One of my pathological traits is that I am a ruminator. By that I mean that I am an anxious worrier. Do you ever struggle with anxiety or some other nagging interior thoughts? I often imagine that I am suffering from some undiagnosed disease, or that some metaphysical shoe is about to magically fall upon my head, you know, to keep me honest. Hey, I am trying to be honest here!
And I obsess or ruminate over these thoughts. When I do, I am not at my best, and I irritate those who love me the most.
One day during a season of great worry and doubt, I took my family on a hike. It was a brisk, early springtime morning and we enjoyed the scent of blooming flowers and the lack of summertime bugs. And this was during a season when I just knew that there was some disease lurking inside my body waiting to pounce like a rebel force. It was a period in my life when I thought like this often. As we ascended the trail, I had a thought. Perhaps a "eureka moment!" I blurted the idea out to my wife, "You know right now, at this very moment, I feel as though I am healthy. I do not think I am dying of anything. I feel certain of it!"
She did not think I could see her, but I caught it - she rolled her eyes. "Good," she said, "That is what I have been telling you. Now, let's enjoy this hike!" Imagine that - having my mind freed up enough to enjoy the moment I was currently in - sounds good to me.
Later that night, she was in bed and I stayed up watching television, my wife sent me a text. It was of an NPR story about how going into "nature" was good for our mental health. It spoke of something the Japanese call sinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing." My great takeaway was that ruminators - like myself - struggle when we sit inside of rooms or boxes because the physical space made our mental movements stay close to us, lock up, and ever-present. However, being outside, at a beach, in the woods, or on the plains, allowed our thoughts to escape into the atmosphere like billowing smoke from a fire.
It appears that the answer to rumination or anxiety might be as simple as getting outside. Such a notion is becoming quite popular with our current Zeitgeist. All you need to do is visit the self-help section of a bookstore, or listen to a few podcasts on the subject. Even Time magazine features stories on "forest bathing" as a cure for the ruminating mind.
But alas, solving one's anxiety is never as easy as the combination of good intentions and going outside. I know, because I have it - anxiety is the thorn in my flesh - and it impacts every area of my life: family, work, ministry, and inner-peace. Wasn't it Woody Allen who said in some movie, "because you know, my anxiety is like aerobics." Yes, I feel like that! If overcoming anxiety and worry were easy, then St. Paul's words would suffice: "Do not worry about anything, rejoice in the Lord always" - you know the rest: there is a promise of peace and all that happy stuff! I do not know how often I expressed worry to another Christian only to have St. Paul's words thrown at me like spaghetti on a wall. "You know," they say, "it is wrong to worry, and if you just give it to God, then he'll give you peace...it is promised in the Bible." I guess I am just not getting this stuff yet. Maybe I lack the spiritual "it factor."
I do not want to come off as callous; I sincerely hope I am not. I have tried. Ridding oneself of worry is hard stuff. And though I am still on my journey, I believe this stuff matters, and I will hopefully continue to improve in terms of my worry, anxiety, and stress. May I ask, friends, is this as hard for you as it is for me? If you can hear my voice, I suspect that you might have struggled with a little anxiety at one time or another too. The Anxiety and Depression Society of America estimates that anxiety affects 40 million adults every year.
I know, friends, it might seem like I am questioning Paul's wisdom (or at least questioning the wisdom of those who throw around his words around like rocks into a pond), but something about this passage strikes me today in a fresh and exciting way. Specifically, it is the presence of verse 8. Oh, I love verse 8. It reads:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.
Indeed, in this exhortation, our beloved St. Paul (who suffers in jail and writes to a church under persecution) sounds prescient when it concerns neurology, psychology, and contemporary ideas concerning mindfulness. There is much evidence coming from these quarters that suggest that we can change our brains through mental exercises like thinking of beautiful and good ideas as opposed to threatening ones. Sometimes the exercises mix physical activity with thought experiments that utilize the imagination. These and techniques like them elicit what is called neuroplasticity, a studied reality within the fields of neuroscience and psychology. And in the area of mindfulness/meditation, it has been shown that practitioners can "change their relationship" with negative ruminations, anxiety, and the like through focusing on the present moment and breath.
I know, I know, there is a history of spirituality that says: "name it and claim it," or be positive for the sake of positivity. Its history and theology are questionable, indeed. And I know that our American history says be optimistic; in fact, optimism is in the DNA of the American spirit. How many times have you been told that you can do anything you set your mind to? Yet, and I am being honest, I have never dunked a basketball, and more painfully, life is filled with the lamentable and the tragic like disappointment, death, disease, and loss. That life is often lamentable is something we are reminded of in the Psalms, this should not be a surprise to people devoted to Holy Scripture.
Yet, let's not miss the truth that our thoughts have power. Neuroplasticity - the fact that one may be able to change connections within the brain - has been an exciting discovery for me personally and as a pastor. These findings pose exciting possibilities for the task of spirituality when concerning addiction, obsessions, compulsions, and the like.
Mindfulness is also relevant today. I'll never forget talking to a parishioner who happened to be a psychiatrist. I had gone from being our church's associate minister to the sixth senior minister in its near 100-year history. I told her that my chest had flutters ever since I transitioned from my former office to the larger one down the hall. "The only way I could make it go away," I said, "was to do cardio workouts." She replied, "Cardio is good, but not in those moments. You need a mindfulness practice to bring a sense of calm during times of high stress." Under her direction, I purchased a subscription to a meditation and mindfulness app and began. It was only on the fifth day of my practice that I discovered something. My self-talk, my favorite ideas, all the stuff I had given my brain for a diet was not helping me.
Mindfulness and meditation taught me that I desperately needed a new diet for my brain in order to have spiritual and mental health. So, I have gone back and read the poets. The poets are helpful because they wisely call us out of our ruminations and challenge us to open our eyes to the glory of the Lord shining through all creation. In fact, good poetry like that of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Wendell Berry is actually St. Paul's exhortation in practice, written on the page...whatever is true, noble, lovely, indeed. I have delved deeply into the mystics. Christian mystics help, because they encourage us to sense our connection to divinity through meditation and contemplation. I have found this sense of connection to the divine is where I sense I am most at home! Of course, I consulted the great theologians. Again and again, the great theologians like St. Irenaeus remind us that "the glory of God is a human being fully alive." Ruminating on fear is not full living, thus God wants something different for us.
Lastly, my friends, but certainly not least, I have gone back to the sacred source of Holy Scripture. And chief among its many exhortations that may be applied to the matter, are the words of St. Paul. And his witness to me says: do not overlook beauty, goodness, truth, and certainly do not overlook what gives joy. There is something about thinking about such things that is inherently life giving, not life taking.
What did he know of neuroscience or mindfulness? Probably nothing, but the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to tell people under duress something that would help - and that was to fix their minds on transcendence, and joy, and delight, and grace, because only such things will bring life. In fact, such reflections will carry you through jail cells of rumination and even the pains of persecution.
Now, it would diminish St. Paul's witness to place his letter in the area of self-help and all the rest. But we should not mistake the theological truth that God meets us where we are and give us the help we need when we face many trials. Paul was in jail, and the Philippians were under persecution. We, my friends, have encountered a pandemic, economic distress, racial injustice, and so much more. So here, here’s to the ruminators - like me: when the worries come at you from all sides, remember what is beautiful, good, and true - train your brain in the way of justice and truth.