Pope Francis puts ‘quit whining’ notice on his door – good for him

The Pope has put up a notice on the door to his private quarters telling all comers (presumably cardinals, Vatican staff and sundry religious people)

that:

‘Complaining is Forbidden… To become the best of yourself, you must focus on your own potential and not on your limits. So stop complaining and act to change your life for the better”

Elsewhere he is reported as telling a gathering of the faithful ‘Sometimes there are melancholic Christians with faces like pickled peppers, rather than being joyful for the beautiful life they have’.

I think this may be the kind of expression he had in mind: church leaders see it quite often!

pickled pepper face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But look:  even peppers can be happy!                             happy peppers

In honour of such an excellent message, here is what’s on my study door

IMG-4814

I love the double meaning of the final word.

 

Mindfulness and Spirituality – Book Review

mindfulness1

I recently posted up a blog about the usefulness of Mindfulness as a practise.  Some of my reflections came from this recently published book by Tim Stead.

This is a very useful and readable book on subject of Mindfulness. I especially liked his insights on God being one and God being experienced in the now. His explanation of his own personal faith journey was also very helpful to read. There has been a need for a book that looks at the interplay between mindfulness and spirituality and Stead has made a good start. It’s not a course though (which he admits) so if you want to learn mindfulness you would need to look elsewhere.

My only criticism is that it was written very much from his personal viewpoint. I suppose none of us can help doing that but when he writes that he sees mindfulness as a practise that will help rebalance the Christian faith away from too much emphasis on ‘what we intellectually believe’ towards a greater emphasis on ‘what we experience’. Many, many Christians would not recognise a problem with ‘too much emphasis on what we intellectually believe’.

Surely Christianity is only ‘too intellectual’ for a very small minority for western, conservative, and mostly evangelical Christians? If we lift our eyes up and take in a global perspective the massive growth of the Christian church is in the Pentecostal stream which, no offence intended, could not be seriously accused of being ‘too intellectual’. The life of a ‘charismatic Christian is ALL about experience – at the extreme end a ‘thrill-seeking, wonder-working, power-encounter of the ‘God’s in my corner’ variety: power everything, power evangelism, power church. For someone of this tradition the concept of ‘making space for God’ is synonymous with being filled with the Holy Spirit and if you ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ why would you need to meditate, you simply need to pray in tongues or have words/pictures from God?

But meditation as an exercise for our minds is somehow different from being filled with the Spirit and experiencing God through spiritual gifts (I write as one who would identify as ‘charismatic’) It adds something not better necessarily, just something different.

Stead poses the questions ‘Does it make sense? and Does it make any difference? of his own Christian faith but I think he also needs to add ‘Is it True?

There seems to be a pendulum which swings between these two

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and when the swing is too much towards the ‘does it work’ side of things we cease to be concerned about whether or not it’s true. And yet it does matter that Christianity true because Christianity is (in my view) the only unfailing ‘omphalos’ we have left to offer hope to our world and it’s only reliable as an ‘omphalos’ if it’s true. (The wonderful word ‘omphalos’ comes from John Higg’s book Stranger than we can imagine and refers to a big central idea that makes sense of everything/that connects heaven and earth). To be fair to Tim Stead, he is not writing a book defending the Christian faith.

So is meditation and mindfulness a power encounter for the timid?

Possibly!

I’ve certainly had a greatly increased sense of the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit recently as I’ve been meditating even though I haven’t been doing anything overtly spiritual such as praying (because meditation is not prayer)  but I do meditate with a conscious awareness that  whatever I am doing, I am doing it in the presence of God so it’s hardly surprising that when I quiet my own mind, I’m better prepared to hear the Holy Spirit’s whisperings.

In addition to this though, my own personal physical stress symptom has disappeared and my ability to find things on my computer (something that regularly causes me a lot of stress) has hugely improved. (I have a filing system, yes that does help, but what has gone, is my own mental panic that I won’t be able to work my own filing system!)

Good book, well worth the purchase price so long as you know it’s not a course on mindfulness. It does though point you towards other helpful places where you can access this.

 

 

Mindfulness – helpful practise or misleading fad?

I’ve been exploring the whole idea of ‘mindfulness’ in more depth recently.
There have been two books that have helped me with this Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead, who is an Anglican priest and Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman. This last one is described as a “life changing bestseller” and that is certainly written by well-qualified people who are leaders in this field and based on a lot of creditable scientific research.

mindfulness1   minfulness2

But as I am a fan of another, rather more ancient,”life changing bestseller” (the Bible) I am interested to know what one might have to say about the other.  Is mindfulness a helpful approach to life for someone who already has a faith perspective. Do the two things complement one another helpfully or contradict one another?

