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Lost and Found

I suppose late-night conversations can frequently end in more personal revelations than their daytime counterparts.  I’m not quite sure why this is, but for some reason the late hour and pre-sleep quietude seem to lead a great many of my conversations into the deep and probing questions of existence.

A fellow martial artist and I traveled to Denver last weekend for the rare opportunity to train with the Grandmaster of our system.  We arrived quite late on Friday evening, and in the pre-dawn hours before trailing off into slumber our conversation gradually steered itself toward the empowering results of personal experience in discovering the truth about our existence and the possibilities of human nature.  We touched on the philosophy of the Taoists in their approach to truth and their use of personal experience as the measuring tool for discerning ultimate reality.  This approach empowers the individual to find their own answers (even if they are the same as those of others) instead of blind reliance on the traditions passed down.

At this point we somehow began discussing my own religious beliefs.  The parallel is an easy one to make.  One fundamental teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that everyone has not only the right but the responsibility to seek out direct communications from God regarding the affairs of their life.  Yes, there are some appointed to positions wherein they can receive such inspiration for those under their care, but this is never meant to be the sole source of divine revelation for life.  In fact, given the sheer proportion of time spent alone vs. within earshot of an authority figure, the vast majority of revelation and divine insight must of necessity come directly from heaven to one’s heart and mind without any pit stops in anyone else’s mouth.  This is what I mean by discerning the truth by personal experience.

As basic evidence of this viewpoint, I mentioned that before anyone can become a baptized member, they are invited to read sections of the Book of Mormon and then give it the ultimate test: personally ask God to tell them if the book is true (with all that that entails).  We invite them to pay close attention to their feelings and thoughts during this process and to use their discernment.

Upon relating this, my companion then disarmed me with a sincere question: “Did you do that?”

“Yes.  I did.”

“What happened?”

It had been quite some time, years in fact, since I had recalled to mind the peculiar events surrounding my own personal quest to discover the verity of the Book of Mormon.  And I am glad that I had that opportunity, for it is too easy to forget the miracles in one’s own life when swarmed by the daily concerns of living.

I answered as follows:

I had grown up in the church and was baptized at the age of eight, so those doubtful questions didn’t really arise until into my teen years.  They hit a feverish pitch as I began my preparations to serve as a missionary for the church.  I needed to be sure that what I was about to go about teaching was not just a collection of platitudes and anecdotes to soothe the aches of the living, but the honest truth.

So I began reading and rereading the Book of Mormon with ever increasing scrutiny, taking care to be aware of what my heart told me as well as my mind.  This went on for months, and my departure date for Brazil came and went.  I actually found myself in the Missionary Training Center still seeking certainly, praying fervently in between bouts of wolfing down cafeteria food, tying my tongue into endless Portuguese knots, and studying the basic teachings and doctrines of the Church.  No clear answer came.

This does not mean that I never felt that it was right.  It did.  Everything made perfect sense to me, and I had already experienced several moments of clear inspiration in relation to my own church service.  But never in answer to the question of the Book of Mormon.

Well, soon I found myself in Brazil with a Brazilian companion, a ceilingless apartment, and a bathroom so small that you could use the toilet, shower, and brush your teeth at the same time – that is, if the cockroaches weren’t using it as a dance floor.  The strange circumstances did nothing to ease my concerns about the knowing the truth, even if I couldn’t really say it in Portuguese yet.

About 2 weeks into that experience, I finished reading a portion of the book, closed the covers and began anew my petitions for illumination.  I am not sure how long I prayed before there opened before my eyes a very peculiar vision of the exact nature and process by which the Book of Mormon had been translated.  I happened before me as if I were the translator, seeing the characters in Reformed Egyptians and then with concentration, thought, and prayer discovering their meaning.  The process was very difficult at first, but it became much easier with practice.  (Years later I came to learn that my own experience matched point for point the process as described by Joseph Smith).

Accompanying this prolonged experience came a powerful inward certainty of the contents of the Book of Mormon that I was translating: that they are in fact divinely inspired writings, that the events therein actually occurred, and that the teachings recorded within its pages are indeed the word and will of God.

From the outside, this is a remarkable and strange declaration.  I admit that it is far from the ordinary experience of prayer.  But it is nevertheless true.  I feel the power of that certainty today just as vividly as I did then, and know that a true seeker after truth can always know the object of his desire.

