In this episode, we speak with Thomas McConkie on the subject of prayer.
Thomas brings a unique perspective, one that fuses a traditional idea of prayer with a more contemplative practice. He shares his insights on finding real connection to God through prayer, on the intersection of acceptance and seeking for specific outcomes, and perhaps most importantly, on how contemplative connection with God can help us rid ourselves of the “wrong ideas” that cause us pain. We hope you enjoy this conversation!
Tim Chaves: Hi, and welcome to the Faith Matters podcast. This is Tim Chaves. In this episode we speak with Thomas McConkie, founder of the Lower Lights School of Wisdom and author of the book, Navigating a Mormon Faith Crisis. When Thomas came on our podcast for our conversation with Bill Turnbull last year, they touched on the subject of prayer and how for Thomas, prayer, mindfulness, and meditation are all very closely related. Ever since we heard that conversation, Aubrey and I have both been trying to make our own prayers more contemplative and it’s really helped us get more out of that practice. Because of that experience, we thought we needed to get Thomas back to explore the subject of prayer even further. Thomas approaches this topic very thoughtfully and with a lot of humility. Aubrey and I both personally got a lot out of it. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Tim Chaves: Hi, everyone and welcome to the Faith Matters podcast. I’m Tim Chaves and I’m here with my wife, Aubrey. We are honored to be joined today by Thomas McConkie. Just by way of introduction, Thomas is the author of the book Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis: A Simple Developmental Map and he is the founder of the Lower Lights School of Wisdom. He’s been practicing mindfulness and other meditative techniques for 20 years and studying their effects on human potential.
Thomas, you may know this, has been on our podcast before. He actually did a seven-part deep dive series with Faith Matters founder Bill Turnbull, which was one of my personal favorite things that Faith Matters has ever released. And if you’re interested in that where they go very deep on all things, Thomas and all things mindfulness, and many different aspects of Thomas’s faith and the gospel, you can find that earlier on in our podcast. You can look at the episodes that were published on March 26th of 2019 and you’ll find them there. Thank you, Thomas, so much for getting on with us today.
Thomas McConkie: Happy to be here with you two. Thank you.
Aubrey Chaves: I think probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with your origin story. The Thomas McConkie origin story. We know about that the day that I think… How old were you? 13? When you said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and decided to stop going to church. That was the beginning of this faith journey. We were hoping maybe you could pick up after high school and you’ve at that point disassociated yourself from the faith of your childhood and you start exploring other ways to connect to God or connect to some source. You’re feeling empty and you need something and you turn to mindfulness. Would you talk about your first experiences with that and how you got there and then where it took you?
Thomas McConkie: Sure. Thank you. I love the notion of having an origin story. It makes me feel like an X-Men. We’re off to a really good start so far. You can steer me here for better or for worse. When you asked that question, I had an image flashed cross my mind. I just turned 19 years old. I realized that I probably wasn’t going on a mission. I was of the mindset that, “Well, you never know.” But I felt pretty confident. It just doesn’t feel like the winds of my life are going in that direction. I could also tell that that I was going to be very problematic for my family and the environment I’d grown up in. I just kind of disappeared into the night one evening and showed up in Southern California and just decided, “I’m not going to tell anybody where I went and I’m not going back. I’m going to skip around here.”
But here are the two images that came to me. I’d been in California just a matter of days when I was boogie boarding at Laguna Beach and I got picked up by really big wave and smacked right on the floor of the ocean and it fractured my scapula. If you imagine… There was enough force of the wave to actually break my scapula. I remember crawling out of the ocean, wanting to throw up, and just being happy to be alive. And here I was, a 19-year-old feeling like I had no home left to call home. I’m in this new place in the world and I’m broken and I have to get a job and start making ends meet. That was something that came up when you were like origin story. “What happened around age 19?” I’m like, “Oh, I almost died.”
Fast forward a few months and I’ve found an apartment in Long Beach, California which is several miles up the coast and my roommate at the time made friends with a guy at the local watering hole who actually had a crack habit. This was interesting. There’s a guy… Now I’m in some rough part of outer L.A. My shoulder’s kind of healed and I have a few bucks in my pocket so I’m not in panic mode, but I’m definitely not stable, secure. There’s a guy who comes by our house a few times a week to park up on our patio and smoke crack. That happened to be the place where I also meditated because I was really at this point, 19 years old, as a pretty diligent meditator and it become a spiritual lifeline for me.
The patio, without getting into too much detail, it was on a really busy street. Lots of cars whizzing by. There’s just a thin wall that separated us from traffic and the gravel they’d poured into the concrete was really sharp and jagged, so it was very uncomfortable to sit on. It was a difficult place. Think like main thoroughfare in L.A. slash crack den slash sharp stones poking into your ankle bones.
