Why We Need James’ Message (the one from the Greek Bible) to Overcome the Brain’s Wiring

James 2:1-13 one of the four Christian Bible passages suggested for preaching this week.  (Spoiler alert to all in my congregation:  I’m preaching again from James.)

James is famous for his insistence on the integration of faith with deeds, and much can be said about that, neuro-spiritually speaking.

But this passage specifically speaks against stereotyping, and it’s something we need to hear over and over and over again.  Because our brains are wired to stereotype.  What our brains do, it’s not inherently evil.  Our brains are just going along their merry way, trying hard to conserve energy and find shortcuts.  (Remember, our brains consume 20-25% of our calories.  Sadly, your brain won’t necessarily burn off  the extra delicious calories that come from ice cream or m&m binges, even if you think really really hard about this blog.)

So, our brains are wired to stereotype, because it’s a shortcut, and it saves energy.  What is unfaithful, or unreflective, or irresponsible, is to allow our brains to dictate our lives.  Contradictory, I know.  But:  Just because our brains stereotype to save energy, doesn’t mean we sit back and let them be lazy.  No, God gave us this gift of a brain, to use.  We 21st century human beings are called to a higher standard; we’re called to engage our prefrontal cortex.

What does that look like?  Thinking about our thoughts, because

1. We are not our thoughts.

2. We can change our thoughts.

3. Unthinking action leads us into trouble.

4. Our often unconscious bias needs to be dragged out into the open for evaluation, and often more than once.  It didn’t get there overnight, and one good overhaul won’t fix it permanently.  Those new neural pathways take time.

The good news?  We carry the tools we need around with us all the time!  Our brains have the tools to change how they are wired.  Crazy, huh.  But because of our brains, we can take responsibility for how our brain is wired today, and can be changed with our intentional help, for tomorrow.

(And the reason meditation is such a hot topic, and why it is similar to prayer, is that in that quiet time, we can become aware of, and think about, and evaluate, our thoughts that we didn’t even realize we were thinking.  Because our brains are also sneaky little buggers.)

Breathing, Part II: In the pulpit

So, breathing meditation helps with fear.  How about anger?

Maybe you don’t get angry – but probably, you do.  And at inappropriate times and places.  Maybe certain issues push you over the edge and your heart is racing and your palms are sweaty and your breathing is shallow and fast.  Maybe you too can go from peaceful to raging in less than 6 seconds.

One recent Sunday afternoon found me in the pulpit of a funeral home, leading a very eclectic memorial service for a friend’s sister and brother-in-law who had died in a climbing accident.  American-born Koreans, first generation Koreans, and Koreans who just flew in for this service and didn’t speak English were joined by the yoga community to honor these two beloved people.  I was trying to hold together a multitude of world-views, traditions, faiths, and spiritual practices, and I’d be lying to say I wasn’t a tiny bit nervous and self-conscious.  We would recite the comforting 23rd Psalm along with a responsive reading from the Bhagavad Gita.  “Nothing in life or in death can separate us from the Love of the Divine,” from Paul’s letter to the Romans would be joined by chanting in sanskrit.  Then 20 minutes before the service was to begin, I was told that the pastor from a local, large, well-known non-denominational church had been invited to say a few words – Could I find a time in the service to have him speak?  Yikes.  I was not a happy camper.

My anger started to build.  I don’t much care for non-denominational pastors.  I am too Presbyterian, too connectional.  I believe pastors need outside accountability.  I believe churches need to be less pastor-centered.  Such churches present as liberal when they are anything but.  They tend to have very narrow interpretations of scripture.  They easily become all about the personality of the pastor.  But mostly, I firmly, passionately believe God calls women to ordained ministry, and take it extremely personally when told otherwise.