My friend then said to me, “I envy you.”

This is the second time I have been told that.

“Why?” I asked.

“I really want to believe in those things.  They all make perfect sense to me, and I don’t have any problem with them intellectually.  It’s just that I have no feeling of belief for them.  I want to believe.  But I just can’t, and I’m terrified of arriving at my deathbed still not being able to believe in the existence of life after this one.”

I sympathized with him, of course, and gave him my own assurances.  That is not an easy place to be, and I inwardly prayed that he could find the peace and certainty he sought.  “Have you thought to ask God yourself?”  I asked.

“No.  I hadn’t.  At least not until now.”

“In my experience,” I told him, “no sincere prayer is ever left unanswered.”

Perhaps he is not yet ready for such a belief, or for what such a belief might mean in his life.  Perhaps he already believes but doesn’t see it because he thinks belief is supposed to look a certain way.  I don’t know.  But I was grateful that night that he helped me to recollect such a precious experience in my own life.  The past 13 years had almost swallowed it up with other, far less significant remembrances.  But now it has been found again and reclaimed from the effacing sands of time.

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The Ritual

Feb 17th, 2012 — 2:45pm
Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

I didn’t want to give up the watch.  It had been a very thoughtful and meaningful gift to me from my wife.  Not a wristwatch, but a clip watch.  Silver with a clasping lid.  An elegant face.  Simple.  Perfect.  But it was the only valuable thing I had on me; I really had no other choice.

It surprised me how difficult it was:  giving up the watch.  I set it down on top of the nearest ledge–a dirty, white fire hydrant casing sticking out from the wall of the hotel–and walked a few paces away.  The watch just sat there staring at me as the time passed, boring a hole in my back, willing me to pick it up again.  I fidgeted and paced, not wanting to give in, fighting back surprising and rather incomprehensible tears.  How could I?  How dare I?  This was a gift, not some useless trinket.  What would my wife think?  Wouldn’t this hurt her feelings?  Shouldn’t she be consulted in this matter?  And what good would it do leave it?  It was just a watch, after all.  How was leaving it really going to change anything?

The shuttle interrupted my inner debate, and before I knew it the watch was gone.  No turning back now.  Not ever.

You see, I had made important promises to myself that weekend: habits I was leaving behind, promises that I couldn’t bear to talk myself out of again like I had countless times before.  So I had spent the better part of the three weeks prior trying to devise some kind of ritual to perform that would make these promises more real, more vivid, more inescapable than before.

The answer came in my hotel room while praying.  The thought struck me that the only reason I hadn’t given up detrimental habits in the past was because they were too valuable to me.  They gave me an escape from difficulty; they gave me common ground with others who shared those habits; they, in certain ways, defined me (even if I didn’t want them to).  To eliminate these chains from my life, I urgently needed find some tangible thing that was truly valuable to me, and then give it up in a way that I could never retrieve it.  The watch was all I had, and this weekend was the perfect opportunity.

I still marvel at how emotional that small ritual was.  On one hand, I felt like I was betraying my dear wife and those who counted on me by not consulting with them first — as if I somehow needed their permission to become more than I then was — as if the decision to better myself was only right if it didn’t step on anyone else’s toes.  On the other hand, the whole situation was absolutely idiotic.  Here I was getting worked up over a watch!  As if purposefully leaving a tiny hunk of metal with a few moving parts in some random hotel in Florida would really do more than deprive me of a timepiece.

Ahh… but it did.

A Day of 3 Miracles

The truth is that I had been praying (and, truth be told, fasting) for a miracle.  Still am.  Not the type you’re thinking, either.  This one is a little more in line with common experience.  I have recently made some huge structural changes to my business and am looking for a miracle (in terms of success and student enrollment) to provide evidence for the remainder of my organization that the changes are in fact the way to go.

You might ask, “Why does that require a miracle?”  That’s a good question.  I suppose that it wouldn’t under ordinary circumstances, but the current situation (I believe) fully merits the request: the entire administrative side of the organization will be spending 4 days at my particular location in less than a month!  Top that enormous plate of stress-spaghetti with a sauce comprised of diced anxiety-over-wasted-time-in-a-college-program and a heaping tablespoon of frustration-from-not-seeing-real-progress-toward-personal-dreams, and you have the only option that has been on the menu for a couple of weeks now.  That’s a lot of spaghetti.

