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Sunday Reflections: Notes from the Zoom gathering on January 23, 2022

Offering space to wonder together

I’ve had this intellectual love affair going on in my mind for the last 25 years, a wedding of sorts, between psychology and Christian spirituality. My journey in following Jesus led me to study psychology and particularly psychotherapy with a sprinkling of brain science.  I’ve been at this integration work since the 1990s.  In countless ways this has brought me deep freedom and hours of wonderment.  These aren’t “my” ideas in any strict sense and I hope as you read these notes from our Zoom gathering on January 23, you gain more clarity about your own ideas and even more so I hope you deepen your experience of God loving you as you are in the here and now. Together we find our way, never alone.  I’d say that’s by God’s design.

We live in stressful – or perhaps better said, stress-filled times.  All the markers of psychological overload are presenting all through society — suicide rates climbing, overdose deaths on the rise, people seeking mental health services radically increasing. The Latin derivation of the word “stress” is helpful:  the Latin word strictus, means “compressed.”  Recently someone was telling me about how their brain feels compressed, squeezed by everything happening around us from political strife, to cancel culture, to injustice, to isolation from pandemic and fear of illness and death.  We’re all squeezed.  Stress is connected to having too little space – the need to spread out.  I think this compression has to do with a broad scope fear that is running through our world.  We don’t feel safe. We spread out when we have a sense that the space we are in is safe and we can relax and release the tightness that readies our bodies to flee or fight.

So, pause even as you read and take a few moments to breathe deeply. To spread and expand your lungs. To take some space. first notice what you’re feeling in your body right now.  Take a moment to scan your whole body, from the top of your head slowly down through your whole body.  What do you notice? Where is there tension? Where is the pain? Where is the stress? Now breathe in for 5 counts and let your lungs and belly expand.  Take space.  Breathe out for 5 counts slowly, letting go.  Consider this an honoring of the body God has given you. Take 10 deep breathes and remember to exhale thoroughly for 5 counts.

What do you notice in your body now? Has anything changed? Often people report pausing to concentrate on their breathing brings a calming effect.

And now let’s consider a fable from the world of psychotherapy.

Deborah Anna Luepnitz, wrote,  Schopenhoser’s Porcupines  (2002) and retells this famous fable on p. 2:

A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and again begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.

Later Luepnitz also reference’s Donald Winnicott’s notion of “potential space.” Winnicott was a mid-twentieth century theorist in psychology – probably most famous generally for his concept of the “good enough mother.”  But he has so many brilliant contributions.  His idea of ‘potential space’ has to do with the in-between space between the subjective and the objective. He pushes away a binary understanding of what is factual and objective and what is perceived/interpreted and subjective for humans.  He makes many comparisons between psychotherapy and play.  In play, little humans (and the smart big humans who enter into play with them) engage in the in-between space of creativity where toys take on personality and provide real comfort and rich solutions often emerge to emotional impasses.  Memories get processed in new ways that allow for new freedom.    Therapy also takes place in this ‘potential space’ between.  Therapy isn’t happening in the mind of the therapist or in the mind of the client, but in this potential space between them.  It’s a relational space where creativity brings surprising moments of healing and of change.

Our world today is certainly a porcupine world (always has been) but it seems to me it’s been made worse by this sense of fear that our quills will poke and so we’re freezing.  It’s made worse by people defining how we poke each other in abstract terms and some eager it seems to draw attention to how they have been poked and the injustice of it all. Injustices surely need to be corrected as best we can, but what’s happening to us now is sending us into isolation and some of us into despair. We’re freezing and can’t figure out how to move back together.

Christian practice has always contended that you have to draw close regardless of the pokes.  So, we are instructed to forgive 70 x 7 in a single day, to love enemies and give our coats and shirts, enduring slaps.  But I’ve been wrestling with the reality of safety also.  How do we enter into ‘potential space’ where creativity can flow, where we can play together, where what’s happening between us is considered as essential and worthy of our focus rather than an exclusive focus on what is happening in me, for me, finding my voice, etc. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it?