So this post is not about what mindfulness is – it’s a reflection on whether mindfulness is a good and useful practice.

I have heard mindfulness described as’spirituality for the nonbeliever’and I do think there’s an element of truth in that. So my question therefore is, is mindfulness a helpful practice for those of us who are believers? How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold? What does it have to do prayer?

Is mindfulness a helpful practice? And is it helpful for those of us who are believers?

My answer is a resounding YES, followed by a very small ‘but’.

Yes, absolutely, it is a good practise to learn. It is very definitely a practise of self-discipline for the mind. Just like a healthy eating regime is good for your body so mindfulness is an exercise regime for your mind. If you have a mind that jumps around like a monkey in a cage, firing off distress signals regularly causing you to become very anxious then mindfulness and its associated regime of meditation will undoubtedly help. It will help you lower your stress levels, it will silence the monkey it will allow you to be less driven by your anxiety. Keep practising it over time and you will become more aware of the negative self-destructive thoughts that lead you to spiralling downwards into an emotional state where eventually everything seems dark and impossible. Even if you are not an individual who is prone to anxiety, mindfulness will increase your creativity, make you far more aware of simple everyday pleasures and hugely increase the sense that you are actually living your life not just watching it go past you.
Those are all very big claims – I do totally recommend it, I am practising it myself, so why the very small caveat (the ‘but’ behind my YES)?

My biggest concern might not sound valid:  It will ‘work’, it has many, many very tangible benefits. My concern is that it will work so well that you might miss, dismiss or generally never get round to the spirituality for which it creates space. You might decide that spirituality is not what you are looking for in which case you will still get huge benefit from learning about mindfulness and practising meditation.

Naturally my personal feeling is that that would be a shame because mindfulness is not the whole story.  It also makes one assumption which I believe to be faulty: it assumes that once you’ve sorted out your wonky thoughts and compassionately accepted your negative emotions, once you have trained your mind then you will be able to be in touch with the ‘essentially happy and content person you really are at your core’.

You will be much happier and more content than you are now but there may not be a ‘happy and content person at your core’?

What if at the core of your being there is only a person who can’t find any peace because of something they feel guilty about or because of a sense of deep shame? Or what if, at the centre of  you, you find an essentially lonely person who is very afraid and easily made to be anxious about everything? Or what if there is a person who is so chewed by anger about what life has thrown at them they can’t find anything about which to be ‘content’?
And, even if the person you find at the core of your being is none of those things, even if the person at your core could be described as ‘essentially happy and content’ it still leaves that person all alone at the centre of you, which is a bit lonely.

How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold?

What Christianity teaches is that we were not made to be alone, we were made to find our deepest sense of joy and connectedness when we connect to the God who created us and loves us.

img_4762.jpgYes I know it’s a corny diagram but it’s simply meant to express that life is best when I live it with an awareness of the one who gave it to me and who promises to walk through this experience called ‘life’ with me. God did not create humans so that we could be alone: the big G plus me (and you) was always the intention.

Faith in God inputs spirituality into a practice of mindfulness which is otherwise only physical (being still, becoming aware of your body and your breathing) and mental (learning to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings we have, learning that we can cut them down to size, that they do not have to control us).

Without a spiritual aspect to mindfulness we are still left alone in the universe-and if we are alone in the universe then there is no meaning to our lives. If we are alone in the universe then there is nothing beyond death. If we are alone in the universe, then we have no external objective source of truth. We have no-one to say over us “you are my beloved child with you I am well pleased”.

With only ourselves to tell ourselves that we are loved (or if we are lucky, a significant other to affirm this to us) then we are left propping up our sense of self-worth, security and significance by repeating a self validating mantra along the lines of “I am beloved”, “I am precious”, “I am valuable” and these things are true but you have to say that stuff pretty loudly if you want to avoid the inner critical voice saying “says who?”.

Plenty of humanists will tell you that you do not need an external source of validation to ascribe value to yourself but if we take away the word ‘validation’ and ‘value’, which sound a bit dry and psychological and simply use the word ‘love’ then it becomes pretty obvious that love is something you receive from an ‘other’. In fact love is incomprehensible without there being an ‘other’. So if there is no ‘other’ in the universe then we are at best simply applying positive thinking and worst deluding ourselves.

