To the untrained eye a painting created by Pissarro (puh saa row) , Monet, or Van Gogh looks like fluid stokes of paint creating an image. The impressionists painted their masterpieces using course lines, but if you view their work from far away the painting appears to be fluid and all the individual lines work as one. I think the best way to study impressionistic painting is to come in close and admire every stroke, but then back away to remember the whole of the masterpiece. As students of our sacred text, we should study the bible with the same care that impressionistic paintings should be studied. We can view the bible as a creative work of art, a masterpiece put together by many authors over the course of time. As we read the bible closely, we can admire every brush stroke. If we stay too close, we can find ourselves lost and disconnected from the bigger picture. Names, dates, places, marriages, and wars start to lose meaning if we forget the unifying themes and purpose of the bible. A student of the bible must balance looking closely at all the individual strokes with stepping back and remembering the broader themes that move and work as one to create the masterpiece.
I wonder if we can apply this way of studying scripture to studying our thought life. I wonder if we can take a close look at our thoughts in a day and see all the worries, ideas, creativity, and daydreams as coarse strokes in a broader framework. What if the individual strokes of our thoughts about work, thoughts about play, thoughts about spirituality, and thoughts about family, friends, and enemies are working together to create a masterpiece? If we stepped back from the individual thoughts to look at the masterpiece, would we be proud of our creation? If we discern that our thoughts are not creating an image that looks like Jesus, do we have the power to shift the pattern of our thoughts to create a new masterpiece?
With what is happening in our world today, our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to mindfully choose to live a balanced life through embodying self-control. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency then we as the church must talk about how the mind & body are involved in our spiritual practices. It helps us better understand how we are a new creation in Christ.
We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit” We are taking this series from Galatians 5:22 where Paul says that the result of following Christ is that we will bear fruit. The fruit he is talking about is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Today, we are talking about your brain on self-control.
No one likes to talk about self-control. It feels negative, limiting and shaming. I think we have swung so far away from talking about self-control that we have missed the benefits of a life of temperance. I think a word that people resonate with now is balanced. We talk a lot about work/home life balance or eating a balanced diet or balancing our driving yang energy with yin energy of rest and restore. We all know that our human experience is greatly affected by the health of our body, mind, & emotions. We can contribute to our suffering through living a life out of balance or to our healing. The doctor who helped me understand my children’s bodies was a Jewish man and he always told me that God created the body to constantly work to heal itself AND we must support it’s healing!!
I loved that when I was studying at Baylor, they gave all of the freshman a wellness wheel. On this wheel was all the aspects of wellness like social, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical. Then, they talked about how when we are in finals, we are doing too much mental work so we need to balance the time spent studying with good nutrition, social interaction, moving our bodies and resting. I loved that they included spiritual wellness because we are spiritual beings. And what affects our bodies and minds also affects our spirits. The goal is not to be perfect, but we do need to be mindful, and choose wisely what we allow to enter this finely tuned instrument of our bodies.
This statement makes it sounds like you are in control and if you were just mindful enough or wise enough, then your wellness level would be optimal. But Guess what you are not in control. Most often you are not consciously aware of what you are thinking or doing.
Our habits rule us, but before our actions became a habit, we had a choice. A habit is formed because a cue presents itself and then we decide on a behavior in response to that cue and then if it goes well, we are rewarded by the reward center of the brain. If we are rewarded, then our brains present this same pattern every time a similar cue is presented. If we continue to behave in the same way in response to the cue and the reward system kicks in, then over time the brain decides this is the easiest path to follow so the neural pathway becomes automatic.
According to Hebb’s Law, what fires together wires together. And when patterns wire together to form an automatic routine, this is known as chunking and it is at the root of how habits form. (The power of habit, 17) When a habit forms, the outer part or newer developed part of the brain according to an evolutionary perspective goes on autopilot and diverts its attention elsewhere to allow the older part of the brain to automatically perform the task. This older part of the brain that oversees habit formation is the basil ganglia. So unless you mindfully observe the habit, fight the pattern to create a new routine, then the path will be followed automatically.
For example, in the early 1900s people were not interested in brushing their teeth. We were becoming a wealthier country and with more wealth came the abundance of sugary processed foods. With an over consumption of sugary processed foods, came tooth decay. At the beginning of WW1, the government began drafting young men. The government saw too many young men with rotting teeth that they declared poor dental hygiene a national security risk. During this time, a prominent American executive named Claude C. Hopkins was approached by a friend with a new business idea. He wanted to sell a toothpaste called Pepsodent.
Hopkins had already achieved massive wealth through marketing products in a way that created new habits for the American people, so he began to think about how he could get people to brush their teeth. It seemed impossible but then he had an idea. What if he drew people’s attention to the film on their teeth. Feeling the film on their teeth would become the trigger for creating the new routine of brushing their teeth. The reward would be advertising toothpaste as a beauty product. So break this new habit down: Cue=film on teeth, Routine=brush your teeth, Reward=beautiful smile. It only took 3 weeks to raise the demand for this product. Before Pepsodent, only 7% of people had a tube of toothpaste in their cabinet; after a decade that number raised to 65%; by the end of WW2 the government downgraded concerns about dental hygiene because soldiers were brushing their teeth every day. (Power of Habit, 31-33) Now, it is of great interest to me to sit with a group of people and brainstorm the creation of the habit of coming to church. What would be the cue? Routine? Reward? This is something I am eager to explore.
