My spiritual journey

by | March 20, 2017

Over the past many years as a writer I have received a lot of emails from readers asking me about my religious beliefs. I’ve never responded to these questions because that’s no one’s business but my own and God’s.

I’ve recently decided to share some things about my spiritual journey.

I was born and raised a Mormon. At the age of seventeen, I had my first real, personal “testimony-building” experience. Since then, I have been a faithful, devoted member of the church. My experience in the church has been overwhelmingly positive and I have loved it.

Over the past three years or so, I have experienced some very deep spiritual experiences that have been equal parts strangely disorienting and deeply comforting, utterly terrifying and profoundly enlightening, agonizingly painful and thoroughly healing.

Things have been revealed to me that cannot be fully taught or explained, but only experienced for oneself.

As a result of these experiences, at this point in my life I no longer identify as a Mormon. This is my attempt to explain why.

This is a limited explanation at best. I’m only trying to provide a basic frame of reference for understanding. Deeper understanding will have to come from further conversations.

I’m a big believer in the idea that everyone must have their individual spiritual journey, and respecting those journeys with zero judgment, wherever they may take people.

In no way should this be construed as me trying to influence anyone on their respective journey, to persuade anyone of believing anything. This is just me being open, honest, and vulnerable about my personal journey.

So here goes:

I am number eleven of thirteen children (eight boys, five girls). All of my older brothers and one of my sisters all served Mormon missions before me.

I was never a “bad” kid growing up, but I wasn’t particularly “valiant” in the church. I was a typical teenager. I went to church because that’s just what we did, and in my family at the time, there wasn’t much choice in the matter. But I never felt rebellious at all.

When I turned seventeen, I started thinking about a mission. I realized that if I were to go, I would want to do it because I knew it was right for me, not simply because it was expected of me.

So for the first time in my life, I started really living the church standards in a conscious and devoted way. I started praying morning and night. I started reading the scriptures, primarily the Book of Mormon, every day. I started paying tithing. I stopped masturbating (c’mon people, every teenage boy does it). I stopped engaging in sexual fantasies and made a sincere and honestly successful effort to keep my thoughts pure and clean.

I immediately experienced a dramatic shift in my life. It was like a light switch had turned on. I was simply happier — much, much happier — and I knew it to my bones.

That was my testimony: When I lived the standards, I was happy.

At the time, as is typical in the church, I took that experience to mean, “Therefore, all of this is true” (Joseph Smith was a prophet, this is the restored and only true church with authority and revelation, et al).

Looking back, I realize that what I had actually gained a testimony of is what the Buddha called “Sila,” or moral conduct.

Simply put, the universal law of nature is that when we behave according to the laws of nature, we are immediately rewarded. We experience peace and happiness. When we violate universal laws of nature, we are immediately punished. We experience confusion and misery.

These natural effects of moral conduct are not a Mormon, or Catholic, or Baptist phenomenon. They are universal.

My testimony of sila remains stronger than ever.

In September of 2013 I began writing a book for a client, the research for which got me deeply immersed in general Christian theology, in the Puritan and Evangelical styles (people like Jonathan Edwards and Billy Graham).

Many of the doctrines started bothering me on a very deep level (in a general sense, the teachings around the fall of man and the nature of man). I won’t get into those details here; there’s just too much to cover. Suffice it to say that my deep “father wound” basically erupted around many core Christian teachings. Although extremely painful, it set the stage for and opened my heart to deeper understandings and a deeper spiritual journey.

A few months later, I contracted with another ghostwriting client to write a book about mindfulness. To research this project, I had to immerse myself in mindfulness, Buddhism, and what the Buddha called “dharma,” meaning the universal law of nature.

(Before continuing, I must stress something: Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism is not a religion. It is a science of mind, the purpose of which is to identify and uproot the root cause of suffering. The Buddha taught no sectarian beliefs about God, afterlife, or any other typical religious topics. His teachings were simply about helping people discover and experience universal truth for themselves.)

I quickly fell in love with mindfulness and dharma teachings and developed a voracious appetite for studying them.

Again, dharma teachings are not sectarian. They are not religious in nature. They are universal and practical. They are practices that anyone can experience the truth of for themselves. They don’t require blind faith, they don’t mandate rites or rituals.

My personal experience with these teachings and practices have helped me to come in direct contact with truth, beyond sectarian belief.

The Buddha’s teachings are so precise, so elegant, so experiential, so provable through experience. They provide an understanding of our basic human nature that I have never been taught in forty years of Mormonism and Christianity. They have filled in so many gaps in knowledge and understanding for me. They have been so profoundly, indescribably healing for me.

Through the teachings and practices, I have experienced monumental, earth-shaking, life-changing spiritual awakenings that have changed everything for me. I see through new eyes.

