It’s hard to be full of joy when our brains seem to reel uncontrollably from one thought to the next each devolving into more and more negativity. For instance as soon as my eyes opened this the morning my thoughts went something like this: how long do I have until the kids wake up, what am I going to prepare for breakfast, do I have any appointments to go to, how am I going to teach my daughter. Those were the logistical, then the emotions kicked in and the various worries about each of my five children infiltrated my morning routine. Then while trying to remember the blessings in my life I take some time to ruminate on the failures of my past and Ebola in Africa, slave trafficking in Sierra Leone, the orphans of the world, the dear neighbor with Lyme disease or the other with cancer. Wow! All before the first cup of coffee and the world is ending and my peace, if I even had it to begin with, is gone amidst waves of anxiety and fear.
Our brains neural circuitry never stops. How our thoughts jump from one negative thought to the next seems uncontrollable. Apparently, according to evolutionary thought, our brains are designed for negativity to help us avoid danger. The default mode is to be looking for threats and to constantly evaluate our surroundings.
I just finished reading the book The Last Best Cure by Donna Nakazawa in the chapter on So How Did We Get This Way? she relies heavily on Rick Hanson PhD.’s book; Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. He explains the evolution of the brain and how we still are wired for negativity. Nakazawa put it this way:
Everyday, we all face an inner battle to try to balance our brains’ natural, deeply ingrained evolutionary-based tendency to see what Hanson refers to as “paper-tigers” everywhere. We have evolved to mistakenly assume, he explains, that there is a tiger in the bushes ten thousand times for every time there may be one- in order to avoid making a life or death mistake even once.
She goes on to explain how naturally this tendency is affected by our personal history. With a troubled childhood an adult might have an increased tendency to perceive “paper-tigers”.
Physiologically when we are in a constant state of fight or flight the hormones released whenever we perceive a “paper-tiger” causes a flood of inflammatory cytokines that “whip up the body’s immune response”. When there really is danger this is a good thing; we combat the threat using the means hormones provide and then return to a balanced state. Whipping up the immune system for paper-tigers however causes damage to the tissues of our body. It’s not hard to see how this can also lead to constant emotional stress and negativity.
So how do we combat this tendency? Nakazawa reports on how meditation and mindfulness help our bodies maintain a state of homeostasis so our brains can turn from negative hyper-arousal to peace and calm. Mindfulness based stress reduction, MBSR, is being used to help lessen physical and emotional pain in patients in a study at John’s Hopkins and the University of Maryland.
Mindfulness meditation. There it is. Being present to the moment, fully present. Letting the worries of the rest of life fall to the sides and focusing on the here and now leads to not just peace of mind now but health and well being and a longer life.
It may even be that meditation triggers what researchers refer to as “pathways of restoration and enhancement.” not only boosting the parasympathetic nervous system, which down-throttles the fight-or-fight response, but actually stimulation the production of growth hormones linked to the preservation and maintenance of each cell.
In simplest terms: the way in which we mentally perceive the stress we face and how we rehearse it in our mind may have a more profound affect on the health of our cells than the amount of stress we’re actually under. And the more we move our state of mind away from negative spinning thoughts about our life situation by focusing on our breath and mindfully bringing ourselves back to the quiet again and again the longer our telomeres [ an essential part of human cells that affect how our cells age] may become-and the greater our longevity. pg 73 The Last Best Cure
Teaching our wandering minds to focus on the here and now takes practice. Mindfulness meditation teaches how to focus on the breath to keep us in the now. It is a turning away from the stress of the world and emptying our minds to focus on one thing, breath or a phrase or a mantra. If this sounds too New Age for your Christian sensibilities consider that Christianity has been practicing meditation for centuries. It’s an ancient tradition that deserves another look.
Finally – but also primarily – we meditate to take the attention off ourselves. In the Christian tradition it is seen as a work of love. Not surprising then if we find we become more loving people as a result of meditating and this will express itself in all our relationships, our work and our sense of service especially to those in any kind of need.
Christianity teaches us to focus on God, exhorts us to meditate on His Word, to not worry about tomorrow, and to remember His goodness.
The Psalmist mediated on God’s word to bring him from a state of (justified) anxiety and fear to a state of peace and trust.
6 when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; 7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. 8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Psalms 77:12
On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. Psalms 145:5
This is instructive as we can turn our thoughts to God’s thoughts. Apprehend the mind of God by the Holy Spirit’s help.
Paul, knowing our tendency to worry, exhorts us to pray and turn our minds towards Jesus:
6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me-practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Taking our thoughts captive, learning to meditate on the truth of God’s word is a remedy for anxiety and a path to peace and joy and perhaps even long life that is backed up by science. But you don’t have to understand the science to get to the joy. As we turn away from anxiousness and think on truth, justice, honor, excellence, purity and anything worthy of praise, God promises He will guard our minds and that His peace will be with us.
“I said to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” Psalm 16:2
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