One of my favorite quotes from neuroscientist Rick Hanson goes something like this: “Your brain was not evolved to make you happy. Your brain was evolved to keep you alive.” It’s so important to keep this in mind! Our brain evolved over millennia to keep us alert to dangers, and is highly sensitive to negative data and potential threats.
Out in the wild, of course, the finely-tuned limbic system of our brain that keeps us on high alert was a really good thing, because it kept us aware and alive. But today we deal with different issues. Our problems are not natural disasters or predators. Our problems are stress, depression, and illnesses (which are often related to stress and depression). This finely-tuned mechanism has turned against us.
Left to itself, our minds flit around from stimuli to memories to anticipated (or feared) future possibilities. And neuroscientists (like Rick Hansen) are telling us that the mind tends to notice and dwell on the negative: threats, dangers, and problems. Let me emphasize that: the mind WILL go negative. That’s what it does, because its focus is on helping protect you from potential dangers and threats.
The only way to have a good life is to find some way of overriding these natural tendencies, so that we are not at the mercy of our negative, brooding, anxious, monkey-mind.
Three Bible passages
Three Bible passages come to mind, all written by the apostle Paul. The first is 2 Corinthians 10:5, where Paul says that we should “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” Instead of letting our thoughts control us, we control them. We put them in their place.
The second is Romans 12:2, where Paul talks about not letting the world squeeze us into its mold, but rather that we be “transformed through the renewing of our minds.” Our lives are transformed as we transform our thinking. It comes through “renewing our minds.” And our minds are renewed as we take in new thoughts and ideas, and meditate on them, rather than meditating on our fears and worries.
The third is from Philippians 4:8, where Paul says: “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.” Yet another place where we’re being told to be deliberate about what we dwell on. Instead of thinking about things that are untrue, ugly, negative, impure … think of good things, true things, positive things, excellent things.
Okay … but how?
How are you going to do that? You’re going to have to train. You’re going to have to practice. You’re going to have to pay attention to what you pay attention to.
I find that the practice of meditation, or contemplative prayer, is very helpful for this. I spend time in quiet, and notice where my mind goes. When it flits around to things that I’m sad, angry, or anxious about, it turn those over to God in prayer. When it flits around to things I’m happy or excited about, I turn those over to God in a prayer of gratitude. I often keep going back again and again to the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Then throughout the day, periodically notice where your mind is. Keep bringing it back to focusing on whatever you’re doing, and on “excellent and praiseworthy” things. Whatever you’re brooding or anxious about, turn it into a prayer and then move on.
Some years ago, Darshan Singh wrote these words — and if anything they’re more important than ever to keep in mind:
“Our tensions are created because we are not able to control our mind, and it runs amuck. Sometimes we think of one problem, sometimes of another problem, and most of the time we are continually brooding. At times we do think of those factors which are a real cause of tension, but we are mostly afflicted with self-created tensions. We often fear our own shadows in life, with the result that we find ourselves in a very sorry plight, and go about with a drooping face and are constantly worried and agitated. But if we are able to control our mind, if we are able to fix our attention at the center of the soul, then we will not brood; we will be delivered from self-created anxieties.
“It is our attention which is the root of worry and also of bliss. In our everyday life we find that when we are sitting lost in thought, or are concentrating on solving a problem or composing a poem, even if someone passes by us or calls out to us, we may be quite unaware of it. … When we control our attention and focus it at the center of the soul, then we feel at peace. Our body is relaxed, our mind is relaxed, and our spirit is relaxed. This is what is meant by sitting in meditation, and it relieves us of our anxieties, of our pains, of our afflictions, and it will will afford us complete relaxation and bliss.”