A long time ago, when Sigmund Freud first started talking about the inner workings of the human mind, the conversation was pretty grim. Attention focused on what was wrong with people: hysteria, neuroses, complexes, fixations. For decades psychologists and psychoanalysts worked earnestly to help clients rid themselves of these sometimes-crippling disorders. As psychology fought to be taken seriously, researchers carefully studied a wide range of human dysfunction, offering important new insights to the world.
Which was good, but in hindsight a little lopsided. Around twenty-five years ago a few rebels started noticing that very little was being said about the positive aspects of human nature. Research on qualities like altruism, love or joy was almost nonexistent, and positive emotions were rarely mentioned in the professional literature. In time the field of “positive psychology” was born, and new research heralded our capacity for resilience, compassion and healing.
About ten years ago I stumbled across an article written by Dr. George Vaillant, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Vaillant pointed out the existence of what he called “spiritual emotions.” He noted that spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, joy, awe, trust, love and hope all direct us beyond our own survival toward something greater. He drew on the work of Barbara Frederickson, who points out that such emotions prompt us to cooperate with others to create new and better solutions. Fear, on the other hand, causes us to narrow our focus and grow rigid and reactive in our thinking.
The article caught my attention and I’ve returned to it many times. Vaillant offered me a new vantage point for responding to our troubled times. These days when I look at religious or political institutions I see structures in trouble. Those structures are essential to life together, especially when we live together in large groups. But when they get unbalanced they can be like an overloaded freight train rounding a curve too fast. We’re seeing a lot of high-speed teetering these days.
If dogma and institutions are the bones and muscles of religion, I would see spiritual emotions as the heart and circulatory system. To paraphrase St. Paul, we can’t live without bones or muscles, but we also can’t expect femurs or biceps to feed themselves. Spiritual emotions provide the energy and healing power we need to keep us going.
George Vaillant is now in his eighties and graciously carries the wisdom of age. Over the years his message has become ever more focused: the foundation of human thriving is love. He reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct rather than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we are often, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy.”
Vaillant sums it up, “Happiness is the cart. Love is the horse.”
Click here for his TED talk.
Photo credit: Jaroom Photography, Flickr
It's no secret our congregations are greying. St. Mary's Press, longtime Catholic education publisher, is researching and responding to the absence of so many young people from our pews. Their most recent blog post features a conversation between me and senior editor and wise counselor Jerry Ruff. Find it here:
Or the Senate Committee Room or...
Like so many others, I’ve been hooked by the Supreme Court confirmation firestorm. The situation is tragic regardless of who or what you believe. Rather than debating who's right or wrong, I'd like to examine a spiritual practice that can help each of us respond.
We're fascinated by this drama because we find somebody’s behavior appalling, and really bad behavior is frightening. When groups of people become enraged a terrifying sinister energy seems to emerge. And when we feel personally endangered our own dark side - vengeful, slanted, self-protective - fights to cut loose and start swinging.
I’d just finished reading the latest wrinkle in the unfolding story when suddenly an image of Jesus walking into that room came to me. In my imaginary hearing room he wasn’t there to take the stand or to take someone’s side. He was simply being present.
The effect on me was remarkable. I immediately calmed down - not completely, but substantially. Gone was my feeling of the world rocking beneath my feet, and I could sense a peace and clarity surrounding Jesus. The scene didn’t shift my opinion about who was telling the truth. It did shift me toward compassion for everyone involved. Until that moment my compassion had been reserved for the persons I considered to be injured, while I focused my judgment, resentment and anger on the other guys. Those guys included a large portion of my fellow Americans.
Regardless of what did or didn’t happen at a party 30 years ago, tragic incidents of sexual misconduct happen every day. We clearly need new awareness and revised systems to help us reduce their incidence and impact. The spiritual practice of imagining Jesus in our midst is one small tool that can help us get there.
The picture in my head showed up without my asking, but we can consciously decide to create imaginary scenes. The visitor we imagine doesn't have to be Jesus. For me as a Christian, Jesus is a spiritual touchstone. For Buddhists it might be the Buddha, for Muslims Muhammad. We can visualize a major figure in our spiritual tradition, or someone we rub shoulders with every day. The key is to choose a person of compassion and wisdom and to use our imaginations to create a vivid picture in our minds.
Visualization As Spiritual Practice
A practice is something we do on a repeated basis, usually to accomplish some result. Brushing your teeth is a practice. So is regularly checking the air in your tires or rewarding your dog's good behavior with a treat A spiritual practice is something we do on a repeated basis to call us back to our core beliefs and help us live according to them.
