Being mindful and changing your brain
Can you change your brain? Jeffrey Schwartz (Research Psychiatrist at UCLA) explains the basics of mindfulness in the context of Christian spiritual formation and psychological science.
Thanks for checking out this video from The Table conference on the topic “Mind Your Heart”. You’re gonna hear from Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, who’s a research psychiatrist, and he’s gonna be talking about mindfulness and Jeff helpfully distinguishes Christian mindfulness from Buddhist mindfulness and other mindfulness practices, and we hope you enjoy this video.
So this turns out to be a very topical subject because this is the cover of the February 2nd 2014 Time Magazine, so mindfulness is, you know on the cover of Time Magazine and then they have a big two-page spread here which they ask or talk about, they’re gonna Time Magazine is gonna tell you about the art of being mindful. So, um, that’s good. [Jeffrey and audience laugh] And um. So the question comes up what does this have to do with Christian faith? And the answer potentially is a lot, although you won’t probably read too much about that in Time Magazine, because this word is now being used in ways that are biased, and as Steve points out, it’s very nice to see that mindfulness comes out of a wisdom tradition, a very, definitely a pre-Christian wisdom tradition, but Christian faith amplifies, and I very much believe clarifies what mindfulness is and how to apply it, and that’s what I’m gonna try to give you a brief introduction to today.
So I wrote a book called “You Are Not Your Brain”, and everything that I’m gonna say today is basically in this book, but full disclosure, this book was written for a secular audience, and so the Christian aspect of it is suppressed into the subtext. And so what I’m gonna try to do today briefly, is bring it out from the subtext into just full explicit expression, the Christian aspect of the mindfulness described in this book, but once you hear that explicit description, I think it will be easy for you to find it in this book, which hopefully for Christian audiences will very much enrich the message.
So this mock-up of a very famous picture by the Dutch artist, Escher I’ve been using for many years, and basically we are just now coming out of the era in which all belief is that the mind is created by the brain. It’s still very much the predominant belief, it’s still very much what you would call the regnant paradigm. But things are changing a little bit and this mindfulness revolution, quote-on-quote, I think has helped that process. So by the word “mind”, I am specifically meaning for scientific purposes, but again overlapping with Christian faith. I’m using the word “mind” to mean choices we make about how to focus and direct our attention. So, choices we make about how to focus and direct our attention can definitely rewire our brain, although a lot of the mundane worldly content of our consciousness is in fact coming from the brain.
The “Mind Your Heart” part of this is though also very important, and I don’t want that to get lost in the mix, especially if we remember that the word “heart” in the biblical sense, means the seat of consciousness, the seat of our spirit. So our heart is working for our brain to bring in a lot of the explicit content, but the heart is very much informing our mind about how to make choices, about what to do with that content, and that’s what mostly today’s talk is about. So this mind versus brain issue becomes that the brain is largely passive. It receives inputs from the outer environment and then creates passive experience, but the mind, in conjunction with the heart, biblically understood, is active and it helps us direct and make choices about wise ways to focus our attention and make wise decisions.
So, this issue is, the brain puts out a call and that call is quite incessant, but the mind decides whether and how to listen to that. So, the big problem that we’re dealing with in moment-to-moment, day-to-day living is that the brain puts out a lot of false inaccurate messages called “deceptive brain messages” in the model that I use, and those are unhelpful and distracting impulses, urges, desires that take you away from your true goals and intentions in life. Your true self.
And there’s a lot more to say about this because that becomes a core Christian concept. Discovering and living up to, through grace, with Christ’s help, our true self. And the part of our faith-belief system that really helps us with that is called “The Wise Advocate”. The Wise Advocate is the aspect of your intentive mind that knows what you’re thinking, sees those deceptive brain messages for what they are, where they come from. The Wise Advocate understands how you feel, physically and emotionally, and is aware of how destructive and unhealthy your pattern automatic responses have been for you. The Wise Advocate want the best for you, it loves and cares for you so it encourages you to value your true self and make decisions in a rational way based on what is in your overall best interest in the long term. So that is secularly oriented description of what The Wise Advocate is, but this is a deeply biblical concept, and that is no accident. I actually believe that there was genuine act of divine intervention that led to us using this term “Wise Advocate” in this book, and maybe in the extra session, if somebody asks I can tell how that happened. But there are, as you see, at least five biblical versus, four of which are spoken by Jesus in which this word “Advocate” is used, at least in the NIV translation. “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever.” “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in My name will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me, but very truly I tell you it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go I will send him to you.”
And then John elaborates on this in 1 John 2:1. “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin, but if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. So this is one translation of the word “paraclete”, which is an anglicization of the Greek and some of the other translations I have actually put together in what can be used as a meditation, which is helper, comforter, advocate, counselor, encourager, strengthener, friend. These are all English equivalents for the word “paraclete” which is translated commonly as “advocate”, which Jesus used to mean the Holy Spirit. So, your Wise Advocate.
Now, what we want is our true self, and what we’re going to now learn through mindfulness, or with mindfulness helping us, is how to access more regularly, as Tom said, as Paul admonishes us, pray without ceasing, bring into our daily life, moment by moment, our connectedness with our Advocate, the paraclete, helper, comforter, advocate, counselor, encourager, strengthener, friend, and through that guidance, get more in touch with our true self. Living according to your true self means seeing yourself and who you really are based on your sincerest striving to embody the values and achieve the goals your truly believe in.
