All posts by Mark

Being Healthy and Happy in a Sick and Depressed World

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

 

This is a long article. Here’s links to the CONTENTS:

Intro — Our Unhealthy Default Reality

Recently I’ve been reading a helpful and challenging book by Pilar Gerasimo that focuses on physical and mental health, but it has profound implications for our spiritual life … and for addiction and recovery.

Gerasimo was the founder, and for many years editor, of Experience Life, a health and fitness magazine. Her book is called “The Healthy Deviant.” As her background might suggest, her focus is more on physical health, but it also drifts into mental health (as those two are integrally connected). Her point in the book is this: “Currently, we live in a culture that produces exponentially more unhealthy, unhappy people than healthy, happy ones” … and therefore, the only way to be healthy and happy is continually and deliberately go against the grain of conventional wisdom and practice.

Here’s more of what she says in the book:

In fact, right now, the unhealthy-to-healthy ratio is arguably running about a hundred to one. … If you are currently a healthy and happy person in today’s United States of America (or in any one of a growing number of countries now following our lead), you represent a tiny and shrinking minority. You are, statistically speaking, an endangered species. …

In my mind these facts raise a rather captivating question: What kind of society makes being healthy and happy so difficult that only a single-digit percentage of its population can hope to pull it off?

The answer is self-evident: A sick society. And within a sick society—one where chronic illness, obesity, drug dependence, anxiety, and depression are rapidly becoming the prevailing norms—what does it mean to be one of the few who buck those unhealthy odds?

You might wonder about her assertion that so many of us are unhealthy. Are things really that bad? I dare you to get the book and read it. She backs it up with a lot of research.

But there are two things that are striking about this … and are very sobering to reflect on:

  1. Though it was published in 2020, she wrote this book in 2018 and 2019 … before the COVID health crisis, and lockdowns associated with it, made everyone’s physical and mental health worse.
  2. Although she mentions them in the quote above, she doesn’t really focus much on mental health issues. She’s able to make her case for how unhealthy and unhappy we are by pointing to physical health markers alone. She doesn’t even get into the numbers of people dealing with addictions, and mental health struggles like anxiety and depression.

This is not a criticism of the book — as I stated above, her background qualifies her to focus on the physical health side of things.  But it’s important to keep this in mind, because it makes her point in the book all the more important and pointed. If you were to add depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicides into the mix, the numbers look even worse.

This is Depressing … Why Talk About It?

I have struggled with writing this, because I don’t want to be negative. But this is important … and there’s a reason why we need to talk about what Gerassimo calls “our unhealthy default reality.”

Let me be clear from the outset about a core belief of mine, which makes it so essential to honestly face what Gerassimo and others are telling us:

The antidote to what ails us — in terms of physical, spiritual, or mental health — is not complicated, but it IS difficult, and we are easily discouraged or distracted away from it. Therefore, we need crystal clarity about the severity of problem we’re facing, and we need regular reminders about the seriousness of our situation … otherwise we won’t do what needs to be done.

This reality informs my writing and teaching, and how I work with people as a coach and recovery counselor. We will not do the work required for recovery unless we understand — and never lose sight of — the danger we are in. Continue reading Being Healthy and Happy in a Sick and Depressed World

How to Recognize SAFE People

It’s great to have casual friends, like the relationships we might have with neighbors, work colleagues, and acquaintances in our community. But along with this, we need real friends: close friends, people we can be vulnerable with.

As recent research has shown, loneliness not only lowers the quality of our lives — it affects our health, and therefore, the duration of our lives. It is now commonly understood that loneliness is a key risk factor for early mortality, having the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even more dangerous than obesity.

Here’s the thing: casual friends, neighbors, and work colleagues do not end our loneliness. It that were the case, people in urban environments wouldn’t be so lonely. For many people today, their lives are filled with people contact, but not friends. We need real friends, not just associates.

As a pastor of a church, I’m very aware that one of the great benefits of being part of a spiritual community is the depth of fellowship that people can experience there. It’s what I see so many unchurched people missing. At the same time, I also see that too often, relationships in church can be insincere and fraught with conflict and various kinds of dysfunction. Over the years, I’ve come to see that one of the most important tasks of people in church leadership is to guard the integrity and health of relationships among members.