So if I had to explain to someone what my “religion” is right now, I would say that it’s my direct experience with God, Truth, Reality As It Is. End of story.

(Although it’s not accurate at all to call that a religion. But I suppose it serves for conventional purposes.)

I would call my theology a combination of Christian Mysticism and Buddhism.

I know Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I honor and follow Him as such. He and the Buddha are my core exemplars.

However, I have a fundamentally and radically different understanding of Christ’s Atonement than is taught anywhere in Christianity, which completely changes everything. (I’ve been noodling on what to do with this understanding, I may teach it in the future when it feels right.)

To at least give you some idea of the big-picture concepts where my theology departs from mainstream Christian teachings, here are the main points (fully explaining these would take a book):

1. The difference between faith and belief. (This was the initial HUGE one that really opened me up. It takes a really long time for me to explain what I mean by this.)

2. The understanding of core human nature.

3. The God of Christianity in general is a God of punishment and rewards. The Atonement is always taught in terms of punishment. (Think the stories of “He Took My Whipping for Me” and Stephen Robinson’s story of sending his send to his room.) I know from direct experience that this is a completely corrupt view of God and the Atonement. God does not punish, and the Atonement has absolutely nothing to do with punishment — it has to do with restoration, reparation, and healing.

4. Christianity in general externalizes everything. Which is to say, God, Jesus Christ, Satan, heaven, hell — these things are all external to us. I see everything as being internal to us. (For example, “heaven” or “hell” are not places God sends us to, but levels of consciousness in ourselves.)

5. The general worldview of Christianity is “right versus wrong.” My orientation, which is the Buddhist orientation and is fundamentally and drastically different, is “happiness versus suffering.” (This article explains this concept.)

6. I don’t agree with what I find to be a fundamental lack of personal responsibility around the idea of “salvation” that I find in Christianity. I don’t believe in the idea that “Christ does everything.” We can accept Christ, and yet still be plagued with so much craving and aversion, which are the root cause of suffering. We have to do our own work to purify ourselves of these. Christ helps, but He can’t and doesn’t do the work for us. Our salvation is our responsibility. (Note that what I’m saying is a different idea than that “we’re saved by works.” I’m not saying we’re saved by works; I’m saying our level of consciousness, and therefore happiness, is our responsibility, and we’re the only ones who can do the work of raising it. And I know this is heresy to many Christians, but there you have it.)

There are a few other secondary points, but those are the primary points.

My orientation to truth now is universal, not sectarian. Truth doesn’t fit into a Mormon-shaped and -sized box (or a Catholic or Baptist or Jehovah’s Witness or Hindu or Islam box). Truth is just truth. So I suppose one could also call me a “Universalist.”

But more accurately, I wouldn’t call myself anything at all, religiously speaking. Whatever label I could use would be nothing but a conceptualization, not what is — the reality that precedes and transcends all conceptualizations and beliefs.

My spiritual orientation, or “religion,” is simply this: “I am. And I am with what is.”

Here’s what I know from my direct experience:

  • There is a God.
  • God loves and accepts me unconditionally.
  • I am good to my core, that my essential nature is basic goodness, as is that of every human being.
  • The purpose of this life is to awaken to our divine nature.
  • EVERYTHING is about love, kindness, and compassion. That’s all that really matters to me anymore — learning to become more loving, kind, and compassionate. For me, anything else beyond this is either irrelevant or fundamentalism. Or, I just don’t know, and I’m completely at peace with not knowing.

This article on “don’t know mind” will be helpful for you to understand where I’m at. For anything beyond what I’ve listed above, my position is, “I just don’t know.” I no longer cling to belief out of fear.

Speaking of which, I would say that my personal experience with religion has largely been based on shame, guilt, and fear. And I hit a point where I was done with any form or degree of shame or fear. I just don’t operate my life like that anymore. I refuse to have a religious experience based on fear.

In Buddhism there’s a common phrase: Never mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.

The finger pointing to the moon is all teachings and teachers. The moon is God, truth, reality as it is.

The Bible is a finger pointing to the moon, as is the Book of Mormon and any other scripture.

How I would explain it is that I have been to the moon (at least partially). And my direct experience with God and truth are not aligned with many of the teachings in Mormonism or Christianity as a whole.

The God with whom I have a close, personal relationship is not the same God as I have been taught in the teachings in forty years of being in the church. (And in a bigger sense, it’s not just the God of the church, but rather the God of Christianity.)

All I know how to do is to be true to my experience. I’m certainly open to God showing me how my current understanding fits into some version of Mormonism, but right now it just doesn’t work for me as a religion.

One way to explain it is to use this quote from the Buddha, taken from a lengthy discourse from him on self-inquiry:

“Do not believe in something because it is reported.
“Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture.
“Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so.
“Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it.
“Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to.
“Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so.
“Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone.
“Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.”

