This is the fourth week of a six week series designed to help you ask deep, enriching questions that lead you to become more and more whole, more and more who you actually are in the world, and more and more comfortable in your own skin.
Each week, we’ll swim in the mystery of a unique question, designed to help you see your actual life with more clarity. Each of these questions are taken from Paula D’Arcy’s work, particularly Gift of the Red Bird: The Story of a Divine Encounter and Waking Up to This Day: Seeing the Beauty Right Before Us. Paula D’Arcy’s hard won wisdom has helped me immensely. The six questions are:
- Which lesson is life bringing me?
- Am I burying my pain?
- Am I overtaxing my body?
- What did I pay attention to today, and is that focus fruitful?
- Am I creating a life that is nourishing, or one that undermines me?
- Am I secretly clinging to something that distracts me or weighs me down?
You can read the previous weeks’ posts here. Let’s dive in the fourth question: What did I pay attention to today, and is that focus fruitful?
I heard Richard Rohr recently say that recent studies in neuroscience have confirmed that negative thoughts and interactions act like velcro: they stick instantly to our consciousness, affecting how we think about ourselves and others. Think about that.
Every email that contains a passive aggressive ding from a co-worker. Velcro.
Every angry driver who signals to you that you’re number one. Velcro.
Every time you realize it’s time to pull out the fat jeans (and let me tell you, right now is a fat jeans season for me, and I don’t like it). Tight velcro.
These interactions create sticky notes all over your brain, informing every decision you make. Why?
Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., writes that our nervous system has been developing for millions of years, and for most of that time, our ancestors had to make split second decisions about whether to pursue rewards or avoid danger. Think of it in terms of the carrot and the stick. If they chose to avoid getting hit by the stick (danger), they’d live for another carrot on another day. But if they got hit by the stick, they died. Our brains are literally wired up to be hyper aware of danger so that we’ll live another day.
Your body consequently responds differently to pain and pleasure. Have you ever experienced a shame wash? Compare that to the feeling you get when you are blown away by a sunrise. Pain is experienced in the body as more intense. Over millions of years, to keep ourselves alive, our brains tricked us to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources. Our brains are literally wired up to make us afraid.
Positive thoughts, on the other hand, are like teflon. Apparently, you have to savor a positive thought, interaction, or observation, for a full fifteen seconds for it to stick the way negative thoughts do in a moment.
I believe it was the Apostle Paul who encouraged us to “take every thought captive.” I grew up in church, and as a teenager, that verse was mainly taught to boys like me who had lots and lots of thoughts that needed to be taken captive. Armies of thoughts. Well, that may have been helpful. But what if we can also look at it as a way to combat the brain’s natural wiring to be afraid?
Can you become aware of what you pay attention to, and can you learn to savor the positive memories and interactions? Can you change the patterns in your brain?
Yes, it turns out you can. And it really, really, matters.
One of my good friends has struggled for years with depression and anxiety. When he and his wife suffered a painful miscarriage, it got especially bad. So he started a daily ritual that has significantly changed his level of anxiety and depression. Just about every day, he pulls out some paper and a pen and writes down the gifts in his life for which he’s grateful. His kids. A book he enjoyed. Some time around the campfire with a good friend. He lingers over each memory, swirling them around in his mind until they stick.
When you become aware that you are experiencing a repeated negative thought or interaction, it might be helpful to stop and quickly ask: What is being threatened? What possible opportunity does this present? And what resources do I have to deal with it?
Recently I became aware of a nasty string of negativity that I was trapped in. So I went through this process. My self worth was being threatened because I perceived that I failed doing something at which I wanted quite badly to succeed. So I texted a friend, telling him about my shame wash and asking him for help. I later realized this was an opportunity to reset what success looks like, because, as I’ve said before, you get to decide what success looks like. You really do.
May we learn to savor the sweet gifts in our lives, my friends. In it together.
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Thanks for reading my blog! My great passion is to use words to create environments where people can become who they actually are. Make sure to check out the following links to keep in touch with some of the other ways I’m using words to create space for people to grow and become. If you’d like to invite me to speak to your tribe, I’d love to talk to you about that. Just go here to get the conversation started.
This Good Word Podcast. I host a weekly podcast which comes out every Thursday. Every episode focuses on one ordinary word, as a way to reclaim what’s holy about our humanity. Sometimes I just talk into the mic, and sometimes I interview fascinating people. Take a listen here.
Beginnings: The First Seven Days of the Rest of Your Life. I published my first book in January 2016. It’s an imaginative look at the seven days of creation, as if they weren’t simply an event in time, but a process that describes God’s continual work of creating good in me, you, and the world. Order Now: Amazon | Books-A-Million | IndieBound | Barnes and Noble. It’s also available as an audiobook.
Genesis Covenant Church. I am the Senior Pastor at a beautiful, quirky little church called Genesis, where we rally around the idea that our job is to join God’s work of cultivating new beginnings in all of us, everywhere. Our sermons are interactive, done in the socratic style of questions which lead to more questions. You can check out our weekly sermons here. Enjoy! And if you’re anywhere near Minneapolis, we’d love to see you there.