“The desert is a place of great undoing.” Ryan Kuja
“The Bible abounds in references to the desert and the wilderness. Encounters with God, both directly and through prophetic voices, took place in scenes of desolation. God spoke on an empty stage, knowing how easily the sound of rivers diverted human attention.” Yi-Fu Tuan
(In case you’re wondering if Yi-Fu Tuan is a Confucius mentor, he is not, he is a Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, and Ryan Kuja is a modern day Christian contemplative, not a Hindu mystic.)
I have been reading and rereading a book on desert and mountain spirituality by a fellow named Belden C. Lane titled The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. I began reading this before the corona virus emerged into our lives. I think I was being prepared for what has come upon us as the virus is our desert experience. It is undoing us and certainly there are many churches with empty stages. This is an opportunity for an encounter with a God we don’t know; maybe he has our attention, and we can avoid being distracted by rivers streaming entertainment.
I don’t know about you, but this excites me, an adventure with a God I don’t know. How comfortable we have become with a known God who works in ways we understand, through books and sermons and pastors that have answers for us; it’s spiritual comfort food. The only path to spiritual growth, or making changes in our personal life, that I have ever experienced is through being undone with what I was already doing. And while having a Mr. Rogers in the Neighborhood is pleasant and comforting, it is insufficient for actual transformation.
The desert makes you look and listen; let’s embrace this moment.
There is much more to say, but I know we are scrolling through pages on Facebook.
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.”
This past Lent session I worked through John Vanier’s The Gospel of John The Gospel of Relationship. It was and is a transformative experience. He presented a vision of Jesus that my soul longed for and literally gave me a way forward with faith. “Who do you say I am?”, Who is Jesus? The short answer is He is the Son of God, the Messiah, and Savior. John Vanier unpacked that answer with a kind of spirituality of attachment, that Jesus is joined with the human race in love: “The Word of God, who is God, who is one with God, becomes one of us: a fragile, vulnerable human being.”
This morning I read about a promising UK golfer who has been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. His coach said this: “Cullan (Brown) has always been full of faith, and hope and enthusiasm with everything in his life. He and God are going to whip this thing over the next year and it is going to be one sweet victory.” I am praying that is so for this young man, what a battle he is facing to overcome and it appears he has the full support of the UK community and its resources, medical and otherwise. We all want to see Cullan victorious, having the opportunity to live a long, full life where he can realize his potential. Dear Jesus, I pray that you heal Cullan.
This would be the kind of story many love to tell to encourage the faithful and spur the seeker to accept Jesus. It is the kind of story I needed to hear at one time in my life, to believe in the overcoming power of Jesus. And yet, Jesus became one of us, fragile and vulnerable. Who do you say we are? Mostly we say that we are strong and powerful, or want to be. But Jesus joined us in our fragility and vulnerability, and Jean Vanier’s life experiences and studies taught him that it is in our fragility and vulnerability that we know and meet Jesus, and each other.
Jean Vanier reminded me that believing in Jesus is not always about victory and overcoming, a theme many of the evangelical churches and groups I have been associated with promote. I don’t think they mean to do this, but it risks setting up an individualistic perspective that Jesus is like a kind of religious Me Too movement that leaves us empowered but not fully connected and whole. And then when Jesus doesn’t deliver the victory we pray for, all hell of confusion breaks out and we’re doing theological contortions to explain it, or just ignore it, passing it over as some kind of aberration. And some just give up believing.
Jean Vanier, Saint Francis and others, provide an alternative. Stop self protecting; enter into relationships and embrace situations where you are powerless; accept your fragility and vulnerability; that is where you find Jesus.
Self Protection, Not Better Communication, Is the Problem
The primary struggles that most couples have who come for marriage counseling are caused by fear and self protection. Most couples think they are having a communication problem and if they could only learn how to better express themselves to each other their relationship would get better. On the surface this is hard to argue with except that research demonstrates that teaching better communication skills to married couples who are struggling rarely helps. What helps is marriage counseling that focuses on creating a better, closer emotional connection. The struggle that couples have is because they do not feel emotionally safe with one another, there is a fear factor that causes them to self protect. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it.
Most couples I see for marriage counseling do not think of being “afraid” of their partner yet during therapy they become aware of how often they self protect and how they self protect. When men lose safe emotional connection with their spouse they typically self protect by withdrawing, creating emotional distance. Women are most often pursuers when this connection is lost, pushing for a different and more engaged emotional response from their husband. When a couple is dancing out of emotional sync with one another, it triggers this self protective response and a couple loses safe emotional connection. Marriage counselors who understand this dance of disconnection can help couples repair and restore it. Once a couple is dancing in emotional sync with one another they are no longer missing the emotional cues their partner is sending for understanding, comfort and acceptance and there is no “fear”, no need to self protect, then a couple has to opportunity to draw closer to one another.
Irretrievably Broken Marriage?
Go to my website, donsizemore.org, and check out new video interviews with couples who were on brink of divorce and reconciled!
These are two video interviews with couples who wanted to tell their story of their decision to pursue marriage counseling and reconciliation. They were part of a two year project in the Fayette County Family Court of Judge Tim Philpot in Lexington, KY. Judge Philpot, Dr. Wm. Doherty of the University of Minnesota, and myself, introduced measures to help couples pause on the legal superhighway to divorce. The couples' experience is a powerful testimony for that project and Emotionally Focused Therapy, a marriage counseling approach with proven results.
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.