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”
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’.