It’s really uncomfortable and yet here’s hopefully the story, it redeems itself. I remember just out of the blue one day I was sitting and I was in a lot of physical pain and I was in a lot of emotional pain and out of nowhere with no warning sign, everything just subsided. All the pain, all the jagged edges of the entire world, they just completely smooth out. I just felt like I was illuminated from the inside out by this almost unbearable love.
At that point, it was really a learning moment for me because my life was quite rough at age 19. I wasn’t living in a safe neighborhood. I didn’t have much of a steady stream of income. I felt emotionally devastated by the falling out I’ve had with my family and the church, and yet, here was the unflinching grace in my life as if to say, “It doesn’t matter where you go, I’m right here with you lighting the path and you are Holy to me.” It really gave me confidence to… It’s like, “Well, I hope conditions don’t get worse than this. But if they do, I have a sense of how I might meet even worse conditions.” That was a big moment for me on the path of meditation, on the path of prayer.
Aubrey Chaves: Was that a feeling that was familiar to you? Did it remind you of your past? Or this was a new experience?
Thomas McConkie: Both. There’s a continuity in all of our growth and development our spiritual lives. In a sense, it’s a previous spiritual experiences that create the foundation for the next breakthrough. In a sense, there was something continuous about it and yet there was a brand new quality to it. It was so dramatic in terms of the environment I was in and how desperate I felt and how deep the grace was that met that desperation. So it was both. It was old and it was new,
Aubrey Chaves: I get that. I love that. That’s beautiful.
Thomas McConkie: I love that you say that. The thing about this story is the details of our lives are different, but I think the underlying realities is one and the same. Of course, when I resonate this language, it speaks to the part of you that has experienced the same thing in your own personal life.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Exactly.
Tim Chaves: I’m curious if you feel in that experience that you were doing some active reaching out externally or were you simply being present in that external… I assume you consider it to be somewhat external divine force reached to you?
Thomas McConkie: Yeah. I hope not to wear up the stockpile answer, but I think it was both in the sense that I had actively created a prayer room in my living space and I went there every day for a certain amount of time as if to say, “Here I am, God, I’m available.” At that point, we can’t force anything to happen. We can let something happen. I think we can be willing for something to happen, but we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Tim Chaves: That’s really been the case with me, too, and obviously my faith journey has been wildly different than yours, but even in those cases where I’ve been actively seeking for an answer to some sort of prayer, it very rarely has seemed to come in that very moment. It may come and it seems like it’s days or weeks or sometimes years later where I can go back and connect the dots and say, “My seeking led to this receiving,” in some form or fashion. But it’s rarely just right there. It’s rarely a simple telephone call or text message back and forth.
Thomas McConkie: Yeah. One of my friends used to say, “God is not a cosmic vending machine. Where we put in our coins and we get out the response to our prayer that we paid good money for.” It comes when it comes and there’s an art to waiting, to watching.
Tim Chaves: Yes, absolutely.
Aubrey Chaves: Do you feel … I keep thinking about what you said about that this is a progression and you get to this point where you’re ready for the next thing. Do you feel it was a period of unlearning? I think most people describe a crisis of faith or a transition of faith as a deconstruction of what you’ve learned, but looking back, do you feel like you really were building on this foundation you had as a kid or are there things that you were taking apart and starting over and replacing?
Thomas McConkie: Yeah, that’s a complex question. On the simple side of things, absolutely, there is a deconstruction going on. I think to some extent all human beings are full of wrong ideas and the developmental process is one of letting go of those wrong ideas and replacing them with slightly more appropriate or functional or accurate beliefs. That’s one way to think about the developmental journey. I was full of a lot of bad ideas at 19. I’m twice that age now and I’m still full of a lot of bad ideas. A lot of my coming into… I’ll just refer to it as a prayer practice. I feel really comfortable at that language. But it was becoming more and more conscious of what you’re pointing to, Aubrey, just like a need to let go of my ideas.
That’s been a bright line for me in my spiritual life, recognizing that it happens so quickly and so unconsciously that I think what I’m thinking about the world is actually the way the world is. In a given moment when I can experience this moment a little more naked way, a little more open hearted way without my mental models of the world between me and reality, those tend to be incredibly aesthetic and spirit-filled moments. And prayer is maybe a way that we lay ourselves bare.
Prayers, Now and Then
Tim Chaves: In terms of the way that I’ve thought about prayer throughout my life, I think the very first thing I learned, and actually this is the way we taught it, when I went on a mission, this is how we taught it to investigators. It was open by addressing Heavenly Father and then you say what you’re grateful for and then you ask for what you want and make sure you got to get those in the right answer. Thankful first, ask for what you want after, and then close in the name of Jesus Christ and that’s a prayer. I’m not throwing that under the bus by any means but I think we have to start somewhere.
