Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 4—Habits of Mind

A lady writing at a desk, by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, from Wikimedia Commons

One of the unique features of human beings is our ability to program ourselves. The neural pathways we use most get reinforced. This means that we can decide to acquire a new behavior — like flossing our teeth, or doing yoga, or tidying up — and that behavior becomes a habit. At some point, we no longer have to “decide” to do something, because our previous selves made a good decision for us!

I was reminded of this last year when I began intermittent fasting. One morning I found myself in the kitchen, eating tortilla chips, without any memory of how I got there. It was automatic! I never “decided” to break my fast. It just happened. There was never a moment where my “will power” failed because I wasn’t even conscious of the decision. It opened my eyes to how difficult it is to change behavior, and that I would need other strategies to help me acquire this new fasting habit.

But we can reprogram ourselves the same way, so that good behaviors also become habits. I remember being a kid and how I hated to “waste” time brushing my teeth. I am grateful to that kid for creating that habit. I no longer feel that caring for my teeth or my body is wasted time.  

A good life is built out of such habits. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says that good habits are like compound interest: they don’t seem to make much difference after one day, but after a year the results are hard to ignore. We don’t need to make huge changes to our lives at the New Year. Tiny, incremental changes over time make huge differences in our lives.

This is why God told the Israelites about the commandments, “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Linking a new behavior to an old behavior was a way of repeating and reinforcing. Making it part of a community practice was a way to create habits of mind that would make people truly free.

People can debate whether we have free will or whether our actions are predetermined, but this much is undeniable: when we “program” our brains with good habits, we feel more free. When we program ourselves with bad habits, we feel constrained. I believe that freedom is not just having unlimited options and choosing something at random. Freedom is the experience of our own power to create change.

Addiction destroys this sense of freedom. We find ourselves doing the thing we hate because something has hijacked our brains’ programming. This “something” can be a drug, a cell phone screen, or the excitement of gambling. It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to create new neural pathways and reinforce different behaviors instead, and it is especially difficult to do on our own with conscious “will power.” We need external supports, reminders, human contact, to give us new options and expand our freedom.

Acquiring a habit can be like hacking a new path through a forest. It is slow, difficult going. But years of daily walking along that path make it wider and more permanent. It is the same way with creating new neural pathways and new habits.

Prayer:
God who liberates and sanctifies, make us both free and disciplined.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 3—Trauma and Healing

Broken Branch, by Olivia Danielle Ruiz, from Wikimedia Commons

“Trauma” has entered public discourse in a big way this year. We are dealing with the collective trauma of terrible national leadership and a bungled response to the pandemic. This is not a partisan statement, but an observation of fact: a quarter of the world’s coronavirus deaths are in the United States, and the disruption has affected everyone’s mental health.

There is also a growing awareness of generational and racial trauma, the long-term effects of living with countless incidents of discrimination, microaggressions, and stories and images of police brutality and vigilante violence against black people.

And while America’s endless wars in the Middle East have created huge populations of people with PTSD, the most common form of PTSD is from sexual abuse and assault. Collectively, our society has remained quiet about this kind of PTSD because it mostly affects women. The silence protects those in power, but we have begun to see the wall of silence crack.

Our brains are excellent at keeping us alive, and so they learn especially well from terrible experiences. Neural pathways become very efficient at making us reactive and at telling us to avoid certain situations. Unfortunately, these responses can also reduce our quality of life and cause other health problems.

The solution is not as simple as changing one’s attitude. Proverbs speaks against common misguided efforts to deal with grief and trauma: “Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20). The Bible admonishes us to avoid facile words: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

Recovery and healing from trauma may involve re-training our brains. It can be difficult work, but I believe it is divinely-appointed work. The word “salvation” means healing. It shares the root word “salve,” an ointment applied to help the body’s natural healing process. I believe we and the world we live in are equipped with natural healing abilities that only have to be unlocked.