Christianity offers us ‘The Great Exchange’: we offer to God our week and flawed selves, accepting that we are guilty (mostly of being unloving or self protective) angry and anxious. When we offer this self to God we are given back acceptance, forgiveness and an everlasting commitment to be our companion through life and beyond death.

Now that’s an incredible exchange which is why it would be a great shame if you missed it. Some Christians might reject mindfulness because it stops short of making this connection with God.  And the truth is (as I’ve already said)  that you might be SO amazed by the potency of mindfulness to change you that it will be tempting  to think that it leaves no place or need for God/faith or spirituality and that would be a great shame because then you would be missing out on that connection which was always intended to be yours. (Big G plus you).

Mindfulness will create more space for God in your life. It will open a door and it is your choice whether or not to go through it. I do not think it will ‘open a door’ in any negative sense as in opening you up to harmful influences in the spiritual world (as a certain strand of Christians might fear although I suppose that depends on what you make the focus of your meditation), the main risk is that it simply opens a door to greater self-reliance which will take you away from God but it is equally likely to create a greater desire for God in your life.  It’s a tool or a process, it all depends how you use it.

It will help you create a calmer mind and yes,  I do believe that that what you most need is NOT simply a calmer mind, what you most need is to be connected to the divine presence that God offers you, but having a calmer mind maybe be a most useful way to create space for that connection.

We do not reject a diet because it doesn’t promise you peace of mind; a diet isn’t meant to do that, it’s meant to achieve weight loss. So why reject a helpful practice on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily offer you spirituality? It puts you in a place where you are more likely to become aware of God and that’s a good thing.

What does it have to do prayer?

If mindfulness offers you an open door to  spirituality then this is where prayer comes in.

I’ve tried out a number of mindfulness apps and so far I prefer Headspace as the meditations are straightforwardly about physically and mentally slowing down i.e. they are about body and mind and don’t become “spiritual” in a way that feels weird to me. I also like the guys voice – a warm friendly British accent, I don’t know who he is but there is nothing jarring about the way he speaks.

Some of the guided meditations on  the Calm app which aim to generate a laudable sense of compassion or kindness both to yourself and other people feel so much like praying that quite frankly I’d rather be praying! I accept that it  possible to generate this quality of compassion towards others without bringing a divine being into it but it just feels odd to me. Mind you, I’ve only listened to the free meditations on these 2 apps so I have no idea what the material is like if you pay a subscription. In Calm’s defense – it’s great if you like background sounds such as running water and birdsong – for anyone with tinnitus, this can be a very soothing alternative to the ringing in their ears.

Tim Stead’s book says that Mindfulness “makes space for God’.

“Whatever I am doing and however well or badly my life is going, someone (God, no less!) Knows I am here and is aware of my every move and every though; someone who is not being carried away by my experiences I am, often losing perspective completely, but someone who is in a position to be able to watch my experience as it flows past, seeing it all in the perspective of eternity. Even if I lose perspective, I know it exists because God is in that place where perspective can be seen. When I’m aware of being held in this sort of gaze I feel totally loved”

(Mindfulness and Spirituality p.46)

prayer-is-when-you-talk-to-god-meditation-is-when-god-talks-to-youWhen we practise meditation with the conscious awareness of being in God’s presence what we are doing is creating a less cluttered mind and in doing so we are making it easier to hear or sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Even if we don’t have any obvious ‘God thoughts’ or or words or pictures, even if we are not trying at all to do anything other than be still we can trust that God is at work within us in a way that is transformative.

I begin my prayer times with a period of silence using an app known as ‘Centering Prayer’ . It’s free to download and simply provides a timer, some sounds to begin and end the silence and prayer, a scripture or a quotation at the beginning and the end which help put your act of meditation consciously in the presence of God.

(Here’s what the app logo looks like)

centering prayerEven only a few moments of silent focusing on our breathing can make as much calmer when we come to pray. After my silence it feels very natural to flow into saying the Lord’s prayer very slowly and thoughtfully, using it as a structure to pray for all those things or people that I want to place in God’s hands. I almost always do this out loud and sometimes I will do with actions as using your body to express what you mean with your heart can be incredibly powerful.

After these two practices, I then turn to reading my Bible and I find I’m in a much better state to hear from it what God might be saying to me. Roughly I spend about 10 minutes on the three different disciplines. But if you can only find 10 minutes, you might still find you get more out of 3 or 4 minutes praying and 3 or 4 minutes reading if you have spent 2 to 3 minutes in silence first of all.

