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. 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

Theology and Kink in the News

Today’s reporting from CNN. Click for story.

The unfortunate thing about the salacious sex lives of our so-called-conservative leaders is that not only are they unsurprising, but when they are outed it simply reinforces the stigma associated with being honest about sexuality.

None of us believes Falwell’s particular kink is unusual, right? Or that “cuck” is a term loaded with contempt precisely because *so many* manly men sense that their jealousy is an aphrodisiac, and they are secretly embarrassed about it, right? Just like so many virulently anti-gay pundits are in the closet. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves. We are masters at projection.

I have to admit feeling some schadenfreude, because Falwell is a cruel and hypocritical person.

But y’all, it’s also so, so sad. We cause so much misery in our own lives by refusing to be curious about *why* something appeals to us that is socially taboo.

For example: there is a reason the woman in the Song of Songs teases her lover by saying,

Tell me, you whom I love with all my heart—
where do you pasture your flock,
where do you rest them at noon?—
so I don’t wander around with the flocks of your companions. (Song of Songs 1:7)

She teases him by saying she will give her affections to his friends. She says this BECAUSE jealousy evolved to create this very response, a mixture of anger and arousal that is highly stimulating. White conservative men, many (but not all) of whom are perpetually angry, are particularly attracted to this brew of emotion. They are also highly defensive about it. That (and misogyny) is why “cuckold” is their epithet of choice.

(FTR, I think it’s pretty obvious that what we’ve heard in the media is only the surface-level stuff. Also, I don’t really need to hear any more.)

The Bible also tells the story of an explicit BDSM relationship between Samson and Delilah. Pastors have often preached that Delilah “tricks” Samson, but she doesn’t. She asks directly, “Tell me how to tie you up.” He tells her, and then submits to being tied up. THREE TIMES.

You think *modern* people invented bondage play? Like human beings only *recently* learned about kink? (And that’s not all that’s in the Bible, BTW).

Why does Samson eventually reveal his secret? Because even the strongest man in the world needs to feel vulnerable sometimes. The burden of being strong is exhausting. Samson was tired of performing all the time. So it’s particularly bitter that he ends his life performing! (Judges 16)

All that to say: so much of religious conservatism is about performing. Most of these preachers and pundits who have such loud voices in our society are performing. When Falwell says he was depressed, I believe him—but not for the reasons he gives. It is sad that their comeuppance creates *more* incentive for people performing conservative religiosity to be incurious about their own brains, their own sexuality, and their own spiritual lives. Seeing their colleague publicly humiliated, they bury their secrets deeper.

And no, admitting, “We’re all sinners” is not helpful. Sin isn’t even the point. The point is if you’re afraid of your own internal life, you will never be at peace. You are at constant enmity with the world and God because your theology of sin sucks. It is our own incuriosity about our inner life and our binary view of good and evil that creates such manufactured suffering.

When you live your whole life under a giant SHOULD, you develop a “worm” theology. “You are not worthy, and you never will be, you pervert, you miserable worm.” It does not shame one into being a virtuous person. It makes one into a hypocrite.

Hypocrite literally means “actor.” A performer.

In our society, we are lousy with them. And this kind of religion is killing our planet.

Link

1) The linked article is for those who choose to engage.
2) Frequently it is not worth your time, energy, or mental health to engage.
3) I continue to resist the false, often implicit claim that persuasion is the only value of rhetoric on social media, or that the only merit in engaging is converting someone to your point of view. As Jesse Williams said, it is not your purpose in life to tuck ignorance in at night. Vituperation is an ancient and important rhetorical form. 
4) Still, it’s important to know how to talk to someone who has gone off the deep end, especially of that person is important to you.
5) And I persist in the belief that everybody can be saved from our tendency to harm ourselves, each other, and the planet.
6) And I persist in the notion that people with certain forms of privilege are the best suited and most obligated to speak to those who will listen.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 41: The Two Paths

 
1280px-Two_paths_diverged..._-_panoramio

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

 

This Supreme Lord who pervades all of existence, the true Self of all creatures, may be realized through undivided love. There are two paths, Arjuna, which the soul may follow at the time of death. One leads to rebirth and the other to liberation. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Krishna goes on to describe the transmigration of souls. Those who have come to know and see Brahman, that the Lord of Love is everywhere and in all creatures, are able to finally shed the endless cycle of rebirth and join with God in ecstatic, eternal unity. The rest of us have to schlep back to the beginning and have another go.

But though we are all trying to escape rebirth, having another life is not really so bad. As Stevie Wonder puts it:

I’m so darn glad he let me try it again / Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then /Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground.

Biblical authors largely reject the idea of reincarnation. When they do speak of life after death, they favor the idea of bodily resurrection. Martha says at the death of her brother Lazarus, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Hebrews 9:27 puts it succinctly: “People are destined to die once and then face judgment.” New Testament authors probably knew that the Greek philosopher Plato had written about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. They knew about reincarnation—they just didn’t believe in it.

Some folks point out Jesus’s reference to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14 as support for reincarnation, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come,” but it isn’t clear that Jesus actually means reincarnation. The second coming of Elijah was a widespread belief because Elijah had been taken bodily into the heavens (2 Kings 2:11), so people expected him to return a similar way. When Jesus says, “If you are willing to accept it,” he’s asking the crowd to interpret Elijah’s “return” metaphorically, since John the Baptist hadn’t dropped out of the sky.  

Today, nearly a quarter of American Christians also believe in reincarnation (see the Pew study here). Many conservative Christian leaders are alarmed by such findings. It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not alarmed by these unorthodox views. I think spiritual tinkerers (Robert Wuthnow’s term) who create a bricolage of theological beliefs are responding to toxic Christianity. I suspect many Christians prefer the idea of reincarnation because the two paths they were taught—heaven and hell—seem arbitrary and unloving. They’ve heard from fundamentalists that people who die without knowing Jesus are bound for hell, and they’ve rejected that worldview because it contradicts the notion of a loving and just God. They prefer the notion of reincarnation because it only seems right that people would be given another chance. (Although, I also wonder—couldn’t that be a kind of hell?)

I prefer to have metaphysical humility when it comes to these things. I don’t know exactly what happens when we die. We have first-hand accounts of near-death experiences, but since those people are still with us, I don’t take it as empirical knowledge.

There is so much we do not know about consciousness itself. I am skeptical even about this notion of myself as a separate entity from the rest of creation. There is a part of my brain that creates this sense of separateness, and it can be suppressed. So I question this notion that my soul is a unit that travels somewhere. Sometimes I suspect that we are already there, and the life we are living is actually a vivid remembering.

I take this as a challenge to remember a better life.

Prayer:
God, You are the Beginning, the Destination, and the Journey itself.


PS: I don’t think it’s an accident that Carrie Underwood’s video for Love Wins uses both Holi and gospel choir imagery. I think it’s pretty clear that the response of spiritual tinkerers to toxic fundamentalist Christianity is to reach toward other traditions. I think cultural appropriation is part of what happens when we realize our culture