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Devotionals

Kathy Bell

Rapt

I am delighted, and very humbled to be speaking to you today. I am happiest in the classroom, not behind a podium, and I definitely prefer questions and comments to lecture. So here goes! It is my sincerest prayer and overwhelming hope that any of the remarks I have prepared will be of worth to you, and your time here will be well spent. You inspire me. This school is a beautiful blessing in my life.

When asked to talk about any of the cultural beliefs of the college, I decided to read the scriptures that were in the small print, under the values of "Do Right" and "Be Accountable."

Do Right

Jacob 6:3: And how blessed are they who have labored diligently in his vineyard….

Be Accountable

Doctrine and Covenants 107:99: Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence.

I found a word in both scriptures that caught my attention “diligence.”

When talking to a dear friend about this assignment, she told me about a book, recently on the market, titled "Rapt -Attention and the Focused Life,” by Winifred Gallagher. This attracted my attention and, after reading it, I decided that synonyms for diligence are “attention” and “focus.” When we are being diligent we are focused.

This book is hot off the press and I will use this as a source for parts of my presentation. There are lots of neuro-scientific comments and tests and studies cited in this book that are of interest in our "prove it" world. 

So today, I want to talk about our rapt attention to Do Right and Be Accountable

I have three sub-headings for this focus topic. After discussing what rapt is, I will talk about the way uplifting music can help our focus, then we'll learn about focus with regard to the way we communicate with each other, and finally how to use our focus on spiritual matters to create the greatest quality and purpose.

Rapt is an old-fashioned term that means “to be completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even ‘carried away’.”

Everyone knows what “attention” means. William James gave one of the earliest scientific definitions of attention in 1890. "It is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its’ essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others."

Much of the quality of our life depends not on fame or fortune, beauty or brains - or on what happens to happen to you - but on what you choose to pay attentions to, on how diligent you are.

Psychologist William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

As the expression "paying attention" suggests, when you focus, you're spending limited cognitive currency that should be wisely invested, because the stakes are high. At any one moment your world contains too much information, whether objects, subjects or both, for your brain to "represent," or depict clearly for you. Your attentional system selects a certain chunk of what's there, which gets valuable cerebral real estate and therefore the chance to affect your behavior. Moreover, this thin slice of life becomes part of your reality, and the rest is consigned to the shadows or oblivion (p.9).

Attention's selective nature confers tremendous benefits, chief of which is enabling you to comprehend what would otherwise be chaos. You couldn't take in the totality of your own experience, even for a moment, much less the whole world. Whether it's noise on the street, ideas at the office, or feelings in a relationship, you're potentially bombarded with stimuli vying for your attention. New electronic information and communications technology continually add to the overload. By helping you to focus on some things and filter out others, attention distills the universe into your universe (p.9).

My fields of study, Communications and Music Appreciation, are both very progressive, with technology driving the way in which we "do" communicating and the way we listen to and appreciate music. I have little antennas that pop out of my head whenever something comes along regarding these worlds, and I'm constantly gathering articles and thinking "what is our world is coming to?" I've seen many changes in very recent years. There is a great deal of time devoted by everyone to these technologies and I'm impressed with the way the Church is handling these topics as well, as there are consistently articles in the Ensign and Church News about them. Are we focusing on our machines so much that we are losing our humanness? Where is our attention?

Some decisions about what to focus on, such as which profession to pursue or person to marry, automatically receive serious attention. Other choices may be less obvious but are just as important to the tenor of your daily experience: deciding to concentrate on your hopes rather than your fears; attending to the present instead of the past; appreciating that just because something upsetting happens, you don't have to fixate on it. Still other targets may seem inconsequential: focusing on a book or guitar instead of a rerun, a real conversation instead of a text, an apple instead of a doughnut. Yet the difference between "passing the time" and "time well spent" depends on making smart decision about what to attend to in matters large and small, then taking action (p12).

Paying rapt attention, whether to a trout stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases your capacity for concentration, expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits. More important, it simply makes you feel that life is worth living (p. 10).

The focused life requires not just a robust capacity for paying attention but also the discerning choice of targets that will invite the best possible experience. Have you ever been rapt - completely absorbed? I'm going to give you a personal example, and I want you to think of one.

