“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. … And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” ~ Elie Wiesel
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” ~ 1 John 4:7-8
The Habit of Love (Greek – αγαπη – pronounced ah-gah-pey)
What is love? Is love sacrifice or affection? Is it both? Is it erotic or is it a form of friendship? Is it mercy, compassion, courageousness, vulnerability or empathy? Is it all of these? Is it justice? What is tough love and how does it differ from unconditional love? Should love be directed to the stranger or to those more familiar? The particular word used for love in Galatians 5:22-23 is αγαπη (agape). The definition of ἀγάπη in Strong’s or Thayer’s Dictionary is generally “brotherly love, affection, goodwill, love, benevolence.”[i] Beyond this simple definition, some define agape more along the lines of self-sacrifice, while others stress affinity or affection. We already see that there is much room for debate and we’re only just scratching the surface!
The concept of love is as imprecise as it is central to who we are. The Ancient Greeks had several ways of categorizing love: erao“to be in love with, to desire passionately or sexually;” phileo“have affection for;” agapao“have regard for, be contented with,” and stergo, used especially of the love of parents and children.”[ii] Merriam-Webster defines agape simply as love, eros as self-gratifying or erotic love, and philia as friendship love.[iii]
One way of viewing the self-sacrifice of agape is by replacing our desire with instead God’s desires for us. In our culture, there is much talk about freedom. But what is freedom? Cicero described it as participation in power. Many of the things that we are invited to participate in that are part of culture might not truly give us more freedom, but draw us into more servitude. I might be invited to have more power to purchase through a credit card, but ultimately this participation produces huge debt which will shackle me. Replacing our will with God’s will for us, gives us the freedom from addictions and things that are not good for us. God’s will for us gives us freedom for goodness, righteousness, wonder and most especially love. Freedom involves commitment. The longer and deeper we draw into a real commitment in serving and loving God, the greater freedom for goodness we receive. When we are good then the goodness courses through us neurologically. It is freedom for receiving God’s goodness by feeling and experiencing this very goodness. In the Hebrew Bible the word חֶסֶד(Strongs #2617), pronounced hesedin English, signifies this kind of love. It is love in action. It is mercy. But we can go deeper. Love is tangible. To say I love you without also showing how we love someone is not really to love them at all.
Christ says that you will know his disciples by their fruits (Matt 7:16). We are called to fill ourselves with the fruits of the Spirit, such as love, joy, and peace (Gal 5:22-23). The fruits of the Spirit are tangible ways that we can express love. In this way it is an emptying of our selves of what is not of God, such as sin and bad habits. If we empty ourselves, we can allow God to fill us through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). God can fill us with thanksgiving, grace, and love; all things that come from God. We can then become a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving loving others in mutual affection (Romans 12:1-13).
The Neuroscience of Love
To understand what it is to love another, we need to understand what something is for ourselves. This is the most basic element of empathy. Love begins in empathy. Unless we can enter into the emotional reality of others there is no room for love. Allowing yourself to be affected by another person tears down the wall that has kept you separated. We discover in our connection that the other and our self are in fact one and the same.
Jesus said that the law and prophets hung on the Great Commandment, that we are to love God with all our hearts, minds and soul. We are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. From this starting point, we surrender to God. In our surrender we commit ourselves to love others as we commit to loving ourselves. We are engaged in God’s mission of bringing the entirety of reality into the will of God. In the gospels, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The word translated as heart is from לֵבָב(Strong’s #3824). This word means both heart and mind, though is generally only translated as heart. Our mind, body, spirit, and will are one and are not to be separated. The word translated as might is מְאֹד(Strong’s #3966). Its meaning is also richer. It means might, but also strength or even our very suchness. Suchness might seem a strange concept, but it signifies our very being. We are to love God, self, and neighbor with our very being. This is far more than mental acceptance. It is being transformed into new life. Entering this place of connection changes us. We are moved from one mindset to another.
This is what Jesus meant when he said that blessed are the pure of heart (Matthew 5:8). When our hearts and minds are geared toward love then we see and know love. Love becomes our guidepost and lens for the world. For God is love. Another example is from Luke 17:21 when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within (ἐντός)you. Within us is the hardwiring for love.
