Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 14—When I’m Sick of Gratitude

Signs of gratitude for firefighters fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire, by White River National Forest (U.S. Forest Service). From Wikimedia Commons.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased my strength of soul.
(Psalm 138)

During the month of November, we are bombarded with admonishments to “be thankful.” Sometimes I find the constant barrage of sanctimonious advice irritating. It can actually put me in a foul mood: I don’t want to be thankful, and I don’t particularly want to be reminded and told and preached at by greeting cards, shared memes, and news articles on the mental health benefits of gratitude addressed to everyone and no one in particular. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, reminders to be grateful grate on my nerves!

This irritation is actually a reminder of how gratitude works, because gratitude is a function of attention, and in our advertising-saturated world, our attention is commodified. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg make money by manipulating our attention, capturing our eyeballs and measuring our attention in milliseconds. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know exactly how fast you scroll, and use algorithms to make you linger over advertisements. Advertisers may use the word “gratitude,” but they make their money on our restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction.

The irritation I feel at having a multibillion-dollar company tell me to slow down and smell the roses is more than mental anger at its hypocrisy. My frustration is biological. My Grinch-like attitude is the function of a distracted mind.

It doesn’t change the truth of the importance of gratitude, though. David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the foundation of spirituality. In order to be thankful, to feel gratitude, we have to refocus our attention. It is difficult to be grateful when we are in a state of distraction.

This is why simple disciplines like meditation and keeping a gratitude journal are so effective. They are the complete opposite of the endless scrolling of social media. They are tools that help us to refocus our attention on the simple pleasures of being alive: I woke up today. I can take a deep breath and smell the air. I can see beauty in a fallen and decaying leaf which leaves behind a fragile, skeletonized system of veins.

The author of the psalm above says that an answered prayer “increased my strength of soul.” We don’t know what the prayer or the answer was, but pausing to be grateful, to focus our attention on the goodness of the gifts we receive—bidden or unbidden—makes our souls stronger. Gratitude increases our resilience and helps us make it through tough times.

If we want to feel grateful, it helps to go somewhere quiet and away from screens. I invite you to do it now.

Prayer:
Giver of all gifts, Source of all grace, I am grateful.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 13—Religion and the Brain

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
(Psalm 139:14)

I’ve been interested in the neuropsychology of religious experience since I first read William James in college. As a pastor, I’ve talked to plenty of people who wonder if their mystical experiences, transcendent visions, or sense of calling are “genuine” or simply “all in their heads.” “Did God really speak to me, or am I going crazy?” is a common question.

It doesn’t help that so many mental health problems are related to religion. People do have religious delusions. Sometimes their anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder attaches to a religious idea, and they fear that they might accidentally sin or incur God’s judgment. People who are depressed may feel that God hates them or is out to get them. LGBTQ people have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” that leaves lasting trauma.

But religion can also be associated with good mental health outcomes. People who have supportive religious communities are often more resilient in the face of trauma. Adolescents have lower probabilities of risky behavior. LGBTQIA folks who have supportive religious communities often report high levels of life satisfaction. And William James pointed out that having “saints” and mystics to emulate and aspire to benefits humanity as a whole.

There are certain ways that religious practice changes your brain. We know from studies of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns that contemplative prayer and meditation—what the researchers call a “self-stimulating brain reward system“—can alter the function and even the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as an intervention for anxiety and depression.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, is one of the places most clearly affected by prayer and meditation. Some areas of the parietal lobe respond differently: they relax. These areas are responsible for the distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world, the barrier between “self” and “world.” When this area relaxes, it may help us feel connected to the rest of the universe or to God. Attention and connection are two areas of our brains we can train with practice.

Moreover, prayer and meditation seem to quiet the “default mode network,” the systems in our brain that are often responsible for the story-telling function of our brain. The DMN is what keeps us thinking about the future and the past and often keeps us ruminating or worrying.

When stimulated, the temporal lobe sometimes creates a sense of presence, as though someone is in the room with us. People who are about to have seizures sometimes report this feeling. It’s not clear to me that this is necessarily a particularly religious experience, but it certainly could be.

Certain neurotransmitters are also associated with mystical-type experiences. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic compound that appears to be produced naturally in our brains. It may be responsible for some of our more trippy spiritual experiences, but it, too is associated with changes in our default mode network, feelings of connectedness, and heightened attention and fascination.

