Sunday, March 7, 2010

body, mind & spirit

contributed by Robin

Romans 12: 1-2

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Bodies scare me. There are so many things that go on in there that are mysterious...and gross. It’s hard to see something that makes snot and poop as a very good sacrifice, or a temple in which God could dwell. And if you study the body it gets even scarier, and so does God. Did you know that at birth your brain contains over 100 billion neurons? Electrical currents our bodies generate flow through these neurons, and the pathway the currents follow means things to us, like, inhale-exhale, this tastes like chicken, that’s Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I’m the only person in this house who takes out the trash.

I am fascinated with biopsychology because it inspires me with awe and fear. It’s scary to think how easily something could go wrong in the brain; those pathways that run my organs, or create my personality, they’re microscopic and infinitely complicated. Imagine every electrical cord in the world getting tangled into a big ball. Now you must attempt to send an electrical signal through a handful of specific cords that aren’t even directly connected to one another to turn on a light bulb in Nepal - that’s nowhere near as complicated as the wiring in your head.

Now, I’m assuming that few of you are as nerdy as I am, so I don’t expect you to be spiritually inspired by my fear of body parts alone. The awareness that our Master Electrician is the only being who will ever understand our incredible brains probably doesn’t make you bow down in worship, but for me, finding a parallel between the spiritual disciplines described in the Bible by Christ and the disciples and the reductive science of psychology fills me with wonder over the brilliance of our Creator. It makes me appreciate the information that He chose to communicate to us through his Word even more.

Part of my initial motivation for studying psychology, was that I was suffering from mild Depression. I was also trying to hide this fact from my parents. And I was broke. Therapy and anti-depressants were not something I wasn’t willing to consider under such circumstances. I also wasn’t convinced that my problem was as physical as Wikipedia made it out to be. I felt that the problem was in my ‘mind’, so I would try to solve it through my mind, that is, academically.

During my undergrad I learned about a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. It’s been observed by psychologists for over 50 years but only started to get real attention recently. Basically, neuroplasticity simply means that your brain changes when you use it. (I know, you’re thinking “why on earth do psychologist’s get paid to study something so obvious?!?”) When you experience something new, your brain has to make new neural pathways to figure out what to do in that situation. Every time you experience that same thing, the pathways get deeper. You know how we say that people get “stuck in a rut?” They literally do, the rut is in their brain.

I was stuck in a rut.

I thought negative things about myself, about the world, about God. My rut was deep; I’d been using the same pathways for years. I was comfortable with my routines and sought out people and experiences that validated my bleak outlook. I had trained my brain to be depressed.

Enlightened by my studies in psychology, but no less stubborn, I wanted out of the rut but still wasn’t prepared to use anti-depressants to do so, even though I was now firmly convinced that my body was part of the problem. (Please understand that I think anti-depressants are a wonderful and effective way to treat depression and recommend that anyone experiencing the symptoms of depression to consult their physician.) Because my depression was so closely tied to my spirituality, I wanted the change in my body to be spiritually-rooted. I got on my knees and asked for help, and then I let God help me use my body to heal my spirit.

The great thing about neuroplasticity is that it works even when you know about it. When I had a negative thought about God’s plans for me, I’d derail that thought. I’d remind myself that God is good and loves me. Over time, I retrained my brain to think of positive things. I removed myself from situations that would inspire depressing thoughts and feelings and replaced them with situations that would inspire worship and prayer. And it worked. I found hope and joy and love and I helped God carve them into my grey matter.

At Lent we sacrifice something to remind us of the greatest sacrifice. Doing this literally ‘renews’ our minds. When we think of how much we miss coffee, or chocolate, or Facebook, we also think about the reason for our suffering, and remember that God is good and loving. We create and enforce a pathway that connects something we already love and think about to someone we should love and think about even more. Even as you read this you are training your brain to remember Christ’s sacrifice for you.

Your body is the physical place where you meet God. Your body is a terrifyingly mysterious and incredibly complicated masterpiece. Long before humans had a scientific understanding of the brain’s structure and function, Christ modelled behaviours indicating a deep understanding of how our brain and bodies interact with our spirituality.

What if your body was designed to help you connect to God, not something lowly and sinful and fleeting, but a carefully constructed tool for relationship? What if you had more thoughts about God’s love and graciousness, more thoughts about prayer and worship, than worries about money and self-image? How would this impact your relationship to God? What if 40 days of lent could get you out of a spiritual rut and bring you closer to God? Wouldn’t it be worth a little electrical work?

And now dear brothers and sisters, let me say one more thing as I close this letter. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honourable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned from me and saw me doing, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

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