Below are five primary ways that God’s reign of love is hardwired into our very being. They are strengthened through love toward God, our neighbors, and ourselves:
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC): Belief in a cold, harsh, and distant God produces in us fear and aggression. To believe in a cold and critical God activates the limbic system and particularly the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond shaped structure in the brain that is responsible for the detection and response to threats. If we believe in a cold and distant God then fear and despair will be our reality. Acting as a sort of fulcrum between our emotional limbic system and the logical prefrontal cortex is an area of our brain known as the anterior cingulate. It has been called the heart of our brain because when our thoughts, actions, and worldview are fixed on love and loving relationships, this part of the brain is strengthened and activated.[iv] Through it we are wired for love and connection. Its unique cells called von Economo neurons are extensive and guide us to positive emotions. Prolonged anger and anxiety will impair the function of the anterior cingulate.
The ACC also plays a major part in the process of emotions. It helps you process God as kind and loving. It regulates spiritual anxiety, guilt, anger, and fear. It helps in your understanding of empathy and compassion. It is sometimes called the “heart” of the brain. Self-discipline and acts of love will strengthen the ACC. Intense and prolonged fear or addictions will weaken it. It plays a large role in listening to the brain’s circuitry toward the fear response or to choose the governance of the prefrontal cortex’s inhibition of the limbic system. It is a mediator between our feelings and our thoughts. A stronger ACC will help slow down the amygdala’s role in the fear response.
Prefrontal Cortex: The front part of the frontal lobe is known as the prefrontal cortex and it is very important to your integration of self. In How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman demonstrate through research and imaging how the frontal lobe “creates and integrates all your ideas about God – positive or negative”.[v] If the concepts that govern our minds are powerful, then they will help synchronize with all of our other bodily systems and integrate our prefrontal cortexes. Love is the most powerful and positive of all concepts. It is the nature of God. And at the heart of love is connection. Our brain circuitry will form connection and deepen if our thoughts are fixed on our union with God. Three areas of the frontal lobe that are empowered and empower our union with God are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is associated with inhibiting inappropriate social behaviors. It works in conjunction with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) especially regarding coordination of emotional reaction. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) is involved in moral and ethical decision making as well as making meaning of life. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is the area of the frontal lobe that is responsible for our executive function. There is much research showing that the innermost values that we continually focus on will indeed reframe, strengthen, and restructure our brains.[vi]
We are empowered by thoughts and conceptions of God’s love for us and our union with God. The prologue of John’s gospel reminds us of the union of God and the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word is with God and is God. This is not a distant or harsh God. This is the God of love revealed to us in Christ. The God of love is also with us. Another name for our Lord is Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Scripture reminds us of our togetherness with God. Without concepts that ground us in this love, we will be lost from the start. Fear and threat will hijack our amygdala if we are not grounded in the reality of love. Fear will prevent us from utilizing our executive function and our prefrontal cortex.
Insula and Somatosensory Cortex: The insula helps us interpret our emotions. Imaging has shown that the right frontal insular cortex connects with an ability to empathize with the pain of others. Imaging also shows that it plays a role in the ability to feel one’s own bodily organs such as the heartbeat. It helps us with greater self-awareness through connecting how our emotions are processed in the body. “The insula detects body states that are induced by emotions as part of a process that brings our emotional experiences into our consciousness.”[vii] Another area of the brain that helps us connect with feelings all over the body is the somatosensory cortex of the parietal lobe. It contains a sensory map of all the areas of feeling over your body, such as the face, hands, and legs. If we are angry or afraid, and we have a strong connection to our body, then we will feel things like our jaw clinched or our palms sweating. Other bodily states that connect with our emotions might include knots in our stomach, a sense of lightness, goosebumps, flushed cheeks, or feeling heavy and off-center. Certain bodily states connect with certain emotional states. Unless we take the time to understand how our emotions feel in our own bodies, we will never be able to appreciate the emotional experience of another person. If we are mindfully aware of our body’s sensations, then it will strengthen our insula. It will strengthen our empathy. This concept is so important, that at the end of the sections on each fruit of the Spirit there is a focus question to help you feel how the particular fruit of the Spirit or bad fruit is working in your body. With greater knowledge of the bodily sensations working in us, we will have greater awareness of the riches working in us. We will also be able to help other people name and celebrate how the fruits of the Spirit are working in their bodies. You might wonder why it would be helpful to take time examining how our negative emotions and experiences make us feel. There are exercises in this book to help you investigate indifference, anxiety, desperation, and hate. Often, we are unaware of our negative feelings because of past trauma or from habit. Taking the time to slow down and observe our negative feelings helps us label them and overcome them. It can also help us invite others to do the same for themselves.