Luepnitz has helped me here as well.  She revisits Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, that tale making a hero of the outsider who stops to care for the person in need.  In Luke chapter 10, Jesus is rejoicing in the good news and excited with his returning disciples as they share the stories of their journeys in pairs to share about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. He exclaims: Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  He’s thanking God and rejoicing.  And it’s then that one of the religious lawyers stands up to test him with an abstract question about how to live well and rightly. Loving God and neighbor is the agreed upon answer, but this guy then presses Jesus, who is my neighbor?  So, Jesus creates a practical story that makes the hero a Samaritan, a racial and religious outsider, who is the only one who stops to help a victim of abuse and injustice. Jesus’ hero takes real-world steps that disregard the political mandates of the day.   “When he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” (Luke 10:33-35, ESV)

Often, I talk to Christians who consider this a command to do everything for people who are victims.  Lately I’ve reconsidered this with Luepnitz’s help.  The Samaritan makes his compassion into action certainly.  But he delegates the caregiving. He does the emergency care and then he calls in others to use their expertise, an innkeeper, to oversee other aspects of the care.  He gathers a team to do the compassionate work.  He gives the money that he seems to have, but he does NOT DO EVERYTHING HIMSELF. He helps and then moves on.

This taking space. This offering what we can and not more. This honoring our call to do other things that we deem needed in our lives. They all seem crucial to me.

So, I’ve been wrestling a lot with getting poked and poking. With forgiving and turning compassion into action. With trying to find the space between to allow for creativity and to escape being run by fear and squeezed. To offer what is mine to offer rather than considering how to do everything.  And I’ve been trying to notice when I’m freezing and challenging myself to move closer, to enter the potential space where love grows between us.

 

MYRRH — THE CHRISTMAS STORY MEETS MY STORY

When searching for a way to emphasize the meaning of Christmas to my children when they were young, we began a tradition of writing Christmas stories that we read to one another. I have 30 years worth of stories now and treasure this tradition more than any other. Over the years I’ve tried to bring the subtleties of my growing understanding of psychology and faith together in my stories. Here’s one for you to sample with my wish that you have a very Merry Christmas.

Myrrh

By Gwen M. White

Based on a true story

 I was born close to death. Not my own, but my brother’s. Twins. One dead. Me left alive. My birthday is the day of his death and my life has always been colored by that. So I’m going to tell you why the Magi brought myrrh. A burial spice. It’s not only because Jesus was born to die. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell my story from it’s proper beginning. At the beginning of me.

My mother and father worked for a missions organization. They had been overseas when my mother became pregnant, but came back to the United States when the pregnancy became complicated. In the states they joined a small church near the main office of their organization. They had made some close friendships over the years through working together. This network of people began a journey together that is at the heart of my story.

First, there were Joan and Stan. They had twins of their own, but they were grown women by this time. Joan offered a lot of practical help to my mom. When her feet would swell, Joan would rub them with baby oil so my mother couldn’t put her shoes on again and walk around until all the oil had soaked in. Then Joan would go off to wash the dishes in the sink. My mom tried not to be embarrassed. Stan was a nervous man, full of warnings. Joan laughed at Stan’s worries. They were the oldest people in the group that circled my parents. A bit out of touch with the culture. Sort of condescending, but with “good hearts” my mom would always say. They sort of thought that becoming a Christian equaled becoming a capitalist and had been required to return to the states after several attempts to retrain them had failed. I suppose you could call them “short-sighted” even “imperialistic.” “Stuck in their ways.” They irritated some people, but they would have done anything to help my parents.