Habits are powerful. Your brain is no longer in control when a habit forms and we can train our mind to breakdown the cue, routine and reward so that we can change a habit. Paul in his second letter to the church in Corinth directly says that as Disciples we must look at the pattern of our thoughts and take our thoughts captive if they are not following the way of Jesus.
Our journey with Paul today begins in the city of Corinth. The city of Corinth was strategically positioned with ports on the east and west side; ships could take the slipway through Corinth to avoid the dangerous seas. The city quickly became a city of trade and commerce and the people rich and diverse. The city also bustled with new life, new thought, and new religions and the blending of traditions due to interfaith marriages. The people of Corinth valued intelligence and power of speech which threatened Paul’s career and his church in the city of Corinth.
So in our verses today, Paul is defending his Christianity. He knows that Corinth values intelligence and power of speech and so is questioning how an all-powerful God who sent Jesus could possibly be in this weak, humble, and poorly spoken man. But in verse one, Paul points out that he follows Jesus who was meek and gentle. So, Paul is saying that the values of Jesus are different than the values of this city and its’ people.
In verses 3-5, Paul begins to use the language of war. Anytime, I come to war language in the bible, I cringe a little because it is hard to talk about war when we call Jesus our prince of peace. But Paul is talking about a war of the mind. He points out that a city has several layers of defense: the outer wall of the city is the first line of defense and then there is an inner stronghold. Paul presents that he is at war with the values of the people of Corinth which keep his church from fully embracing the gospel. Paul is writing to the Corinthian church saying, “You guys are arguing about my Christianity because I am not impressive and I do not have eloquence in my speech.” But I will breakdown this outer wall with my argument that I am following Christ’s meek and gentle spirit.
Then, he realizes that the stronghold of his people that keeps them from embracing the power of the gospel is that their thought is not solidly connected to the belief in Jesus that they profess. So the people end up star struck with the next amazingly eloquent super apostle to come through Corinth. He invites them to notice the power of their thoughts. The obvious cue for their behavior is when someone appears with confidence and eloquence of speech. The behavior is they begin to move away from their faith in Jesus to follow this new person and they are rewarded by feeling closer to the people of the city.
This is hard to compete with especially that reward of feeling connected and supported by your people. But, He is challenging them to look deeper than appearances to recognize when and if the message is consistent with the message of Jesus Christ. Paul says our minds follow two paths: one that leads to death and the other that leads to life. He says this most clearly in Romans 8:5-6, “For those who live according to the flesh, set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.”
Paul presents the people of Corinth with a new reward…life and peace. Paul writes that peace comes when we embody the fruit of self-control or finding balance in our thought life so that the pattern of our thoughts follow Christ. Paul invites the people of Corinth to be mindful of what thoughts they entertain, to see this unhealthy pattern that they have created and to create a new habit whose reward is peace.
Isn’t this what we all want? More peace in our mental chatter!
One way to get familiar with the pattern of your thought life is through Centering Prayer. A few weeks ago, I invited you to practice St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer of Examin. This is an amazing form of prayer and one that is recommended by Brian Spoon the author of Neuroscience and the fruit of the spirit. In considering personality differences, the prayer of examin is beneficial for those who do not have an active self-reflective practice. This practice can be less beneficial to those of us who reflect too much! This is why we have so many different spiritual practices. We can try them on and see what works for us.
Today, I want to offer you another form of prayer that helps us see the patterns of our thought life and release individual thoughts. Centering prayer was developed by Fr. Thomas Keating after he became engaged in interreligious dialogue with Buddhist and Hindu teachers and their students. Centering prayer has 4 stages. Before beginning, you are asked to choose a sacred word. I choose a word every January, so that is the word that I use in my time spent in centering prayer. In the first stage, you are invited to close your eyes, settle your body, and pay attention to a few of your breaths. Then, begin to repeat your sacred word. You can repeat your sacred word the entire length of the prayer or once you feel that you have settled, you can let go of the word and move into the second stage which is resting in a sense of God’s presence, a loving presence, a feeling of peace. In the Third Stage, you might notice that when the body and mind are resting that undigested material begins to emerge from the unconscious in the form of a bombardment of thoughts or emotions.
For me, I experience lots of mental chatter and feel overwhelmed or carried away by all the thoughts. Then, I remember that this is a part of the evacuation of these thoughts and emotions and so I acknowledge them and release them. This is done very gently and with love. Over 400 years ago, St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Act with great patience and gentleness toward ourselves…We must not be annoyed by distractions or failures but start over without further ado.” (Contemplative Practices in Action, 65) Finally, I return to my sacred word. It is recommended that you end your centering time with the Lord’s prayer or some other form of prayer like the prayer of St. Francis.