Controlling the Brain Through Spiritual Mindfulness

From my article ‘Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention Part 4‘:

Thankfully God has given you a tool for controlling your brain and fasting from toxic thinking. That tool is called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that enables you to observe your own thinking. You don’t have to be a brain scientist to use your prefrontal cortex. Every time you watch your own thinking, every time you choose to switch from one thought to another, that’s the prefrontal cortex working.

Christ The Eternal TaoIf you spend long enough using this part of your brain in the right way, you can learn to be alert, in a constant state of watchfulness to weed out toxic thinking. As thoughts arise in your brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. Often the process of simply observing your thinking is itself enough to extinguish the unwanted thought. As Hieromonk Damascene observed in Christ The Eternal Tao, “A thought cannot exist for long under the light of direct, objective observation. …just watch the thoughts disappear under the light of observation, as if we were an objective, disinterested spectator; they will pass one by one.” If you do this long enough, gradually you will come to realize that you are not your thoughts. You will begin to see your thoughts as things outside yourself, like airplanes in the sky, that you can either allow to land in the run-way of your mind, or reject and watch them fly away.

Food and Music

One of the factors behind the American fast-food movement is the assumption that eating should be as easy as possible and that the ideal meal is one that requires a minimum amount of effort on the part of the consumer and provider. The proliferation of microwave dinners has also been fueled by the assumption that eating should be an experience with as little effort, time, and struggle as possible. This is in marked contrast to the rest of the world, especially Southern Europe and South-East Asia, where much time and effort is devoted to meals.

In Southern Europe much time and effort is devoted to meals, which serve important social functions as a result.

In Southern Europe much time and effort is devoted to meals, which serve important social functions as a result.

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My Journey With Kaisen

I’m the sort of person who gets big ideas and sets big goals. The only problem with big goals is that they’re incredibly hard to reach. Well, that’s not actually true. Big goals are hard to reach using conventional means.

The normal way of reaching big goals goes something like this. You get excited about a goal that you want to reach. It might be learning a foreign language, implementing a new exercise routine, breaking a bad habit, meditating every day, learning a new skill, whatever. In the excitement of the end-result, you promise to take regular big steps towards reaching the goal.

I know from experience. About five years ago I decided that I wanted to become fit and strong, so I started getting up at 5:00 AM to drive to a friend’s house to do weight-lifting. Of course, with a family and a job, I obviously couldn’t sustain that type of training. When the excitement died down, I realized that I just couldn’t do it. And of course I felt guilty.

When we still lived in England I once decided that I wanted to learn Latin. I got some textbooks and faithfully studied Latin for an hour a day…until I couldn’t keep it up anymore. Then I not only didn’t know Latin, but I was also a failure, having overestimated my ability to persevere.

There have been times when I decided that I was going to become a really good piano player and start practicing with the dedication I had when I was young. Somehow, despite my good intentions, life has a way of taking over and never allowing me to get momentum.

I could go on and on. We all could. I’ve come to realize that the problem is not in the goals we set, but in our method of reaching those goals. What if I told you that there was an unconventional method for reaching goals that is a hundred times more effective and much much easier?

The method I’m talking about is called the Kaisen Technique. The method basically says that the way to reach our goals is to make the steps towards those goals as small as possible. For example, if you want to learn a language, focus on learning just one word a day. If you want to start exercising, just walk in place for a minute in front of the television. If you want to start meditating every day, do it for just give minutes a day. If you are overwhelmed with the amount of dirty dishes in kitchen, just do it for five minutes.

The reason this works is because the human brain is in a state of constant tension between two impulses. On the one hand, our brain constantly longs for innovation, for the excitement of newness. This is why we promise ourselves big things and try to reach new goals. But we also have a part of the brain that longs for stability, for the security of the status quo. Scientists who have studied the human brain have discovered that when we commit to change something in our life, it is the impulse for newness and innovation that is operative. However, over the long term, all our best intentions are sabotaged by the part of our brain that longs to keep things normal and which fears change. All this occurs on a subconscious level that we’re not even aware of. But here’s the point: by introducing change through tiny steps, we can overcome our brain’s natural resistance to change. This is because small steps allow change to occur within a context that is not significantly threatening to the status quo, that feels safe. Then, after our brain has acclimatized to the change, we can increase the size of the steps.