I’ll close with one of my favourite quotations which crops up on the Centering Prayer App which considers how very powerful this discipline can be:

“the contemplative journey [there are huge overlaps between contemplative prayer and meditation] is the most responsible of all responses to God because so much depends on it- the future of humanity, the healing of the wounds of humanity, our own deepest healing. It’s not just a method of meditation or a practice to find personal peace. It’s basically a total acceptance of the human condition in all its ramifications, including its desperate wounded nurse… Humans are fully capable of becoming God, not in the fullest sense of the term, but in a very real way, where the light, life, and love of God are pouring through them,d3b449d62d2853729f1c6702fb3e444c channelling a source of healing, compassion, and reconciliation wherever they go and whatever they do.They are rooted in the divine compassion and mercy, and are manifesting… The pure light of the image and likeness of God within them, which is the assimilation of the mind and heart of Christ in everyday life”

Thomas Keating Heartfulness: transformation in Christ

 

Faith in the Future: hope

Thinking back over the book “Stranger than we can Imagine”, would I recommend it?
I’m not sure I would – it’s a fascinating look back over the 20th century but it doesn’t leave you with any sense of hope about the 21st-century. And hope, substantial hope in something solid, is what we all really need right now.

The author, John Higgs, acknowledges that an ‘absolute’ to believe in would be ‘brilliant’ but he has nothing to offer or suggest. And we all need to have faith in the future. Having a child is the ultimate expression of hope in the future. To create, to invest or even to plant seeds and grow vegetables is also to express some kind of sense of hope in the future.

I believe that both the reality (current) and the possibility (future) of the kingdom of God is the hope of the world.

As I look around my peers, those sharing roughly the same decade of life was me (I’m in my mid-50s) I see a variety of ways in which they are finding hope. Some friends have been and still are clinging to life itself, having already been struck with life altering or life limiting conditions. Their hope is simply that they will live.

But what about those of us who are rather complacently taking that fact for granted? We still need hope to get us up each day, we need hope to pull ourselves into a future, we need hope that life is worthwhile and meaningful.

Many of my peers are beginning to find that ‘hope’ or reason for existence in the grandchildren which are now coming along. Or they find it in their accumulation of wealth and/or business success. Nothing wrong with either of these two but neither of them are a ‘given’ that can be relied on.

We cannot demand that our children provide us with grandchildren, that is assuming we have even had the gift of children in the first place.  Nor are we all part of “successful” enterprises. I’ve seen so many couples in their 50s or 60s take up a project (usually abroad) where they can see how their time and energy and money have made visible, measurable difference and there’s wrong with that either!

I guess this is all about our human desire to feel like we have left a legacy, made a difference, that our lives have been lived for a purpose.

But what if you are called to bury yourself into what might feel like a deep dark place where nothing seems to grow? Where hopes and dreams become limited? Try dedicating yourself to the needs of a disabled child or a diminishing parent with dementia or even a dwindling congregation for that matter. If that is where you are at, or in some similar situation, then you need to find a better reason for hope than mere prosperity, multitudes of grandchildren or visible signs of significant “success”.

But here is the BIG TRUTH – (forgive the capitals but this is the ‘knockout punch’that most people spend their lives trying to dodge).The BIG TRUTH is that we all need a reason for hope, meaning that gets us out of bed.

All of us need this hope – you may be blessed with a multitude of distractions in the form of children, grandchildren, wealth or successful enterprises but none of these can be relied upon. All of them can bring joy and grief in equal measure.

The truth that gives me hope is that God is present in our world, God knows me, calls me, sees me, created, even me, for a purpose. My contributions to the world particularly when they are part of bringing in the kingdom of God in any way that enriches anyone else are valuable and noted. Knowing this God is what gives me a sense of hope for the future. Deepening my own awareness of the presence of God in our world and working towards our earth becoming more like heaven (‘on earth as it is in heaven’) and less like hell, seeing signs of this kingdom through God’s presence in me and in the world is what gives me hope.

This IS an absolute – it’s called the kingdom of heaven. Jesus repeatedly called it a feast, a banquet, a party, a wedding. It’s an image of joy, community, celebration and belonging.

You are also invited.

Come on in.

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‘Stranger than we can imagine’ – by John Higgs – Book Review

stranger-than-we-can-imagine

This is an amazing read!

It leaps from relativity to Cubism to Surrealism, to the optimism in Star Trek and the nihilism in Casablanca. It explains quantum mechanics using a hilarious analogy of Putin punching a kangaroo. From there it goes on to existentialism, individualism and the space race.