Last year, my youngest son and his soon-to-be-bride choose to be married in the San Diego temple. I remember feeling almost "carried away" walking into the brilliantly sun-drenched sealing room, nearly glittering with radiance. Seeing this beautiful couple with love filling their eyes, and hearing the sacred words of promises they made, the same I have made, was enrapturing. This experience involved precious people, little distraction around me, a quiet mind, and a positive setting. It had great meaning. We remember what has meaning.

A couple of years ago, I became acquainted with a book called "This Is Your Brain on Music." Daniel Levitin is a musician and a neuroscientist, and uses increasingly sophisticated tools, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that allow scientists to see parts of the brain activate and appear to light up and turn different colors when people think, feel, and act.

 Music has other special properties that we will talk about in a moment, but in my music class for the unit on the Power of Music, I found his studies very interesting, and talked to this, kind of pretending to be like some kind of psuedo-neuro-brain-scientist-person. In fact, I've become quite enamored with brain science, as I see the technology of imaging being used in many disciplines. Ms. Gallagher talked to lots of researchers about their studies with the brain and focusing, and multi-tasking. Joe Cannon has been writing a series of articles in the Deseret News about “Neuroplasticity” and exercising your brain, creating change and capacity and memory. I went to a Mediation and Conflict Resolution Symposium and the keynote speaker showed brain pictures and talked about “Mind over Matter.”

I actually thought I would give my whole talk today about the brain. My kind husband helpfully informed me that this is not my field of expertise and I'd better stick with talking about something I know about. The bottom line for all my fascination with these brain studies is simply this: The mind can pay conscious attention to only one train of thought at a time.

I also know that the human person speaks about 100-120 words per minute, and we can think 1,000 words per minute, so while I am talking your minds have covered tons of thinking, noticing everything around you, everything about me, and data about yourself, like your grumbling stomach. So to tell you that you can choose the one thought to be focusing on right now, my words, and letting all those other thoughts fall away, sounds very disciplined and you're just not that sure that my words are interesting and important enough to give all your attention to. Taking notes helps you stay focused; that's why we have our pens. But sometimes, even as you write, you get distracted from the ongoing talk.

Let's have a little experiment to show how focus works. If I ask, “What does your chair's pressure feel like on your back?” you'll instantly access that information. You turn up the volume knob on your back nerves and you permit it to come up to the level of your awareness. The pressure was always there, but now you are focusing on it.

This next exercise is going to require you enjoy on Lifesaver [candy] that is being passed out. Please don't just open it and pop it into your mouth, I have some instructions. By the way - litter is my pet peeve, so please don't leave your wrapper lying around. There is a garbage can by the door as you exit. I have asked our own music prodigy, Adrian Juchau, to perform a musical number on this lovely grand piano. This piece will last about three to four minutes, and I want you to focus the entire number on your Lifesaver. Let's all unwrap our Lifesavers now to get the crinkly sound out of the way....don't put it in your mouth yet...and get ready to enjoy the lovely music and wintergreen flavor. When Brother Juchau begins to play, you can put the Lifesaver in your mouth. Close your eyes to eliminate distractions, and whenever your thoughts start to wander around, you must pull your focus to your Lifesaver. Don't chew—suck—focusing entirely on the flavor and texture. I want you to become rapt with your Lifesaver. At the conclusion of this musical number, I think it appropriate to applaud, and I wish to thank Brother Juchau in advance for his willingness to share his talent.

Anyone who has an intact brain can pay attention, but brains differ, and so do their focusing capacities. As with personality or intelligence, attentional capacity is the creation of both nature and nurture, which account for our individual differences. Studies have been done with Tibetan Buddhist monks who have each spend at least ten thousand hours in meditation, and with those who had completed an eight-week meditation course and there is significantly increased activity in the left prefrontal regions of the brain linked to optimism and goal-orientation. This discovery reveals that a focusing regimen can have a profound impact not only on a person's ability to concentrate but also on his or her basic emotional disposition .

Fine classical music has another magical influence on our brains. Classical music from the baroque and classical eras causes the heart beat and pulse rate to relax to the beat of the music. As the body becomes relaxed and alert, the mind is able to concentrate more easily. This kind of music decreases blood pressure and enhances the ability to learn. Music affects the amplitude and frequency of brain waves, and breathing rate. I want you to ask yourself : What kind of music are you focusing on?

