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.)

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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?

Giving Up Sugar for Lent: It’s good for the body. DANG IT!!

I’m not big for giving up something for Lent.  I wasn’t raised with that tradition, and it’s not something we emphasize here in my Presbyterian church.  

But it’s a popular thing to do.  Based on my (extremely limited unscientific observation) sugar is the most popular item to give up.  

When I hear of folk give something up for Lent, I  usually ask, “And how has that brought you closer to God or helped you be a more faithful disciple?”  

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And the typical Christian answer is often, “Because Jesus gave up his life for me, so I can do this for Him.”  

Ah.  No wonder I’ve not been big on giving something up for Lent, since that theology doesn’t work for me.  I can’t wrap my mind around how it might bring my Maker joy for me to give up chocolate.  More to the point, I can’t wrap my mind and heart around substitutionary and sacrificial atonement theology.  Put simply:  

1. Substitutionary Atonement says that God needed to punish someone for humanity’s evil ways, and Jesus volunteered, “giving up his life for me.”   

Hmm.  Not sure I can trust a God who thinks and works like that:  One who needs someone to pay for how we mess up.  That math doesn’t work for me.  

2. God demanded a sacrifice for all humanity’s sins t

hroughout all time, so Jesus was that sacrifice, as in the ancient Temple traditions of turtledoves and perfect calves brought to the high priests to settle debts.

Again, huh?  It just doesn’t make sense to me – Not only does the math not add up for me,  I can’t trust such a score-keeping vindictive revengeful deity.

So, I’ve never been one for giving up something, although I know it does help people draw closer in gratitude to our Maker.  That I like. And having a daily practice to help us become mor

e mindful – That I like as well.  But still, I didn’t give up sugar for Lent, not feeling like it would nourish my spiritual life.

Then I came across these two different on-line pieces just in the last two days, after a week of sugar intake being in the news.  (New World Health Organization guidelines?  We should consume less sugar a day than is in one can of soda:   http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/05/adults-sugar-calories-coke-can-who.  Good thing I don’t drink soda!)

1.This article:   http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/

2014/01/15/262741403/why-sugar-makes-us-feel-so-good?utm_content=socialflow&utm_campaign=nprfacebook&utm_source=npr&utm_medium=facebook suggesting just how and why sugar is addictive.  Sugar lights up our brain similarly, although not as intensely, as HEROIN.  Yikes.  Our dopamine receptors – what makes us feel so good – LOVE sugar, but then, like any drug, we grow tolerant, we lose our ability to refuse it, we crave it, we need more of it in order to get that “rush.”  WAH!  I love sugar!  Now I know why.  But I wonder if addiction to sugar has gotten my dopamine receptors out of whack, so they are less responsive to joy?    That would be a spiritual issue.

2. This little video clip on what happens to our brains on s

ugar:  http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-sugar-affects-the-brain-nicole-avena  showing in a very simplified way how dopamine works and why sugar is addicting – The more you eat sugar, the more you crave sugar, the  less you can resist sugar.  In other words, the more willpower it takes to refuse it.  I need all my willpower going to keep me running and having a sermon ready by Sunday morning and keep my foot out of my  mouth.  There isn’t any left over to fight my brain’s constant insisting WE NEED SUGAR!  We’re deprived of dopamine!   

But what’s so bad about sugar?  Other than, you know, diabetes, weight gain, heart disease.  

Sadly, overeating sugar clouds your thinking.  It leaves you tired.  It spikes you up, then drops you down.  Eating sugar makes it hard to focus.  We end up eating more than we realize, because it is added to EVERYTHING:  ketchup, yogurt, cereal, dried fruit – Really, almost all our processed food.  

And now, I’m re-thinking my “not giving up sugar for Lent.”  Since we understand there is no division between body and spirit – The spirit is a physical reality happening in our physical brain – Maybe all those people giving sugar up for Lent are on to something, beyond an atonement theology that doesn’t work for me.  Maybe my sugar addiction – Because yes, I agree, I am addicted – IS interfering with my spiritual life, in ways that simply running a few miles every other day won’t fix.   Can I have some M&M’s as I contemplate that?  

Just kidding.  Sort of.

 

What will we do this summer without snow days?

Several weeks ago I blogged about the deliciousness and necessity of doing nothing on our last snow day.  As this next one loomed – We have a foot of snow on the ground and more to come – I had this awful thought:  What will I do this Spring, Summer and Fall, when I desperately need a snow day, but Mother Nature will not comply?  (Okay, global warming not-withstanding.  Who knows what other weather surprises are in store.)  

