Changing Your Mind
Excerpt from “Changing Your Mind: Contemplation and Personal Transformation”
Published originally in the Sewanee Theological Review, then as a chapter in Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer, Lantern Books, NY 2007
Accepting Our Brokenness
Fear-based neural pathways cannot be erased. They are too powerful, too central to our survival as a species. They will always, therefore, be a part of the hardwiring of our brain. What this says is that our primary fear-based brokenness is permanent, a part of our brain’s very structure. A person who was regularly but inconsistently beaten may always, at some level, have a tendency to be on their guard. Another who never got what they needed unless they became helpless and desperate may forever employ this device. One who is abandoned emotionally may always feel ultimately alone. A person who received conditional love may always, to some degree, try to please. Each one of us has our own history, our own conditioning in the school of pain and fear, and each one of us will respond, for the rest of our lives, to familiar fearful stimuli in familiar ways.
While all of this may seem awfully deterministic, it is not entirely so. Herein lies our hope: while we may live forever with our particular legacy of pain and fear, we can learn to recognize and name it, to move out of its gripping cycle of thought, emotion, and behavior. We may always live with the effects of original sin that are specific to our circumstances, but the wound can form into scar tissue. It will always be a little tender, at least, but we can grow and change to the point that when this scar is touched, it no longer hurts us with the same raw intensity as before. We can find healing, but our pain and fear will always retain some residue and potential. We cannot erase it.
Core to the basic Christian doctrine is the fact of human sinfulness. We are alienated, separated, even as we come to know our essential goodness and union with our Creator. Pseudo-Macarius, a Syrian desert monk who was well-acquainted with contemplative union and advanced states of divine bliss, put it quite clearly: “I have not seen any perfect Christian or one perfectly free. Although a person may be at rest in grace and arrive at experiencing mysteries, revelations and the immense consolation of grace, nevertheless, sin still abides in him.”
The counter-cultural People’s Guide to Mexico (Carl Franz, John Muir Pub. 1972) proclaimed on its cover “Wherever you go, there you are!” Nearly two millennia before, Amma Theodora similarly taught her disciples that one could never get away from sin, especially by trying to make external changes: “There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, ‘I will go away from here.’ As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away’ Because I go before you wherever you are going.”
To be plagued our whole life long by temptation, failure, sin and brokenness is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be our saving grace as human beings. In our failures, we are brought to humility and discover our need for God. In the particular way that pain and fear has taken shape in us, we have a way of letting human and divine love in. It is through our wounds that we may be touched deeply. In our vulnerability, our lack of control, we can be open to our need for God and other people. It is this sense that causes Navajo weavers to customarily thread a stray piece of yarn, a defect, into the otherwise perfect rug, so that there is a place where the Spirit can enter. Our wounds can certainly drive us away from spiritual and emotional health, but they can also drive us towards God and healing.
Even though we are reluctant to look for it there, the portal of our brokenness offers a way in to transformation. To be sure, spiritual healing also happens through a realization of our innate goodness, strength of character, positive forms of devotion, and joy. But at the center of the Christian life stands the cross and resurrection, not a confident, beatific, smiling face. Our tradition witnesses to the dark and wondrous mystery of transformation through suffering.
As our familiar difficulties present themselves over and over, as we struggle with our powerlessness to change, and as we finally understand and, in the moment, fully experience and admit our ineffectual coping strategies that are born of fear, something opens up and grace flows in. While we may be gifted by grace with certain strengths and abilities, it can also be that through our weakness that we are transformed. Precisely through our brokenness, God’s power becomes manifest as we are able, finally, to admit our need for it.
St. Paul spoke very personally about frustration with his own weakness, and his eventual discovery that it was, in fact, a place of grace:
to keep me from becoming too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10)
Anthony the Great, one of the earliest of the desert fathers, even went so far as to say that our weaknesses are necessary to salvation: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. Without temptation, no one can be saved.”
Therapy, Contemplation and Neurological Change
But how, exactly, do our pain, fear, and weakness become transformed into God’s strength, into wholeness and holiness? How do we move from neurologically conditioned core beliefs and patterns of limiting thought, emotion, and behavior into the freedom of life in God?
One model of deep change that is visible in our culture is long-term psychodynamic therapy. I introduce this model at this point because it is much more familiar to many in our day than the model of contemplative transformation. If we can more easily understand how basic change (even neurological change) happens in the context of therapy, perhaps we can transfer this understanding to the inner life of prayer. I am convinced that on some levels, the process of change is the same in both contexts.
In the therapeutic setting, fears and other forms of brokenness are opened up, experienced, and understood. This is all done in the context of the relationship with the therapist. In this relationship, a safe place is created where unhealthy and unhappy patterns of one’s current experience come to light; the root of these patterns is also explored.
In this safe place, the patient re-experiences his or her core pain in the new context of compassion, challenge, questioning, understanding, and acceptance. Old patterns “enter the room,” that is, they start to be transferred to the relationship with the therapist. They become current, so that in this new moment they may be experienced anew. But since the therapist responds with acceptance, commitment and compassion instead of the kind of behavior that created the client’s original difficulty, the old patterns now result in a different outcome. Instead of more pain, there can be healing of the patterns themselves.
A powerful example of this same process of healing can be found in contemplative prayer. In prayer, there is also a new relationship, a safe environment in which to re-experience old patterns. Sitting quietly in relationship to God, the Spirit questions, challenges, but ultimately accepts and has compassion, so that we come to associate new outcomes with the same old patterns. Our fear arises as we observe the content of our thinking and feeling. Our lack of control and frustration with ourselves comes up. Our intolerance and impatience reveals itself. But now, instead of being met with a hurtful, reinforcing presence, they are met with openness and understanding in the new relationship with the Spirit.
In both cases, our neurology is undergoing a slow but deeply profound change. We are doing nothing less than weighting and arborizing our neural pathways as we make new associations with old pain. As information streams along these pathways, we form, very slowly, new directions in which they can travel. Eventually, the familiar stimuli that usually cause us difficulty in life may move us instead into peace and health.