Wednesday, August 17, 2011

RENEWING THE MIND

Recently I finished a 4-week class called, Wired for Joy, where participants are taught a method of retraining their brains, also known as Emotional Brain Training or EBT. I took the class partly as a favor to a friend and partly because I have always been interested in the human body, especially the brain and how it works. I suppose I see it as just another natural ecosystem that either works together or doesn’t, depending on the health of the individual parts or what elements we introduce in to it from without.  

The premise of the class, which is also supported by much brain research, is that our brains have neural pathways which are “set” from a young age. This “wiring” sets us up, by varying degrees, to spend our minutes, hours and days in either a joyful brain state or one dominated by stress, depending on our early circumstances or parenting, etc. Since it is a scientific fact that our brains cannot experience both joy and stress simultaneously, the exercises help us create new pathways that, when practiced, begin to replace the old.

Most of the exercises taught for rewiring the brain involve interrupting states of stress by regularly stopping throughout the day to take note of what you are feeling. After that, to ask yourself what you need in order to return to a more joyful state and to replace the negative thoughts you are having with other thoughts…or new, healthy neural pathways. Towards the end of the training, participants are also encouraged to take 10 minutes out of their day to meditate, which can involve repeating affirmations, visualizing yourself in a safe and beautiful place or rehearsing the things you are grateful for. One of the most interesting things I learned from this training is that the brain does not distinguish, at least in terms of brain waves and centers stimulated, real places and situations from those we merely visualize. This is one of the reasons meditation can be so powerful in reducing stress in the short term until underlying causes can be more fully addressed. Breaking the downward cycle of stress is important because a person cannot create healthy solutions while in a constant state of stress.

Before taking this class, I had begun practicing the spiritual discipline of Listening Prayer in the mornings. I’d begin by repeating a scripture or my paraphrase of a scripture to allow the cobwebs, the to-do lists, etc to vanquish. One particular morning it struck me how this kind of prayer, and prayer in general, is really a brain-train exercise that rewires or “renews our mind” over time. I thought about the prayer Jesus prayed as an example, and how it is really a series of affirmations…God is bigger than us…God wants to create a world of peace and love through us…God can meet our needs…God forgives us so we can forgive others…God can deliver us from ourselves and protect us. Good messages I’d like etched into my mind.

But prayer can be a complex and confusing topic. Theologians, scholars and other sincere spiritual seekers have grappled with exactly what a prayer is, what kinds of prayers are most effective, what does an “answer” to prayer look like, etc. Some say prayer changes God’s mind or moves God to action. Some say prayer doesn’t really accomplish any change. And some say prayer changes us. I like what Mary Oliver says in her poem, The Summer Day.
"I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
This is a woman who has trained her brain to land on the thoughts that give her joy. She takes the time needed to experience her particular life’s pleasures, and to ask the important questions of herself and those around her. I’m guessing the poetry in her soul formed over a lifetime of connecting to God through much prayer and meditation.

Recently, at a conference, one of the speakers made a statement that I thought was profound. He said that stopping - merely stopping and paying attention - during the course of our busy day is a form of repentance. Repentance, meaning to “turn around” or “go in a different direction” is truly the action of surrendering our busyness to remember God, to take inventory of our spiritual state, to release our unrealistic expectations, to be grateful and to pray for others. This is usually the antithesis of where most of us are really headed in our auto-pilot states.

So, prayer does change us, if nothing else, especially the prayers that recall God’s provision in the past and those that whisper back to us the truth of God’s love towards us and the world. Each time we speak of love, of forgiveness, of praise for God’s Creation, of our gratefulness we are creating new wiring in our brains, ones that replace the old circuits of fear, bitterness, mediocrity and discontent. This class gave me a greater understanding of what happens when my spirit dictates my thoughts and/or my thoughts dictate my spirit. How cool and humbling to know that there is an actual physical manifestation of my attitude…whether good or bad. It also gave me a greater desire to explore prayer in all its many forms. And it reminded me of the advice given to the church at Phillipi by Paul.
"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

RHYTHMS

This whole morning I’ve been thinking about rhythms.

At first I was lamenting in my journal about how hard it is to find them, keep them and make them part of who I am. This is especially true when my husband and I are BOTH self-employed and rarely have daily routines imposed on us. Most people probably think it would be easy when we have such flexible schedules, to get into our own rhythms. But did you catch the optimum word in the preceding sentence…flexible?  Our schedules bump into each other a lot. And the very freedoms we have are often the ones that keep us bound to the “urgent” call or the invitation to lunch or the minor domestic crisis that beckons to be fixed right now…after all…we have the time. 

After my lamentations, I put my journal down and began a time of listening prayer, rhythmically asking God to “come to me like the gentle rain” that was filling my consciousness. How grateful I was to have a cool, sunless morning, giving up its moisture to fill the dry cracks in the ground. Then I noticed the comfortable movement I’d settled into on the porch swing, and how each back-swing hit one leaf of Virginia creeper vine, making its way up the brick through the cracks in the deck. A lovely moment of rhythms, when I asked God to come fill the dry cracks in my own heart, to help me see the rhythms right in front of me or that might be already in my soul, unnoticed. The rhythms of writing. The rhythms of prayer. The rhythms of nature walks. The rhythms of creativity, and all the other passions that fill my heart.

Most of the time I try so hard to look at it all rationally…planning out on 50 different calendars what might be the best time to do this or that. Should I find one whole day to write…or just do it an hour or two every morning, or evening or afternoon? When is the best day to run errands, do laundry, work on projects, etc? Oddly, this has been a struggle for most of my life as a married woman without children, and one never cut out as a career gal, even though I have certainly recognized patterns in my life. I am a night person (although that may have changed over the years, which makes things even more confusing). I have very inspirational thoughts when I first wake up. I need to make out a list in the evening or else I can’t go to sleep, which really means I like to get any tasks and chores done before I can enter into any kind of creativity or rest. Yet, sadly, these clues haven't fully set me on the path of more balance.  

But today I practiced something I recently learned while kayaking in Alaska...and just went with the flow of it all! On this morning, like all other mornings, I had my list planned out…but chucked it…and rearranged the furniture so I could sit in my rocking chair facing the patio door, listen to the thunder and write. Was this an answer to my prayer?  I don’t know.  But I do know I was reminded that overcoming my fear of kayaking meant to stop reacting to the various shifts and tilting of the watercraft, and just "move with the movement."  This meant not being so rigid in my posture and to embrace the surprise wave that rocked the boat. In essence, maintaining balance in a kayak, means moving with it gracefully when it becomes unbalanced. And the key to doing that is having faith in the craft.

So maybe I need to practice the spiritual art of “planning my way” but letting the Spirit “direct my steps,” which I see requires much more tuning in and listening, like I did this morning in stillness.  In one of my favorite movies, Contact, there is a simple yet profound line about accomplishing our desires. It is spoken at the beginning and the end of the story to Ellie by her father.  First as a young girl when she is trying to find a connection to any other human being on a HAM radio set, and later as a scientist when she is trying to connect with an alien who has taken the form of her father, he says the same thing, “Small steps, Ellie, small steps.”

Good words. Small, faith-filled, rhythmic steps…

REFLECTION:  
What do you do to maintain balance in  your life? 
How do you listen to the direction of the Spirit?