Then there was Charlie. He was single now and in his early thirties. Charlie had been through some tough times. He’d been an alcoholic during his college days and into his first years in business. He had become a devoted AA attendee after his wife divorced him when he confessed to an adulterous encounter with a waitress from a bar. lie didn’t even remember what he had done, but when the waitress filed a paternity suit against him and the DNA test proved lie was the father, he didn’t have much more to say. He stayed drunk for a few weeks, then started at AA. His life had gotten better, but he talked in AA mottoes and tended to bore my father. He had become a Christian back in college through some of the work my father and mother had been involved with so once he was sober he ended up latching on to them. He always had a better idea for how to do something my father was working on. He showed up at the door with Kentucky Fried Chicken once a week.

Tony and Tammy were my parents’ friends from the missions field. They had come back to the states so they could share administrative responsibilities as co-directors in the office. They had two young kids and were eager for my parents to become parents. Tony tended to work a lot. Really long hours. Tammy took care of the kids and tried to remain involved with the directorship, but Tony’s drive and ambition pushed Tammy out of the picture at times. My parents knew there were tensions, but they didn’t realize that the marriage was dying.

Carol was devout. She always, always said the right thing, in just the right way. She never got angry and seemed to he an endless stream of smiles and faith. When things became difficult in the pregnancy for my mother, Carol told her that she would pray everyday and on Tuesday she came by to pray with my mother. She never missed an appointment to pray with my mom. She came precisely when she said she would and stayed exactly one hour. She never shared anything about herself, but she spent the hour praying for my mother and for my brother and me. She prayed life into us. Except, I guess, I got it and my brother somehow missed.

Finally, there was Terrell. He lived next door to my parents with his mother. She screamed at him often and so Terrell, who was eight years old, visited my mother daily. “I like you ‘cuz you don’t yell and you smile when I come in the door.” Terrell had trouble in school and was falling behind in his reading. He would come and sit with my mother and read her stories from the books that lined her bedroom walls. She would read two pages and he would read one. I think from the way she tells the story Terrell was her one true friend until the day of my birth.

There were others from the church who were more reasoned in their efforts to support my parents. They prayed and some cooked meals to share or called to ask if there was anything they could do. But Joan and Stan, Charlie, Tony and Tammy, Carol and Terrell seemed to take our family into their skin. They died with us and they were born with us, too. It’s like that. Death then life. Magi bringing gifts that are for the dead. Merry Christmas.

What really triggered things was that one appointment when the doctor couldn’t hear the second heartbeat. The tests were ordered and the word came back that one of the two babies growing in my mother’s womb wasn’t growing anymore. To allow the other to develop so that he would be healthy, she would have to carry the dead baby to term, birth the dead child and hope for the best with the other kid. I’m the kid that came after the dead baby. Sorrow and joy don’t get their own day.

So my mom came weeping home. My dad cried with her. Then they made a few phone calls and the crew came. Tammy was first, full of fear. Charlie was only ten minutes behind her, without any idea of how to make this mess better, but he did have Kentucky Fried Chicken for the refrigerator. Joan and Stan came together, the benefits of forced retirement. Joan started talking as soon as she came in the door. Stan told her to be quiet and she listened to him. When his worries came true, Stan sort of shined. Terrell came next because he always came at that time of day. Tony’s knock on the door was soft, he left work to come. And Carol was last that day, almost as if staying away could keep the failure of her prayer from her mind. But she came.

It was December 6. The waiting took on its paradoxical heaviness. A death and a birth that demanded response, that demanded attention, that couldn’t cancel each other out.

“You still gonna have a baby. That’s a good thing.” Terrell tried to take in all the adult sorrow, but couldn’t seem to forget the flavor of his own world. “My mama say, two babies is a lot of trouble. I’ll help you with one.” Joan jumped in to shush Terrell. “Maybe your mama needs you to be home with her now.” My mother intervened. “Joan, Terrell can stay. Please. I want him to. I need to remember I’m still having a baby.” Her voice drifted as tears punctuated her sentence. Terrell slid close to my mother’s side and glared at Joan. This is when Stan touched Joan’s arm so she didn’t say anything more.