So when people ask me about whether their religious experience is “real” or “all in their heads,” I shrug. ALL spiritual experiences are also brain experiences—at least for human beings. We cannot imagine having an experience without our brains. When you see a beautiful painting or fall in love, your brain gets involved. You may even feel it in your body, as a warmth or pressure in your chest, or goose bumps on the back of your neck. It is a biological as well as a spiritual experience.

We still have so much to learn about spirituality and the brain.

Prayer:
Creator of the Cosmos and my brain, I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 12—Being Outside

Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:2)

The pandemic has forced more people to stay at home, but it has also forced more of us outside. We are going outside to lessen the monotony of being indoors. Meeting others outside lessens the chances of passing on covid-19. The sun disinfects us.

Collectively, we are experiencing the benefits of being outside at a time when a flurry of research is pointing to how nature-deprived we are. It turns out we needed this healing for a long, long time. Covid-19 has forced us to confront it.

Below is just a sampling of the recent research into the physical and mental health benefits of being outside. We’ve learned that bacteria in the soil and aromatic aerosols from trees affect our brains and bodies. We’ve learned that forests communicate and act as one large organism. We’ve learned that interacting with that organism gets us out of our patterns of ruminating and into our sense in the here-and-now. We’ve learned that being outside and getting our hands dirty lowers our heart rate and stress levels. We’ve learned that walking in forests boost our immune systems, increases our ability to pay attention, and even fights cancer.

All of these mental and physical health benefits are important. Most of us could benefit by spending more time outside. But nature is not just something that we take, like a drug, so that we can increase productivity and be more effective indoors.

As we intentionally spend time outside, a more profound shift can happen in our state of being. We begin to understand that human beings and nature are not separate. Our culture tends to think of “human beings” and “nature” as two distinct realms, in part because of the way we objectify the earth and conceptualize our place in it. But the truth is we are part of both a tamed “human world” and a wild “more-than-human world.” This term, coined by author David Abram, helps us consider ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet.

I am currently in training to be a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, in part because I believe it is my responsibility as a pastor to help the 21st century church turn away from a toxic theology that treats the earth as if it were disposable. I take very seriously these words about protecting life on this planet:

“I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

Spiritual and cultural transformation is my job. It’s what I’ve been called to do. And too often, Christian pastors have scorned the creation God loves. This toxic theology has practical consequences, leading not only to terrible policy that harms the planet, but to a population of people who increasingly feel sad, alone, and hopeless.

If we want to develop a public health policy that takes mental health seriously, I believe we need to help people fall in love with this planet and with the more-than-human world. I think the authors of the Bible knew that the leaves of trees could heal the nations.

Prayer:
Creator and Lover of the World, we tell the story of how you so loved this creation that you would even enter it yourself. Help us to do the same thing, to enter creation fully and bodily, so that it can teach us how to be more human and more alive.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Maintaining Your Peace in an Election Cycle

Image by Villy Fink Isaksen, from Wikimedia Commons

I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:

Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.

The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.

The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia.

But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies. Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”

Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.

Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.

In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.

Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?

We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.

Mental Health Sunday 4: Relationships

(This is an order of worship for a devotional service based on the format of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.)

Before Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a martyr, he helped start an “underground seminary” in1935 at Finkenwalde for the Confessing Church, Lutherans who resisted Nazism. The seminary operated as an intentional community for two years until the Gestapo shut it down in 1937. Bonhoeffer wrote the book Life Together while at Finkenwalde to help shape the community. He wrote, “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian living in the diaspora recognizes in the nearness of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. In their loneliness, both the visitor and the one visited recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body. They receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy.”

O Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you
as the day rises to meet the sun.
Glory to the Creator, and to the Redeemer, and to the Sustainer,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made, O God; All your works are wonderful.

Psalm 139:13-6 (NRSV)
…it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made, O God; All your works are wonderful.

Hebrew Bible Reading: 1 Samuel 18:1-5

Second Hebrew Bible Reading: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

New Testament Reading: John 17:20-26

We are fearfully and wonderfully made, O God; All your works are wonderful.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community, even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

Prayers for Others
Lord’s Prayer
Message and Discussion

God of Life and Source of Meaning, we and our human communities are fearfully and wonderfully made. Help us see in others and in ourselves the image you have imprinted on us. May our relationships be sources of healing and courage.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing, at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.