Athletic coaches as well as pastors and spiritual advisors teach visualization. Research demonstrates that athletes who visualize success are more likely to achieve it. Vividly imagining a spiritually-inspired scene helps anchor us in our own spiritual base. When we visualize we draw on our sense memory of sight, hearing and sometimes smell to help change our thinking and our mood.
Visualizing Jesus is a spiritual practice that helps me shift gears and see things in a new light. When I picture Jesus in a contentious scene several things predictably happen:
At their best, spiritual practices engage our whole selves - our bodies and emotions as well as our minds. When we tap into our sense memory to create an image different from the ones our overheated brains are currently cooking up, we get wiser.
And more peaceful, and compassionate, and hopeful, and...
Photo Dirksen226, Wikimedia Commons
Common wisdom used to claim our intellects were supposed to conquer our emotions, and certainly we’ve all gotten into trouble by being carried away with anger or captivated by some temporary obsession. But emotions also inspire people to great things, and researchers have recently discovered emotions play a central role in our so-called “intellectual” capacity to figure things out and remember.
So emotions are a mixed bag, and we experience conflicting emotions all day long. How do we sort them out, especially on the spur of the moment? How do we know what we’re “supposed to” feel? I’ve been puzzling over this question for a long time, and finally came up with a way to think about emotions. I believe they fall roughly into the following four categories:
Positive spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, awe, joy trust, hope, love, inspiration
Painful spiritual emotions like grief and contrition
Survival emotions: anger, fear and desire
Counterproductive emotions: resentment, anxiety and depression
Each category has distinctive characteristics and invites a different response. We’ll focus on positive spiritual emotions for the moment.
So What Is A Positive Spiritual Emotion?
Spiritual emotions occur when we transcend our own small selves and connect intuitively and emotionally with our deepest selves, other people, and/or God. Think of someone you would consider spiritually great. This person may or may not belong to your faith tradition, if you have one. You probably don’t agree with everything they say or do. They may not possess all of the qualities in our first list above, but most likely they’re strong in at least a couple. They’re buoyed not just be their convictions but also by a mysterious inner state.
That inner state or spiritual emotions can prompt us to take action or result from an outside circumstance. Sometimes we take action based on a surge of gratitude or compassion; other times a sunset or a baby’s laugh brings on gratitude and we just hold it - or are distracted and pass it by.
We’ve all had the experience of white-knuckling through a tough decision, overriding our emotional response every step of the way in order to live faithful to our convictions. Those moments are admirable and important. They’re also really hard to sustain. How do we shift our insides to a place where our emotional default not only feels better but also helps us be the person we want to be?
We can’t manufacture spiritual emotions, but we can cultivate them. We can choose activities and situations where we catch them from other people. We can become more aware of habits that steer us toward unproductive emotions like anxiety, resentment or depression. We can develop - but never guarantee - our capacity to receive them by grace from God.
Because we need them. And the world needs us.
Photo credit: Josh Sullivan, Flikr
Campaign attack ads. Stories of computer hacks and scams. Tarnished heroes hiding sordid double lives.
Newspapers and the internet seem to serve up the worst of humanity all day, every day. We’re fascinated and horrified at the same time. It’s as if the theme song for Jaws is always playing in the back of our minds. We're afraid the shark is sneaking up behind us getting ready to ram the boat, and we can't resist any opportunity to peek over the edge and take a look.
There’s a brain-based reason for our fascination, but that’s a subject for another post. Today I want to talk about the power of stories to help us shift our internal balance of darkness and light.
Do a mental check-in right now. On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 means you feel content and secure and 10 means you’re teetering on the edge of a meltdown, how uneasy do you feel? How short is your fuse? How well do you sleep? How much do anxiety or depression crowd your day?
Do you wish your “sleepless number” were different? Would you and the world be better off if it were different?
Distress isn't all bad. If we’re never distressed, we’re not paying attention. Our own or others’ pain is designed to help us focus and take action, and sometimes it does and we do. But much of our suffering is self-inflicted and unnecessary. Subjecting ourselves to too many miserable stories doesn’t motivate - it paralyzes. On the other hand, stories of courage, triumph, or plain old silliness lift our hearts and remind us of who and where we want to be.
Stories can be big or small. They can tell of Good Samaritans saving neighbors from a hurricane’s devastation or a dog helping a child learn to read. It can be the story of the original Good Samaritan or of an elderly person with a contagious enthusiasm for life. Stories can tell of a middle schooler’s kindness to another child who is often left out or of someone living well in the face of a life-threatening diagnosis.
If your “sleepless number” was higher than you’d like, there’s a good chance unsettling stories are contributing. These can be stories you read, stories people tell you, stories you tell yourself.
