If you came to my house, you'd sit on the pink couch, have a cup of tea, talk about what's going on with you, and have to listen to me go on about my latest favorite book. This is the next best thing - without the tea.
People who are able to make sense of their difficult or traumatic experiences are more resilient, more able to have secure attachments than those who haven’t. A child who has one person in their life who is present to them, who sees them, who is able to help them make sense of their experiences will survive even traumatic experiences more readily than one who doesn’t. (It has to do with the connections between the left brain and its rationality to the right brain and its bodily and emotional responses. For those who know about neuroscience, please forgive my limited understanding and explanations!)
When we read Scripture, we enter into the story of history and find our own place in it. I read the prophets and discover that the pattern of God’s work is the pattern of death and resurrection, not “progress”. I remember that God is a God who brings life out of death. I identify with the lamentations of Jeremiah and remember that in spite of how things looked at the time, God did fulfill his promises to his people. When I participate in communion I remember and reenact God bringing life out of death. My brain is making sense of my own experiences – making a narrative, putting it into context. I am entering into and finding my place in the story.
Reading the Bible ... participating in communion ... changes your brain.
From today's Daily Strength for Daily Needs:
"Be not troubled; for if troubles abound, and there be tossing, and storms and tempests, and no peace, nor anything visible left to support; yet lie still, and sink beneath, till a secret hope stir, which will stay the heart in the midst of all these; until the Lord administer comfort, who knows how and what relief to give the weary traveller, that knows not where it is, nor the way to look, nor where to expect a path."
I have been going to Paul, my physical therapist for a problem that started a month ago. Paul is a great physical therapist. "Exercise is medicine:" he says. "If you don't do the exercises, I can't help you."
Yesterday I discovered that I have been sitting down wrong. Standing up too. You would think that I know how to sit down and stand up - but one develops these bad habits, sometimes the result of an injury, and ones whole body begins to adapt to it. It throws things off, and causes weaknesses and pain in unexpected places. Everything shifts a little, until doing it wrong feels right - and doing it right feels wrong.
You see where I am headed with this, right?
The only way to change this is 1) to have someone point it out to you, someone who knows how your body ought to be working, and show you how to do it differently, and 2) decide that you are going to change the pattern, and then practice, practice, practice. At first it feels wierd, and you have to concentrate. (I am doing 3 sets of 10 - sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up. Watch in the mirror .. are my knees straight? are my feet straight ahead? Where is my weight? ) Over time the new habit becomes more natural and the pains and disability the old habit caused begin to go away. (I know this because Paul has helped me change other bad body mechanics habits.)
#1 above is the equivalent of spiritual direction. You rarely can recognize these patterns yourself - you just know that you have weakness and pain somewhere and don't generally know why. A spiritual director is one who has learned to recogize the workings of the soul and has learned some exercises for it.
#2 above is the equivalent of repentance (change your mind and your direction) and spiritual discipline.
Now I know I sit down and stand up wrong. Just knowing that doesn't change it. I need to exercise. So here I go - another set of 10. So simple... but gets the job done.
One reason we don’t understand spiritual practices very well is that we often think of human beings as bodies who have a soul ... that is, the real me is somehow inside this body, not integrally connected with it. This is dualist Greek philosophy, not Hebrew thought! The Biblical view is that human beings are embodied spirits. God, who created the natural world and was Himself incarnated in Jesus - works in real stuff – blood and hormones and neurons, not in some magical, disembodied way.
Because we are human – embodied spirits - our training takes place through practice. We are creatures of habit, and our brains, our emotions, our impulses, our responses are conditioned. That is the process by which we are transformed.
It’s a long process, and I really don’t think there are shortcuts.
In recent years, neuroscience has demonstrated why spiritual practices work. (Note: I like to refer to "spiritual practices" rather than "spiritual disciplines. Anyone can practice! Discipline sounds like ... pushups. I really hate pushups.)
As Daniel Siegel, author of Emotional Intelligence wrote in his book Mindsight: "How we focus our attention shapes the structure of our brain." Think about that one for a while. The practices you engage in every day change the physical structure of your brain.