Undeserved

I know the news is terrible, and our political system is garbage, and the climate is changing, and our leaders are inept,

…but my GOD, it is a lovely cool morning. The last straggling hummingbird is drinking from the feeder. He just checked in by my ear to see what I was writing. (Actually, he didn’t care. He was just being polite).

I’d say we don’t deserve such beauty, but that’s kind of the point of it, right? “Deserving” is such a long con. The world is here to remind us of the truth: absolutely none of this beauty and terror is about deserving. Every last bit of it is a gift.

Mental Health Sunday 2: Trauma and Healing

(This is an order of worship for a devotional service based on the format of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.)

Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer has helped many people understand Christ’s action in their own lives. He wrote: “The greatest complaint of the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross was that they lacked a spiritual guide to lead them along the right paths and enable them to distinguish between creative and destructive spirits. We hardly need emphasize how dangerous the experimentation with the interior life can be. Drugs as well as different concentration practices and withdrawal into the self often do more harm than good. On the other hand it also is becoming obvious that those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a supercilious, boring and superficial life.”

O Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you
as the day rises to meet the sun.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker

Heal the brokenhearted, God, and bandage all their wounds.

Psalm 147

Praise the Lord! Because it is good to sing praise to our God!
Because it is a pleasure to make beautiful praise!
The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering up Israel’s exiles.
God heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.
God counts the stars by number, giving each one a name.
Our Lord is great and so strong! God’s knowledge can’t be grasped!
The Lord helps the poor,
but throws the wicked down on the dirt!

Heal the brokenhearted, God, and bandage all their wounds.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “experience tells us that we can only love because we are born out of love, that we can only give because our life is a gift, and that we can only make others free because we are set free by Him whose heart is greater than ours. When we have found the anchor places for our lives in our own center, we can be free to let others enter into the space created for them and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear.”

Scripture 1: Genesis 22:9-22
Scripture 2: Revelation 22:1-5

Heal the brokenhearted, God, and bandage all their wounds.

Prayers for Others
Lord’s Prayer
Message and Discussion

Wounded Healer, we neither long for suffering nor reject it entirely. Frequently we manufacture it for ourselves, yet we cannot seem to stop. Help us to embrace our woundedness so that you may heal us through it, and to acknowledge our brokenness in a way that allows us to move beyond it.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing, at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.

How God Prays

What does it sound like when God prays?

“Let there be light. Let the earth give forth vegetation. Let there be life.”

Creation is God’s prayer, no less a prayer than when Jesus says “Let your name be revered. Let your kingdom come.”

That’s what we often say in prayer: “Let it be so.”

We are living in God’s prayer.

And as we face climate change, I believe God is still praying the creation prayer. And we are the answer to God’s prayer.

Mental Health Sunday 1: Changing our Attitudes Toward Mental Health

(This is an order of worship for a devotional service based on the format of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.)

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna who specialized in treating anxiety and depression. Because of his success in radically lowering the suicide rate among high school students, he became head of the suicide prevention department at the General Hospital in Vienna. In 1942 German authorities sent him and his wife, parents, and brother to concentration camps. In the camps, he focused on helping his colleagues overcome their despair. When the camps were liberated, he learned that all of his immediate family were dead, except his sister who had fled the country. Reflecting on his own experiences and dealing with his own trauma, Frankl wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, developed a form of therapy called logotherapy, and began what came to be known as existential therapy. He spent the rest of his life making the case that humans are not primarily motivate by sex or power, but by meaning. He helped the field of mental health studies take love and spirituality seriously.

O Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you
as the day rises to meet the sun.
Glory to the Creator, and to the Redeemer, and to the Sustainer,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Come, let us bow down and bend the knee; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.

Help us to seek and know you, God, so that we may also know ourselves.

Psalm 139:1-6 (CEB)
Lord, you have examined me. You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.

Help us to seek and know you, God, so that we may also know ourselves.

Hebrew Bible Reading: 1 Samuel 16:14-23

New Testament Reading: Philippians 4:2-13

Help us to seek and know you, God, so that we may also know ourselves.

Viktor Frankl said: “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Prayers for Others
Lord’s Prayer

God of Life and Source of Meaning, in both the peace and the storm of life, you are there. Place within us a peace that passes understanding, so that we find meaning and strength to do what needs to be done. Turn our minds to your goodness, so that in all circumstances we may find purpose and hope.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing, at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.

Are You Religious?

I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.

This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.

On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.  

There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.

This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.

If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.

In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.

I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.

But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.

So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.