I’ve been exploring the Kaisen technique in a series of articles for the Taylor Study Method. Below are the links to my first two posts about this. Although these posts have been focused on psychology students preparing for their licensure exams, the principles apply to anyone:

Yes, You Should Still be a Christian…even when the struggle is hard

“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.

“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”

My friend (whom we will call Trevor) pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his spiritual struggles.

I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”

“It’s not that, Robin. I still believe in God. But I’ve been at this Christianity thing for over six years now, yet I’m still struggling with the same sins and addictions that I had when I converted. It’s so frustrating! People keep telling me that I need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me, but however much I pray and ask for help, it never gets any easier. I’m confused. I just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”

Trevor explained how he was told he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria for determining whether he had fully “let go”, and since he couldn’t achieve complete victory over his sinful habits, he was crippled with a double load of guilt – the guilt of his sin, plus the guilt that he hadn’t “let go.” Trevor had also been told he was struggling in his own strength, while others had declared that the very difficulties he was facing were themselves a sign that he wasn’t a true Christian. The difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, he had been told. Continue reading

The Neurological Tug-of-war

From ‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice‘:

“The average person experiences thousands of thoughts every day, most of which flow into the mind without us even choosing like a fast-moving river. Most of these thoughts flow out of our mind as quickly as they come but not without leaving a residue on our unconscious. If even 15% of the thousands of thoughts that arrive in our brain every day are negative then that amounts to hundreds of negative thoughts in a single day. For most people the negative thoughts reach well into the thousands. Over a lifetime, this accumulative load of negativity can begin to have an effect on our health, our relationships with others and even on our self-identity.
We tend to think that a positive outlook results from external circumstances and forces that are outside of us. Though we might not actually express it so crudely, we intuitively assume that peace of mind results from getting what we want. While this may be partially true in some cases, it is more often the case that peace of mind results from the mindset we choose to adopt about our lives irrespective to what is happening around us.
Think of the brain as the theater of a constant tug-of-war between the positive and the negative side of us. The more our thought-life empowers the negative side in this tug-of-war the more we will be weighed down and actually make our suffering worse. The tug-of-war between the negative and the positive ultimately determines whether our life will be filled with joy, gratitude, and a sense of hopeful expectancy about the future, or whether our life will be weighed down by grumbling, stress, and a sense of anxiety about the future.”

Colson Center Column Resumed With Article on Spiritual Struggle

I’ve resumed my column at the Colson Center with an article published last Tuesday titled ‘Struggle and the Christian Life.’ In this article I’ve tried to continue to chip away at the pervasive assumption that struggle is bad and that the life of holiness should be a life without pain, confusion, struggle and heartache. In this article I argue that when struggle is perceived to be a bad thing, we will naturally gravitate towards those expressions of the faith that require minimal effort. On the other hand, if we realign our thinking with Scripture, then we can recognize that struggle is an integral part of the sanctified life. We are then liberated to grow in, and work through, struggle, frustration, confusion, pain, and even failure, rather than trying to find short cuts to sanctification that eliminate struggle from the spiritual calculus.

To read my article, click on the following link:

Struggle and the Christian Life


The Spiritual Life is Hard

Last month Rod Dreher wrote a post for the American Conservative titled ‘Orthodoxy Is Hard. Thank God.’ Dreher, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy from Catholicism, reflected on how hard Orthodoxy is, particularly during Holy Week leading up to the Pascha celebration.

As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy myself, one of the things that struck me when my family first started attending Orthodox services was just how hard Orthodoxy is. Long periods of fasting, standing up during the services, going to confession, to say nothing of internal virtues like humility – all very hard work. This was something I actually didn’t like about Orthodoxy.

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Time to Stop Complaining

“We all have things we can complain about from problems in our health to family issues to work-related stress. It is true that sometimes we need to talk about our problems to process them, just as we often need to think about them instead of pretending the problem’s aren’t there. However, it’s important to distinguish between necessary strategic thinking/talking about problems vs. useless worrying and complaining. The first leads to action while the second can be a waste of mental and emotional resources.
“Many people are participating in the 21-Day Complaint Free Challenge where you spend 3 weeks without complaining at all. Given that the people who take this challenge are happier and healthier, many people have decided to make it into a lifestyle. After spending 21 days of not complaining, many people don’t want to go back and spend the rest of their life trying to never complain again.”