It’s now one minute before the service is to begin and in he walks, and I am now very ticked.  I had worked hard on this service; I was anxious; I really did not want to have Jesus shoved down people’s throats as this time, as I assumed he would.  In retrospect, I realize I did not want my Christian faith represented by him.  After introducing myself, I invited him to stand up and speak.  And my blood started boiling.  All my buttons were getting pushed – It wasn’t his fault, I just have issues with (usually men) establishing their credentials in the pulpit  – Naming his church, how long he had been there, how he knew just what people needed to hear at times like these, how Jesus loved them, how the week before he had been leading his own mother’s funeral service.  I unkindly thought, this isn’t about you, Mister!

Thankfully he spoke long enough I had plenty of time to breathe.  Deeply.  Over and over and over.  Inhale – this isn’t about me – Exhale – It still isn’t about me.  Inhale – what does it matter what he thinks about me – Exhale – It still isn’t about me.  Inhale – de-personalize.  Exhale – trust the Spirit is at work.  Inhale – I am here to help this family – Exhale – it will all be okay.  Over and over and over.  Inhale – who cares how long he’s served  – Exhale – I too am called by God.

And finally, my self-righteous anger subsided. Never mind how inappropriate or poorly timed.  When we’re angry, we’re angry, and denying we are can just make it worse.  But letting the beast be in control isn’t the way of compassion; in fact it’s downright selfish.  And so I breathed.  And so my nervous system found a balance.  And so I was able to lead the rest of the service from a place of calm and compassion.

Yep, guess I’d better keep on meditating.  Give it a try – maybe it will help you through some of your own tough times when your own less-than-best self shows up.

Breathing, Part 1: In the Kayak

I’m horrible at meditating – In fact, while I was just meditating, I kept trying to write this blog post in my head.  Which is not what meditating is all about.

Lately, I’ve been meditating on my breath, because everyone breathes, right?  But in spite of all the reading & research I’ve done, it’s hard to know if it’s making any difference in my day-to-day life.  Do you ever feel that way?  Like you’re doing something because people have told you it’s good for you, but you aren’t sure ….

And then, I was in a kayak.  A 10′ kayak.  At a broad place in the St. Lawrence River, the Canadian side, several islands away from our cottage on Hay Island.  What had seemed like a nice break in the weather turned into only a temporary reprieve, and now I was in shorts and a tank top and a life jacket, and the sun was hiding and the temps were dropping and the winds were picking up and the rain started to fall and it was getting dark.  None of this is good news on this river in May, when weather is temperamental and can turn in an instant.  I was scared.

And then, I remembered to breathe.  Well, I hadn’t ever forgotten, I just decided to be intentional about breathing.  Inhale as you paddle right, exhale as you paddle left.  Inhale paddle right, exhale paddle left.  What was I scared of?  Inhale-paddle; exhale-paddle.  Thanks to yoga my arms were strong.  I wasn’t ever going to be far from shore, even if it wasn’t MY shore.  Inhale-paddle; exhale-paddle.  Sure it was getting cold – very cold, but only cold enough I was uncomfortable – not life-threatening cold.  Even if the wind tipped me, again, I wasn’t ever far from a shore.  Inhale-paddle; exhale-paddle.  No need to panic – which would rob me of the deep breaths keeping me calm, and make my heart race even faster, which would not help me paddle any faster.  Inhale-paddle; exhale paddle.

And then, I was back.  Safe and sound.  And I realized – Huh!  Maybe there IS something to the practice of meditation after all!  No matter how bad a meditator I am, I think I’ll keep at it a little longer.

The St. Lawrence on a calmer summer day

The St. Lawrence on a calmer summer day

What we know is wrong

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I listened to this podcast from Krista Tippett’s On Being, in which physicist Brian Greene explains why the reality presented to us through our senses is so wrong, at least when compared with the mathematics of reality.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/brian-greene-reimagining-the-cosmos/6118

My last math class was in 1984, and this A-student made a “D,” so needless to say, the math behind the concepts is beyond me.  But to hear that a mathematical description of creation contradicts what our senses tell us?  “That’ll preach,” as preachers like to say – Meaning, that makes sense – Because as a spiritual person, as a person of a particular faith tradition, as a person called to live and practice a mindful life, I get it.  I know we are surrounded by lies, and I know we are susceptible to lies, and I know we mistake lies for truth every single day.  

