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.

An Inauspicious Anniversary

Nixon and Ehrlichman, from Wikimedia Commons

49 YEARS AGO TODAY, President Nixon kicked off the so-called War on Drugs with a speech on national television (linked in the comments).

This is what his domestic policy advisor said in 1994:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (citation).

This kicked off a five-decades-long increase in mass incarceration which would disproportionately affect black individuals, black communities, black political power, and black economics. It was a primary driver of racist policy down to the state level.

Please understand: substance abuse does harm. But policies weaponized against black people and the poor of all races do so much more harm. It’s an open secret our president has a substance abuse problem, but he’s not in jail. Nor are wealthy businesspeople in Mountain Brook. Or their kids who are involved in using and selling drugs.

Right now, there are human beings wasting years of their lives in prison, while a disproportionate number of wealthy white boys make money off of dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal.

We need to end this farce: Take money away from enforcement, and give it to treatment. Substance abuse is a public health and a mental health problem.

Anything short of this policy overhaul is white supremacy in action.

Some Learnings on Sadness and Worry

This is my own learning, and it may be helpful to you, or not:

As much as I believe that we can feel better if we reframe and adjust our thinking, there is healing that comes from acknowledging pain and honestly naming our hurt.

I am incredibly sad. I was looking forward to things that now are not going to happen, at least this year. Sometimes I am tempted to minimize my sadness: after all, other people have it worse. But that is not actually helpful thinking.

I am also worried—about individuals, about the church, about the economy, about our failing government, about what the world will look like on the other side of this unmitigated clustertruck. Sometimes I am tempted to just put a good face on it, to mimic non-attachment and parrot the words of Jesus, to say, “Well, tomorrow will take care of tomorrow.”

It is not weakness to name sadness and worry, and it is not strength to avoid them.

Here are my learnings:
1) If I name my negative emotions instead of avoiding them, if I look at them squarely, allow myself to feel and cry, I am able to feel my gratitude and my hope more deeply on the other side of it. I cannot be truly grateful unless I also acknowledge my disappointment. In Buddhist terms, I cannot experience “non-attachment” by being dishonest about what I’m attached to. In Christian terms, God embraces my suffering. I have to name my worry—that my brain is trying to solve an unsolvable problem—in order to move toward solving the problems I *can* solve.

2) When we name our negative emotions in public in a supportive community, we find that others feel the same way. The Powers that Be want us to be silent about our pain, to put a good face on it, so they can pretend that their policies are effective and the status quo is fine.

Naming our pain is the first step to community organizing. The Powers that Be do not want us to do that. They describe our exhaustion as laziness, our anger as “divisiveness,” our worry and fear as cowardice. It is in their interest to gaslight and minimize our cries. We have this critical voice in our heads and in the world, always policing our pain. It is not the voice of God. The last thing they want us to do is say to each other, “Oh, you are afraid of losing your for-profit healthcare in the middle of a pandemic, too?”

3) Any version of Christianity that tells you that negative emotions belie a “lack of faith,” or that your pain and fear is unacceptable to God is garbage. Exodus 2:24-25 describes God’s activity when the Israelites “cry out” — God hears. God remembers. God sees. God understands. Hagar names God “God who sees me.”

Many would-be spiritual gurus think policing negative emotions is a sign of sanctification or enlightenment. They think their job is to help other people feel better. It is not. Holy Week is, in part, about God embracing the whole reality of human suffering and loving it to death. This kind of divine incarnation is “beyond good and evil” the way we normally think of it.

It’s okay to feel whatever you feel. Preachers and pundits will gaslight you in the name of Jesus, Buddha, the Market, the Party, or whoever. But acknowledging our suffering will allow us to distinguish between the suffering that is manufactured—by our individual selves and by society—and the suffering that is simply part of being human.