I’m curious, Thomas, if that was your experience prior to age 13 when you were still attending church. Did you hear the same things that I was hearing? And how does that idea of a little bit of a ritualistic prayer compare and contrast with the way that you pray now?
Thomas McConkie: Yes, I did have similar instruction as you did when I was young and I smile right now because I’m 39 now. I still pray that way often. Not always though. When I was 12 maybe, I almost always prayed that way and now maybe like a poet might shift between different meters and forms, there’s a sonnet and then there’s the wild Walt Whitman open verse and there are different kinds of poetry that have different kinds of effects and I appreciate it being able to shift across poetic forms in prayer life, you might say.
Aubrey Chaves: I’m curious what specifically you feel is valuable about that type of petitionary prayer?
Thomas McConkie: I feel my anxiety building and so I need to say something just so I can relax as we talk about this. We’re having a conversation about prayer and you two are good enough to invite me on to share my views on prayer, but I don’t really know what prayer is. Maybe you and everybody already knows this, but I just want to name it. I have ideas, some more wrong than others about what prayer is and I’m learning what prayer is. So I really take this as kind of an open-ended exploration of what prayer might be. I feel better. Feel better already.
Back to your question, the benefit of petitionary prayer, I’ve just noticed maybe I can chuck us into the deep end a little bit here. One of my preferred modes of prayer is in the Zen tradition would be called sitting as openness. And even if you have no Zen training, just to hear those words, I think it would evoke something in all of us like sitting as openness.
We all have a sense of what it’s like. To just be still and open and receptive. I love that form of prayer because it brings all of the activity of my body, mind, heart, too, a whisper and even quieter than a whisper sometimes. In those moments, I feel most intimate with the divine. And that’s incredibly powerful and restorative to me. It gives me profound faith and hope to live this life and to trust in the basic goodness of life itself and God’s presence in all things. And yet if I hang out as openness all day, if I hang out as formlessness all day, there’s no form to that. At some point I need to get up off my cushion or off the chair that I pray in and do something with my life, express something, hopefully let the Spirit express something through me.
In other words, petitionary prayer to me is a really powerful movement in the direction of channeling Spirit through my unique heart’s desires and my own talents and my own gifts and petitionary prayer, I think we could call, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call it a celebration of the unique selves. Because every prayer is unique to an individual. The prayer in your heart can only be prayed to a living God by you and through your own. My sense is that God feels great pleasure and joy when we bring that prayer into form.
Intentionality in Prayer
Aubrey Chaves: That expression, yeah, I really love that. That’s a great answer. That’s a really good answer. I love Mindfulness+ and I think you were the first person who really introduced me to this idea of this openness and trust in life and this radical acceptance and that really led to lots of exploration in that area. The thing that I felt always confused by though was when you are resisting something, when there’s something that feels like it’s causing suffering and I want to pray it away. That’s what feels so natural is I want to pray and believe that God will change this for me.
Could you talk about that intention and when do you accept and when do you believe that God could change? Because I think that’s why I struggle with petitionary prayer now. It was becoming this nightly list of anxieties that I wanted God to take away and I feel so much more inner peace by saying I just accept them, I accept this uncertainty, I accept all of these things I don’t know. That gave me so much more peace than like begging and resisting and hoping that God would change it all.
Thomas McConkie: You guys are really going for this conversation. These are very good. I have some feelings about that. I have some reflections just in the moment. Nothing final about it, but certainly a lot of curiosity like yourself. I think of an analogy when you asked that. I’ve been really interested in my dream life at different times. Right now, I’m in more of an ebb. Sometimes I’m in more of a flow and I’ll keep a dream journal and I’ll really go deeply into what’s happening in my dream world. Something I’ve observed over the years that’s interesting. Dreams are generated, we could say, by our own mind.
A psychiatrist will say something like, “When you dream, you’re every character in the dream.” Even if you have a dream that, Aubrey, you’re talking to your mother, you’re actually your mother in your dream because you’re not talking to your mother. You’re talking to your projection of your mother in your dream.
What’s interesting about that to me is that why should dreams be so surprising then? If I’m my mother and I’m my siblings and I’m my old boss and all these people are showing up in the dream, how come what they’re saying is so surprising to me if I’m the one saying it all, shouldn’t I know what I’m going to say?
Maybe this analogy… I have this innate sense. I do a lot of teaching and workshops and I have a sense when I’m in an analogy and people like, “Okay, you better be getting somewhere with the story.” I’m losing my audience. But what I mean to say is like in response to your question, over time I’ve experienced in my prayer life a kind of power of discernment. It’s certainly not perfect. It’s still growing and developing, but I’ve noticed a sixth sense I have for when is something coming from the little me like the neurotic, anxious, fearful…
Aubrey Chaves: Ego.
