For most of its history, clinical psychology has been preoccupied with neurosis, psychosis and everything that can go wrong. In the twentieth-century, however, many psychologists began to shift their emphasis and take an interest in studying health and normality. A central question they began asking is, “what do things look like when everything is working properly and can that be learned and replicated?” This has led to extensive research into the brains and behaviors of people who report high levels of happiness and well-being.
Throughout this series on sacramentalism, I have suggested that the sacramental imagination involves learning to perceive the world according to its real shape or essence. It is a way of picturing things that is faithful to the reality we experience living in a world where grace transforms nature. This goes back to Chesterton’s insight that there is a divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life, and that even the mundane and commonplace participate in God’s grace.
That may sound somewhat mystical and over-spiritualized, so let’s make things very practical. How can the sacramental imagination change our perception of ordinary things like a sandwich, bedtime, mealtime, family relationships and suffering? To answer this question, let’s take each of these things one at a time, beginning with sandwiches. This will anticipate some of the more specific points I will make later in this post about eating.
On a blustery Sunday afternoon in December 2017, I headed to Seattle with my two teenage sons, Matthew (age 19) and Timothy (age 15). Our mission was simple: hand Matthew off to the Air Force at Seattle.
We left on our journey shortly after Matthew said goodbye to everyone at church. When we arrived in Seattle later that evening, Timothy and I planned to drop Matthew off at the Air Force processing station and then go to stay overnight with my brother, Gregory. The next morning, Timothy and I would watch Matthew take his final oath before he flew out with the Air Force to San Antonio for Basic Training.
As I drove the long stretch of highway from Coeur d’Alene Idaho to Seattle Washington, I reflected on the events leading up to this journey.
Update: since writing the post below, all spots in the first run of the course, taught by John Adams, are now full. Interested parties can register for the second run beginning December 4th and taught by Julie Gold.
Teachers wishing to qualify for pay increases by gaining graduate level credits now have the perfect opportunity. On September 25th, the Idaho-based education company, The Connecting Link, is launching their online course “Mindfulness in the 21st century Classroom” for the professional development of teachers. This Masters level course is being taught by educational psychologist John Adams and is being accredited through Argosy University, Antioch University, Benedictine University, Valparaiso University and Central Michigan University. It is designed to give educators at all levels an overview of recent research on mindfulness practices. Even better, the course provides step by step guidance on how to integrate mindfulness practices into the classroom.
If you’re interested, here are some links you may want to check out:
- For a free lesson, drawn from the material of the course, see ‘Free Mindfulness Lesson for Teachers!‘
- For a detailed syllabus of the course, visit TCL’s ‘Online Participant Syllabus‘.
- To learn more about why mindfulness is important for teachers and how it’s being used in the classroom, see my article ‘Mindfulness: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Classroom.’
- To learn more about John Adams, the instructor of this course, click here.
- To register a place in the upcoming course, click here. (Right now TCL is running a “Back to School Savings” special of $100 off!)
- For a promotional flier advertising the course and giving details about the special savings, click here.
Last year I received an invitation to speak at a conference for professionals in the caring professions. The conference, which was attended by doctors, nurses, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, hospital and army chaplains, missionaries, marriage and family therapists, surgeons and students, was on the topic of pain and suffering. The conference organizers asked me to give a seminar on the topic “Gratitude During Times of Suffering” and my marching orders were simple: explain how it’s possible to remain thankful in the midst extreme of suffering.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at being thankful when things are going wrong. If I have trouble sleeping, I grumble the next day. If I don’t have enough money to buy something I want, I whine and complain to whoever will’; listen. If I have a physical injury, everyone in my circle of friends is sure to know about it. So expecting me to give a talk about practicing gratitude during times of suffering would be like asking ask John Wayne to dance Swan Lake, or asking Justin Bieber to sing the part for Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
To put it bluntly, I found my assignment daunting. How could I teach other professionals a lesson I had not even mastered myself?
When our brains become overloaded with too much information, or when our working memory is compromised by being exposed to too many distractions, there are certain mental functions that stop working as well. According to the research (which I have shared here and here), some of the cognitive functions that become diminished when we are bombarded with too much information include,
- conceptual and contextual thinking;
- the ability to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning (the big picture);
- the ability to make unexpected connections between different ideas and facts;
- the ability to put knowledge into schemas.
In short, scientists are finding that too much information can cause our brains to become lost in a sea of particulars without the ability to connect these particulars into larger structures of understanding. Other functions to be shut down include the ability to be attentive to others, to empathize, and the ability to understand things from another person’s point of view.
In order for these higher cognitive functions to work, the brain needs lots of time during the day when we are at rest, when we are quiet, and when we can focus on specific mental, imaginative or interpersonal tasks against a backdrop of stillness.
Ever since reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science, I’ve been fascinated by the science of neuroplasticity and the truth that our thoughts and choices actually change the physical structure of our brain. I’ve been applying this science to my own life in developing skills I once thought inaccessible to me, in addition to working to overcome unhealthy mental habits.
I’ve just published two articles at the Taylor Study Method on the power of positive breathing. Part 1 looks at how stress and anxiety are deeply rooted in primitive survival instincts. Although directed at psychology students preparing for their licensure exam, the techniques I’ve shared can be applied by anyone wanting to better manage stress or reduce anxiety. There’s nothing particularly complicated about these techniques, which basically involve mindful breathing. Part 2 explores the science of mindful breathing, including research showing that mindful meditative breathing can increase the size of the brain, improve social skills, make it easier to achieve mental clarity and focus, in addition to increasing emotional intelligence, self-regulation and resilience. To read my articles, click on the links below:
From my recent TSM post ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain‘:
Unwanted toxic thoughts can be a bit like dealing with monsters. Suppose your house happens to get overrun by monsters in the near future. In that case, you have three choices. Either you can feed the monsters, in which case they will stick around. Or you can fight the monsters, in which case you may get clobbered and defeated while the monsters only become stronger. Or you can do your best to simply ignore the monsters. If you choose to ignore the monsters, maybe they will go away or maybe they won’t, but even if they stick around, you will have learned to treat them with the contempt they deserve and they will have lost their hold over you.
Similarly, if we fight unwanted thoughts head-on, then we are focusing on the very thing we want to rid ourselves of, leading to a phenomenon that psychologists call the “Ironic process theory” or “the white bear problem.” Researchers have found that trying to directly suppress unwanted thoughts is about as successful as telling someone not to imagine a polar bear. The very act of trying not to imagine a white bear inevitably recalls the white bear to mind; similarly, the very act of struggling not to think toxic unwanted thoughts is sure to bring the thought to mind, creating a wearying cycle of mental exhaustion and frustration. What tends to work much better is to treat unwanted thoughts with the contempt they deserve, and that means that we don’t feed them and we don’t fight them; instead we focus on what is important to us—our values, our goals, our core beliefs—and do our best to simply ignore the toxic thoughts.
As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?