Becoming Classically Educated

greek-statueThose of us who are involved in classical education, whether as writers, teachers, home-educators or parents, find ourselves at a disadvantage. How can you teach classically when you yourself have not been given a classical education? Perhaps you have struggled with that. Perhaps you are a homeschool parent who feels inadequate to the task of giving your children a classical education. If so, then there are four things you should do or keep in mind.

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Elder Thaddeus on Mindfulness

From ‘Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention (Part 4)‘:

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

One of the themes Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica kept returning to throughout his teaching ministry is how the human brain constantly creates its own distractions for us to react to. In every hour the average person experiences thousands of thoughts. Most of these thoughts are completely useless while many of them (i.e., negative thoughts or obsessions about myself) are actually destructive. All too often we involuntarily respond to mental stimuli by taking up each thought and playing with it before another thought takes its place. We engage in this type of mental chatter without realizing it as the mind acts like a constant video screen of one thing after another…. Given that our thoughts are the breeding ground of our emotions, it isn’t surprising that our feelings often follow the same jumping-bean pattern as our thoughts. We feel one thing, then another, then another, without always realizing where these feelings are coming from, why we react like we do, or how our emotions can be appropriately identified and managed….

I used to think that I was simply a victim of my undisciplined mind. But as I studied I found that God had given me an invaluable gift that I didn’t even realize I had. It’s called the prefrontal cortex. This is a truly wonderful part of the brain, located just behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex does many things for us, but one of its most important jobs is to enable us to observe our own brains. This is a gift that animals don’t have. Animals can think, but they can’t think about thinking; they can’t observe what is happening in their brains. Only humans can do that thanks to the prefrontal cortex. You could think about the prefrontal cortex as a guard in the brain’s guard house, tasked with controlling what enters. As thoughts arise in the brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. This is difficult since for many of us this guard has become fat and lazy while the Amygdala (the brain’s “fight or flight” center) rules. Our goal should be to strengthen the prefrontal cortex through disciplining our minds, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Only in this way can we weed out thinking errors, slow down the mental chatter, and ultimately develop the type of quiet, gentle, meek thought-life that radiates peace and stillness to those around us. In this way we will be able to imperceptibly pass the kingdom of God onto everyone that comes in contact with us.

…our goal should be not merely to pay attention to things, but to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, in order to control the focus of our emotional and mental lives. But this can only happen when we slow down and choose not to be carried away by the latest stimuli. By being mindful to reject incoming stimuli in order to remain focused on what is good, true and beautiful, we can take stock of what we’re thinking, how we’re feeling, and how we’re behaving. Then we can use practices of mindful attentiveness to regain control of our lives. This enables us to replace toxic thoughts with inner prayer and a constant internal dialogue with God.

Aroma and the Enlightenment

In my article on the psychology of aroma I pointed out that the sense of smell is one of the most important—though overlooked—components to human well-being.Throughout human history doctors have recognized the therapeutic properties of aroma. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates reflected widespread understandings when he noted that “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.” By contrast, the modern practice of aromatherapy is often looked upon with skepticism by the medical establishment. As a culture in general, we are probably the least smell-conscious society ever to have existed on the planet. Why is that?

According to “The Smell Report“, published by Social Issues Research Centre, the problem is partly traceable to the period of history known as “the Enlightenment.” During this period, they suggest “the emotional potency of smell was felt to threaten the impersonal, rational detachment of modern scientific thinking.” Under the philosophy of empiricism, the organs of sight and hearing achieved unprecedented primacy, leading to a widespread marginalization of the important role that smell could play in human well-being.

Scenting SalvationAs a Christian, I’m interested in the religious implications to the ongoing influence of the Enlightenment, especially since the 18th century approach to smell was so antithetic to our own spiritual tradition. In 2006 Susan Harvey wrote a monograph on smell in the early church while Vigen Guroian explored the spirituality of scent in his little devotional book The Fragrance of God. The attitude of early Christians (as summarized by Susan Harvey in her work on the olfactory imagination of the early church) was that “Smells mattered because they were invisible, because they were transitory, because they were mobile, because they lingered, because of their potency to change substance or experience or meaning.”

Further Reading

Aroma and Human Flourishing

At my old blog I did a series of articles on the spirituality of scent. (To get a complete set of links to this series, click HERE. More recently I’ve become interested, not in the spirituality of aroma, but in the psychology of aroma. I had the opportunity last week to publish some of my research on the psychology of scent for the Taylor Study Method in an article titled ‘The Power of Positive Smelling‘. Here is a selection from the article:

man smelling flowerResearchers at the University of Virginia found that the aroma from flowers are no longer being carried on the wind like they used to but are instead neutralized by pollutants. Their research, which was published in a 2008 edition of the journal Atmospheric Environment, showed that scent molecules produced by flowers in a pre-industrial environment could travel as far as half a mile from the flower. By contrast, in today’s polluted environment downwind of major cities, the scents of flowers may travel less than about 600 feet. This has led smell expert Avery Gilbert to lament that in our sanitized world, pungent smellscapes of the past are disappearing. The vacuum created by the loss of natural smells has been filled with many artificial substitutes. Some of these substitutes are intentional, like perfumes and air-fresheners, while others come as unintentional byproducts of our industrialized lifestyle, such as the smell of gasses emitted through vehicle exhaust. Many of these artificial smells have become so ubiquitous that we often don’t even recognize them. By contrast, odors that would have been considered perfectly natural throughout most of human history, such as the smell of people and animals, are painstakingly banished from modern life. This has had tragic consequences because the sense of smell is the sense that is most closely tied with the area of the brain associated with emotion, memory and a sense of well-being. Because we don’t understand the important role that smell plays in human well-being, the institutions that ought be the most concerned about offering a welcoming and soothing aroma to troubled individuals, including hospitals, doctor’s offices, therapy clinics and psyche wards, often smell more sterile and “dead” of anywhere….

One of the reasons why aroma plays such a crucial role in human flourishing is that our sense of smell is the sense that is most closely tied with the area of the brain associated with emotion and memory. Both emotion and smell share the same network of neural structures in the limbic system, the most ancient and primal part of the human brain.  As David Myers explains in his book Psychology, “A hotline runs between the brain area that gets information from the nose and the brain’s ancient limbic centers associated with memory and emotions.” (For a scientific discussion of what happens in the brain when we smell different aromas, see the section ‘Olfactory processing streams in the brain’ in the article ‘Effects of odor on emotion, with implications.’)

Many people don’t realize it, but even what we perceive as flavor in food originates with the sense of smell. (For more information about this, see Anne Underwood’s Newsweek article ‘A New Book Explains the Science of Smell.’)

Further Reading

The Spirituality of Scent

woman-smelling-roseAs someone who is both a Christian and an aromatherapist specializing in brain fitness, I have long been interested in the spiritual implications of scent. It was not always so, however. Before I was a Christian aromatherapist I was a Christian Gnostic who believed that the physical world was unimportant to the Lord and that our focus should be on “spiritual” matters rather than the things we can see, touch, taste and smell.

I’ve since come to realize (thanks to mentors like Saint Paul, Tom Wright, and Saint Irenaeus) that there is not a hard and fast division between the material and the spiritual, but that the spiritual sacramentally transfuses the stuff of material creation.

As part of my recovery from implicit Gnosticism, I wrote this series of articles for the Chuck Colson Center exposing and refuting the implicit Gnosticism that has made inroads into so much Christian thinking. As a corollary to realizing that the material world is actually good, I began to appreciate that there are spiritual implications to food (see links throughout this article) and also that the physical body is good and should be affirmed. Similarly, I also wrote a series of articles on the spirituality of aroma. Below are links to the articles I wrote about the spirituality of aroma:


Kickstart Campaign to Finance My New Book

For over a decade I’ve worked as a freelance writer for a variety of publications. Now that I’ve reached midlife and look back over my career, the three themes that stand out as being the most significant are (1) gratitude (2) attentiveness (3) being human.

I am hoping to pull together some of my writings on these topics and self-publish them in a book of essays. In addition to organizing my past writings for this book, I will also conduct fresh research for some new essays on these important topics.

In order to make this project a reality, I need significant funding. Quite simply, the more funds I’m able to raise, the more time I’ll be able to afford to work on this project. If I’m successful in raising the amount of money required, Kickstart will release the funds to me after a 45-day campaign. However, if I fall short of raising the necessary funds, all the money will be returned to the contributors. Kickstart has the mechanisms on their website for facilitating these transfers with financial accountability.

If you would like to be involved in helping to support this project, here are some things you can do:

  1. Visit my Kickstart campaign and consider pledging $20 or more.
  2. During the next 45 days, periodically visit my personal Facebook page and my public fan page and whenever I post something about this project, click “like” and “share.”
  3. If you have been blessed by my writings, then please write a few sentences on your Facebook page saying something positive about my work and including a link to my Kickstart campaign.
  4. Repeat step #3 at least four times during the next 45 days.

Thank you for your support!

Click on the following link to go to the webpage for my Kickstart campaign:

Being Grateful, Being Attentive, Being Human

Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention (Part 4)

I began this series in 2013 after reading Steve Wasserman’s comments in the Columbia Journalism Review on the disappearance of newspapers across the country, the erosion of book reading following the rise of the internet, and the shocking lack of coverage this crisis is receiving in the national media. I quoted Wasserman’s observation that “the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”

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Mindfulness Craze Catches up with Scripture

Because “mindfulness” (using focused reflection to achieve moment-to-moment awareness of what is happening in one’s mind with the aim of better regulating our minds) is a secular craze right now, some Christians are suspicious of it. Christian brain scientist Dr. Caroline Leaf shows that the mindfulness craze is basically an appropriation of what Christians already knew from the Bible. The following is taken from pages 171-172 of Dr. Caroline Leaf’s book Switch on Your Brain.

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