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. 

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 40: How to Die (Part 2)

 
2048px-David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. From Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Last time, I explained why I don’t buy into the idea that “whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying.” I said that this philosophy does harm, and it attaches stigma to mental illness and to death by suicide.

But now I want to turn and look at it from the perspective of one who is preparing for death. In many traditions, contemplating one’s own mortality is a spiritual practice. We learn to approach death not with dread, and not even with courage, but with curiosity and acceptance. Saint Francis, in the Canticle of the Sun, even refers to death as a welcomed sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape.”

Krishna goes into detail about how one is to accomplish this practice:

Remembering me at the time of death, close down the doors of the senses and place the mind in the heart. Then, while absorbed in meditation, focus all energy upwards toward the head. Repeating in this state the divine name, the syllable Om that represents the changeless Brahman, you will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal. (BG, 8:12-13).

The idea here is that meditation has become such a natural practice that one can seamlessly transition from a state of meditative ego-death into real death. The energy that flows through our bodies simply departs and goes to be part of the cosmic dance. I am no longer I; I become We.

I should point out again that all of this dialogue is supposedly happening in Arjuna’s chariot, just before battle. There will presumably be many people who aren’t able to die in such a meditative state. Getting an arrow in the throat tends to disrupt mediation!

Still, the ideal in the practice of meditation is that one who is enlightened can maintain this meditative state even while going about daily tasks. A practiced meditator can meditate while doing the dishes. An advanced practitioner can meditate while being in conversation. Perhaps an expert meditator could be at peace in the midst of a battle.

So rather than read this scripture as a metaphysical description of what happens when we die, I read it as an encouragement to become so practiced at meditating that not even death disrupts your practice. Death becomes simply an advanced form of meditation. I read it as an invitation to reflect on our own mortality, to imagine what becomes of our consciousness at the point of death. If we truly see God everywhere, as Krishna repeats frequently, then we will see God even in “Sister Death.”

Prayer:
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one escapes. Let us not fear, but regard her as trusted family.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 39: How to Die (Part 1)

 
Waiting_for_the_afterlife_(33893912753)

Waiting for the afterlife, by Pedro, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Hogwash.

Excuse me—I generally try be circumspect about critiquing the theological or metaphysical claims of other traditions, and I will get around to how I interpret these verses tomorrow. But in this case, I need to start with an objection. I’ve heard this same line of reasoning among Christians, and I’ve seen the harm it does. Some Christians live in perpetual fear that between the time of confessing their most recent sin, being forgiven, and then being killed in a car accident, their last words or last fleeting thought might be, “Oh, shit.” Then they would wind up in hell, because they died with unforgiven sin (which was simply their amygdala trying to keep them alive). In this system, what occupied their mind at the time of their death would disqualify them from salvation.

It’s the same principle in both Christian and Hindu circles: your afterlife depends on your achieving equanimity or an ideal state before you die. 

Don’t get me wrong: I think meditating on our mortality and thinking about the way we want to die is helpful. I think our faith and practice should help us approach death with a sense of peace instead of dread. But I don’t for a minute believe that the last state of consciousness of a person determines their destination in the next life. I reject this line of thinking for two reasons. First, I don’t think time exists for the dead in the same way it exists for the living. Second, I believe in grace—that God is love and it is that love that holds the universe together and draws all things towards God.

I’ve already shared a bit about how God is not limited by time. In both Hinduism and Christianity there is the hint that all times are available to God. Here on this planet, in this plane of existence and this timeline, we consciously experience the movement of time as one moment after another. But many meditators and pray-ers say that in moments of transcendent awareness, time ceases to exist. In mystical experience, we can live a lifetime in thirty minutes, or download experiential wisdom in an instant. To God, all moments are now. Even now, Moses is being placed in a basket. Even now, Buddha is sitting down to meditate under a tree. Even now, our great grandchildren are wondering what our lives were like.

The notion in the scripture above is that one should launch one’s soul with a good trajectory into the life to come. I do not question that this is a noble ambition. I question the idea that where you land depends on the skill of your throw. In the timeless realm of pure consciousness, we are already with God, just as God is with us now, in the “past.”

What Krishna describes in this section has its roots in the Upanishads, and I will explore it in the next post. I think there is more going on here than the surface meaning. I just feel it’s important to start with my objection in this case because, as I said, I’ve seen this line of reasoning do such emotional damage. People worry about victims of suicide being bound for hell, for example, or about minor infractions of scruples in the moments before death. How we die is, hopefully, a reflection of how we live. It might be related to our character. But we don’t get to choose how we die. Just for comparison’s sake, remember that for the Vikings, death in battle was the ideal way to die—and a guarantee of a good afterlife!

We may die “better” or “worse” than we lived, but either way we still die. I take hope from Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus turns to a thief on the cross and tells him they will be together in paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). I also consider that people in the first century thought crucifixion or hanging were signs of God’s judgment, but Paul reframed that notion: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Galatians 3:13). I know that I certainly hope to die in the mindful way Krishna describes in the passage above; but I also have faith that however I die, I will live in God.  

I felt it important to share how I disagree with the surface meaning of this passage first. I will share how I understand its deeper meaning and purpose next.