That evening together was short. Charlie insisted they eat the chicken. The women created a meal from the recesses of the kitchen and resolved to restock it over the next few days. My mother was confined to her bed. A flood of visitors spread around her for the first week, then the stream narrowed to this unlikely crew of incompetent lovers. Terrell seemed almost a permanent fixture of my mother’s bed. He would leave when adults came in, but always waited in the living room to close the front door after them and return to her side. They seemed to feed off each other’s loss. She mothered him and he soaked up the grieving tenderness like an infant at the breast. The others learned to accept this. The women quit shushing Terrell. Maybe it was Carol who first learned to take strength from him as my mother had. She started praying again. Charlie kept bringing chicken. Stan stopped warning Terrell to be careful and watched the little boy to see how he was able to take strength from all the sorrow. Joan grew more silent with each week, but she rubbed my mother’s feet daily. In the shared silence the two women grew brave. Tammy curled up in bed with my mother almost like Terrell did, She cried with her and finally told her how she couldn’t bear the death she felt in her marriage. Later Tony wept at the side of my mother’s bed as well. He hoped there was a twin birth for his marriage, the dead giving way to the living.

She went into labor on December 23. It lasted into the 24th as the child to be born first was without life and the pushing was ineffective. All seven of the crew were in the delivery room throughout the ordeal. It was Charlie who smuggled Terrell past the nurse’s station. The doctor gave his consent without much pleading from my mother. They even came into the birth suite. It was Terrell started walking around the perimeter of the room in a slow circle. Carol was first to join him. Everyone knew she prayed as she walked. Then the others slowly join the sober process. Terrell began to hum. Stan turned that into a string of hymns sung slow and low. My father, of course, stayed by my mother’s side, but he tells of feeling that cadence penetrating into his bones.

After more than 30 hours of labor my mother pushed my dead brother into the arms of a nurse. They named him John for the beloved disciple. In the weeping, they held him. All of them. They kept him there with them as my mother labored for another 6 hours before I was born. In those hours, they grieved. They prayed. They walked. All those inept, flawed people became heroes of faith to my parents. An impossible parade around that room: a child carrying a dead child followed by a group of mourners who knew death in their own lives, all awaiting the birth of a living baby. And this I know: When I was born, there was great joy in that room of sorrow.

They had a funeral when my mother was able. I went to that, too. My brother’s ashes were spread over the water of a quiet lagoon near our home. They collected some of that water and when I was christened, it was that water that baptized me.

So as I grew up, it was with this group around me, pressing me into the part of the wise man carrying myrrh at every Christmas pageant. I never resisted that part. I’ve always felt the loss of him myself. We were together from the beginning after all. I felt his death first. His death led to my birth. I carried the myrrh each Christmas. It’s my part. Isn’t it all our parts to carry the myrrh, if we call ourselves Christians? To find life, to wait for birth, in all the dying within and without us. We carry the myrrh.

So that’s my story. Jesus came into the world, a light to that hapless crew who circled my birth, and the Magi came and death came with them. Now there is a connection with joy in all the dying of this world. Those who walked in darkness have been given the light of life and so they still stumble and shriek and sin and impossibly shine.

LET’S FOSTER HEALING IN OUR BODIES AND SPIRITS THIS CHRISTMAS — GWEN WHITE, PSYD

Last week Hallowood Institute presented a seminar titled, Fostering Healing in a Stressful World: A Clinical Exploration of Stress, Love and Attachment.  Dr. Eleonora Bartoli looked carefully at the stress responses of our bodies that trigger fight, flight, and freeze responses.  She noted that these responses are involuntary and physical, not mental choices.  Given the stress-filled nature of our current lives in a global pandemic, many of us related to her points about feeling stuck in a survival response that cuts us off from thriving.  We’ve heard much about creating safety for ourselves and others in these challenging moments, but there’s more than safety that’s needed.  When in survival mode, our brains don’t access higher thinking skills or empathy. We need to connect with others in order to be truly well and safety is only a step toward this goal.  Particularly in these days where so many of us feel estranged from others and our national conversations are filled with division and polarization, feelings well up and we often feel frozen, stuck, even paralyzed. These are trauma responses.  Helplessness may be the most difficult emotion for humans to endure and it’s this emotion that is so prevalent today.

