Grateful for the Miracle of Life
It is Thanksgiving morning, around 5 am. I woke up early having gone to bed early the night before. I am less than two weeks out from quadruple bypass surgery. I actually feel pretty well and have clients scheduled for next week, so not too much disruption from having your chest opened, your heart stopped for four hours while it gets a plumbing job of rerouting arteries around blockages. I really have not paid attention to the details of the surgery, but my surgeon told me if I did not have the surgery I would be dead, again, within a month. There were precious few physical symptoms to indicate that I had such serious coronary heart disease. I take care of myself physically and I go to the doctor for annual physicals.
That’s right, dead again. Those words do not even look real. I have no idea I died Friday November 15 around 4 pm. I just remember collapsing on the trail and coming to as I was being transported down the trail. I had a sudden cardiac arrest while backpacking up a steep slope. I was participating in a Crossroads Church retreat for men called Man Camp. There were approximately 1000 men attending a weekend camping retreat near Richmond, Ky above the Kentucky River. I experienced what is called a ventricular fibrillation in the lower left chamber of my heart that vibrates so fast it can’t pump blood. It was not a heart attack; it was an electrical malfunction where the heart stops and there is no pulse. Only around 10 percent survive, and most of those are in health care settings.
I would not have survived if I were not hiking with two men who knew what to do and immediately sprang into action performing CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation, Eric Curvin and Shane Porter. Eric is an anesthesiologist and Shane is an Iraq veteran. They kept my heart and brain alive for at least 15 minutes until the camp “Medics” (volunteer medical personnel serving at Man Camp) arrived with an AED to shock my heart back into rhythm. I was then transported to a hospital.
I would not have survived but for the grace of God. I am told that men immediately surrounded me and began praying out loud, calling on the name of Jesus. One of my best friends, Lynn Buckles, tells me my skin was ashen and my eyes where open staring, like a dead man. I was a dead man and he pleaded with God to raise me from the dead, as did others. Another friend, Bryan Carter said, “I have seen dead people before” so he knew what a lifeless body looked liked. I can’t imagine what that was like for them, had to be traumatic; both of them have their own stories of dealing with death and near death.
So I am thankful this Thanksgiving, as are my wife, Carolyn, and children Seth, Danielle, and Isaac. As is my brother, Trip, who flew from North Carolina to be with us during surgery. His family is thankful for the gift of my life, as is my sister, and Carolyn’s family members, her sister, brother-in- law, mother, and father. As are the many people, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who responded with love, prayers, and now gratitude.
The gift of my life, to survive this, is a mystery. I could have just as easily died, as most do. I will die, someday, but why God allowed this is something to prayerfully and respectfully consider. There is more to this story, so many connections that cannot be explained as happenstance, and the telling of it will continue.
Meditation and mindfulness are increasingly popular practices for managing and overcoming anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental health struggles, including addictions. As counselors we a have better understanding of the brain, the way it works and how to change it. Neuroscientists and therapists like Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz https://jeffreymschwartz.com/ have shown us that we are not our brain; in other words, we do not have to live under the tyranny of our thoughts and sensations. Counselors who teach the practice of meditation and mindfulness help their clients understand that they are not their anxious or depressed thoughts, that their best self identity is something other than what thoughts or sensations are saying they are. There is physical evidence from brain scans that this is so and that we literally can create new neural pathways that rewire the brain to work more effectively and change behavior. This is amazing stuff and I see the fruit of it in my counseling practice all the time.
It is obviously challenging to create new neural pathways and rewire our brain. It is not as if we can do away with thoughts we have had for years; I am still going to have the thought at times to eat more, a sensation of hunger even though my body really does not need more food. My body and brain are deceiving me into believing I am really hungry, or maybe for you it’s needing a drink, or a smoke, or to watch porn. But I, and you, do not have to respond to this deception because there is a part of us that is aware of these thoughts and sensations. Mindfulness helps me stop living on automatic pilot, to start paying attention. Meditation helps me grow the muscle to observe so I am more aware that I have choice in how I respond to my thoughts and sensations. I have a better self, a better me that realizes these thoughts are not “me” and I can choose another course, not only to not eat more, but as Dr Schwarz says, to refocus my attention on another behavior, doing something else like talking to a friend, reading a book, going for a walk, entering into prayer, any number of behaviors that rewire my brain and make it easier to stop eating more than I need.