This is exactly what I have done. The finger pointing to the moon was no longer good enough for me. I want the moon, and I want my own experience with it. I don’t want my experience and understanding to be defined by others.

In fact, I must say that I find it immensely strange how rigidly authoritarian the church has become, given that the entire thing was founded upon one man going to the moon. Joseph Smith studied all the fingers pointing to the moon in his day, then went to the moon and had his own experience.

So I feel like I’m simply following his example. I gain value from all spiritual teachers. I don’t reject anyone or any finger pointing to the moon. I just value my direct experience over the teachings of others.

In the church, people say, “Joseph Smith had this experience. And you can pray about it and know for yourself that he had this experience.” A “testimony” in the church is largely about building people’s testimony around Joseph Smith’s experience.

My orientation now is to say, “Joseph Smith had an experience. And you, too, can have your own experience.”

So it’s not really even accurate to say I’ve “left the church.” I have left all forms of fundamentalism, to be sure. But it’s more accurate to say my understanding has been expanded. And in my current understanding, the church just isn’t a comfortable fit for me.

And as I said, I’m completely open to God helping me find a way to orient myself to it so that I do “fit” and feel like I belong. In the meantime, all I know how to do is be true to my experience.

I haven’t rejected anything. I haven’t gotten into anti-Mormon literature and been disillusioned with church history. Mine is not a rigid, hardline stance. Rather, just a soft letting go. I haven’t shut the door on anything. Rather, I have simply opened other doors. My spiritual posture is not closed, but rather open.

I haven’t “lost my testimony.” My testimony has been deepened and expanded through direct experience with truth.

Insofar as Mormon teachings — or the teachings of any other religion, for that matter — touch on universal themes, I could say yes, I am wholeheartedly a Mormon. But where I depart is where it becomes about sectarian beliefs.

I don’t know how to say it other than Mormonism simply doesn’t fit me anymore, especially the mainstream, authoritarian, dogmatic, fundamentalist version of it.

I understand that the belief or theory in Mormonism is that it is the “universal” church, the place where all truth is welcome and fits into one great whole. However, that’s not the practical experience of church culture, which tends to be quite authoritarian, narrow, and sectarian. (For example, when was the last time you heard a Sunday School lesson or General Conference talk on mindfulness, meditation, learning how to stay with painful emotions, self-compassion, the psychological “shadow,” or other teachings found in Buddhism or other traditions that are absolute truth but aren’t really taught in Mormonism at all? If we really hold that there’s truth in everything, why don’t we examine and discuss everything? Why is the curriculum so narrow and heirarchical?)

Having lived in the church for forty years, I know the common explanations for why people leave, even if unspoken, are that 1) they have been deceived by Satan, 2) they’re not being honest with themselves, and/or 3) they have some secret sin, some commandment they can’t keep. (I know this because it’s exactly how I used to see things.)

All I can promise you is that none of those explanations are accurate. This takes far more self-honesty and courage than anyone who hasn’t experienced it will ever know.

It’s disheartening to me to see how much judgment emerges from believers when people leave the church. It’s unfair and inaccurate. They just don’t understand.

I feel more connected with God than I ever have in my life. In the same way that any believing Mormon would testify that they know the church is true, I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be to learn whatever I need to learn for whatever reason. I have been guided every step of the way.

I don’t know how to begin explaining what has happened to me, how I see things now, what the differences are between how I understand things and what is taught in Mormonism.

First of all, it’s way too deep to go into in writing.

Second, as I mentioned before, it’s virtually impossible to explain. It’s like trying to explain to someone who has never tasted a strawberry what a strawberry tastes like. And every time I try to explain it, it makes me feel very lonely when people don’t understand. So it’s super painful for me to try to explain.

Here’s what I can say:

  • I am not an anti-Mormon detractor.
  • I love the church! I really do. The church is doing so much good in the world.
  • I enjoy learning from the teachers — but just not in a “they are the only true prophets on earth” sort of way. I learn from them in the same way I learn from Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield, Adyashanti, or any other spiritual teacher whom I have studied and respect.
  • I honor the teachings I find in the church that I know to be the universal path of happiness.

So there you have it. This may have brought up more questions for you than it answered, but again, there’s just so, so much depth here that it would take a book for me to fully explain. (And even then, a person could really only understand it experientially, not intellectually).

I thank you in advance for respecting my journey and not judging me or my journey.

For anyone interested, here are the three best books to read that will you help you understand my journey:

  1. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
  2. Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic by Adyashanti
  3. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield

For questions and comments, feel free to email me directly at me@stephendpalmer.com. And please understand that any emails of a judgmental, shaming, or condemnatory nature — to any degree — will be lovingly ignored and deleted.