There was a concert in the 70's where teens brought raw eggs and put them on the front of the stage. The eggs would be hard boiled and ready to eat from the sounds before the end of the concert. Proteins in a liquid medium were coagulated when subjected to piercing, high-pitched sounds. What kind of music are you focusing on? What are your ear buds pulsating to your brain? 

Excessive repetition causes people to release control of their thoughts. A stopped-anapestic beat, which is used by most modern rock bands and rap groups, causes a "switching" of the brain. When this occurs, the actual symmetry between both of the cerebral hemispheres is destroyed, causing alarm in the body known to have stressful, negative effects, the opposite of the body's natural rhythm.

Elder Boyd K. Packer counsels us to take an inventory of our music and think about the selections as being positive in your spiritual development or a hindrance. He advises you have a hymn as an emergency channel, to encourage focusing your mind on all that is good. Michael Ballam suggests we each have a musical first aid kit to draw on for good times and bad, and to help us heal.

Take my word for it! I've have lived twice as long as some of you. Some of this music has survived seven, eight, even nine generations of critics. Fine music will bring you closer to our Father in Heaven, and speaks to your souls. Neal A. Maxwell said, "When we rejoice in beautiful scenery, great art, and great music, it is but the flexing of instincts acquired in another place and another time."

Does your current scenery, art, music, relationships, language and appearance reflect the same vision you had before you came to this earth, and will you fit in in the celestial spaces in the eternities if you were transported there right now?

Do Right and Be Accountable in your focus of uplifting and worthy music.

The word "Attention," is rooted in Latin, meaning "reach toward." It is the most basic ingredient in any relationship, from a casual friendship to a lifelong marriage. Giving and receiving the undivided sort is the least that one person can do for another and sometimes the most. Because it's impossible to communicate, much less bond, with someone who can't or won't focus on you, this capacity is crucial to exchanges (p.81).

No one could have imagined, even twenty-five years ago, how much machines have increased our ability to crunch information. Because of increased life expectancies and modern timesaving devices, most of us have far more discretionary time than our predecessors. We have thousands of times more available information than Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Yet which of us would think ourselves a thousand times more educated or more serviceable to our fellowmen than they.

Elder Dallin H. Oakes in his talk, "Focus and Priorities" from the Liahona, July 2001, says: "Faced with an excess of information in the marvelous resources we have been given, we must begin with focus or we are likely to become like those in the well-known prophecy about the people in the last days – ‘ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (2 Tim. 3:7). We also need quiet time and prayerful pondering as we seek to develop information into knowledge and mature knowledge into wisdom."

President Spencer W. Kimball saw the coming technology deluge in 1974, when he observed, "Discoveries latent with such potent power, either for the blessing or the destruction of human beings as to make men's responsibility in controlling them the most gigantic ever placed in human hands...This age is fraught with limitless perils, as well as untold possibilities."

My bishop, Dal Freeman, attended a Bishop's Conference held March 29, 2009 where Elder Ballard made this statement: "Satan is always quick to exploit the negative power of new inventions, to spoil and degrade and to neutralize any effect for good. Make sure that the choices you make in the use of new media, are choices that expand your mind, increase your opportunities and feed your soul.”

It's the fashion to blame the Internet and computers, cell phones and cable TV for a diffused, fragmented state of mind, but our seductive machines are not at fault. The real problem is that we don't appreciate our own ability to use attention to select and create truly satisfying experiences. Instead of exercising this potential, we too often take the lazy way out, settle for less, and squander our mental money and precious time on whatever captures our awareness willy-nilly, no matter how disappointing the consequences.

Beginning in 2006, I started noticing and collecting articles about social isolation, face-to-face communication’s decline, and technology's impact in relationships. I don't really go after them, they come to me. A particular intriguing lecture caught my attention from a BYU Devotional, with Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor and author of "Bowling Alone." In a short article in an academic journal, published in 1995, he described how league bowling had drastically declined and proposed that this apparently minor phenomenon symbolized a much broader and vitally significant social change. Putnam powerfully validates and deepens his original thesis: that over the past thirty years we have become ever more alienated from one another and from our social and political institutions and that this disengagement poses a critical threat to our personal health, local communities, and national well-being. For example, we spend about 35% less time visiting with friends than we did thirty years ago, and American families have dinner together only half as often as they did a generation ago.