These practices of mindfulness and meditation are nothing new. They have been practiced for thousands of years, mostly in spiritual traditions which were the only “self improvement programs” available until sciences like psychology developed. We are not at the mercy of our thoughts and sensations; it just takes disciplined practice and a lot of grace to overcome them. Listen to your better self, that voice or whisper you hear in moments of reflection that says, “things don’t have to be this way, I am created for more.”
I often see men in my practice who are struggling with porn addiction, that is they compulsively view pornography. This has serious impact on their marital relationship and sexual performance. As with any repeated behavior our brain develops specific neural pathways that become ingrained and are thus compulsive. We experience this as thoughts and feelings that compel us to repeat the behavior. We are “driven” by our brain to do the deed, viewing porn, drinking, smoking pot, gambling, eating, worrying, and other compulsive behaviors that control aspects of our existence.
Recently I saw a young professional, married man who struggles with compulsive porn viewing. He is an educated person who is a dedicated follower of Jesus, who we can call Matt. Anyone would recognized him as a committed believer. He has a good and supportive relationship with his wife who is engaged with him in battling his compulsion to view porn. She, who we can refer to as Sue, also is a committed believer in Jesus. Sue is emotionally mature, meaning she can manage negative emotions so that her thinking brain (the prefrontal context) does not go offline when strong emotions occur. She is able to hold an objective awareness of her experience. This is a critical skill that we all need and can develop.
One of the most helpful therapeutic interventions with compulsive thoughts and feelings is meditation. There are several forms of meditation but they all have one thing in common, they help develop objective awareness of our internal experience. I prefer Centering Prayer meditation because it has a basis in Christian Scripture and Tradition as contemplative prayer. I introduced this practice to Matt who quickly grasped its significance. The significant and powerful benefit of contemplative prayer is that it develops the skill of our “inner witness or observer”.
Matt was able to experience his compulsive, obsessive thoughts and feelings to view porn as something “other” than himself. Simply put, our essence is not our thoughts and feelings, we are not our thoughts and feelings, we could say we are spirit. That is, there is a part of us that can observe our inner, subjective experience. When Paul says in Romans 8:16 that God’s spirit testifies (agrees with) our spirit that we are His children, this personal spirit is, I believe, our “inner witness or observer”.
Matt, almost immediately experienced a new found freedom from his compulsive behavior. He quickly realized that he did not have to respond to the thought and feeling to view porn. He had freedom of choice to do something different once he knew that his identity is not determined by what he thinks and feels. This new found freedom is not like a vending machine, put in a dollar and get a candy bar, it takes consistent, persistent, practice but for Matt he has found a way forward, he does not feel trapped or enslaved to compulsive porn viewing.
Not everyone grasps as quickly the potential of meditation as Matt did, nor does everyone have a Sue in their life, or a strong faith. All of these things matter in overcoming such difficult challenges, but developing our inner witness, our spirit, recognizing and understanding that we are not defined and bound by what we think, or what we do, or what we feel, is powerful and freeing.
In my last blog I mentioned Dr Jeffrey Schwartz and recommended you look at one of his you tube videos. I hope you checked that out and if you did you probably were made aware of his book “You Are Not Your Brain”. I highly recommended getting and reading this book, especially if you want to make any changes in your habits, whether it is eating too much, drinking too much, struggling with obsessive or negative thinking, etc. He presents a clear but challenging process to changing the way your brain functions and thus your life. As I have mentioned in recent blogs, we have a mind, a self, a consciousness, an awareness that is somehow “independent” of our brain and able to change the way our brain functions.