Oxytocin: Oxytocin is a neuropeptide. It helps us feel safe and secure. The release of oxytocin from the hypothalamus helps drop the level of cortisol stress hormones. This also helps blood pressure drop. A soothing and warm touch helps the process unfold. It is not necessary to have touch, however. The connection of your mind and heart to remembering that you are loved and connected also has a similar effect. Dan Goleman in his book Social Intelligencespeaks to how we can condition the release of oxytocin by putting ourselves in the proximity of people we feel safe and secure with. There have also been studies that show that time with our pets, especially dogs, can help build and strengthen the release of oxytocin. When we activate a memory or image in our mind, we activate the prefrontal cortex. The feeling of being secure and loved within these images and memories will strengthen the circuits to release oxytocin.
Our relationship, bond, affection, and security in God are also rewarded by oxytocin. Our love of God draws us toward altruism, security, bonding, and greater acceptance of outgroups; all features of increased levels of oxytocin. Fr. Pedro Arrupe captures the effect well in this poem:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, that is, than
Falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.[viii]
Parietal Lobe: It is one of the four lobes of the cerebral cortex. Its circuitry with other parts of the brain plays a very significant role in our feeling of union with God. It helps establish our understanding of self with space, time, and objects. The parietal-frontal circuit, in particular, helps establish a relationship between our conceptions of “self” and “God”.[ix] It helps establish the feeling of God’s presence in time and space as well as our connection to this reality. The more we pray and meditate on God’s presence, the more it becomes real. What is tremendously interesting is that intense prayer on the oneness of God and our connection to all things, will help decrease activity in the parietal lobe and lead to an increased sense of selflessness. Through prayer and meditation, there is more of an awareness of “we” rather than simply just “I”. Rather than being egocentric, our mind can alter our perception of self so that we see ourselves as part of all things. Often people consciously or unconsciously think about their divisions. Because the parietal lobe is involved in understanding relationship in time and space, concentrating on an understanding of division in the world will produce more activity in the parietal lobe associated with those divisions. With so many societal distinctions that focus on separation and distinction, such as conservative/liberal, black/white, communist/capitalist, etcetera, the ability to overcome division is critical to our ability to engage in empathy and love.
Neuroscience is now helping show how our connection to the oneness of God works in our brains through the parietal-frontal circuit. Our belief and God’s gracedraw us into this union. And it changes our neurophysiological makeup. We can now see that when we enter into union with God, we are indeed changed. Christ does not separate His community from Himself. They have changed and become part of Him. Or as the apostle Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). This same point is beautifully detailed in our previous example from the gospel of John: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). Continued prayer, action, and reflection that strengthens our connection with the oneness of God will continue to strengthen our parietal-frontal circuit so that we may live more deeply in and by this incredible truth. God will make a home in us. Love makes a home in us.
Love: A Theological Perspective
God is love (1 John 4:8). This is one of the simplest yet most profound statements in the entire Bible. Equally exciting is the scripture that reminds us that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Our makeup is geared toward love, for God is love. The ultimate reality and our spiritual home are union with God. Love is our response to the frailties and horror of the world. Love heals divisions. Love draws us to engage and embrace our enemies.
Our freedom, God’s gift to us, is given with the risk that we will not love and obey God’s will. It is only because there is a choice that there is love. If we had to obey God, then there would be no expression of love. There would be no relationship. But if we surrender to God, then we can become fertile ground for God’s grace to dwell. We can become filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in love, joy, peace, and gentleness. With courage we can expose ourselves and be vulnerable, opening ourselves up to risk. If we offer love or joy with the world, it may not be accepted. We may be rejected. We will get wounded. It is not a matter of if we will get wounded but when. If we live by risking our love over and over, we will get wounded. Over and over. But our wounds, like the wounds of Christ after his resurrection, make us wiser and more loving rather than more callous.
Jesus says in Mark 12:31, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment can also be found in the Old Testament, Lev. 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Hebrew word used is, אַהֵב, meaning to love God, friend, family member, or simply as human love.[x] In both these commandments we are reminded to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is not simply love of neighbor, but ourselves that we are also to love. Perhaps the most beautiful summary of love can be found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I believe if we are to seriously follow Christ’s commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves, we first need to apply this list to ourselves. Am I rude to myself? Am I patient with myself?
Unless we are willing and open to receive love ourselves, we will not be able to share love with others. We can receive God’s love for us by saying yes to God. We can say yes to joy, peace, patience, and kindness. When we start to give ourselves over to God’s work, then God will start working in us. This is real participation in power, God’s power working through us. It is the power of love.
