty large number).

A laptop would be a few pennies. A porsche would be about 60 cents. Your $50M mansion would be a mere 500 bucks. You could “splurge”, spend $1000, and get everything you’ve ever needed. And you’re still earning 50k/year.

It’s much more vivid than “50 billion in the bank”, eh?

BetterExplained: How to Develop a Sense of Scale

The Gospel of Jesus Christ - Prophets have always used metaphors, parables, and allegories to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. These literary devices are so common in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and modern scripture because these books deal with topics that are not always easy to visualize. Metaphors in scripture give us the power to understand, with the help of the Holy Ghost, things of a spiritual nature. Through the power of the Holy Ghost, God can reveal us the truth of the things we learn in this way line upon line, helping us gain a personal knowledge of things of a spiritual nature.

With all of these metaphors our understanding can increase, but we must be careful that they accurately represent the truth and we interpret them in the correct way. For example, as we seek to understand spiritual matters, we should pray for the truth to be revealed to us by the Holy Ghost, because “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things”. Moroni 10:4-5.

Being Grateful for All Things

August 20th, 2007  |  Published in Mormonism, Spirituality

It’s about three months earlier than I usually think about being grateful for everything around me, but some recent experiences have really caused me to realize how blessed I am for everything I have. I have a healthy family including a very happy little girl, a good place to live, and I have the chance to continue my education before my family grows too large. So in lieu of a longer post, I would simply like to post this quote from James E. Faust, an apostle in the Mormon Church who recently passed away:

In the closing moments of this conference, I come to this pulpit to speak about gratitude as an expression of faith and as a saving principle. The Lord has said, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.” (D&C 59:21.) It is clear to me from this scripture that to “thank the Lord thy God in all things” (D&C 59:7) is more than a social courtesy; it is a binding commandment.

One of the advantages of having lived a long time is that you can often remember when you had it worse. I am grateful to have lived long enough to have known some of the blessings of adversity. My memory goes back to the Great Depression, when we had certain values burned into our souls. One of these values was gratitude for that which we had because we had so little. The Great Depression in the United States in the early thirties was a terrible schoolmaster. We had to learn provident living in order to survive. Rather than create in us a spirit of envy or anger for what we did not have, it developed in many a spirit of gratitude for the meager, simple things with which we were blessed, like hot, homemade bread and oatmeal cereal and many other things.

–James E. Faust, “Gratitude As a Saving Principle,” Ensign, May 1990, 85

Meditation for Inspiration

August 15th, 2007  |  Published in Mormonism, Spirituality, Testimony

Several years ago, I had the chance to attend church in a city where I had lived when I was younger. I’m not sure why, but I remember a challenge that the teacher gave us that day in Sunday School: instead of jumping quickly into bed after praying, listen and meditate so that we can receive an answer to our prayers. The teacher that day explained to us that we should treat our prayers as a two-way communication with one of our closest friends; if we wanted God to be able communicate to us, we shouldn’t hang up on him after we’re finished with our side of the conversation.

I remember going home and trying this out that night. I was a teenager at the time, and my main focus seemed to be spending as much time as I could enjoying myself. Since my family was on vacation, I wasn’t in my normal routine so I had to really make an effort to not only remember to pray but to meditate for a time afterward. I remained in the same position for a few minutes until I became a bit uncomfortable. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t really meditating, I was just kind of sitting there.

After a while longer, I began to think a little bit deeper. I forgot about my previous discomfort, and I was able to clear my mind a little more. This kind of preparation allowed me to receive a very calm feeling all around me, and I began to realize that inspiration was only possible if we opened our hearts and really wanted to learn.

Since then I’ve had that same feeling many times, but it has only come when I have opened up my heart and slowed down my mind. I’m extremely grateful for that Sunday School lesson, when I learned how to communicate with my Heavenly Father.

Have you considered the effectiveness of your prayers, your efforts to reach toward Him from this mortal life? How close do you feel to your Heavenly Father? Do you feel that your prayers are answered? Do you feel that the time you spend in prayer enriches and uplifts your soul? Is there room for improvement?

–Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Improving Our Prayers,” Ensign, Mar 2004, 24–31