Physicist Brian Greene has devoted his entire life to the mathematical understanding of the world, including how time is relative.  But even though he studies, and teaches Einstein’s theory of relativity, and knows it inside and out, his human experience tells him that time is fixed, It moves forward in one direction at a fixed pace.  You cannot go back.  The past is gone.  The future isn’t here.  Even though mathematically, that’s not possible.  It still FEELS right to him.

So:  Bottom line for me:  There are realities more real than our senses can perceive, and more real than our brains can know of their own accord.  In fact, our senses and brains lie to us.  (Think of the saber-tooth tiger masking as your angry spouse, co-worker, toddler or teen, who makes your blood boil as you get ready to fight or flee.  Is your life REALLY in danger?  Nah.  It just FEELS that way, and our FEELINGS aren’t always accurate responses to reality.)

Anyway, our sense lie to us.  Physicists know this.  Mathematicians know this.  Theologians know this.  Yogis know this.  Musicians know this.  Lots of us, regardless of our training, know this.  AND it is really, really, REALLY hard to remember.  There are realities more real than we perceive.  

But we’ve also got these minds that can remind us to take a breath, thank our brains and bodies for keeping us safe, and make more conscious decisions about how to proceed.  It’s our minds that can practice working with the mechanics of our brains.  But what athlete would wait for the day of competition to start training?  No, you practice every day.  Practice mindful prayer.  Practice mindful attunement to what our bodies are saying.  Practice attending to what our brains are thinking.  Use the mind you’ve been given!  

Lunch vs Logic

Once again, I heard the call from my office.  “Lunch time everyone!” yelled my supervisor.  Every single day, in my new job.  The same thing.  

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We were a small office, and when the boss was hungry, it was lunchtime.  For everyone.  Whether or not we were hungry, we were expected to drop everything, grab our lunch, and sit in the meeting room all together, where we would try our very best to make small talk.  And act like we liked being there.  I hated it.

I hated it so much, I started coming up with excuses, no matter how lame:  “I’m not hungry.”  “I already ate.”  “I’m too busy – I’ll just eat at my desk.”  “I’m going to head out soon and I’ll grab something then.”  

No – No eating disorder.  Yes – Maybe just a smidgen of authority issues.  Mostly, though, I was and continue to be an introvert.  Please, just leave me alone to eat my lunch in peace, with my nose in a book.  

So, just tell your boss that at  lunch, you need some down time, some alone time, that you prefer to eat by yourself.  What’s so hard about  that?

Would you believe that this very issue came up in therapy for weeks, months.  I had no words for why I absolutely could not even imagine saying anything of the sort out loud to my supervisor.  Ever.   I could not even trying it once to see what would happen.  Even now as I remember this time in my life, my heart is beating a tiny bit faster.  

Now I better understand that those neural connections were jammed – They just were not going to go there.  And why not?  O, all these years later, I suspect my miserable reticence was just ordinary garden variety fear.  Fear made more powerful because I could not name it.   And I was very young.  And scared of my supervisor. But what fascinates me to this day is why such a simple thing seemed absolutely unthinkable at the time. (I never did say anything.)

What is going on in our brains at times like this?  Why do our neurons and synapses jam sometimes, and what can we do to coax them along?  In the grand scheme, this is such a harmless example – this forced lunchtime togetherness.  But in our lives, what keeps us blind to what is right there?  What keeps us mute?  What stops our thinking?  

“No, I can’t say THAT!”  or “I could NEVER do THAT!” or “You just don’t understand, it’s out of MY control.”  But when pushed, we can’t really articulate what is going on inside us.  We just know we CAN’T.  And it can be dangerous – If we are blind to the signs of autism in our toddler, to the signs our elderly parent shouldn’t be driving, to the signs our children are using drugs, to the signs we are heading to addiction.