So what can we do?  We need to use our bodies as well as our minds to repair what’s been injured within us.  We need to move (our body’s best de-stressor) and we need to activate the resources of healing that are natural to our systems.  These healing agents within our bodies are activated by connecting with other and feeling attached in healthy ways. Conscious and consistent care for one another is vital to our wellbeing and helps activate healing chemistry within our bodies.  Call a friend when you’re done reading this short article.

For Christian therapists interested in integrating Christian spirituality into our work with clients, these ideas present helpful information to pass along to clients and to put into practice ourselves.  One implication of the way our brains work is that we were designed for connection with God and with others and ourselves.  Keeping spiritual routines that help us connect and reflect are powerful aids in allowing our bodies to repair and renew wellness across our systems.  We need to be careful to turn away from ignoring our bodies as somehow “lesser” than our minds in our quest for deeper spirituality.

Remnants of gnostic thoughts seem to continue to pop up in sermons and in Bible interpretations.  We are not separate from our bodies.  We are created beings, embodied by God’s design.  Let’s allow our spiritual practice to include body work, noting what we feel, where we feel it and how we can meet God here and now in the context of our genuine feelings.  As we enter the Christmas season, we remember that God became incarnate.  That is to say, God stepped into a body like ours, in order to redeem us through and through.  The need to attach to a Loving Other is central to the gospel story for humans.  Helplessness, although difficult to endure, is not foreign to our God who came as a tiny baby ready to meet us in our need.

Christmas Message 2019

Many people speak of depression at Christmas. They feel a loss of relationship often, but especially when the whole world seems intent on buying the perfect gift, making the perfect meal, having the warmest gathering with friends and family.  As a psychologist, I try to help these dear people sort out many feelings, thoughts and behaviors that exacerbate their isolation and contribute to the hopelessness that lies at the heart of depression.  There’s something about naming all of that that brings some relief. But in the end, my integrationist heart (at the intersection of psychology and Christian spirituality) tells me that spiritual contact is needed.  It’s no good to preach this to someone who is suffering, rather it is important to be present with them in the suffering.  To be with, that is genuinely present to, the sufferer is everything, just as God chose to be with humanity, with us as a vulnerable babe. To shed the depressing corrupt consumerist version of Christmas that our culture offers us might seem overwhelming, but as the day of Jesus’ birth draws near this year, I feel it’s necessity.  There’s no perfect Christmas that you or I will miss this year.  There’s no gift or moment or gathering to find or create.  There’s only the embrace of our own dreads which reveal our deep need for love that in the light of the manager is revealed as space for God to come close.  God present to each of us —  this God who comes as a Baby offering relationship rather than power, openness rather than conduct codes, hope that isn’t bound to our logic. This Light is still overcoming the darkness.

Look for another Hallowood Institute Seminar in Spring 2020!

DON’T STOP PRAYING, PART 2

When I’m sitting with people in my office listening as they describe their struggles, particularly with God, I’m often struck with the notion that how they view God and how they view themselves in relationship with God makes a big difference in how they are going to be able to overcome obstacles to their growth. Those who perceive God as loving seem far more able to access the psychological benefits that research associates with prayer practices than those who view God as distant or cold. My work is often to explore the dissonance between their thoughts about God and their experiences with God. We look at how their current experiences in prayer might actually make them more anxious. When they can name that, they seem to be able to more honestly approach God in prayer and often times report more benefits from praying than they knew before. If they can continue to pray, but begin to do so authentically, the benefits multiply.