Thomas McConkie: Yeah, the part of me that wants to be in control of the whole program and when do I say something or feel something in my prayer life, it’s genuinely surprising.
That’s where I was going with the whole dream analogy. We might have to edit that…
Aubrey Chaves: No, I get that.
Thomas McConkie: … because it’s just terrible podcasting.
What I’m saying is when we surprise ourselves in a prayer, that’s an indication that something deeper is coming through us, that our prayer life is deepening, and my sense is there’s no end to how much that can deepen and how much we can empty ourselves of the natural man, willful, rebellious spirit, and how much room we can make for the truest part of ourself to come through in prayer. That’s an adventure in and of itself.
Tim Chaves: That’s interesting. I wonder, do you think it is really your true self that’s coming through in those instances where you feel the right things are being expressed? Or is that a divine connection? We read this in D&C as well that we can be given the words to pray for, right? Is it an openness and it becomes a cycle where we’re given those things and then reflect them back toward the divine? Or is it something truly internal?
Thomas McConkie: Maybe. Yeah. I love the way you just voiced it. It’s the way I heard you expressed it just now. It was really insightful that it’s as though there’s a reciprocity or giving and taking from our God in heaven to the God in ourselves. It’s as if a deep prayer, God is just talking to God and yet there’s something vital about that process. It’s somehow like a mother breastfeeds her child. Maybe God is in reciprocity with us in prayer, growing us up and nourishing us. I’m just riffing on what I heard you say, but it’s quite beautiful.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, I love that idea. I’m curious if we could talk a little bit more about this idea of uncertainty and faith and could you talk about how those two ideas relate in your mind? Because I think I sort of absorbed that faith is not having any uncertainty. In my very simplistic, primary kid understanding faith is knowing that the sun will rise and faith is this foundation and there is no uncertainty. I’ve heard you talk about faith in an almost completely opposite way. That faith is this acceptance of uncertainty. Could you talk about how faith affects your prayers and specifically how you define faith? What does faith feel like to you?
Thomas McConkie: When you asked that question, I noticed a low grade panic coming up in me. “She’s asking a question. I have no idea what faith is. I don’t have an answer.” Just to be transparent. I know people have asked me in the past what I think about faith. I know I could refer to past answers, but honestly in the moment I’m feeling that kind of like, “Uh-oh.” Maybe as a practice of faith, we can sit still at that for a moment. I’m going to search myself and see if there’s anything. I’m going to refresh my web browser, so to speak, to put it in millennial terms.
I heard a doctor once described the way that the living cells in the human body actually have no more than a few seconds of oxygen supply and food supply. I have not thought about this in years. I’m a little surprise it’s coming up but he actually… He described the state of eternal now that a soul lives in. They don’t know if they’re going to have enough food in the next moment and yet they’re vibrant and full of life and creative and generative.
In this moment, if the three of us and all those joining us, if we’re like cells in a human body or some living body, faith is something like this trust that my manna is going to come, I’m going to be fed. I don’t know where it’s going to come from.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow. That just completely resonates with me. I love that. Do you have… Go ahead.
How to Develop Spiritual Habits
Tim Chaves: I’m going to try… I’m going to put a thought and try to put it into words here, but I feel there is a way in which these different types of prayer could map onto your framework of stages of adult development as well.
I remember this time of my life, it was probably three to four-year span when I was maybe like 22 to 26 and I was graduating college, starting a career, and I was really into entrepreneurship along with several of my friends at the time. I typify this time in my life… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ferriss, but he’s like a ultra-entrepreneur, do all the things, solve all the things, achieve all the things. I was really, really into that at that time of my life.
I look back on that now and don’t relate to it as much, but there was something about it and I think… If we were going to try and map that onto your framework from your book, that would be maybe like the achiever stage. Now I like to… It’s very hard to say and I know you say in your book that everyone occupies multiple stages at different times, or all the time really. But I like to think that I’ve moved on from that a little bit and I’m not quite as mired in that I have to do all the things. But like you were saying before, at some point you have to get up and give form to whatever it is you can. You can’t just sit and be still and remain open all the time. Right?
So I feel like there’s a… I feel like petitionary prayer does go along with that achiever stage in some ways. It’s like, “I want to solve this, I want to achieve this, I want to have this thing change.” And then, maybe later stages more in that openness. I’m curious more generally… And we can relate this back to prayer, but I’m curious, too, if we have a desire to occupy at least partly those later stages, is it okay to jump back into that achiever stage and say, “I want to get stuff done.”
I was getting into a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s all about using the force of habit to get a lot of things done. I was getting so excited about it and I was like, “Wait, am I the same person I was 12 years ago and I kind of lost my excitement?” But at the same time, I want to achieve things. How do you… I’m just going to throw that out there and say, “How do you develop those things?”
