Physics professor shares how to navigate ‘messy middle’ of revelation

BYU physics professor Traci Neilsen shared how to navigate the “messy middle” of revelation through an ocean analogy during the June 22 devotional. The “mud” of life can prevent people from receiving revelation and feeling the Spirit, just like mud in the ocean absorbs sound. (Rebecca Fuentes/BYU Photo)

BYU physics professor Traci Neilsen shared how to navigate the “messy middle” of revelation through an ocean analogy during the June 22 devotional.

The two sources of revelation or inspiration from God are guidance from prophets and personal inspiration from the Holy Spirit. “Do you ever feel caught in the messy middle between these two sources of revelation that connect us with God?” Neilsen asked.

Her research focuses on underwater acoustics and deals with passive SONAR, in which underwater microphones called hydrophones do not emit pings but rather record the sounds in the ocean. She said her analogy for the “messy middle of revelation” is based on the phenomena of refraction and reflection in the ocean, with emphasis on mud, sand and rock. 

She sees inspiration from the Holy Spirit as being delivered by a directional speaker pointed toward the ocean floor. The ocean floor represents the physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual environment of people’s lives. Personal revelation from the Spirit reaches everyone through this environment, she said.

The “mud” of life can prevent people from hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, Neilsen said, just like mud in the ocean absorbs sound.

“In my analogy, birth is like entering the water. God loves us and wants to communicate with us, but we can no longer receive His word directly,” she said. “Instead, He communicates with us via the Light of Christ, Prophets, and the Holy Spirit.”

The ocean environment changes how sound travels from point A to point B, she said. The amount of sound reflected depends on what type of material makes up the sediment layers of the ocean floor. Sound is reflected more by sand than mud, for example.

Neilsen said mud absorbs sound and strips away the energy in the sound waves. “Recently I have observed an increased amount of mud in our lives, individually and collectively—mud that limits our capacity to hear the still small voice of the Spirit.” 

“The realities of our lives and our daily thoughts, choices, actions, and interactions with others impact our ability to feel the Holy Spirit, similar to how the presence of mud or sand in the ocean floor impacts the amount of sound present in the ocean.”

The “mud” in life could be social, physical or emotional and mental. Social mud might include poor communication, misunderstandings, contention, grudges, gossiping or belittling. Physical mud includes both temporary and chronic problems, such as fatigue, insomnia, hunger, malnutrition and sickness.  

But Neilsen said the largest source of mud for most people is probably the emotional and mental environment.

Pandemic restrictions have increased feelings of isolation, helplessness, anxiety and fear, for instance. Addiction to social media, video games and substances are additional sources of mud. “Are you using your phone as a tool or are you a slave to the pings and notifications?”

Neilsen encouraged the audience to find out what they can do to help resolve both the serious and more common types of mud in their lives. “For if we do not deal with the mud in our lives, we are not able to receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit, which offers us hope, leads us to truth, and allows us to feel God’s love.”

She likened reducing the mud’s impact to adding layers of sand to the ocean floor. Some ways to add sand and improve reception of the Holy Spirit include practicing gratitude, having optimism, learning new things, engaging in creativity, doing physical activity and going out in nature. 

“The sand you need is tied in with your unique combination of mud,” she said. “What matters is that you find the types of sand that are most effective at helping you feel inspiration from the Holy Spirit.”

Neilsen later compared the bedrock ocean foundation to the foundation of Christ’s atonement. She said only the Atonement of Jesus Christ can create rock, which is a sure foundation. 

“I truly believe that the power of Christ’s Atonement can change even the most awful circumstances of our lives, the deepest, thickest, most continual types of mud into rock,” she said. 

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