When I discuss cases like this with colleagues who do not believe, the criticism frequently centers on prayer as a simple distraction. They argue that my clients may feel better, but that can be explained simply as a function of diversion. Praying shifts the clients’ attention off their problems which could mean that the client is ill-served because they do not address needed issues. But behavioral science experiments suggest that prayer actually helps people with focus. (see the abstract here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/2153599X.2016.1206612?journalCode=rrbb20&) In one experiment participants were allowed to pray about an issue in their lives and then asked to perform a task. For participants who scored highly on a measure of religiosity, their subsequent task performance improved. In as second experiment praying about a problem biased attention in the subsequent word-search task. So praying about a problem for people who were likely to engage in religious behavior, seemed to free cognitive resources which likely would have been consumed by worry so they were better able to manage new data and attend to “problem-relevant information.” It seems for believers, prayer really helps.

So don’t stop praying, but do let yourself experiment with very honest prayer that engages the depth of your emotions as they are not as you wish they were.

DON’T STOP PRAYING, BUT PRAY HONESTLY

There’s been a loud reaction against political leaders who say they are sending prayers for victims of violence and their families in recent news reports. It’s unfortunate that this has become a clique. Praying should never be confused with doing nothing, but in our fractious society it’s now associated with a lack of effective action and even with a lack of real care. Nothing is farther from the truth.

The Pew Research Center has identified the large number of Americans who pray regularly (https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/frequency-of-prayer/). Many clients who seek psychotherapy come with a Christian perspective and struggle to relate the strengths of their faith tradition to their everyday problems. When the public discourse is so divided and the political right claims Christian perspectives while defending inaction against violence like school shootings in the name of freedom, it is a psychological crisis as well as a civil tragedy. For psychotherapists such national events and discord come directly into treatment sessions and conversations about anxiety and stress increase. To frustrate matters, when prayer is bantered about as a glib clique, a source of help is weakened. Neurologically prayer has proven benefits so don’t stop praying. Don’t stifle your desire to find a faithful path through a troubling world. There’s still ample reason to hope through difficult emotional days. Take all the trouble into your conversation with God and with your therapist. Honest engagement with doubt, anger, and fear can lead to unexpected relief and to greater understanding in spite of the false doctrines spread through our current political dialogue. In tragedy, we pray because we seek needed comfort. It comes in surprising ways. Prayer isn’t a release from taking action; it is path to it. Light dawns.

Follow our Page here on Facebook. Connect with us and the wider community of like-minded professionals in mental health and wellness. There has never been a better time to engage this topic than in the anxiety- and depression-laden world of today!

THE TALKING CURE AND CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE

Psychotherapy was labeled as the “talking cure” decades ago. When we consider how contemplative prayer practice might impact our mental health, it’s worth pondering the good that naming and expressing emotion can bring.  In contemplative prayer, we are invited to notice our distressing thoughts and to gently turn away from them and focus our attention on the present moment by sensing our breath going in and out, remembering a prayer word that expresses love and grace in the now.  These are ancient Christian practices designed to help our brains change patterns. The naming of our fears and then gently turning from them is a good work out for our minds. I go so far as calling it, “fighting the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12).

I think of these practices as a conversation with myself and with God. In an activity-oriented time like ours, the complaint I hear is that this sort of prayer feels like ‘doing nothing.’ On the contrary, I think it is very important work of the first order. In noticing and turning over these troubling emotions we are doing something vital. We are discharging stress that if retained can cause aggressive reactions towards others when we least expect them or perhaps never allow ourselves to see them.  Often psychological distress is the result of emotions that are stuck in us and thereby left unprocessed. Feelings don’t overwhelm us in an ongoing fashion near as much as attempting to not feel them does. In contemplative prayer, the psyche can process and integrate warded off emotions that could be making us deeply anxious. The prayer practice may even allow more of the unconscious residual emotion to surface and to be named and turned over – again and again, until the mind is able to digest and order these past emotions and experiences. To keep them in the past, so to speak. We internally release the stress, more consciously giving it to God and allowing our mind to release the chemical wash that goes with our distress.