Thomas McConkie: I love the question and I hear a lot of insights even as you’re forming the question. I tend to take a developmental perspective on everything. It’s not the whole picture, but it’s an important part of the picture that things are in process and evolving and changing. That’s been one of the major insights of modern intellectual history that something like evolution is happening. Anything we understand we have to understand not just as a thing fixed, but as a process unfolding.
Yes, of course. If you’re asking me if we can map prayer to development, I’d say, “Oh, you bet we can.” I think the tendency in our… I won’t get into the jargon of development, but I’ll say in young adulthood I think there’s a tendency to be pretty certain that the world is knowable. We can figure it out and therefore God is knowable. We can know who God is. And then as we get a little older, we tend to get more nuanced and say, “Yeah, we can know who God is, but it’s going to take some work.” It’s not obvious what is the exact character of God.
You referred to the achiever stage where among other things we’re really honing in this stage of development. A lot of people in the modern Western world, they’ll be flirting with or deep in this stage by their early 20s to mid-20s, just to give people a ballpark. This is a stage where we’re really starting to hone our sense of, “Who am I? What do I care about? What do I value and what am I going to do with this wild, precious gift of a human life?”
That shows up in our prayer practice. Like you said. The achiever energy of, “I want this, I’m going for this, God helped me do this thing that is burning in my heart to do.” I think there’s a lot of value in exploring the whole spectrum of human development and human being certainly have capacity to grow into gods and goddesses is my sense of it.
We don’t ever want to get stuck in a particular way of seeing things because what we know from modern developmental science and what we know from reveal doctrine is that God doesn’t intend for us to get stuck in seeing things one way. There’s a lot more to be seen no matter how developed or mature we are. That said, healthy development includes really using the very best of all of the gifts of all of the stages that we’ve progressed through.
To come back full circle, I would say not only is it okay to have like a quote, “Achiever-type prayer where I’m asking for things and I want things and I’m really sincerely opening my heart to God and saying, ‘Help me do this.” Not only is that okay, I would say it’s necessary for optimal development to honor that part of us. We all need to develop through. If we’re going to become gods and goddesses, we’re going to progress through that particular moment in human life where that energy is hot and roaring, and we better never leave it behind it because that’s a part of our wholeness. We need that to be a whole.
Tim Chaves: I love that. That’s wonderful.
Thomas McConkie: It’s good news, right? We’re good. We’re all good.
Tim Chaves: I love that idea. Before you said that I had really been thinking as leaving a stage, but it’s not leaving it entirely, right? It is taking at least the best parts of it with you as you progress.
Thomas McConkie: It’s natural to think about it as leaving, but not only are we leaving it, we’re nesting it. We’re embracing it within a greater context of a greater wholeness and fullness. It’s good news. We leave nothing good behind. That’s what I like to say.
Aubrey Chaves: I love the way you’re describing that because I was starting to think that petitionary prayer was always this ego-driven, like I’m trying to manipulate my life into what seems good to me. I like this idea that you can still be totally open and express who you are to God and ask for God’s help with these deep desires that you feel are almost coming from God. I’ve never thought about how you can have it all. It’s a way to express that union that you feel with God.
Thomas McConkie: That’s beautifully said. That’s exactly what I’m saying. That’s exactly my experience of it. Perhaps God needs us to pray these possibilities into existence. My experience is that when people offer a genuine prayer, it’s birthing healing into the world itself, light and love. We’re God’s vessels. If nobody’s praying that into the world that limits what form… Keep praying everybody.
Aubrey Chaves: I really love that. I’ve felt that. I know what you mean. That’s why it’s been such a struggle. I felt that power every once in a while, especially when someone is praying for someone else and something is happening. So I don’t want to let that go, but at the same time I was like, “I’m resisting.” I need to accept that this is just the situation and I think that’s the missing piece of the puzzle for me. That’s what I wasn’t totally graphing. So thank you, though. I really love that.
Prayer as Conversation
Thomas McConkie: Thank you. I’m loving this conversation and I’m having this impulse right now. I want to turn the tables and interview the interviewers, but the reason I’m saying that is I’m sensing from what you said, Aubrey, that prayer is palpable. Anyone can come to whatever conclusions they want, but for me, I feel palpable power when people pray and here we are in this conversation about what is prayer and the question that came up for me as you’re speaking of how is this conversation right now that we’re having already a prayer, and in what ways can the three of us who are having this conversation have an intention to generate the power that we feel through prayer.
It’s not a question I need any one of the three of us to answer so much. It was just like, “Oh, how does that change our conversation if we hold it as a prayer and an intention to bring something into the world through our conversation?”