Higgs has written a factual book that manages to be a page turner. Don’t simply dip into the chapters you fancy because you’ll miss the thread. He builds up a case which connects all the huge changes of the 20th century to one theme. It’s an intellectual ‘dot to dot’ tour de force. If I’d read this book before I did either of my degrees, it would have helped SO much.

It’s a hugely entertaining read. He draws on seemingly obscure information and you wonder how it could possibly be relevant but watch out because he will circle back to it later.

For anyone my age or above, he is writing about stuff we can actually remember. For anyone younger than me this book is a most accessible and readable account of the 20th century. If the first rule of understanding where you are now is looking back to see how you got here, Higgs traces humanity’s journey through the last 100 years along the paths of science, music, culture, war, and, to some extent, religion.

Which brings me to one of the two ways in which I would dare to criticise this book. Firstly, he gives a great deal of prominence to people who were really very obscure whilst overlooking others who have been massively influential. One of these obscure people is Aleister Crawley whose ‘thelamite’ religion gets a higher profile than I feel it merits – even though he was on the front cover of the Sgt Pepper album and he was included in a list of 100 most influential British people from the 20th century compiled in 2002. I can see why Higgs gives him this profile. Crawley’s religion epitomised all the most negative traits of individualism – his guiding motto was ‘do what thou wilt’ (without the caveat of ‘so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody’). So Higgs is using Crawley as an illustration rather than trying to make a case for his prominence. All the same it’s annoying that he is referred to so frequently whilst far more outstanding examples of humanity are over-looked.

Individualism is one of the very strong themes that run through the book. The other central idea is that the 20th century was the century in which the world either rejected or found inadequate any framework or concept which claimed to give us a fixed place to stand, a way to understand the world or human beings or God or science – he calls this concept an ‘omphalos’ and it might be a belief or an idea, a deity or a scientific theory. But one by one, he charts how the ‘omplaloi’ (plural) fall through the 20th century.

So my second criticism would be that he completely overlooks the huge extraordinary, world changing rise of the Christian faith particularly through such movements as Pentecostalism. None of the positive movements that have streamed out from groups and individuals motivated by faith were noted. As early as the First World War it was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) who provided compassion ministries on the field of war and rehabilitated 32,000 ex-soldiers into jobs of work after the war.
Ministries such as that of Oxfam arose from the catholic end of the Christian spectrum. No single stream of Christianity holds the corner on compassion.

I feel that this oversight leaves this book completely lacking in hope. Read it and you will find out all sorts of fascinating things you may not have known. I didn’t know that the most eminent researcher behind the American space programme was a bone fide Nazi who had worked in concentration camps. I didn’t know why the Beatles called themselves the Beatles, (in truth I’d never thought about it but suffice to say it’s nothing to do with insects). I didn’t know that the only ‘positive’ element to existentialism would be its emphasis on ‘living in the moment’ (Hmm – that has interesting implications for mindfulness). From the reasons for Kurt Cobain’s suicide to chaos theory and the connection between the growth of corporations and the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution, Higgs makes so much so very, very clear – yes, even quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s blessed cat which is alive and dead the same time.

But what Higgs doesn’t manage to do is give any sense of hope. He tries. He tries very, very hard in the final chapter which is given over to a consideration of the influence of the Internet: how it has made us all so much more connected, how it has given rise to a greater accountability and transparency. In these he finds reasons for hope: he thinks that the Internet has imposed what he calls a feedback loop on our culture “we are being made to take responsibility for our choices”. Forgive me for sounding cynical, but I really don’t think the Internet has that kind of power. The Internet itself is morally neutral, like money. It can be used for good but it can be used for bad.

It came as a surprise to me that as a culture we are now beyond post-modernism. I’ve probably just been a bit slow to catch up but apparently “the entire edifice of post-modernism” has now been “routinely rejected”, if not by popular culture (of which I am clearly a part) then at least by academia. “Our current ideology” Higgs says, “stresses that of course there is an absolute“. His italics, not mine!

But don’t hold your breath, waiting for him to tell you what that absolute is. “The absolutist approach to the contradictory nature of scientific models is to say that while all those models are indeed flawed, they will be superseded by a grand theory of everything, a wonderful theory that does not contain any paradoxes and which makes sense of everything on every scale.” That such a theory might finally emerge, Higgs admits, is a leap of faith.

But for such a very erudite person, Higgs is peculiarly ill-equipped to make any ‘leap of faith’ and this is why the book leaves a lingering taste of disappointment, hopelessness and even despair. If you are someone with anxieties about the future I would not recommend reading this book.

He demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the concept of Christian love, discussing it, as he does,  in the chapter on sex therefore equating love with sexuality in a way that totally overlooks the powerful, life transforming, self giving unconditional kind of love expressed by the God Christians believe in. Muddling  ‘Eros’ with ‘Agape’  puts him in academic kindergarten as far as understanding faith is concerned.

Which is a real shame because Christianity is very good at holding onto paradoxes -believing that two opposing things are true at the same time. These are at the heart of our faith: Jesus is “fully human and fully divine” to name but one. I loved his section on quantum mechanics: how subatomic particles can be in more than one place at one time, how they can spin in different directions at the same time, how they can move instantaneously from one place to another without passing through the distance in between and how they can communicate instantaneously over great distances.  But no one who has ever read their Bible should have any problem with any of those things!

Perhaps he should ponder Colossians chapter 1:
“for it was in Him (Christ) that all things were created, in heaven and on earth, things seen and things unseen, whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or authorities; all things were created [planets, stars, neutrons and protons] and exist through him and in and for him. And he himself existed before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v 16 and 17).

If this isn’t a description of an ‘omphalos’, I don’t know what is.  Yes, it takes a leap of faith to accept it but if the alternative is meaninglessness and despair…..?

That Christ is the connection between heaven and earth, that the coming of the kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ is the only reason for hope and that God can be addressed as a loving parent (‘Our Father’ or mother) not simply another version of a feudal ‘Lord’ (which Higgs takes as the reason for the ‘decline’ of Christianity, which, by the way, hasn’t actually declined at all if you take a global view rather than his short-sighted western view) – all these are substantial and in my view trustworthy reasons for hope.

So read this book – but don’t despair! There IS hope, of which I shall shortly say more…

Body, Mind and Spirit – further reflections on how spirituality intersects with our minds and bodies

body spirit mind

This blog is a further reflection on the book Cure: a Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant. In my previous review, I noted how people who meditate have more highly organised and coordinated brains with higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex. When I read this it felt a bit like a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me, “Ahh! So that’s why I so frequently have good ideas when I pause to pray about something, especially when I pray by just putting myself consciously but silently into God’s presence”. No sooner had I thought this, than a second rather more disturbing thought came along: “so where does that leave the Holy Spirit? If praying or meditating is simply a way of making my brain function better are the ideas I have or even the sense of God that I have, simply a result of me harnessing my own psychological resources?”

In other words where is the place for the spiritual in all of this?

When I teach about skills for mental well-being I often draw the diagram above. I explain that we are not merely a body nor are we merely a mind but we also have a spirit. Each of these three parts of ourselves inter-link and each affects the other two in ways I think we do not begin to understand. Marchant’s book explores the connections between only two of the circles: the body and the mind. She appears to find no place for the spirit. She is not a Christian, so why should she?

When I draw this image I use it to teach three skills.

1. Relaxation – learning to relax is a physical skill which is good for our bodies.

2. Changing our thinking – learning to challenge negative thinking is a skill which is good for our minds.

3. Learning to pray (and by inference learning that there is someone to pray to and who or what that someone might be). This allow us to connect to an objective reality which is beyond ourselves.

Those who have no faith in God (of any variety) would only draw two circles: the body and the mind. These are lonely places to be. Sex, at its best, is a union of two people which brings us a deeply comforting sense of connection with another person. In conversation with ‘like minded’ friends we can sometimes sense a ‘meeting of minds’ which is also deeply affirming. But for the most part only we alone know how it feels to live in our own body, and only we alone have any understanding of the internal landscape of our own minds. These are lonely places. If there is a third part of me and it is my spirit then I see that as the part which allows me connect to God. God’s promise to us is that he himself will be present with us through the Holy Spirit, who fills us when we invite him to do so and brings to us the assurance that we are God’s children, known and loved by him (her). (Romans 8:16)

Nowhere in the Bible is it explicitly explained that human beings have these three circles but they are mentioned frequently in different places and it is a model I find convincing not least because the Bible teaches that we are “made in the image of God” and God is also “three in one”

trinity

Here is an image meant to help us understand the Trinity. Can you find the second image inside the first?

The second reason I have for believing in the existence of my spirit comes from watching people die. Something happens at that moment, something that isn’t merely physical and it’s not to do with people’s mental capacity being lost because frequently this is lost well before death anyway. But at the moment of death, something changes, something leaves. The essence of us departs, it does not die. This is what Christians mean by being “called home”.

So for these two reasons I do believe there is a space for the spiritual, which brings me back to the question I originally asked of this book “where is the place for the spiritual in all this?”