Let’s be honest: even in churches, there are a lot of people who are NOT SAFE. By that I mean, we intuitively sense that if we told them the truth about our lives — the whole truth — they wouldn’t know how to deal with it. They would judge us, try to “fix” us, look down on us, and maybe even distance ourselves from us.

SAFE Acronym

How do you find SAFE people? First, let’s get clear about what we mean by “SAFE.” Let’s use the word as an acronym:

S – Sincere: SAFE people aren’t fake. They don’t try to present themselves as being different than they really are. You sense an honesty and openness about them.

A – Accepting: Around SAFE people, we feel a permission to be ourselves. They might not approve of everything we do or say. They might even — when it’s appropriate — express their concern about us and our behavior (see “forthright” below). But it’s always done with the awareness that our relationship is not at risk. They will love us and include us in their lives even if we struggle.

F – Forthright: We don’t have to guess what SAFE people are thinking and feeling. They will tell us. This means they might have to share a concern with us, but we know they’ll do it honestly, and in love.

E – Encouraging: SAFE people actively seek to build us up, not tear us down. They speak encouraging words to us, and we trust that they will not divulge anything we tell them to others. Continue reading How to Recognize SAFE People

Today’s Epidemic of Artificial Sex: Pornography, Sexting, Cyber Sex

Let’s call the problem “artificial sex,” or “techno sex.” Today’s technology is facilitating sexual experience in ways that make real personal connection irrelevant. Usually, the problem is simply identified as “pornography,” but the problem also includes sexting and various forms of cyber-sex (such as chat rooms or video game environments).

Here are some statistics from 2019, from Barna Research Group and Covenant Eyes:

  • 68% of church-going men and over 50% of pastors view porn on a regular basis.
  • Of young Christian adults 18-24 years old, 76% actively search for porn.
  • 55% of married men and 25% of married women say they watch porn at least once a month.
  • 57% of pastors say porn addiction is the most damaging issue in their congregation.
  • The Barna Group discovered there is virtually no difference in the monthly porn use of non-Christian men (65 percent) versus Christian men (64 percent).
  • Sexting has become common for young people today. Estimates by researchers start at a low of 20 percent of teens and reach higher than 60 percent in some studies. Teenagers, however, believe that about 90 percent of their peers are sexting. This is an indicator that among teens, the behavior is considered normal, which has led to an increase in sexting behavior among this age group.
  • In 2019, the Freedom Fight conducted a survey of more than 1,300 Practicing Christian college students from over thirty different campuses across the country. The men and women we surveyed were involved in a campus ministry, and they considered their faith in Christ to be very important to them. 89% of the Christian men surveyed watch porn at least occasionally. 61% view it at least weekly and 24% percent watch porn daily or multiple times a day. 51% of these men said they were “addicted to porn.”

What about now, in 2021? What’s happening with these problems in the midst of the pandemic and shut-downs? I’m not sharing statistics about this yet, because estimates are all over the map, and I don’t trust that there’s reliable research yet. (If you know of any, please share it with me!) What everyone agrees on, however, is sobering: as bad as the problem with artificial sex was before the pandemic, it’s now gotten worse. And many people think it’s gotten much worse.

I’m also including cyber sex here, even though it may not be a huge issue … yet. Virtual reality games and environments are here, they’re getting more immersive all the time, and their popularity is growing. When you add the improvement of these  experiences, and combine that with high-tech sex toys,  it won’t be long before there are breakthrough “adult games” or “adult virtual meeting places” that take today’s web cam sites to a new level. Continue reading Today’s Epidemic of Artificial Sex: Pornography, Sexting, Cyber Sex

How the Church is Failing to Help People with Sexual Struggles … and what to do

I’m doing something a little different this time. Instead of an article, I’m going to link to a message I recently gave at Bethel Church in Princeton, MN. It was part of a series on Christianity and mental health issues.

I talk about some of the ways that the church has been failing people in this area, and then look at a Bible passage that offers hope and a way out. (Click on the image below, it’ll take you to the video of our full live-stream service, but starting at the beginning of the sermon.)

Your Brain Doesn’t Care About Your Happiness

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.”

Recovery requires the willingness to think differently … which is harder than you think

The process of recovery involves learning to think differently, which is much harder than most people realize. It’s not a matter of simply adding a few select pieces of new information onto what you already know.

That’s easy learning. Hard learning is when you’re forced to learn things that contradict what you already “know.”