Tim Chaves: One thing that comes to mind for me when you say that is what is our motivation in having this conversation? Does the ego play a role? Are we doing this out of love? Are we serving in some way the work of love by having this conversation? I remember and, Aubrey, I maybe voicing a little bit what you were referencing in your comment, but we were in Sunday school a few weeks ago and one of our ward members had just lost his job and needed a job and we closed the meeting with a prayer and you expect to close it and say, “Please bless us all to travel home safely,” or whatever. The woman that gave the prayer in the most sincere way prayed for this person by name that he would find a job. They’re 50 whatever people in the room and I think all of our hearts were united in that desire for him to find a job.
That was one of the most palpable prayers that I’ve been a part of in my recent past and I think the fact that prayer was only in the service of love and in some ways it needed to leave the ego behind, especially on his part. That could be something that you could be very self-conscious about and when that self, I think, is dropped completely and love replaces it, then just about anything we’re doing can become prayer like in a way.
Thomas McConkie: That’s amazing. Thank you, Tim.
Aubrey Chaves: The other thing that occurred to me was that there is something about connection in prayer and I think that’s what I’ve started to value a lot more with contemplative prayer is that instead of trying to think of what I’m going to say. I’m really alert to this feeling of connection that I have. I remember you saying something in a Mindfulness+ episode a long time ago. I wish I could remember what you said. I remember you talking about following your energy and I think you gave new language to something we try to talk about. Recognizing promptings of the Holy Ghost was maybe more common language, but something about hearing it phrased “follow your energy” really shifted an idea in my mind and it has made it a lot easier for me to recognize where God wants me to go.
I was always tangled up with this question about, “Is it the Spirit that’s talking to me or is this myself?” When the question became, “Where is my energy taking me?” That question just disappeared and it was about that… I feel like my feet are already moving in this direction and so I’m going and following that feeling that I had that has led me to so many more.
They feel like miracles because it was like things were suddenly in my lap that I didn’t know I needed and that has happened over and over again and I think that I really made it such an intellectual exercise to always decide like, “Is this the Holy Ghost or is this something about my brain?” When I could put that all aside and recognize that I feel like my heart is just moving here and follow that without question, I, over and over, have seen this connection to people and to God that I’ve never really experienced before.
I feel that… When you were asking, “How can it be a prayer?” I think that’s what prayer feels like to me now. It’s this intense connection to… A horizontal connection to people I’m with and in conversation and this and also this deep connection to something more powerful, which I think is God.
Thomas McConkie: So beautiful. Yeah. Thanks for sharing that, Aubrey. I’m really moved by both of you.
Thoughts on Fasting
Tim Chaves: Thomas, can I ask you a little bit about fasting?
Thomas McConkie: Sure. Yeah. Let’s go.
Tim Chaves: Aubrey and I realized, I don’t know when it was maybe a couple of years ago, that fasting had become a source of somewhat significant anxiety for us both. I think in part because it’s so tangible and in part because you expect… It’s the ultimate prayer to bring about some sort of change, right? When we think of fasting, it’s often as I say with a purpose and often the purpose is external and I think often the purpose is loving in some way. For me in particular and, Aubrey, you could share how it made you feel, too… But often when we would fast for something like that, it would be this thing where number one, there’s that question of like, “Well, how long am I really fasting. Church ends at one and I ate two. Did I really do the two meals? If I didn’t, then am I get the blessing of it or not.”
“If the person that I’m fasting for isn’t blessed in this way, then is it going to be my fault? And did I not have enough faith or did I not say my prayer before and my prayer after?” Or whatever. Obviously, I’m exaggerating a little bit. It was a little bit more thoughtful than just that. But we decided, between me and Aubrey, to take some time for our fast to only be fast of gratitude. So there was no blessing of any kind attached to our fasting. I think this is probably indicative of a stage that we’re in, and I’m not at all by any means saying that this is the way to do it, but it did seem to lift some of that anxiety away, at least for a time, because there was nothing to be changed, there was nothing attached to it.
I’m throwing that out there and I’m curious, what are some of the practices that have helped you apply fasting to prayer in a way that it avoids anxiety and helps you find connection both with God and with others?
Thomas McConkie: Yeah, totally, that’s an awesome question. Just to reflect back what I heard you say, it sounds like there was some anxiety associated. It’s almost like, pardon the term but, performance anxiety. “We’re going to fast and this fast is going to produce something and if it fails to produce something, I’m going to feel like a failure.” You too like have the inspiration to say, “Well, let’s divorce the fasting from the performance.” Now you’re back into the sweet spot of, “Oh, this is actually quite powerful.” Is that a fair way to…
Tim Chaves: Exactly, yes.
Thomas McConkie: I can really relate to that and I’m just sensitive while I’m listening as well. For me, I haven’t necessarily thought of it this way before, but as you were speaking, it occurs to me that fasting is a form of yoga. By yoga, I mean it’s a physical discipline we undertake to more consciously work with our energy. That can be physical energy, that can be subtle energy, the energy of spirit, which is particularly relevant and prayer like. What I’ve noticed… Just in my own life, I do a lot of meditation retreat at Lower Lights. I read a lot of retreats. I spent a lot of time in silence I guess compared to an average person. What I’ve found over the years is that staying hungry at the retreats is really powerful and this can be difficult because food is the one comfort we have to keep it together and feel we’re a little bit in control.
