Christians aren’t supposed to be anxious. I know this. I know the verses. I can recite them from memory in 1.2 seconds. The problem is quoting verses about NOT being anxious didn’t do a thing for me.
I’ve been a Christian since I was 10 and for the better part of a half century, I’ve been anxious – about tests, new situations, getting everything done, something bad happening to me, my spouse or children, world unrest, or you-name-it. Mostly this was an internal struggle externally manifesting as energy for achievement – I got a lot of things done.
Today, I live mostly in a place of peace, even in the face of less-than-perfect circumstances because, I’ve learned, peace is an internal state.
How this transformation took place surprised even me: God answered a prayer to “change the way I think” by developing and integrating my right brain.
I know it sounds crazy. Here’s the story…
About five years ago I felt fed up with the lack of transformation I saw in myself and long-time people of faith. It seemed “we” were just as angry, anxious and achievement-oriented as the rest of the world.
Jesus, on the other hand, who was the Savior of the World never seemed to be hurried or worried. About that time, I read Romans 12:2 in the New Living Translation of the Bible, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” I knew I couldn’t trump it up, so I gave up and asked God to do it.
Long story short, over time and through a set a circumstances I became aware of inner healing prayer and contemplative prayer practices that embody right brain activity.
I digress to explain we live in a culture that values left-brained logic, order, problem-solving, planning, me-centered functions over right-brained emotion, intuition, present moment, community-attached operations. The church culture isn’t much different.
From the emergence of the Enlightenment in the 17th century until now, knowing facts and “truth” about God have been prized above all else, according to Dr. Curt Thompson, a neuroscientist and author of Anatomy of the Soul, who adds, “All of us at some point discover that our theology doesn’t on its own keep us from losing our tempers with our children or becoming rigid and self-righteous during the conflicts we have.” That double-minded mentality sounded familiar: my left brain knew all the peace-of-Christ verses while my right brain knew all about anxiety.
David Benner, author of The Gift of Being Yourself puts it this way: “Having information about God is no more transformational than having information about love.”
Thompson says a lopsided approach to life leads to dis-integration; instead we should seek a whole-brained approach, living equally out of our right and left brains.
So, how did God begin to develop the right side and give me the gift of peace? Here are three of the ways:
1. Through use of imagination.
We are created with an imagination; we use it all the time, but somehow that never translated to my spirituality. My first unintentional experience with it was in inner healing prayer where God brought up a painful memory and I pictured it in my mind. I was asked to look for Jesus there and, much to my surprise, I could picture him. Even more surprising is that what I heard and saw seemed to broaden my perspective, take away the pain, evoke healing tears and produce a tangible sense of peace.
This is nothing new. Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque warrior who lived in the 1500s is credited with creating many of the contemplative exercises used today, including gospel reading with imagination. Convalescing after a cannonball crushed his leg, Ignatius was converted to Christianity as he read stories about Jesus, pictured those stories in his mind, and further interacted with Jesus there.
John’s Gospel refers to Jesus as “the word” and in the book of Hebrews there is a reference to the word being active and alive. Like Ignatius, I have found this “active word” to be truly transformative. In very simplistic terms, here’s why: The right brain focuses on the present and it is the place of connection with people. So the present moment experience of Jesus speaking truth to me (often things I had previously read in the Bible) changed the memory which, in turn, began to form a neural pathway thus impacting my pre-cognitive reactions to similar situations today.
Once again to quote Benner from The Gift of Being Yourself: “Knowing Jesus is key because God revealed himself through Jesus…The starting point for learning to simply spend time with God is learning to do this with Jesus. Spending time with Jesus allows us to ground our God-knowing in the concrete events of a concrete life. We do it by means of Spirit-guided meditation on the Gospels.”
2. Through paying attention to emotion.
The religious tradition I was raised in taught that emotions aren’t to be trusted, which I interpreted to mean emotions are bad – especially the negative ones like anger, anxiety, fear and hurt – and, therefore should be ignored. God created us to feel emotions and, if we pay attention, He can use them to uncover misbeliefs and narratives that need healing.
Peter Scazzero in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality likens these negative emotions to the check engine lights on a dashboard. They are telling us to pay attention; something is wrong.
Once I began to live in the peace of Christ (which Jesus promised to leave us just before he exited the earth), I began to notice when I wasn’t feeling it – and what I might be feeling instead – like anger, fear, hurt or anxiety. Simply pausing to notice and pray led to insights that brought freedom.
It’s helpful to know anger is a secondary response usually covering up a more vulnerable emotion such as hurt or fear. “What hurts?” or “What am I afraid of?” might be good questions to ask when feeling angry.
3. Through present moment living.
Remember left brain processes past and future. Right brain is present moment.
When we focus on the past we are usually consumed with regret. When we focus on the future we become anxious about scenarios that may never happen. Jesus said, “Don’t worry (or be anxious) about tomorrow. Today has enough trouble of its own.”
The truth is, we don’t have control of the past or the future. We only have this moment to live and we can fully embrace it when we declutter our minds of past and future concerns.
But how, practically, can it be done? Letting go and living in the present moment is a trust issue. When regrets come, I remember a picture God gave me in my mind of his love, like floodwaters, covering everything on the path behind me. When I catch myself worrying, I say, “I trust you Jesus” and release it to God. And, when I am tempted to plan out the future, I remember the wise words of my spiritual director, “The future will unfold as you listen and notice.” I don’t need to know what tomorrow holds.
I have found that letting go of the past and the future allows me to be fully present to the person in front of me and the beauty around me. What freedom – and peace!