I am reminded of the Christian scripture Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free, do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Habits and behaviors can be a form of slavery; mine certainly feel like that and to know that I have the choice and the means to change them is very encouraging. We are not just our thoughts or our habits or our performance, we are “something” else.
I am also reminded of another Christian scripture, Romans 7:14-25 where Paul describes the struggle that we all have, this awareness of struggling with the sin nature and doing what is good. Hopefully you are not getting hung up on religious language and are able to see the bigger picture that is at play here. Paul is saying he is not able to help himself, that he is battling forces that are greater than him but he is in relationship with a force, Christ, the Spirit of God, who can set him free.
Dr. Schwartz’s contention that we are not our brain is a similar statement to Paul’s. He calls it our true self that is free of compulsions and habits that bind us in negative patterns of behavior that have been ingrained in neural pathways. I know people, including myself who have been miraculously almost instantaneously set free from negative and destructive habits, but that is the exception. It certainly has been so in my life and everyone else I am familiar with has had to work at gaining such freedom. However you understand this “something” else that we have in us, it is there and available to all of us.
Christians understand this as incarnational reality, that God lives in us, that we are indwelt by the presence of God. This is who we truly are, our true self, and the work of Dr. Shwartz, and others, are providing means to help us realize it.
There is a fascinating convergence with neuroscience and tradition rich spiritual practices. Neuroscience, the study of how the brain works, is confirming what contemplatives (those who meditate and seek solitude and silence) have known for centuries, the mind can shape the physical structure of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity, something they denied was possible as little as 10 years ago and yet every one that prays, counsels, preaches, and teaches knew that transformation was and is possible; we can literally reshape the neural pathways of the brain, even significant mental health disorders like OCD. Healing happens and science is agreeing with spiritual traditions; how cool is that!
This is fascinating on several levels. I would recommend you listen to any of Dr. Jeffery Schwartz’s M.D. You Tube videos. Here is a link to one: https://youtu.be/S0-NmxR3Lcg. Dr. Schwartz is part of the exploding Mindfulness movement, a secular version of contemplative practices, especially meditation. He is also a believer in Jesus and got there from a Jewish heritage, to practicing Zen Buddhism, to following Jesus. I don't know the details of his spiritual journey, but the exciting and encouraging thing is that there is language developing that crosses all spiritual, secular, and scientific lines. If we look rightly, we can see how everything is connected, just like Jesus prayed in John 17:21: “May they all be one as you (God) and I are one.”
What is this language of connection? For those who practice meditation they know there is a presence that is not physical that shapes the physical brain. Believers in Jesus call it by many names, the Holy Spirit, the helper, the counselor, the comforter. I think it is our spirit working with His Spirit (Romans 8:16). Scientists call it the mind, focused awareness, other spiritual traditions call it enlightenment. There is significant healing going on with these practices and it is not just in Christian circles. God’s healing is not limited to Christian belief. He is a compassionate and loving God who brings His Love to all of us.
I believe something powerful is happening in all of this and we need to look “with eyes that see and ears that hear” to understand. Do not let your belief system get in your way of seeing and hearing what is going on; be open and trust, God is bigger than our fear.
Bones, Spock, and Captain Kirk
Any one of us knows the joy and pain of relationships. Of course this statement fits only if we are emotionally engaged with them. It is the "stuff" that makes relationships dynamic and vibrant. It is also the stuff that makes them painful and difficult.
What does it mean to be emotionally engaged and how do you tell if you are? Why is it so important that we be emotionally engaged or attached to our children or our spouse or our friends? What is the big deal about emotions anyway? Well, it turns out that emotion is central to how our brain works, especially with memory. In fact, everything we experience in life is being assessed by our amygdala, the so called center of the emotional brain, and it processes information before we even know it. Do you remember the last time you became emotional? Think about a recent emotional experience like becoming angry or sad. You were "into" the emotion before you had time to think. The emotion is just there, it is not something you make happen like when you figure something out with your "thinking brain" and put the plan into action.