Tim Chaves: You mean staying physically hungry?
Thomas McConkie: Yeah, staying physically… Yeah, thank you. That can be interpreted… Especially with me speaking, I could be saying anything right now. To stay a little bit hungry and what I find on a very… Almost at the level of basic arithmetic, if my physical energies aren’t going towards digestion, they’re freed up. It’s like, “Give us a job to do. There’s no food in the system.” So I’ve found that just staying a little bit hungry actually really gets the fire of my prayer life going in a retreat setting.
When the first Sunday of the month rolls around, I get a little bit excited because that feeling of the fire, like a subtle fire of spirit, starting to roar. I love that quality and it feels whatever my intention of where I want to direct that energy. It’s a personal thing. I love what you shared about gratitude fast. I haven’t done that before, but I think I’ll try it now. I love the yoga of stoking that subtle fire and knowing that I don’t have to do anything with that fire. If nothing else but this fire burns a little brighter in the world, the world will feel that heat. It’s good in and of itself to convert that energy into prayer energy.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow. I love that.
Thomas McConkie: I hope that doesn’t sound too woo for our audience.
The Role of Prayer in Faith Crisis
Aubrey Chaves: No, that was so great. I would love to ask you. I keep thinking of this. I keep thinking about… I think we have a lot of listeners who have experienced crisis of faith of one kind or another or maybe have a very close family member who is experiencing that. I’m curious if you could talk about prayer in that context because I think that for a lot of people their most desperate prayers happened during a crisis of faith. The prayer is like, “Please let me know if the church is true. I need that one certainty in my life.” Could you talk about that? Do you accept uncertainty in that context? Or is that a place where we should keep believing that we’re going to receive that one answer?
Thomas McConkie: Just to make sure I understand the question, for somebody who’s in a faith crisis, faith transition, identity crisis, God crisis, what role can prayer play in that situation?
Aubrey Chaves: I feel for a lot of people the prayer they’re praying every day is, “Is the church true?” Or “Is their God…” They want to have certainty around those questions. I love this idea of openness and more of a transcendent trust in the context of our little problems that come and go. Believing that your life is taking you in the right place and trusting God in this even deeper way than fixing these little problems. But I feel for a lot of people who are experiencing this deconstruction we talked about, they just need that certainty. That is their prayer and that’s what they want an answer to. Do you have advice around when that’s what you want so much?
Thomas McConkie: I do have advice. I’m going to put on my advice giving hat now. Actually something really useful comes to mind. I think we all have an intuitive sense that when we become too certain about how we view the world, how we view the church, how we view Christ, if we’re too certain, there’s a rigidity to it, really deep faith paradoxically. It needs uncertainty and it needs room to grow.
If the uncertainty becomes too great, it feels the bottom of the bucket fell out. It’s like, “I have nowhere to stand anymore. It’s too much uncertainty.” What I’ve noticed really naturally when people get into a deep end of too much uncertainty, at a very unconscious level, we all have a tendency to really become certain about the uncertainty, so to speak.
In other words, the experience of uncertainty it’s like, “I’m uncertain, I’m uncertain, I’m uncertain.” That becomes this new reality, but if we can actually learn to be even uncertain about our uncertainty. The way a meditation teacher of mine phrases it similarly is, “Negate the negation.” When it feels like God is obscuring something that you used to be positive about, don’t get too stuck on that negation. Actually you can let that live and breathe.
Ironically, we have a lot of certainty about our uncertainty and we start to tell ourselves stories. “It’s always going to be this way. I’m never going to know. I can’t stand not knowing right now.” But when we learn to really deeply relax, I mean at a physical level, relax in that uncertainty and even tune into the subtle level like the feelings in our heart, the thoughts in our mind full of uncertainty, if we do that… If we bring a lot of awareness to that inner state, we’ll notice that it’s actually objectively uncomfortable.
It’s like, “I don’t like to feel uncertain. I like to feel certain, so I’ll do anything I can to scramble back towards certainty.” But if we recognize the uncertainty as a spiritual window of opportunity opening and we say, “Okay, this uncomfortable feeling in my body and my mind and my heart right now, I’m going to just do what’s counter-instinctual. I’m going to totally relax into it. And if it wants to get even bigger and more intense, I’m going to let it. And if it wants to shrink and get more subtle, I’m just going to let it do what it wants.”
When we start to relate to uncertainty on that level, we tend to get an insight of what’s beyond certainty or uncertainty, what’s the reality behind all of it?