Brene Brown talks about the bragging of our busyness, as a measure of our worth.  A clergy friend just posted an editorial  from the New Yorker by Tim Kreider on what he calls “The Busy Trap.”  http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/opinionator/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

He says, “(We’re) busy because of (our) own ambition or drive or anxiety, because (we’re) addicted to busyness and dread what (we) might have to face in its absence.  Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”  Make no mistake – Those people barely making ends meet, working 3 jobs, or our sisters hauling potable water 3 miles a day – they are exhausted, not busy.  This “busy-ness” from which we all claim proudly to suffer?  It’s a first world, middle and upper middle class compulsion, (and as clergy, since our work is so intangible, we are even more susceptible.  After all, don’t we only work on Sundays?)  As I re-read the Little House on the Prairie books to my niece, I think of Ma and Pa:  THEY were busy.  But for us in the 21st century?   Everyone I know?  We wear our busyness like a badge of honor, as though it’s a given.

And we don’t think about how we ended up here, or whether this is a good place to stay.  It doesn’t occur to us we have a choice.  Our religious communities don’t necessarily help, either – Too infused with the good ol’ Protestant work guilt – O, I mean, ethic.  See what good Christians we are!  We’re busy!  So who has time to stop and think, meditate and reflect on how we are to live this life?  We’re too busy!

Almost all my life, I’ve been accused of over-achieving.  My spiritual director’s invitation to live as a “C” student panics me.  I have  wrestled with self-imposed standards that I assumed were external expectations.  I know all about this tug-of-war.  One on hand, “What is wrong with me?  That I can’t keep up with every-day life, let alone if anything goes wrong?  I must be – and fill in the blank.  Weak.  Lazy.  Crazy.  Incompetent.  Suffering from SFS (sensitive-flower-syndrome.)  Regardless, there must be something wrong with me.  Then I flip, and get a huge chip on my shoulder, and get angry at this culture, and it’s pressure, and everyone else’s expectations that I canNOT live up to.  Then, equilibrium.  What does it matter the cause – weak character or crazy culture?  It’s still up to me to decide.  It’s my life.  I can set the pace.

And this is where mindfulness comes in.  Because yes, it brings me angst to think about claiming a slower pace, a mental health day, time away from every day responsibilities – And that keeps me on the treadmill.  Maybe this snow day can be a trial run.  Not just a gift from a gracious God for today, but a glimpse of how calm and centered life could be, if I am willing to claim it, as my right as a precious part of creation.  Maybe it’s okay to only do enough to earn a “C” in this life.  Maybe, if Jesus words are to be believed, the first will be last and the last first, so that the “lazy” ones win.  At the very least, maybe we could use today to practice:  A different pace of life, a pace more humane and less anxiety-driven.  A pace more honest; a pace that looks like we’re wasting time, but in truth, we’re living life.

Neurogenesis: Neuro-theologically speaking (part 2)

O dear.  It’s embarrassing, but apparently I perfectly fit the target audience for the BBC’s show “Sherlock,” which is beloved by teenaged girls and middle-aged women.  At least that’s what my teenage daughter, who got me hooked, tells me.  In my defense, I choose to believe Sherlock’s fans are highly intelligent teens and middle aged women.
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Really – even if you are not a teenaged girl OR a middle-aged woman, you should check out this show.  It’s brilliant.  And it provides a brilliant example of neuro-plasticity (see previous post) and redemption as one could hope to see.
You see, Sherlock, while a brilliant solver of mysteries (too many “brilliants?”  Just trying to pay homage to the British-ness of the show) he is also – as he describes himself  – “the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet.”   He also labels himself a “high-functioning sociopath.”   “Sociopath” is not a clinical term, although some use it interchangeably with psychopath.  One blogger explains it this way:“So when Sherlock describes himself as a “sociopath,” what does he mean?