It included approaching yourself, your true emotions and needs from a loving, caring, nurturing perspective that is consistent with how your loving inner guide, your Wise Advocate sees you. Again, worded in the book to have secular sort of consistency, but as we see far more powerfully, very amplified, much more user-friendly if understood in the Christian context. Now this brings us up to a quote that [laughs] Steve Evans used last night and I’m going to use it again, and I’m happy because through repetition it can sink in a little more. And this is Soren Kierkegaard’s definition of faith. “The definition of faith, by which I steer my course as by a sure mariners’ mark. Faith is that the self is grounded transparently in God.”
So through our connection with our Wise Advocate, the Holy Spirit, we, through grace try to ground ourselves transparently in God. Now we never really achieve that in our earthly life, but we’re always striving for that, and as Kierkegaard points out, for every generation, faith is new, because every generation has to strive for this anew. In our earthly life, we never completely achieve it, but we’re always looking for grace, opening ourselves to grace, trying to connect with The Wise Advocate, to become closer and closer, the approximation of what God intends us to be, i.e. grounding ourselves transparently in God.
Faith is the self grounded transparently in God. So what is mindfulness? Okay, on the one hand, mindfulness is easy to describe as just a mental action. Basically what it is, is a third-person perspective on first-person experience. But we get both the inner experience, and the outer experience, and the perspective from both directions. This is where, again, the Trinity empowers the concept of mindfulness, because definitely from a classical secular perspective, say Adam Smith, the great Scottish philosopher and economist, the author of “The Wealth of Nations” very much used the concept, the impartial spectator to ground his moral theory. That’s saying okay, we’re trying to see ourselves as an impartial spectator would observe our inner life. Transparently before God.
We’re striving to be able to stand transparently before God. Not that we have to be transparent for God to know. Of course that’s not what that means. What that means is that we’re trying to become more transparent so that we can see what God has as a purpose for us, and that brings in the Advocate. That brings in the paraclete. As we get in contact with the Holy Spirit, through this, yes, process of inner observation, but inner observation informed by our connection with the Holy Spirit, then we have an activity of clear-minded observation. So that’s the core of what mindfulness is. Clear-minded observation of our inner life. But informed, highly, morally, spiritually informed. At least that’s what we’re striving for it to be and that’s the part that is getting edited out of this highly secularized version that is now being popularized.
So, it’s definitely a state of mind, but it takes effort striving to get to it. It doesn’t just start out all that clear-minded. You just can’t be in a mindfulness zone without the striving, without the effort, without grace, without help, without prayer. So all of these things have very very mutually beneficial interactions with mindfulness. Prayer, observation, insight, all are helped, help us be mindful, and are aided by mindfulness. Awareness, a presence of mind about what is happening right now, a focus, very important and forgotten too often in the secularization.
Mindfulness in the pre-Christian tradition is described as guarding the mind, consciously directing your attention with a moral spiritual guard, being aware of all the things that can come in through the senses which are not consistent with what God’s love for us entails, that is not consistent with what God wants for us as our true self, which impedes us standing transparently before God. So the components of mindfulness are this observational, so it’s a direct observation and knowing in that sense, and a deep experiential awareness that very much includes an awareness of the need for grace to stand transparently before God. We cannot do that on our own, and being knowledgeable about what is is happening in this moment as it’s happening, so it’s in the present moment but very much connected with a broader flow of experience, and very much directed towards this goal, this goal of faith, this goal of standing transparently before God, and approaching your experiences and feelings through clear direct observation.
Clear direct observation rather than through sinful thoughts and false concepts that cloud your perceptions. And in any society, this one obviously being no exception, there’s lots of things coming in through the society that are giving us sinful thoughts and false concepts. So we need this connectedness to not be seduced by these sinful thoughts and false concepts, and through the Wise Advocate, we approach our experiences and feelings through this kind of of very special, through grace, direct observation. So in the extra session, we’re going to practice this a bit because it’s very eminently doable and very practicable, and we will practice it in the extra session.
And I’ll just conclude by saying, in my book “You Are Not Your Brain”, and in fact all the work that I’ve done over the years, I’ve been using these four steps to make mindfulness more user-friendly in a variety of contexts, and these steps are put labels on things so that you know what’s happening, call things what they really are. If it’s lust, call it lust. If it’s anger, call it anger. Know the sins as they arise. Know the sinful nature of your mind. Consciousness of sin gives us the arising of awareness, of our need for grace. This is very consistent with faith and coming, striving to stand transparently before God. Reframe things, which means correct the cognitive distortions. So much in the previous talk about that was excellent. Remember, a lot of this is the society working though your brain, sending you sinful thoughts and cloudy perceptions, and then focus with mindfulness. Pray, focus on good things. Many New Testament scriptures on that, and as you that regularly, the regular practice rewires your brain and leaves you to revalue, and when you revalue the really beneficial change in brain happens. This capacity becomes part of your habit brain, and then you find yourself automatically, habitually going into this prayer-type state, this mindfulness-type state. Pray without ceasing, and now your brain is starting to work for you and not against you through the grace of God, through Jesus Christ. Thank you very much.
Thanks for watching, everyone. If you want to watch other videos from this same session, check ’em out right here. And if you really want to follow all the videos that are coming out on the sin of our Christian thought, make sure you subscribe to our channel.