So last Thursday dawned in its chilly way with me determined to see everything around me as working toward my highest good – at least for 1 day.  I’m amazed at what effect that small decision had.

Miracle 1

The community college had scheduled me for another 8am class that semester, which I was dreading because of how much it had drained me the last time I taught it.  At first, I tried to pass it off to a fellow instructor.  No go.  Resigned to my fate, I checked the roster that morning to see only 8 enrolled (the class needed 15 to carry), and Thursday was the cut off.  My mornings were mine again!

Miracle 2

I had an orientation meeting scheduled for that same evening that I had absolutely no desire to attend, but, true to my early-morning decision, I went with a positive attitude.  At least my body would get a break from the rigors of teaching for the evening.

During the introductions, a man on the far side of the room announced himself.  Almost immediately, my mind filled with a small-but-nagging urge to meet and talk with this fellow.  I knew him to be a practitioner of Tai Chi and Chi Kung who could demonstrate some of its effects at a level that I had never been shown previously.  So I waited for the right moment after the meeting and, even though I had to get back to my school, I struck up a conversation.  Two hours later, I went to my car with the feeling that I had made one of the most important connections of my life, though I’m still not sure what that entails.

We began talking just about the ‘burning palm’ technique that he had demonstrated for his students the previous semester.  This had been the cause of my initial interest in his training.  But that talk led to a discussion of the overarching concepts of the internal art of Pa Kua, which then seemed to encompass a discussion of Buddhism, Taoism, the nature of God, Priesthood vs. chi, the true potential and character of the human body, and (oh, yes) a live demonstration of ‘burning palm’.  It turns out that he holds the same religious beliefs that I do, we have some mutual friends in another state, and have some very similar thought patterns.

I can’t begin to describe how inspiring it was to meet someone who, at the drop of a hat, was willing to demonstrate the abilities described simply because the petition was sincere.  But then to add to that the discovery of another like-minded person who was intent upon finding the substance of things trained rather than just its shell: a seeker after experiencing the truth…  What a gift!

Miracle 3

I returned to my school after that conversation to find a man who had waited there all evening so that he could sign up.  No questions.  No need for me to even be there while the school itself was blessed with yet another enrollment.

Driving home that night, I realized that God is the only being who has always been on my side, even when I mistreat him because it seems otherwise.

3 Hours: The Conditions

Finding 3 hours together in a day anywhere can be a challenge in itself, but it is ultimately doable.  Keeping your mind and body from running off in all directions when you have found those 3 hours is a real achievement.  True to form, I set up a regimented plan for ramping up the amount of time that I would spend each week in meditation:  nevermind that my intuition was setting off alarm bells left and right; nevermind that watching the clock for any duration has yet to produce a sustained period of appreciable stillness.

Do I need to admit that the attempts failed?  Okay, they did.  Sure, I managed to sit for over an hour at one point.  But sitting is not the same as sitting still.  Fortunately, a good friend of mind came over right about this time and began discussing something that had been happening with him.  In the middle of it, he kept repeating the phrase, ‘the conditions of…’.  And that spawned a question, What are the conditions of that kind of stillness?

As with many of my searching questions, the answers have not been frantically beating down my door.  They’ve come slowly and have not yet all arrived.

The first?  Do not sit already waiting for the timer to ring in triumph.  Simply open yourself to the experience of sitting, whether it lasts for 10 minutes or 10 hours.  Try to simply feel whatever it is you’re feeling and be aware of it.  That’s all.  Notice what it’s like to sit.

I have successfully tried this once thus far.  It likely helped that I had no clock handy to calculate how long I had been sitting.  So, when I was done sitting, I got up.  Afterwards, I tried to calculate how long it had been.  I’m convinced it was about an hour, though it’s hard to tell.  And I’m not sure that it really matters at this point.

The second?  Financial stability.

This answer came to me right when I had begun wondering which was more important, pursuing my overarching dream, or leaving that for a time to focus on building my business.  This answer at first came out of left field, but it makes perfect sense to me now.  There is an undercurrent of worry and anxiety that mounts in the lean months when business is not going as well as it might.  That causes a tightness that is difficult to relax even on good days because there is a feeling of lack, of not having enough.  Stillness does not stay when that feeling is a permanent houseguest.  I suddenly understood that having a successful business was not a detour but a necessary stop on the way toward my dreams.

