Category Archives: Spirituality

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?”

Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning

One of my favorite lines from Lao Tzu reads as follows (as translated by William Martin):

If we hold on to thoughts, judgments, and opinions,
our minds will be cluttered and useless.
If we hold on to possessions,
our minds will contract in fear of loss.
If we hold on to the opinions of others,
our minds will be confused and exhausted.
The only path to a satisfying life
lies in letting go.
– Lao Tzu

Not long ago, my wife and I moved from a five bedroom suburban home to a two bedroom apartment in the city of Chicago. We let go of a lot of possessions on the journey from 3000 square feet to 1200! But don’t feel sorry for us … we wanted to do this. Now empty-nesters, we felt it was time to simplify our lives.

Letting go of stuff has its challenges. It wasn’t painful to let our possessions go, but it was a lot of work. It took time and effort, but it was worth it. It was helpful and freeing.

The importance and value of “letting go” applies to more than just possessions. Lao-Tzu also suggests that it’s important to let go of “thoughts, judgments, and opinions.” I agree … but with a caveat. I think the caveat is implied in Lao-Tzu’s verse, but not stated directly: it’s important to let go of thoughts, judgments, and opinions that are no longer accurate or helpful.

Just as we don’t jettison possessions that we still use, enjoy, and need; so we don’t jettison ideas that we still see as true and important. That’s not what we’re after. What we need is to be thoughtful, reflective, and humble enough to recognize that as time goes and as we grow, our understanding deepens. And we find that some of the things we used to think were true and important are really not.

Let me put it another way: the process of growth — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — involves not only adding new insights and ideas, but letting go of old ones. It’s not only about “filling our cup” with new, clean water … it’s also about emptying our cup of the lukewarm, brackish water that is distasteful and unhealthy. Continue reading Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning

The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

In recovery, “hitting bottom” is a core concept. To be willing to do the work required to overcome addiction, a person has to reach a point where they see that their life is not working. This happens when we experience suffering as a result of our addiction.

Hitting bottom happens differently to different people. What might cause someone to hit bottom might not be enough for someone else. In the early days of AA, the only people trusted to really “be in recovery” were those who’d lost everything to alcoholism. It was assumed that, unless someone had lost it all, they hadn’t hit bottom, and wouldn’t be ready to fully participate in the program.

It didn’t take long, however, for them to find that newcomers to the program had “hit bottom” in other ways. They’d experienced enough pain from family relationships, even if they hadn’t lost their family; or they’d experienced enough negative consequences in their work, even if they hadn’t been fired from their job.

“Hitting bottom” happens whenever you decide it happens. Actually there is no “bottom.” You can always lose more. I’ve seen people “hit bottom” when they were confronted by a teary-eyed loved one. I’ve seen others Continue reading The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

One of our challenges today is that we are hyper-aware of all the problems and crises going on around us, which creates a heightened sense of anxiety. We are inundated by frightening and negative news stories, which serve as reminders of all the things that can go wrong.

So now young parents are so frightened by the prospect of an inattentive — or predatory — babysitter that they refuse to go out. Young people are so fearful of their relationships falling apart that they hesitate to make long term commitments. In our work or ministry involvements, we are so concerned about potential problems that we over-function, so that “all the bases are covered.” When we lay in our beds trying to get to sleep (or back to sleep when we wake up at 3AM), our minds spin with possible problems and worst case scenarios about our children, our finances, our marriage, our church, our work, and our world.

It’s hard to just relax, and trust that things are going to be okay! And yet, that’s exactly what we need to learn to do.

Without an internal sense of peace, a deep awareness that no matter what happens, we are going to be okay, our anxiety will create all kinds of problems. It will drive all kinds of bad behaviors, like trying to micromanage situations, not trusting people, refusing to take risks, and turning to addictive substances or behaviors to try to sooth ourselves.

For many addicts, it was precisely this issue — trying to soothe anxiety — that started us down the path. It’s also well-known that stress and anxiety are significant and common triggers for relapse.

This is precisely where the beliefs we profess — about a God who will care for and protect us, who will work all things together for our good — need to be internalized. Continue reading God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Carl Hammerschlag is a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans in the Southwest, and taught psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine for 20 years. He wrote a book called “The Theft of the Spirit,” which is mostly a memoir about his experiences during those years, and the things he learned.