It’s true that recovery involves taking in some new information that is easily assimilated, and fits into what you already believe to be true. If that were the bulk of it, recovery would be easy, and most everyone would be successful at it. But much of the learning in recovery forces us to evaluate what we’ve believed or assumed to be true … and it challenges us to re-think those ideas. It frequently challenges us to unlearn things, discarding the lies, distortions, and half-truths we’ve accepted — about ourselves, God, our past, other people, how life works, what makes us happy, etc.

We’re often told that recovery requires us to “trust the process.” This is just is another way of saying that we need to be willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were stupid, are in fact really wise and important. And we must become willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were wise and important, are, in fact actually stupid, and dangerous for our well-being.

How do we deal with new and contradictory information?

Does it make you uncomfortable to deal with information that contradicts what you previously thought was true? There are two kinds of people: (a) people who plug their ears to contradictory information, and refuse to change (b) people who are willing to accept the new information — after verifying its accuracy of course — and rethink their position. This is wisdom.

A principle I’ve gleaned from Chinese philosophers like Lao Tzu and Chuang Zhu is that it’s healthy for living things to remain flexible and soft … like a green branch that is able to flex in the blowing wind. When things become old and hard, they become brittle … like a hardened tree branch that is liable to crack and break. That which is alive is soft and flexible, and that which is dead is rigid and brittle. Of course it’s not a perfect analogy, and it’s not the Gospel truth for all occasions, but there’s an important truth there.

There is a fine line between having firm convictions (good), and being rigid and closed to truth (bad). For people in recovery, this mental flexibility is essential. It’s really important to come to grips with the things you need to UN-learn about yourself, your beliefs, your ways of relating. For people in leadership, this mental flexibility is also essential. You have to be willing to learn, to see things in new ways, to challenge your assumptions. Otherwise, you will lose touch with the people around you, and the environment your organization exists in.

John Maynard Keynes once was challenged for altering his position on some economic issue. “When my information changes,” he said, “I change my mind. What do you do?”

Help for starting–or supporting–a program for recovery from sexual struggles

In 2007, I developed a program to help people who were dealing with sexual struggles in their lives. Some felt comfortable calling these struggles an addiction, while others weren’t so sure about that label. It started out as followup, or “aftercare,” program for people who attended workshops I helped facilitate with Dr. Mark Laaser.

I think this program could help you, if you are wanting to start something — a group or ministry — to help others, or get more support for your own recovery.

When I created the Recovery Journey, I wanted to offer something different: I wanted to offer something that would work with — and help supplement — work people might already be doing with a therapist, or involvement with a 12-Step recovery group. I didn’t want to create something to compete against the many good programs already out there, or compete with therapists who do face-to-face work. I wanted to create something that would work with those other modalities.

And I wanted to offer something that helped facilitate a practice that I’ve come to believe is essential for long term sobriety:

Doing a little something every day
to support your recovery

As my sexualsanity.com website grew, I started to get people in the program who hadn’t gone to a workshop, and I found it worked just as well — if not better — for them.

Over the years I continued to tweak the program, and for some time now it’s been known as “The Recovery Journey,” and hundreds of participants have gone through it. I wish I had exact numbers. At this point, I think somewhere close to 400 people have gone through the program: about 300 sexual strugglers, and 100 partners of strugglers, who’ve gone through the companion program.

To find out more about the Recovery Journey, 

or sign up for it,

go to the website:

http://recoveryjourney.com

Here’s a little about the program, and a little about what I’ve learned:

1. Set a specific length of time. I decided to focus on a specific span of time, to make it something that people could dedicate themselves to going through as a transition time … even though we all know that recovery is a lifelong journey. With a nod to the recovery tradition of focusing intensively for 90 Days, I eventually set up the program to run for 90 Days.

I recommend this as a way of starting something with other people. Have a group meet for 3 months. Have everybody make a commitment to faithful attendance for that set amount of time. Then, if it goes well, you can decide towards the end of that time if you want to keep going.

2. Include some teaching to solidify a deeper understanding of addiction and recovery. I set up the program to include a short teaching segment, along with an action step to take each day (I’ll say more about the action step below). In my work with people in recovery, I came to see how essential it is to maintain focus on one’s recovery commitment. I came up with the principle that we need to do “a little something EVERY DAY” to remind us of our commitment, and help us move in the right direction. Continue reading Help for starting–or supporting–a program for recovery from sexual struggles