Some individuals find it very difficult or even "alien" to experience intense emotions or they are very restricted in their emotional expression. It might be that the only emotion they experience is anger or fear. It is like their emotional brain is not as active or sensitive to emotional experience. If you have ever seen Star Trek episodes then you know of Spock and how "human emotions" are alien to him and his decisions are made solely by logic. Or, if you know someone who has experienced a stroke their emotional expression is different. For some stroke victims there is no emotion associated with anything. They are extremely flat and unresponsive and very difficult to connect with. We need emotional expression to connect with one another.
Another character in Star Trek is the contrast to Spock; it is Bones, the passionate and emotional physician who is constantly frustrated with Spock's cold logic. Bones is emotional about practically everything especially when it involves relationships. He is always accusing Spock of not "caring" because he believes Spock's decisions and actions are unaffected by what happens to others. And of course Bones' actions are almost always effected by how it affects others and he places a premium in his decision making on what it will mean to someone else. Sometimes this clouds his judgment.
And then there is Captain Kirk. He is the balance point to both Spock and Bones. Where they are metaphorical extremes, he is the metaphorical center point, making decisions considerate of both emotion and logic. Captain Kirk is the model of how our brain is supposed to work. He is passionate and emotionally engaged with his crew and friends but able to make the "tough" decisions when necessary. He is able to engage both his "emotional brain" and his "thinking brain". One does not dominate the other and his decisions are better, more likely to be the right one because he is using his whole brain to make the call.
Which character do you identify with? Consider your important, significant relationships and assess if you are more of a Spock or a Bones. Maybe Captain Kirk describes you. More likely, we find that we can be all three depending on the circumstance. Try and observe in what situations you are more likely to be emotionally engaged and calmly considering options like Captain Kirk. What circumstance brings out the "Bones" in you where emotional expression dominates? When are you primarily considering the facts regardless of its affect on others?
Work on becoming more aware of what circumstances and contexts bring out which Star Trek character. It is in those circumstances where a Bones or Spock dominates that we have growing to do. When Captain Kirk shows up, we have learned that we can both emotionally connect and thoughtfully consider options to make sound judgments.
Men and women are different. Anyone who has been in a heterogeneous relationship knows this. In fact, the word heterogeneous means exactly this; "consisting of parts or aspects that are unrelated or unlike each other." No wonder marriage can be so difficult! The way a man and woman argue is one specific way that we are different. Dr. John Gottman, a marital researcher has documented the different physiological reactions of men and women during an argument. Because our marriage, and any other significant relationships where there is an emotional bond or attachment, is critically important to our well being our stress response is triggered when the relationship is threatened. And men and women respond to this threat in radically different ways.
Dr. Gottman found that most men, in the midst of an argument where they are feeling pursued and attacked, or cornered, react as though their wife is a real physical threat. We men tend to gear up to physically defend ourselves like we would if we had to battle a lion or a warrior. Due to higher levels of testosterone, men's physiological arousal is one of heightened vigilance, increased heart rate and blood pressure. We are physically ready for war. Not exactly conducive for resolving an emotional conflict; we are not looking for a hug and an "I'm sorry honey, I really didn't mean that"! At the moment, and for a significant period of time thereafter, men are not physically able to respond in an emotionally connective way.
Amazingly, our heterogeneous other is able to do that. Women have higher levels of the hormone oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When experiencing similar relational stress, women are more inclined to socialize and nurture, not fight. Their natural tendency is to want to connect and give care so they pursue and persist. In the midst of an emotional conflict woman are wired with a greater ability to calm themselves. Men, on the other hand, take longer to settle down and usually need separation and space to do that.
If your spouse, most likely your husband, responds to emotional stress like a lion is about to devour him, then give him time and space to settle down. There is a critical condition to allowing this disengagement; there must be agreement to return and engage at a later time. Many couples will simply remove themselves and ignore what went on because experience tells them the same cycle will repeat. This is disastrous for the long term health of your relationship and you must develop the skills and resources to comfort and connect in the midst of conflict. Appreciating the different ways men and women are created can make a huge difference in accomplishing that.