The risk of a book like this is that you come away from it with a very much better view of your body and mind’s potential to work together for your own well-being. In other words you think more highly of yourself. This is, of itself,  not a bad thing because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. But we are missing out on something when we think so highly of ourselves that we rule out any need for God. Or should I say, we are missing out on “someone”?

There is a huge amount of value in meditation but it is still a singularly lonely activity. I admire my Buddhist friends for the sense of calm detachment they can achieve but their doctrine has no personal god only an inner state of transcendence which, admirable though it may be, doesn’t seem to offer any personal meaning to my life.

Anyway Buddhists aren’t the only ones who meditate. The writers of the Psalms, those ancient prayer poems of the Jews, frequently recommended meditating.

So what is meditating? I find it helpful to think of it as ‘exercise for the mind’. If I wanted to have strong abdominal muscles I would need to exercise them by doing sit ups. If I want to have a mind that works calmly, coherently and at its best then I need to exercise it.

Christians have a very odd relationship with their minds. Partly this is to do with their strong belief in the supremacy of the influence of the Holy Spirit but partly it is also fuelled by fear. Fear that if you think too hard, you may become too impressed with yourself or too self-reliant, that maybe you might rationalise away the spiritual.

When Gordon Fee a well-known Pentecostal theologian first began to talk about the possibility of taking theological training he was advised by some of his fellow Christians that it wouldn’t be a good idea, that it would kill his spiritual passion. “Better to be a fool on fire” they said “than a scholar on ice”. Personally I find the idea of being a ‘fool on fire’ terrifying – think radicalised muslim extremist killing people in the name of their religion and you have a picture of where passion without insight can take you. Thankfully those aren’t the only two choices open to us- any number of Christian theologians could be described as “scholars on fire”.  Passionate about their faith but also loving God with all of their minds, not just their soul and strength.

Some Christians avoid their minds by preferring to pray about things instead of thinking about things. ‘Looking for a sign’, rather than ‘thinking things through’  can make us superstitious in our faith and doesn’t strengthen the foundations of why we believe. Becoming aware of the presence of God through the resource of prayer is undoubtedly a powerful tool for transformation in our lives but it is not the only tool. We need to use it AND think! When, for example, we say we want to lose weight; we might pray about this but we know full well that we can’t simply pray about it we have to do something about it  as well i.e. reduce our calorie intake. Similarly, if we want to get fit, we might pray about it but no amount of prayer will make us physically fitter unless we are willing to get off our bottoms and do some exercise. We understand this interplay between the body circle and the spiritual circle – we get it. But when it comes to the mind circle we get easily spooked and think that “simply praying about it” is all that’s needed.

In fact there are plenty of skills and exercises that can help us to train our minds (to say nothing of helpful medications that can help us stablise them when we have got seriously out of kilter). Scripture recommends that we should “take captive every thought”. There is nothing unscriptural about learning techniques that help you control anxious thoughts or help you stop yourself rehearsing and ruminating over regrets, recriminations or revenge. Learning to be peacefully aware of all the stuff that is going on between your ears is a helpful first step towards getting rid of that stuff which is destructive or damaging mentally.

So if my mind needs fixing and let’s face it most of our minds do, why should I find myself prejudiced against skills such as meditation? or even hypnosis? Not the kind that gives someone else power over my  mind or actions but the kind that helps me access the unconscious parts of my mind.  I found her definition of hypnosis and her explanation of the history of it very useful and interesting.

So did Marchant make any space for the spiritual?

In a fascinating final chapter called “Looking for God” she visits Lourdes and uncovers what she calls the ‘real miracle of Lourdes’. Even as an unbeliever,  even having debunked at least one of the so-called miracles which has taken place there, she acknowledges that “seeing ourselves as part of something bigger, or having a meaning and purpose beyond ourselves can help us do better physically”. She felt for herself a ‘powerful sense of connectedness’. She goes on to describe the kind of friendships, full of hope and companionship that are forged at Lourdes, the dignity and respect shown to human life in all its frailty. She points to the ‘miracles’ of strong social support, people sharing their lives openly with complete strangers because they meet on the  common ground that everyone is broken in one way or another, being treated with respect, making friends immediately, the sense of equality experienced by everyone – these are the miracles. She doesn’t actually say it, because she doesn’t know of it, but I wanted to shout “YES! This IS the miracle! This IS the kingdom of God in action: people being treated holistically as more than cells and molecules, people being listened to, people engaging in an act of worship that encompasses their physical senses, engages their mental energies and recognises that simply being human is their core identity.