He is likely referring to his difficulty with empathy, his tendency to disregard others’ feelings, and his ability to feign emotions to manipulate people. He is not describing himself as violent, amoral, or criminal.”  http://thesherlockfandom.tumblr.com

These are the kinds of people we consider “unredeemable.”  These are the kinds of people – usually men – who when they are violent, end up filling our prisons, often with life sentences or the death penalty.  And then we throw away the key and assume there is no rehabilitation. Brain scans of those with psychopathic tendencies show certain consistent patterns, including shrunken amygdalae.  Some see this as in-born and unchangeable as say, Downs Syndrome.  Yet read this excerpt from Sherlock’s wedding toast to the man he now understands is his best friend:

SHERLOCK: “The point I’m trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet…..I am dismissive of the virtuous  … unaware of the beautiful … and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend….Certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.  John, I am a ridiculous man … redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship…  John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss …  so know this: today you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved – in short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.”  http://arianedevere.livejournal.com/65379.html
Does the end of this speech sound like a sociopath?  The cynical might say it is mere manipulation on Sherlock’s part.  The faithful might say that his friend John’s constant, reliable, steadfast, insistent care and expressions of love have changed Sherlock’s brain, making him (maybe just slightly) more capable of genuine relationship.  Could it be that what Sherlock says is true?  That our relationships can save us?  That redemption, as understood by the Christian faith, is possible?  That our Maker is brilliant in fashioning brains that can be changed by our hearts?  No, that is not a scientific statement.  But again, it reflects the intersection of spirituality and neurosciences, and the hope shared by both.
So what do you think?  Are some people beyond redemption, beyond saving, beyond changing for the better?  I’m curious what you think – what you believe – Let me know!

 

Are you deluded about your self?

ImageMy daughter took this picture of me and my husband with her i-phone 4, which she will tell you does not have a great camera, but look at what it captured:  This stream of light between us. Now, we do not have one of those “lovey-dovey” cloud nine relationships – Just ask my friend Kelly, who gets an earful of the day to day complaints that can be a part of marriage.  Okay, maybe just my marriage.  But this isn’t a picture of marriage.  It’s a picture of what Dan Siegel calls our “Interpersonal Neurobiology.”  Which just means there is no such thing as a “self.”  In fact, Daniel Siegel Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, goes so far to say that the idea we have a “self” is a delusion – Like, in the mental illness sense of “delusion.”  And it is this delusion that accounts for most – if not all – the world’s problems, including climate change, hunger, poverty, and war.

Our brains, which means really, we, exist as they do only because of our connections with others.  It is those connections that shaped our brains as we grew up, and shape our brains each day of our lives.  From the very first breath we take, our brains are specifically wired to pay attention to, then mimic, then respond to the eyes, faces, and facial expressions of those around us.  Very quickly, infants learn they can get others to interact with them as they make eye contact and change their facial expressions.  Who hasn’t smiled at a baby in Target, and been thrilled to see them smile back?

Twenty-five years ago I left the PhD Clinical Psychology path for a call to ministry, because I was told there was no way to study what I knew deep in my being was real, but at that time, invisible and unmeasurable (and therefore, not real) according to the scientific field of psychology. Now, neuroscientific research is catching up to what we who are committed to a religious, or spiritual life, already know:  We are all one.  We can’t understand an individual neuron.  We can’t understand what’s going on with an individual cell.  We can’t understand our “selves” because they do not exist apart from our connections with others.  This is how our brains were and are wired:  To respond to one another.

So, that smile you give the person in the check-out line?  Even though you are tired and crabby yourself?  Not only does it change your brain chemicals to make you feel better, it literally lights up their brain, and makes them feel better too.  You are reshaping their brain, and yours, and in the process, reshaping reality.  Think all those small acts of kindness don’t make a difference?  Think again. Each time we remember and practice we are all one, we wake up from the delusion of individuality that threatens our survival.

The science proves it.  And all major world religions teach it.

A quote from world religions:  “We are interdependent. Each of us depends on the well-being of the whole, and so we have respect for the community of living beings.”  –from Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration, signed by 300 representatives of the world’s religions at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago

A quote from Naturalist, John Muir, 1911: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

A quote from Louis Cozolino:  “Our brains rely on other brains to remain healthy, especially under stress.”

For an easy read on the science, check out the book “Born for Love: Why empathy is essential and endangered, by Perry & Szalavitz:  http://www.amazon.com/Born-Love-Empathy-Essential—Endangered/dp/0061656798/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384355149&sr=8-1&keywords=born+for+love

For more in-depth study, try “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships,”  by Cozolino:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Neuroscience-Human-Relationships-Interpersonal/dp/0393704548/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384355288&sr=8-1&keywords=neuroscience+of+human+relationships

For a life-time of study, the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, edited by Dan Siegel, will keep you busy. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_13?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=norton%20series%20on%20interpersonal%20neurobiology&sprefix=Norton+Series%2Caps%2C129&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Anorton%20series%20on%20interpersonal%20neurobiology