From the Deseret News, Tuesday, June 16, 2009, we read an article titled "Family Time Drops as Internet Popularity Soars, Survey Says." Included in the article is this information: In the first half of the decade, people reported spending an average of 26 hours per month with their families. By 2008 however, that shared time had dropped by more than 30 percent, to about 18 hours. Let's see, when was that "Proclamation of the Family" written? 1995, just before this declining period.

In the August 2009 Ensign are two articles on this subject. One is titled "Turning Off and Tuning In,” and the other article about on-line role-playing games is titled, "Just A Game?" These issues are getting press, trying to get our attention.

We are being altered by technology. What have we lost through what we've gained? Charles Knutson, who is the author of the latest article in the Ensign, participated in a “Thinking Aloud” broadcast from KBYU radio called "Way Too Wired and Overly Connected" in April 2009. He spoke of the way older folks resist new stuff, kind of like the cavemen probably felt when their youngsters, introduced fire in the cave: sure enough, someone got burned and suffered from smoke inhalation. There was probably the first law suit, when someone got run over by that new-fangled "wheel."

I know I'm one of those resistant to some changes, but I'm also a teacher of Interpersonal Communications, and I care about Interpersonal skills. When asked about whether or not young people are losing critical skills, Brother Knutson says "yes". We are not connected to our physical space, seeing a tree, or clouds, but focused on devices. We are sleep-walking through our physical space and disconnected to real life by parking in front of Facebook for 8 hours, checking on "friends" we have never meet.

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently spoke at a Church Educational System Fireside about the influence of technology and media, titled "Things as They Really Are." Here are three quotes from this magnificent speech, which I believe will be presented before the entire Church in some future address.

"Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, ear buds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience. "

Elder Bednar ask you two questions for consideration in your personal pondering and prayerful studying:

   1. Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?

   2. Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?   

"Brothers and sisters, please understand. I am not suggesting all technology is inherently bad, it is not. Nor am I saying we should not use its many capabilities in appropriate ways to learn, to communicate, to lift and brighten lives, and to build and strengthen the Church; of course we should. But I am raising a warning voice that we should not squander and damage authentic relationships by obsessing over contrived ones."

 If there is only one thing you write down, only one thing you think about from my entire talk, please read, listen to, or watch and consider this outstanding talk by Elder Bednar. It made me cry as I heard this inspired man declare concerns I have, and as a word-master, he states things A”s They Really Are!”

What are you focusing on? Your text messages or the person sitting next to you. Remember, your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a myth. We can "switch task" but studies are showing that it can take the brain several minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption, so switching back and forth is really being less productive.

My final point under “What are we focusing on” is our spiritual lives.

S. Michael Wilcox, a long-time instructor at the Salt Lake University Institute of Religion says: "Electronics are good, and they're tools, but we're starving ourselves and our society for time to ponder and meditate."

President Hinckley said at a regional conference in 1996; "I dare say that most of those in this room today have not taken an hour in the last year to just sit down quietly, each man to himself, as a son of God, reflecting upon his place in this world, upon his destiny, upon his capacity to do good, upon his mission to make some changes for good."

Elder Marvin J. Ashton said: "One definition of the word focus is ‘directed attention or emphasis.’ Perhaps as much as anything in this day and age of mass media, instantaneous worldwide communications and modern conveniences that seem to help us pack more into each day than would have been considered possible just a few decades ago, we need to focus and direct our attention to the things that really matter. And simply, what really matters is a personal testimony of Jesus Christ, and understanding of who we are and what we're doing here and an absolute determination to return home."

Jesus Christ himself, has told us: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:34).

What are you focusing on? What are you attending to? Are you acting with diligence in your labors?

Again from the book "Rapt", after five years of reporting on attention, some home truths are confirmed. "The idle mind is the devil's workshop" conveys the fact that when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what's right, putting you in a bad frame of mind. As "look for the silver lining" suggests, focusing on the productive aspects of difficult situations does, indeed, lead to a more satisfying experience.

The secular and scientific world is figuring out some things that the gospel has always taught.

When I give my undivided attention to my grandchild, when I focus on the eyes and feelings of my husband, when I become absorbed in beautiful uplifting sounds of live, classical music, when I close my eyes, arms folded and knees bent, emphasizing diligence in my prayer, I am having rapt experiences that enhance, enrich, and grow relationships and life's beauties. I wish for you these experiences as you focus on what you are focusing on, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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