The Renewal of the Mind (& Neuroplasticity)
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)
When given free reign, our minds spend a significant amount of time rehashing negative memories and imagining negative futures. This mental wandering or “worrying” occurs largely undetected, making it particularly dangerous. We cannot address a problem of which we are unaware. It is for this reason that Scripture calls us to awareness of our inner life. We are admonished by Paul to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), and by Solomon to “watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Knowing our inner workings and taming our worry is a prerequisite to being spiritually healthy.
Our tendency toward negative rumination about the past and future leads to a number of difficulties, including:
The alternative to this aimless wandering of the mind—this worrying—is to become more intentional about how we relate to our thoughts. While we might traditionally think of an intentional response as that of changing our thoughts, experience proves this difficult. Trying to change or stop a thought can backfire by locking that thought into a struggle. In trying to convince ourselves that a negative thought is not true, we ironically continue to think about the negative thought.
Mindfulness provides another option, a practice allowing for the “renewal of the mind” spoken about in Romans 12:2. This practice is that of curiosity and acceptance about our worried or wandering thoughts. When I accept that a particular thought has entered the thought stream, without judging or suppressing it, I can become curious about my experience surrounding the thought and thereby reduce my focus on it. For example, I might ask: What other thoughts are present with this thought? What physical sensations do I notice in my body as I think this—is there muscle tension, a shift in the breath pattern, quickening of the heart beat, clenching in the gut? What urges emerge for me in conjunction with this thought?
So mindfulness includes an expansion of our awareness in each moment beyond language—a more direct experience of the world beyond thinking about it. While thinking can indeed serve us well, it is unhelpful (or even harmful) when we fall into mental rumination about questions that do not have answers (especially when these questions relate to our own worth or success). Most “why” questions fall in this category, along with most “what’s wrong with me” questions. No amount of logic can heal questions like “why did this happen to me?” or “what’s wrong with me?” We ask those questions because we are longing for something deeper than a logical response. Through mindfulness, we move away from trying to figure it out and open ourselves to God’s presence that takes away fear.
Amazingly, research has been revealing neurological changes that occur in the brain when we practice mindfulness on a regular basis. Mindfulness meditation quiets parts of the brain that react to pain (physical and emotional) and lights up parts of the brain that support happiness. God has created an amazing relationship between our minds and our bodies, so that the “renewal of the mind” (Romans 12:2) not only strengths our relationship with God and improves our emotional sense of well-being, but it also strengthens our brains and bodies for his service. And the more we practice healthy thinking through mindfulness meditation, the easier it becomes for our brains to continue this pattern.
"Those who have abandoned themselves to God always lead mysterious lives and receive from God exceptional and miraculous gifts by means of the most ordinary, natural and chance experiences in which there appears to be nothing unusual. The simplest sermon, the most banal conversations, the least erudite books become the source of knowledge and wisdom to these souls by virtue of God’s purpose. This is why they carefully pick up the crumbs which clever minds tread underfoot, for to them everything is precious and a source of enrichment."