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.”
Living into Contemplative Rhythm
"From the beginning, Jesus’s ministry modeled the interplay between prophetic utterance, public theology, and intense spiritual renewal. He launches his three-year ministry from the desert wilderness, a place that will be the home of latter-day desert mothers and fathers. After an intense time of fasting, testing, and submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returns ready to fulfill his calling. These rhythms of activism and contemplation, engagement and withdrawal resonate throughout his life." R. Rohr
Looking to live into this, 3 day retreat of silence and stillness at the Abbey of Gethsemane this weekend.
We need contemplative communities within the evangelical church who practice this rhythm. Most of us are activists who value doing and results. I wonder if we really trust the Holy Spirit.
Every Tuesday night at my office, 6:30 pm, meditative bible study, period of silence, meditation and listening.
When thou prayest, shut thy door; that is, the door of the senses. Keep them barred and bolted against all phantasms and images. Nothing pleases God more than a mind free from all occupations and distractions. Such a mind is in a manner transformed into God, for it can think of and understand nothing, and love nothing except God. He who penetrates into himself and so transcends himself, ascends truly to God. – Albert Magnus (the “father of Christian mysticism”)
Weekly Tuesday Nights @ 6:30-7:30 pm
Beginning June 19th, 2018
Office of Don Sizemore & Associates
698 Perimeter Dr. STE 101
Lexington, KY 40517
Meditation in its various forms is a practice that has demonstrated beneficial effects for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual life. It has been practiced for centuries in every major religion and is a subject of neuroscience research and application. It is especially helpful for changing bad habits, ending unhealthy thinking, and enhancing our spiritual life. I encourage many of my clients to meditate as a religious practice or for well being. A group experience is supportive of our individual practice of meditation.
The session will include a twenty minute group meditation exercise and teaching on the practices and effects of meditation as well as a discussion of our experience with meditation. This group is open to anyone wishing to participate. It is offered as a free service.
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.
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.
I went on a day long retreat last week to Quiet Place, a large and comfortable cabin with a wrap around porch near Lancaster, KY. It is a beautiful and secluded place that is used exclusively for spiritual retreats. I went alone for a time of silence and solitude and even though it was only for the day it reminded me of how difficult being silent and alone with your self can be. I have done extended retreats of four or five days but they have been at the Abbey of Gethsemane where you can at least see other people and attend services where the psalms are sung by the monks. That does provide some distraction from your thoughts.
The idea of silence and solitude is to do “God Alone”, and while some reading and reflection is ok as a jumping off place but the purpose is to enter into an attentive silence with God. This involves a meditative posture that goes beyond thinking and involves awareness and a listening for God’s voice. This might sound romantic or mystical but the nuts and bolts of letting your thoughts go, to get beyond thinking or beyond your feelings is rather messy and challenging. When you are quiet and alone with your thoughts and there is nothing to distract you from them, you may experience and discover some disconcerting or challenging things about your self. You may also have an incredible experience with God where you are aware of being in His Presence and you know this because you experience that He is with you. He is no longer just an idea or a concept, He is an experience. This is what the soul is hungry for, an experience of God’s presence. And you can’t think or feel your way into it.
I regularly teach many of my clients how to meditate, especially the ones that struggle with anxiety, panic attacks and PTSD. The benefits of meditating are amazing and they have been fully documented in the scientific community. It is one of the most effective stress reduction techniques that is available. Sitting in silence focusing on your breath with abdominal breathing for twenty minutes a day is all that is required. (follow this link for more information:http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/meditation-heals-body-and-mind). It is a very simple thing that is incredibly difficult, at least for most people. I encourage you to try it, sitting quietly focusing only on the in and out of deep abdominal breaths. You will likely find it incredibly difficult to keep your focus on your breath; instead you might find your mind wandering down random tracks or to concerns about the events of the day, tasks that need attention, or fears and obsessions that spontaneously surface. It can be very difficult to let things, thoughts, and feelings go, and just be in the moment.
Most if not all spiritual traditions have long included meditative practices for spiritual formation. My faith background is Christian and there is a rich tradition of contemplative practices that are centered in some form of meditation. They are tried and true paths to experiencing God. The challenge is that meditation is not a quick fix that soon produces a result. It is a discipline that is practiced.
I had a very difficult time at Quiet Place last week. I could not settle, could not get quiet and enter into silence. I sought out things to distract myself and avoid this unsettled state. My mental and emotional self was agitated and I could not enter into the present moment. I left disappointed but not discouraged. Acknowledging and facing our inner demons is an important part of the process and affirms the power of silence and solitude to expose what needs the Light of Day, the Love of God, and the Peace of Grace. All I can do is give myself to it.