An Inescapable Identity

My mother phoned me the other day feeling the need to tell me about an experience she had while pregnant with me.  Like any dutiful son, I indulged her, but it seemed a rather odd topic of conversation to have over the phone.

She was lying uncomfortably in bed one evening, unable to sleep in the way that only a pregnant woman knows.  After fidgeting restlessly for a while, a sudden darkness smothered her.  Not a visible darkness, though all the lights were out, but an oppressive and paralyzing physical darkness.  She tried desperately to move her arms and legs, even her head, but this strange, fearsome darkness bound everything fast.  Even her voice refused to obey her mental summons.

As her mind raced to find the way to salvation from this impossible fiend, one singular thought arrested her attention: Moses’ words as he commanded Satan to leave his presence.  I can at least do that, she thought.  Then, even without her now useless vocal cords, she summoned all of her will and mentally commanded in the name of Christ, “Depart hence, Satan.”

The power that held her bound vanished completely.

As she finished relating this experience, she affirmed to me very sincerely, “I knew then that Satan was very interested in the events surrounding your birth.”

Of course, I have known for some time that I have a very specific mission to accomplish while on the earth.  Those exact words are declared no less than 3 times in my patriarchal blessing (which I had recently read), with a few other references to my purpose strewn in for good measure as well.  Nevertheless, it was ironic to me that, of all the times that my mother could have related that experience to me, she chose to do so now, just after rereading my blessing and shortly after returning from a rather remarkable visit to the temple.

I was involved in receiving some ordinances on behalf of others, and there just happened to be two men alternately officiating.  Toward the end of one of them, there comes a promise of heavenly protection until the time that your earthly work is finished.  I had listened to these words many times before and, though I marveled at enormous promise contained therein, I hadn’t yet fully considered it.

My first time through, the officiator finished and said, “That promise is for you.  This man has already passed on from the earth.”  The second time through, the other man said, “You know, you remind me of Joshua.  You know the one from the Bible.  He was a pretty valiant spirit.  I suppose you are, too.”  The third time through, the first officiator remarked, “So I guess you’d better get started.”

I marveled at these remarks.  I had not asked for any comment whatsoever and was content to contemplate what I was doing in perfect silence.  And yet these two men had unbeknownst to each other declared to me that I was a unique individual with a specific work to do and that I had better get on it.

In such a short span of time, I had received three distinct witnesses attesting to this selfsame fact: I, Robert Gardner, have a work to do on this earth that is unique to me, and it is an incredibly important work.  Many other witnesses have come, especially over the past year and a half, that have ratified this awareness including the assertions of an energy healer regarding my premortal state and many personal revelations directly from God.  This engenders a feeling of both excitement and discomfort.  None of them told me what the mission was.  Just that I had one.  And I had best hop to.  Figuring it out as I go, I suppose.  But I guess it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if I already knew the whole storyline.  And I would miss that wonderful thrill of discovery.

3 Hours: The Dream

Not long after consciously beginning to increase my awareness of my inner voice, I had another remarkable dream.

My vision came into focus looking out from a calm and flat shore to a distant, watery horizon unmarred by mountains or boats or anything that would disturb the soft transition of the water into the sky.  The sun must have been still hiding behind the unseen landscape behind me to fill the air with such delicate clarity of color.  The cool, heavy air gently carried the quiet roar of the swaying sea to my ears.  Peace filled this place.  Such as I have never known.

As I scanned the clear horizon and moved my eyes upward, breathing in the atmosphere with every pore, I noticed myself — a different self — hovering about 30 feet in the air above my head, gazing out contentedly at the stillness.  This clear-eyed self had a bearing of such intense clarity and peace that I could not wrench my attention away from him.  He wore simple garb and short hair and had nothing else with him, yet all that he ever needed was within him.

I felt the urge to speak with this self.  So I walked a few paces toward the sea, never taking my eyes from him, and asked, “Aren’t you going to come down so we can talk?”  “I’m good,” came the reply.  Oh, how I wanted that self-assurance!  “Can you show me how to fly?”  Without ever disturbing his gaze or moving his lips, my other self told me, “You’d be surprised what 3 hours of stillness will make you capable of.”  And that ended our conversation.  The time continued onward at its crawl, and I stood for a long time, listening to the ocean, aware of myself and the horizon.  Then the vision closed.