And, of course, the best way to heal the world is to stop trauma from happening. We work to create systems of justice and peace so that the natural work of healing can take place.

Prayer:
God of healing and hope, apply your salve to our world, our psyche, our selves.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 2—Growth

An emerging Tamarind tree seedling, Kerala, India, by Manjithkaini. From Wikimedia Commons

The shift toward mental wellness actually began early in psychology and continued through the twentieth century, with names like Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow (podcasts on each at the previous links). They suggested that human beings have an in-built need to grow and develop. 

I’ve thought about this a lot during the pandemic as I’ve spent more time outside and in our garden. We don’t generally blame plants for not growing: we look at the conditions of the soil, the sunlight, the water. Sure, sometimes pests attack our plants, or they may have a genetic problem of some kind. But generally, healthy plants can stave off pests or infection if they are part of a healthy ecosystem

Human beings are the same way: if our ecosystem is healthy, we tend to be healthy. Because loneliness, depression, and PTSD are rampant in our culture, we know that our human ecosystem is profoundly unhealthy. 

But there is a whole emerging field of study on human resilience in the face of trauma, and how people can develop and even thrive in the face of adversity. Creating resilient communities is certainly one way to improve our human ecosystem. We can also take steps to build support around ourselves.

Erik Erikson theorized that we go through certain stages of development, characterized by goals and crises (developing an identity, discovering a purpose, an so on). Maslow pointed out that as we have certain of our needs met, we aspire to reach greater fulfillment. Psychologists like John and Julie Gottman have continued to advocate a positive psychology perspective, studying the question, “what makes good relationships last?” 

Paul characterized the spiritual life in a similar way, suggesting that the purpose of a faith community was to create conditions for spiritual growth, teaching and supporting, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). This maturity was not just about head-knowledge or believing the right doctrines—it was about the whole person, their character, attitudes, emotions, and relationships.

James Fowler, echoing Erikson and others, came up with stages of faith development. These are not prescriptive, but descriptive. In other words, there is no level one “should” aspire to. Yet in a healthy ecosystem, I believe we have natural drives to grow. Most of us are aware, at some level, that there is a “spiritual edge” in our life, something that we are working on. 

Can you can make yourself aware of this spiritual edge? What are you being called to work on in your life? If you can put it into words, can you write it down?

Prayer:
God of growing things and Source of abundant life, we feel you beckon us into a deeper, richer existence. 

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 1—Wellness

Roper’s Gym, from Wikimedia Commons

1) I’ve been taking a breather since concluding my long devotional series on The Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita. All of the devotionals from that series are available on my blog here. Since this is a busy semester with many unknowns, I’m only going to post devotionals a couple of times a week. 

2) Today I’m beginning a devotional series on Spirituality and Mental Health, in parallel with our Saint Junia worship series on Mental Health. The first online service is available here

3) I want to begin this series with a simple analogy. When someone says they have taken on a personal trainer, our first response is usually, “Good for you!” We might ask them about their wellness goals. Are they trying to build strength? Build endurance? Lose weight? Get in shape for an event? Lower their blood pressure? We tend to think of physical health in terms of wellness. 

But if someone announces that they are seeing a therapist or counselor, we tend to think of it like visiting a medical doctor, and not just for a routine check-up. Something is wrong.

We have, for a very, very long time, thought of mental health in terms of mental illness, not wellness. People who think of themselves as “well” in the mental health area rarely seek out help to get healthier. 

But the truth is that one in four Americans will have a clinical mental health issue in any given year—and this is an EXCEPTIONAL year, isn’t it? 

What I asked my congregation to do on Sunday was this: Write down your mental health goals. This is frequently what you do with a personal trainer before they customize an exercise program with you. Do you want to worry less? Feel more motivated? Repair a relationship? Stop a bad habit or adopt a new one? 

Writing things down is a way to build energy behind these goals. 

 Prayer:
God, give us peace that passes understanding  

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.