One chapter was especially interesting and challenging, with the intriguing, but unfortunate title: “On BS.” (He spells the word out, but I’m going to refrain. If you need a hint, it’s something bulls do.) He says he can’t think of a better word to describe this phenomenon, which has taken over in our world today: the epidemic of spin, denial, image, and half-truth, which not only keeps us alienated from each other, but also from ourselves. Listen:

“BS has become a prominent ritual in our culture. It’s when people say things they don’t mean; it’s also when people mean things they don’t say. BS is the basic problem that keeps us from being emotionally healthy. Most of us pride ourselves on our ability to recognize it and therefore avoid being taken in by it, which is why we’re so surprised when we become captivated by our own. …

“What we say is often not what we believe and vice versa — and this goes for presidents, judges, NASA engineers, doctors, and religious leaders. All of the institutions that once sustained us have become less credible. We are being deluged by BS and growing so used to it that we choose not to see that the Emperor has no clothes.

“In public and private life, we’ve become more expert at denying what we really feel to be true than in acknowledging it. If we do it long enough it becomes difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s make-believe. Then the BS becomes a Belief System and that’s how we get into trouble.

“In such an overwhelming barrage of stories told to make the teller look good, the search for truth easily gets lost. In a world obsessed with public relations and image, BS can run our lives.

“So what is the truth? The truth is always closer to what we feel in our hearts than what we know in our heads. The body knows more than the mind chooses to acknowledge. If you ignore what you feel long enough it’ll kill you.”

Continue reading The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Every day I am becoming more aware that our cultural environment is damaging to our well-being. “Going with the flow” — being “normal” — in our world today will take us to a place where we are physically unhealthy, massively stressed-out, spiritually cynical and disengaged, depressed, and addicted to something or other.

I was reminded of this when I came across an editorial in The Guardian (a UK Newspaper). Author George Monbiot takes a look at what’s happening in our world, and points to the system itself — our way of living — as the heart of the problem:

“What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world…

“There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”

This social isolation is built into the systems we’ve created. So many things in our society emphasize competition, rather than collaboration and community:

“The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

“Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”

We’ve heard this before: life in western society today is stressful and competitive. The word that keeps coming up, as a summary of the source of so much of what ails us, is isolation. Continue reading Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Dealing With Emotions and Recovery from Sexual Addiction

emotionsOne core insight in my recovery — and spiritual renewal — was this: It’s essential to acknowledge and deal with our emotions. Denying them (by telling yourself “I shouldn’t feel that”) or stuffing them is a recipe for depression, hidden resentment, spiritual bypassing, and burnout. An important part of the recovery experience for me was developing a deeper awareness of what is happening in my heart, and acknowledging what I’m feeling, instead of trying to make myself feel something else.

In the past few years, I’ve come to view emotions with an added nuance. While still valuing them, and finding it important to deal with them, I have come to recognize how fleeting they are. They are like waves that wash over the shore, and then dissipate, only to be followed up by another wave. Like the writer of Psalms says: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). They are important, we must tend to them, but we are not at their mercy.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say — when struggling to come to terms with something painful — “I don’t want to think/talk about it (because) I’m afraid if I open up that door I’m going to start crying and never stop.” But doing this work — of looking within and dealing with what is there — is essential for their recovery and ongoing emotional and spiritual well-being. It can be done safely and helpfully with the guidance of a skilled counselor.

For most of us, the struggle with our emotions from day to day is more mundane. It has to do with anxiety, sadness, insecurity, shame, or fear that we don’t want to deal with. So instead, we distract ourselves with busyness and frenetic activity, or numb ourselves out with chemicals or addictive behaviors.

Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I often think that addictive substances and behaviors are ways we try to escape from having to mourn. And of course the problem is that if we don’t mourn, we don’t find comfort. We find distraction, and often, addiction.

One of the skills learned in long term recovery is the ability to ride the waves of emotion, and live with a sense of inner peace, even amidst the swirls of elation, fear, anger, sadness, etc. This takes time, and part of the spiritual journey is cooperating with God to bring healing, wisdom, and inner resources to enable me to do this.

The celebrated Sufi poet Rumi has a famous poem about the importance of welcoming this variety of experiences into our lives. There’s great wisdom in this, because often these emotions have something important to teach us. Even the negative ones. Listen to what Rumi has to say:

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. …

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from Beyond.

– Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)






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