Prayer:
Help me live as if I will die tomorrow, and help me live as if I will never die. Help me die as one who has fully lived, and help me die as one who will live in You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 38: Stages of Faith

 
2048px-A_Tamarind_tree_seedling

An emerging Tamarind tree seedling, Kerala, India, by ManjithkainiFrom Wikimedia Commons

 

Yesterday I shared this passage:

After many births the wise seek refuge in me, seeing me everywhere and in everything. Such great souls are very rare. There are others whose discrimination is misled by many desires. Following their own nature, they worship the lower gods, practicing various rites. (BG, 7:19-20) 

Regardless of faith tradition, we all go through different stages of faith development (see James Fowler’s stages here). Some have a toddler’s understanding of their faith: They must follow the rules and not get caught! Some have an older child’s view of their faith: That right and wrong and belief in God are about something more than consequences; there is a Truth that demands a response from us. Some who have an adolescent faith recognize the social function of religion; they develop a sense of belonging, and believe that faith makes them better people (or not) and helps society function (or not). Fewer people reach an adult faith: the language of multiple religions is how we all talk about our experience of the sacred and transcendent. Fewer still have wisdom: that faith is about the mystery of being, and sometimes the best language to describe it is silence. We often find ourselves transitioning to another stage of development when we experience a crisis, or have a mystical experience, or learn something new that rocks our world, or simply realize our old worldview no longer suits us.

Hinduism extends this understanding of faith development over multiple lifetimes or incarnations. We may go through many lifetimes and repeat many stages before we come to enlightenment. The scripture above points to what Fowler calls “universalizing faith”: One eventually realizes that the words and systems we use in religious language are simply mental models for something indescribable, beyond words, beyond institutions, and beyond formal systems of theology. The wise “see me everywhere and in everything.”

This is not just an intellectual leap. There is a difference between accepting a formal doctrine that God is omnipresent, and truly seeing God everywhere and in everything. One is a proposition and the other is a perception, a change in our state of being.

To someone with a synthetic-conventional (adolescent) faith, someone else who is questioning or outgrowing the religion and the doctrines they grew up with looks like a “backslider,” even though they are maturing in their faith. And it is easy for someone at a more “advanced” stage of faith to look backward with contempt—especially if they haven’t fully integrated their understanding of previous stages. As we go through the stages of development, we don’t exactly leave one behind and fully inhabit another. We carry each stage with us into the next.

Someone who is truly wise can also appreciate the simplest expressions of faith. It is easy for us to think we have matured in our faith, when really we have just scratched the surface of a new stage, or “rearranged our prejudices,” (to quote Bishop Oldham). The wisest also seek “faith like a child” (Matthew 18:2-4).

Prayer:
God of all living, growing things, help me to appreciate my own growth and the growth of others.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 20: Our Changing Sense of Self

Atman

From Wikimedia Commons. Click image for source

We’re spending a few days unpacking these lines:

Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me. Delivered from selfish attachment, fear, and anger, filled with me, surrendering themselves to me, purified in the fire of my being, many have reached the state of unity with me. (BG, 4:9-10)

I wrote yesterday about how “knowing [the Lord of Love] as one’s divine Self” sparked moral panic among American Evangelical Christians in the 1980’s, and I said that this was due to a deliberate misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding is about what we mean when we talk about “self.” Our understanding of self grows as we grow. In David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self, he describes the way our understanding of self changes as part of natural human development. As infants, we have little sense of where we end and where our mothers begin. At some point, we discover our hands and the rest of our bodies, and as we develop language we think of this “I” as our bodies. As we grow, we develop a social sense, and our notions of identity change: “I” becomes my reputation or my role, how people around me see me. This is one among many reasons young teenagers are so easily influenced by peer pressure.

Eventually we expand our sense of self to include our larger tribes, which are often defined by beliefs and practices: I identify with my religious denomination, my political party. Or for the more introspective, I may identify with my emotions and my personality: I’m an INFP, or ENTJ, I’m an introvert or an extrovert.

Healthy development at any stage involves recognizing, “I am this, but also more.” At any of these stages, it is also possible to get stuck. Those who get stuck identifying with their body spend their lives chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. Those who identify with their social self, with their reputation and the way others see them, spend their energy preening, worrying, gossiping, or manipulating. Those who get stuck identifying with their beliefs become fanatics and exclusivists, and those who get stuck identifying with their feelings spend too much time in their heads.

The truth is that while you are a body, you are also more than your senses; you are also a social being. While you are a social being, you are more than your roles and reputation; you are also an intellectual and emotional being. While you are an intellectual and emotional being, you are more than your thoughts and feelings; you are also a spiritual being. The point is that in healthy human development, our understanding of “self” is constantly growing.

Here I want to recall what I wrote yesterday, and observe that not only do many Christians get stuck identifying with their beliefs, but many institutions encourage getting stuck. Anxious institutions, like anxious people, believe—wrongly—that their identity and survival depends on maintaining us/them distinctions. Moral panics are a reflexive response to fear of loss of identity. It’s a fear of death.

This is where I think Hinduism and Buddhism have something very important to teach Christianity, but it’s a lesson taught by Jesus himself:

All who want to save their lives [Greek: ψυχή, psyche] will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. (Mark 8:35)

There are three Greek words for “life” – bios (biological life), psyche (mental or inner life), and zoe (life energy). The Greek psyche means both “life” and “self,” or soul. I am increasingly convinced that Jesus intends this wordplay here. We have to lose our sense of self to find it.

Once we realize that we are not our bodies, our roles and reputations, our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, our past or our future, what is left? If I am not any of these, what—or who—am I? Who or what is it that is having this experience?

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
Great I AM, I am a tiny reflection of you.