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. That’s awesome. My gosh, there’s no judgment. It just like you are feeling this and you were sitting with it and accepting it completely. What does that look like? I feel like there are so many people who are rewinding and they’re going to listen to that part over and over. It is so uncomfortable. It is so painful to accept that you feel that uncertainty and then to not know if the uncertainty is ever going to go away. Can you talk about what do you do when you wake up in the morning? If you are in that spot where you are like… It makes me think of The Cruciatus Curse. Is that what it is, Tim, on Harry Potter?
Tim Chaves: Yes.
Aubrey Chaves: You are tortured by this uncomfortable feeling. Or when you talked about the gravel, the prickly rocks, it feels like that. When you just can’t stand not knowing and not knowing what to expect in a year or even on Sunday. I think a lot of people are in that place where it’s so painful to realize that they don’t know what they believe anymore. What would you prescribe? Is this a matter of sitting for 10 minutes and accepting that feeling like you said? Or is it about… I don’t know. What can someone do physically or in their mind to help accept that uncertainty and do what you were saying? Lean into it a little bit.
Thomas McConkie: There’s a skillfulness to it, for sure. I won’t get into the different models I like to use with students when I teach, but I can describe in a really simple way that people can try out right now. If you look closely at this experience of doubt, uncertainty, loss of faith, loss of identity, actually on a physical level, it’s uncomfortable. We’d rather not feel that way. We don’t want to feel uncertainty any more than we want to feel nauseous. If we could take some medicine to make the nausea go away, we will. But if we look even closer at the uncertainty, what we find is that the objective sensation in the body and the heart in and of themselves aren’t what is so excruciating. It’s actually the sensation that starts to get tangled with and start to cross, multiply with stories we have about the uncertainty.
For example, the moment I wake up and I feel this ache in my heart and before I even realized it, a split second later there’s a thought in my mind. “I feel totally lost in the world. I feel hopeless. I don’t know how I’m going to go on another day.” It’s actually that narrative that’s the excruciating part. But if I can learn to rest in the simplicity, the nakedness of the ache in my heart, and stay with that raw sensation and separate out any meaning making about it, even any emotional interpretation… Because when I do this with students, they’ll tell me that they’re dying. They cannot handle this amount of suffering.
I’ll say, “Where is that suffering in your body?” “I don’t know. I feel it everywhere. I really feel it in my chest. It’s right here.” And they’ll point to their chest and I’ll say, “What are the sensations?” And they’ll say, “I feel hopeless and desperate.” I’ll stop them there and say, “Is there actually desperation at the level of sensation?” At that point though, they’ll like, “Oh man, I hate this guy.”
But if we go beneath the emotional level of interpretation, that narrative level and we get into the rawness of the sensation, we all have the capacity to do this as adults, when we get down to that raw sensation, we say something like, “Yeah, it feels like there’s this sour, pinching, aching quality in my chest.” When we get that bare bones, the next question is, “Is it so achy that it’s going to collapse your heart physically? Is it going to kill you?” Usually, the answer’s like, “No, it’s really intense. It’s really uncomfortable. I would rather not be experiencing it, but as a sensation, I can breathe and I can be with it.”
As we practice breaking down our wrong ideas about what God ought to be doing for us, and as we get more intimate with the truth of our embodied experience, we start to develop a capacity to communicate with God on a whole new level. We start to read the signals of our body as new direction in our spiritual life. We realized that this heartache was actually given to us as a gift to break through the wrong ideas we had in the first place about life. A powerful presence comes through in the most excruciating of signals in the body we realize, “Wow, I’m actually at the deepest level. I’m intelligence, I am spacious, open, freedom in spirit.”
[inaudible 00:56:53] wilderness, which is so touching to me. We have this direct experience that all these things are for our good and my experience of prayer and a life in prayer is that maybe more than anything else God wants us to know that all of these experiences are for our good and we don’t have to believe that if the level of an idea, we can actually know that in every cell of our body can feel, experience moment to moment purifying us and sanctifying us and opening up our path to the next step. It’s consecrated for us.
Tim Chaves: I love that. Thank you so much.
Aubrey Chaves: I think that’s a really good place to wrap up. That was just powerful.
Tim Chaves: That was beautiful. Thank you, Thomas.
Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Happy to pray with you guys anytime.
Tim Chaves: Yes, absolutely.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, really, that was incredible. Thank you so much.
Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Pleasure to be with you, too. Thanks for having me on.
Tim Chaves: Thanks so much for listening to this episode and we hope you enjoyed it. If you want to support Faith Matters, we’d love for you to subscribe to this podcast, like our Facebook page, or subscribe to our YouTube channel. We’d also love a rating on Apple podcasts or a thumbs up on YouTube if you feel so inclined. Thanks so much for listening, and as always, you can check out more at faithmatters.org.