We can notice which stories occupy our attention and learn to be more selective. We can take steps to limit our exposure to terrible news stories and decide to pay attention to stories that inspire us and lift our spirits. Good stories are everywhere - in the news, in the Bible, in our family histories, on youtube, in our everyday conversations.
We can also help the children in our lives find stories deserving of their attention. I grew up reading the lives of the saints. Those stories were pretty heavily weighted toward virgins and martyrs, and I didn’t really want to be either in the long run. But every blessed one of them demonstrated confidence in God and courage under fire, and those qualities I did and do want. We can find better stories than the ones popularly offered to our young people.
I started this blog partly because the cynical, angry stories were getting me down. While we’re not called to insulate ourselves from the world’s suffering, we are called to preserve our capacity to respond to it. Stories matter. The right stories go a long way.
Collect them. Replay them. Share them. There’s so much goodness out there. Someone needs the story you have to share.
Photo Tail Waggin' Tutors, Fairfax Library
I was in a hurry, headed out to babysit my grandkids so my son-in-law could get to work. As I headed south on the highway I noticed a woman and a couple of middle-school aged kids dancing on the sidewalk, smiling and waving, jiggling cardboard signs at the passing vehicles. Assuming they were advertising a carwash, I continued on.
But it wasn't a carwash. They were pushing prayer - drive-thru prayer, and they weren't kidding. The parking lot just behind them was set up with drive-thru lanes marked by bright orange cones, a table piled high with water bottles, and volunteers primed to pray with anyone who happened through.
I'd been worrying about my nephew and his wife, who had decided not to evacuate their home in Kinston, NC ahead of Hurricane Florence so they could stay and provide shelter for those who might need it. I figured they needed all the prayer they could get, so I circled back and pulled into the parking lot.
A young girl reached into the stack of water bottles and offered me one. I declined but asked the man and woman standing with her if I could give them a prayer intention. "Of course!" they replied, and leaned in closer to my car window.
I told them about Danny and Sabrina while they listened sympathetically. My voice wobbled a few times as I described the young couple's idealism and potential danger. Feeling rushed, I got ready to pull away, figuring I'd left the intention in capable hands. The lovely woman listening asked, "Can we pray with you first?"
"You bet!" I replied, realizing I'd almost missed an opportunity. I pulled up my emergency brake, still a little distracted by just how odd this all seemed. We put our heads closer together, me still fastened into my seatbelt. The woman launched into the most beautiful, tender prayer imaginable, asking blessing and safety for Danny and Sabrina and for everyone in their community - those in need and those in service. I felt a calm descend on my heart, and a confidence that Danny and Sabrina were protected. When the prayer was finished I thanked the trio, waved to the others in the parking lot, and sped off.
After I got my grandkids settled I called my sister-in-law and told her of the strangers in Minnesota praying for her family. She cried. She told Danny. The circle of love widened.
Danny and Sabrina are safe, and the long process of hurricane cleanup has begun. But thanks to the good-hearted members of Wayzata Free Church, we all experienced the kindness of prayer spontaneously and generously shared, and a reminder of the power of a simple act of love offered without reserve.
Photos CCX Media
A rubber ducky bobbing back to the surface, an irrepressible grin plastered on its face.
An 8-year-old Labrador Retriever that still hasn't learned when enough is enough.
A young woman who stays emotionally whole in spite of being abused at home and in foster care.
Nelson Mandela seeking peace with his captors after spending 27 years in prison.
Examples of resilience? Yes.
Equivalent? Not quite.
The dictionary defines resilience as
1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and
2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape.
Rubber ducks fit those definitions. They’re designed to stand up to babies who delight in shoving them underwater and watching them pop up into the air to land on their little flat bottoms. Rubber ducks may be cute, but they don’t learn and they don’t change.
Spiritual resilience asks more. Spiritually resilient people like Nelson Mandela or a family abuse survivor learn from their underwater moments and emerge more balanced, more persistent and wiser than before. They feel their pain and transform it. We feel the strength of their brave hearts and want to become more like them - at least for a little while.
We instinctively recognize spiritual resilience when we see it, even if we can’t name it. Spiritually resilient individuals can be found all over the world, though some circumstances seem to produce them more readily. Our times cry out for people who are courageous, generous, hopeful and kind. Learning the skills of spiritual resilience can help us become that - and bring us greater joy along the way
In this blog I’ll explore spiritual resilience with you: what it is and how we can develop our capacity for it. We’ll see what we can learn from psychology, neuroscience and our own Christian tradition. Our project will center on developing the key spiritual emotions of gratitude, awe, hope, joy, trust, love and compassion.
We can all be the better for it.
Photo credit: Dennis Hill, Flickr