Denial.  The deeply seated invisible denial.  If you say you are in denial, you are admitting there is something there to deny.  I’m not talking about that level of denial – That’s denial lite.  I’m talking about when we aren’t even aware of what is going on.  

What’s going on here?  One, our brains are geared to the imminent threat, not the long term consequences of avoiding the conflict, and addressing the issue feels like imminent threat.   And two, fear – especially the unnameable, unspeakable fear – holds us – our ability to think clearly – hostage.  It jams the thinking process, unless we can name it.

I keep digging to understand what is going on in our brains at times like that, and what we can do to help ourselves and each other coax those neurons along.  Those neurons, those synapses, they can be like skittish squirrels reluctant to take a tiny step closer, and we have to keep practicing, keep meditating, keep encouraging the truth to rise to the surface.  Sometimes, those neurons don’t connect themselves.  They need our mind’s help.  What has helped you let truth in?

I woke up one morning and thought:

 

OMG:  I’m DYING!!!

 

 

And then,

Wait a minute!  Didn’t I have fresh beets for dinner last night?  And lots of them?

(If you don’t get the connection, see this description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beeturia)

 

I don’t normally eat beets.  My whole life, in fact, I avoided them.  I did not like beets.  Then, we started having beets in the house, for dinner, in soups, with vinegar, in salads, all sorts of ways, because my husband LOVES beets.  And he grows them.  And I’ve started developing more of a taste for them.  But that explains why the next morning I thought I was dying.  I didn’t have much experience with beets’ digestive effects.

So, what exactly was going on inside my brain in between the “OMG – I’m DYING!!!!”  To, “Wait a minute here….”

Well, if you guessed our dear ol’ friend the amygdala, DING DING DING!  You’d be right!  Well, half right.  Yes, the amygdala is the ultimate helicopter parent, keeping an eye out for any teensy tiny thing that might threaten our survival, safety, and comfort.  And the warning bells go off, in a millisecond.  We each differ, due to genetics, and experience, and brain wiring, and a whole host of complexities of how our brains work, in just how sensitive we are to these (imaginary?) threats.  Some of us (who are you?  I want to be like YOU!) stay cool, calm, and collected, and carry an enviable resistance to over-reacting.  (Okay, so do psychopaths, but that’s another topic.)  Others of us manage to respond in ways that most people would deem appropriate, given the level of threat.  And then there are the SFS-suffering folk.  (Remember my post on “Sensitive-Flower Syndrome?)  Yes, those of us in this category, we jump at the slightest provocation.  So, no surprise, my brain spotted something unusual, and I jumped to the WORST CASE SCENARIO.  (But I didn’t jump as high or as frantically as I might have in the past – I can tell the scientists and theologians are right!  Meditation IS good for helping us stay calm!)

But there’s a Part 2 to what goes on inside our brains when we face something new:  We are wired for story.  There has been so much information we have needed to have at our beck and call, our brains devised a nifty trick of storing key survival tips in the form of narratives.  So, while my amygdala is getting me all jumpy, another part of my brain is scanning the memories stored in my hypothalamus for any possible relevant bit of info that might help me make meaning of what I am seeing.  Any book, movie, tv show, friend of a friend of a stranger’s experience, a bill board, a commercial – Anything at all.

As it happens, two folk in my congregation are being treated right now for bladder cancer.  You can bet that information beat out all the other narratives to rise right to the top of my consciousness as I’m trying to make sense of what I am seeing.  Then, right behind that comes the memory of my first dog, Amadeus, who peed straight dark red blood right before we had to put him to sleep, after 10 wonderful years together.  

So, my amygdala hops to, followed by these two bits of narrative information, and THEN my prefrontal cortex has a chance to weigh in with the most logical answer for this disturbing phenomena.  Beets.  Ah.  Breathing again.  And all is well.  Maybe I’ll stick with this meditation thing!