I do not yet fathom all the wordless things that I experienced in that dream, but I now have a new mark to aim at.  Not one of time like before, but one of achievement: 3 hours of complete stillness.

90 Days: Conclusion

It has been over a month now since I have completed my 90-day adventure.  Many things have changed, and also not much.  I am still trying to improve on the core skills that I long to develop and have not seen much outward progress in those fields.  Which ostensibly leaves me where I started.

And yet I am not.  My entire concept of faith has grown immeasurably, and I have to remind myself that the initial goal of that experience was to instill the faith necessary to do the things that I wish.  So I cannot lament that I have not yet experienced the exhilaration of uninhibited, unaided flight.  Indeed, there are a great many things that I discovered in the process which I would never have seen had I not committed myself to this experience.

I can stick with something even if it is difficult.  I would have quit so many times in my younger years, and I certainly felt the uselessness of the enterprise a few times to the point of wanting to give up.  But I didn’t.  And that allowed me to discover a determination and will within myself that would have certainly remained dormant otherwise.  In each tracked category, I had numbers in the 80s out of 90 days.  That yielded an immense satisfaction.

It is more important to act than to plan.  Not that planning isn’t important!  After my 3-day fast, I had the distinct impression that I needed to get started with this 90-day experience immediately.  All that really remained was to craft my affirmations and determination the exact actions I would be taking (a kind of planning).  I had a week to do it in.  As usual, I got things started pretty quickly, but under the guise of “thinking about it”, I never truly finalized everything.  And the most important piece was missing: the affirmations.

On the morning that I was to begin, I awoke greatly troubled by such a ridiculous and needless failure, and I actually felt an earnest need to repent of my procrastination.  This was a great lesson to me.  When God gives direction, it is for right now.  Not tomorrow.  Not a year from now.  But right now.  And not heeding only makes Him less inclined to give direction in the first place.  He will simply wait until you actually will act.

Faith is more than a set of beliefs formulated into words.   I remember such an invigorating feeling that enveloped me in the beginning of this adventure.  It was like breathing pure life every day – like that first burst of energy at the beginning of a marathon.  Yet there came the inevitable realization that much more of the track lay ahead of me than behind.  And as the race wore on, the exuberance gradually faded.

I never quite regained that initial ardor.  In retrospect, I see that the loss of zeal taught me something extremely important for use in the time ahead.  No amount of parroting affirmations will ever create the desired change if not accompanied by the feeling of faith.  And I learned toward the end that I am in charge what feelings persist within me, that I can and must rejoice at all time.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience the full range of emotion given to man.  Rather it means that, given the choice, I can allow the negative to pass and the positive to stay behind.  And I always have the choice.

This reminds me of a story told by Terry Warner at a class that I took at BYU some years ago.

A friend of his who absolutely loved his pristine Porsche got into the habit of parking in the nether regions of parking lots so as to avoid any unnecessary dings and dents in his precious vehicle.  Early, one Saturday, he drove his beautiful car down to the grocery store and, as usual, made his way to the far end of the parking lot.  As he did this, he noticed another, much older car trailing him.  Naturally, this excited his interest for at such a time on a Saturday morning the parking lot was virtually empty.  Undeterred, however, he continued slowly ahead and parked in one of the spaces on the back row of the lot.  The older car did the same… immediately to his right.  Then the driver hastily opened his door and began walking toward the store, without even noticing the glaring new dent that he had put in the Porsche.

Warner’s friend was furious, and boy did he let the other driver know it.  Why, of all the places he could have parked, did he have to park here?  Why didn’t he pay closer attention when opening his door?  Why did he not seem to understand the gravity of the situation?  Why did his half-hearted apology seem riddled with confusion?  Could he not SEE how valuable this car was?  Could he not SEE how much at fault he was?  Could he not SEE what this was going to cost to repair?  And why was he now smiling?  

He repeated this frustrated rant to Warner much later that day, to which Warner simply replied, “Well, it looks to me like you’ve got a choice.”

A choice?!?!  I don’t have a choice.  The car’s already dinged up, and I’m going to have to PAY to get it fixed.

“Well, you can either have a dinged up car, or you can have a dinged up car AND a bad day.”