EGOIC CONSCIOUSNESS AND CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE

In early psychology, Freud famously labeled parts of the mind as: id, ego and superego. Freud was so influential that these terms have become part of our everyday vocabulary, particularly the term, ego. For Freud the ego was the mediator between the id and superego, between our biological drives and our sense of social appropriateness. Conflicts between our instinctual drives and what we deem appropriate in our relational context are at the heart of a psychoanalytic explanation of much mental illness or distress. In our current culture the solution to this focuses on eliminating the prohibitions to the satisfaction of the id (our impulsive desires). Traditional spiritual practice recommends the opposite cure in eliminating the demands of the id. So clients could be helped by rationally disputing the overly restrictive messages of the superego and thereby allowing them to be free to ‘be themselves’ or conversely, clients are helped by rationally disputing the possibly self-destructive demands of the id. I’d argue with many practitioners of contemplative prayer that we need a third way.

We’ve learned over the years of psychological consideration and research that defensive processes in the human mind tend to coalesce into patterns that repeat and it is these rigid habits of thinking, feeling and behaving that ultimately bring distress. We shape our interpretations of current events based on our biases begun in early life experiences which may no longer be relevant. Our hope of change lies in modifying these defensive patterns in our minds rather than in the daunting (impossible?) task of eliminating id or superego demands. Contemplative prayer practices, often based in ancient spiritual guides, turn out to be excellent treatment options to bring about these changes. When we sit in meditation much that we encounter within our unquiet minds is the demands of id and superego. We come face-to-face with our tendency to identity ourselves with our egoic consciousness, that is, with the surface layers we created (the metaphor of a mask is apt here) to shield us from our rigid unconscious ways of warding off deep fears and anxieties connected to our instinctive desires (id) and how to manage them. We don’t have to choose to act on these impulses or to repress them, but instead in the contemplative practice we have opportunity to simply notice them and turn our attention back to the present moment and the love that is available here and now. This practice strengthens new neural pathways that are less anxiety-driven. More to come on this process in coming weeks.

Follow our Page here on Facebook. Connect with us and the wider community of like-minded professionals in mental health and wellness. There has never been a better time to engage this topic than in the anxiety- and depression-laden world of today!

REPEATING GRACE

I was sitting with my spiritual director this week, trying to identify the disquiet I was feeling. As we talked, I became aware of hidden fears that can cause me to act often in more driven ways than I’d like.  It slowly emerged in our conversation that these fears had more to do with the past than the present and I found myself considering again how I experience grace in waves rather than as a constant state. I need grace to repeat. It’s not enough to know I can be free once or twice or a thousand times. I need a present touch.

This reminded me again of the process of transformation that goes on for humans all through our lives. This is a spiritual and neurological truth. We need things to repeat. We may (and should!) identify patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that were rooted in us as defensive processes to help us manage frightening or painful experiences in our early lives, but insight doesn’t change us.  Instead we need to have repeating experiences that we can consciously embrace of different conclusions (thoughts) than we had as children and different feelings (fear that is NOT debilitating or joy!) and different behaviors (adapted to the reality of the moment). We need to become awake to these new possibilities. Good therapy can help with this and so can attuned spiritual direction.

In our ongoing discussion here of the small self and Christianity’s invitation to the transformation of it through contemplative surrender, I’m reminded that we all need repeating grace.  We too often expect ourselves to change quickly or finally with a new lesson, but are disappointment to find old feelings returning. Our brains go back to their old ways. We need not despair over this, but can lean into the teachings of Jesus and his many followers over the centuries. When disquieted we can listen carefully to the inner dissonance and discover grace again wooing us away from old impulses designed to save ourselves and inviting us into the present moment where our faith teaches us that we are already saved. We confront fear and turn our attention to trust that love will triumph even through dark times. We can live into the Psalmist’s joy from Psalm 23: “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life…” (NLT) Grace repeats and we need to come back again and again to letting the riches of God impact us in the present moment.