For me being human is synonymous with being a child of God. It is my core identity, it is God’s spirit within my spirit who reassures me that I was created for a purpose, but I am part of something bigger than myself but that I am also known and loved for my unique individuality. I am ‘beloved’.

 

“Cure: a journey into the science of Mind over Body” Jo Marchant – Book Review

cure

This is an absolutely fascinating read. Written by a scientist, it explores the research into ways our minds influence our physical well-being, our tolerance of pain and our immunity. The first chapter is all about the placebo effect. So far so good, most of us have heard of this and feel slightly self-conscious about the truth that simply taking something we think will do us good, might actually do us good. But we think we have to be conned into thinking we might be getting the real thing in order for placebos to ‘work’.  However in chapter 2, we get into really interesting territory: how placebo treatments can still be effective EVEN when we know they are placebo treatments!

In these two first chapters Marchant has laid the foundation for the simple truth which she then  explores throughout the rest of the book and the truth is this: your mind can influence your physical well-being. There are psychological resources which can be harnessed which will materially affect our recovery from an illness or our ability to manage the symptoms of a chronic condition.

She is NOT talking about “the power of positive thinking” which is a concept that makes me cringe and I feel can load unnecessary guilt onto people who are already weighed down by their pain and the distress of their condition. At the extreme end of the “positive thinking” spectrum there are those people who would eschew normal and appropriate medical interventions, in my view a very foolish step. This is not a book which makes any suggestion along those lines, in fact it carries (in the final chapter) a very stark warning story about the dangers of relying on positive thinking alone.

The story that Marchant tells is about non-medical treatments and interventions which, used alongside appropriate pharmaceutical intervention, can make a huge difference. The kind of conditions she discusses are lupus, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue, IBS and pain management for burns victims.  The kind of psychological treatments she explores are: (warning, if you are from a conservative evangelical Christian background some of these will give you the ‘heebie-jeebies’) placebos and the power of rituals, hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, counselling, the power of empathic communication (positive suggestions and visual imagery) and biofeedback.

The astonishing part of the story for me was not that these treatments merely “feel” effective but that over and over again she demonstrates from research that such treatments can physically change our bodies. For example, people who regularly meditate actually grow their cerebral cortex. In other words, the physical structure of their brains changes – in a good way!

It is a deeply fascinating book, and not only if you happen to be suffering from an illness and are wondering what you could do to help yourself. A chapter entitled “Fountain of youth” explores how social isolation is as dangerous for our health as obesity, inactivity or smoking, possibly even more dangerous than these. Alongside this information she reports that in the US 32 million people live alone-27% of households. In 1985 another American survey showed that in general people said they had three confidants, when this study was repeated in 2004, 25% of people said they had none! (This theme is also very fully explored in the book “The Village Effect” which I have already blogged about Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker ).

Every chapter had something new and thought-provoking, it would be hard to choose a favourite but from my personal perspective chapter 7 “Talk to me: why caring matters” gave me ideas I could immediately apply to those I care for. Chapter 9 “Enjoy the Moment: the Power of Meditation” was also extremely helpful. Mindfulness and meditation has been shown to reduce chronic pain and anxiety, also to reduce stress and improve our quality of life. It has been shown that when monks meditate their brains are highly organised and coordinated with neurons firing together and an increase of activity in the left prefrontal cortex which is the seat of positive thoughts and emotions.

Of course, as I’ve already said, some Christians have heebie-jeebies over the subject of meditation and mindfulness simply because those monks may not necessarily be Christians, they may be Buddhists. This book is written by someone who is not a Christian so she clearly doesn’t feel any need to justify meditation but she does tell the story of how a Buddhist medical researcher Jon Kabat Zim, recognised that many people were missing out on the benefits of meditation because they were put off by the religious baggage that surrounded it. So he stripped it of its spiritual aspects, developing a program called MBSR ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’.

To keep this blog from becoming too long (and also because some readers will not be interested in where spirituality fits in to all this) I will write a second reflection about how the book challenged me on a spiritual level. In her final chapter, Marchant turns her attention to whether or not religious experience and belief can also affect our bodies and our brains. I confess to feeling nervous about what conclusions she might reach but suffice to say that while she wasn’t entirely ‘converted’ neither does she debunk or reject the value of spiritual belief.

To conclude this review though, I heartily recommend this intriguing and well-written book. I read it as someone who teaches people skills designed to enhance their mental well-being (the Keeping Health in Mind Course http://www.keepinghealthinmind.org.uk) and I found in it much good common sense as well as a great deal of fascinating science.