Tag Archives: spirituality

Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.

This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.

There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.

A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.

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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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Skipping Workouts and Discipleship Training

  

A Patchingcracks Post

 Several friends of mine have been employed by gyms. All of them have shared similar, very funny stories about gym members who show up regularly, dressed in the finest of exercise clothes, spouting workout advice to anyone who will listen, though never seeming to manage to work out themselves. These folks maintain an expensive gym membership, show up regularly, but it makes no discernible difference in their everyday lives. The reason for this lack of impact should be obvious: even though these folks look and talk the part of the fitness fanatic, their lack of exercise yields the predictable results. As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s nothing new. James acknowledges the phenomena amongst 1st century Christians when he wrote that anyone who hears the word, but doesn’t do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, but immediately forgets what he looks like. The idea is that the man hears what God expects of him and is shown his sin, but doesn’t bother to live differently as a result of the revelations. Churches are far too frequently heavily populated by folks with memberships, who wear their finest church clothes as they faithfully show up and offer spiritual advice to those around them, but never manage to grow spiritually by putting into action the teachings of Jesus. Dallas Willard attributes this phenomena to the decision amongst church leaders to teach that discipleship is an optional part of following Christ. Essentially, the modern church has chosen to teach its attenders that Jesus can be their Savior, without being their Lord. The emphasis has been that we need only believe in Jesus to be saved. This is absolutely true, but it is only part of the picture. Because if we truly believe Jesus is the Son of God and that He died to take punishment for our sins, then we must also recognize the rest of His teachings, including the demand that we claim Him as our Lord and take on the yoke of His teachings. These two ideas change everything, but they can be tough to understand without proper context.  

Lord: In the ancient world, if someone was your “lord” it meant that they were your master. You obeyed their will as your ultimate, totally authoritative boss. Paul is not overstating the concept in the least when he calls himself a slave to Christ. In this modern western world, this word conjures images of an abusive overseer, but this is not accurate to who Christ is. He is a loving, self-sacrificing master who lays down His life for His followers. He bids us to love Him and each other as He has loved us. Now, it’s important to recognize that loving is not synonymous with permissive. A loving parent doesn’t let their kids run wild. Rather, they discipline and teach their children, helping them to grow/mature into good people and prepare them for the rest of their life. The same is true of Christ, who leads us to become what God created us to be and prepares us to enjoy life with God. Jesus being our lord is a total life commitment, not an image or part time commitment.The Yoke of His Teachings: A yoke is a large piece of wood that lays across the neck of an ox or other beast of burden. The yoke transforms the effort of the oxen into work, by moving a plow, hauling a cart, or turning a millstone. Ancient students were said to take on the “yoke” of their teacher when they learned the teachings of their masters. Essentially, Jesus is calling us to take on His teachings, that turn our efforts into something valuable. That something valuable is our maturing into people who have hearts like Jesus’. It is also our good works that make our world look like the kingdom of heaven. Taking on Jesus’ yoke means learning/living/loving His teachings. It is a lifestyle of training for heaven. The good news is that Jesus describes His yoke as “easy” and the burden of His teachings as “light.” It doesn’t crush us, though there are those who think it ought to and try to change the teachings of Jesus into something that is unbearable. 

For everyone who chooses to call themselves a Christian and align themselves with Jesus, discipleship and growth is essential. Jesus was serious when He said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” He was also serious when He warned that not everyone who says to Him “Lord, lord” will be accepted into heaven. There are those who He will turn away saying: “I never knew you.” Discipleship is following Christ, not earning heaven. It is the call to all who identify Him as Savior.  

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