Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How God Changes Your Brain

The bumper sticker in front of me read, Prayer Changes Things. I must confess, I don't like bumper sticker faith. I bristle at the notion that faith and mysteries of life might be reduced to a vinyl glossy sound bite slapped on a car. Faith is bigger than that.

Though the bumper sticker may be true that prayer changes things, it is also true that Prayer Changes Us.

In addition to 12 Essential Reason to Yawn, posted here previously, I found notes written in my journal while reading a book in the serenity of a sunlit library at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine during my stay with Cindy.  How God Changes Your Brain, a compilation of the team of Newburg and Waldman's research from a variety of traditions, offers the following excerpts among other conclusions:

  "Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world."

And further, "Contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion for others."

The authors present this thought in a chapter on ways to exercise our brains:

"If you stay in a contemplative state of 20 minutes to an hour, your experiences will tend to feel more real, affecting your nervous system in ways that enhance physical and emotional health. Anti-stress hormones and neuro-chemicals are released throughout the body as well as pleasure-enhancing and depression-decreasing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Even 10 - 15 minutes of meditation has been shown to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation and psychological health." (p. 159).
What helps us relax and let go enough to contemplate and pray? Sometimes we need the help of visual and mental prompts. Pictures of a quiet place? Images of peace and calm? Whatever we find helpful, let it take us there. Often.

Some folks consider meditation doing nothing...just sitting there... a complete emptying of one's self. I can see how such an understanding leads us to feel that we are wasting our time when we could be doing something constructive. It's the American way: get busy. Be Productive. Perhaps this reminder will help alleviate the guilt of doing nothing while praying and giving time to devotional reading and contemplation by informing that we are, in fact, doing something!

Practices that build emotional, spiritual, and even physical health and well-being are to be celebrated in our lives. Do not feel guilty in choosing to give time to addressing this important need. Know that we are doing something vitally good for ourselves. And when this component is missing in patterns in our lives, we might not be surprised that we do not operate at optimal levels.

Go in peace and in the power to change our lives--power that God has already given.

Make time for serenity.

 More summer reading?  My favorite book on the broader subject of the brain has been Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,  by Daniel G. Amen, M.D., a gift from my uncle in about 1998. This book on the working brain can help to optimize patterns in the brain to help us be more effective in day-to-day life. I deeply appreciate the source of the gift: our uncle whose own life has been devoted to enhancing the lives of his patients through many decades. Especially in treating of ADD/ADHD school children and stroke and traumatic brain injury patients, Dr. Harold L. Russell has dedicated his life to unlocking for lay people the power of the brain's plasticity and malleability to help us adapt to changing situations. He is most recently a contributing author to Music, Science, and the Rhythmic Brain: Cultural and Clinical Implications (Berger and Turow).

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