A strong indicator of whether we are willing or unwilling to open ourselves up to God is attachment. At the heart of love is connection. More than anything else in all the world, what we want most is connection. How we connect with our parents, ourselves and our children is an area of psychology known as attachment theory. With secure relationship with our parents we can have a more secure ability to form healthy relationships of attachment throughout our lives. We are also able to help our children learn healthy relationships of attachment and connection. Sadly, when we have damaged, avoidant or anxious relationships with our parents, that damaged style of connection is often unconsciously projected onto our relationship with God. Remote and distant parents who are uncaring often lead children to grow into adults who see God as remote, distant and uncaring. Curt Thompson writes in his Anatomy of the Soul that “the attachment status of adults predicts with an 80 percent degree of confidencethe attachment pattern that their own children will develop toward them”.[xi] How we love our children will shape how they accept and find love in God. And how we love others will also shape their attachment style toward God and others. Even those who face many adverse childhood experiences can find earned secure attachment in their adult years by being surrounded by loving relationships that they can trust.
With all of the pain and hurt in the world, it might be hard for us to see God’s love. Even the few people who Jesus raised from the dead one day died again. Dorothy Linthicum and Janice Hicks, in their Redeeming Dementia, remind us that “our tie with God does not depend entirely upon our own selves and minds, as Western individualistic culture is prone to think, but instead on the ‘overflow’ of God’s reach to us.”[xii] Especially in the areas of dementia and our human frailty, it is God’s love for us that we can turn. It is okay to question and doubt from time to time in our lives where God’s love is. In the face of horror, hardship, or societal sins, it is hard to find love. In our questioning, we think of ways that we may be God’s love to the world. In our doubt we can empathize with others who are also facing their own uncertainty. And in our faith, we can be reminded that our hope lies in the world to come and that Christ has conquered death and sin.
The Neuroscience of Indifference
Many might define the opposite of love as fear. Rather than arguing what might be an exact opposite, this section will help detail the role of indifference as opposed to love. Later chapters go deeper into the role of fear in regards to anxiety and desperation. Many things can come into direct opposition with any of the individual fruits of the Spirit. What is important is that we understand how our systems have become hijacked and how to bring them back into relishing the Way of Love.
Where hate toward others might draw us into action, indifference causes us not to see or care about things going on in the world around us. To be indifferent can be so callous as to close off the heart and mind to the other in such a way that it almost does not exist. That there are nearly a billion people who are starving or undernourished in the world is such a horrifying reality that perhaps some people who remain indifferent do not want to think about it because it can be overwhelming.[xiii] To consider or ruminate over all the many horrible things going on in the world is to take some personal responsibility for societal sin. Each one of us is part of the wrongs of the world. To be too overwhelmed by ruminating over this can cause the stress response to go out of control. To let all the pain, hurt and misery of the world to overwhelm us would be unbearable. It might cause us to freeze. But without real lamentation at the injustice of the world, there is no room for love.
I believe it is because of our faith in God, that we can bear the pain and suffering of the world. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, we can ask ourselves what we can do to make a difference. We can be reminded of the Great Commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our mind, heart and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is three part. We are to love God, love our neighbor, and retain love of our self. To be lost in ruminating on the pain and suffering of the world is not our call or our responsibility.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”Scripture reminds us that “those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters,are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sisterwhom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Martin Luther King, Jr. also wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Whether we choose to accept it or not, we are all intimately connected.
Though we are all intimately connected, we can choose indifference. As a neuroscientific example of how indifference can work, take a minute to feel what is going on in your hand. Hold it out in front of you without touching anything. If you take the time, you can feel individual joints, your fingernails, and even the little hairs on your skin. Much of the time we are not consciously aware of these sensations because we do not take the time to examine them. This is exactly the same with indifference. These sensations will not seem to exist unless we take the time to let them into our awareness. We can be indifferent to the many different signals coming from our hand into our brains just as we can be indifferent to the fact that there are children shooting other children in cities throughout our country. We can be indifferent to poverty just like the joints of our hands. We can be indifferent to the feeling of our fingernails just like we can be indifferent to the suffering of others. Or we can be full of love and empathy.
Alexithymia is a condition marked by the inability to describe and relate to emotions. All of us suffer from it at varying degrees. Lamentation has a central role in scripture I believe largely to help us engage our emotions. Lamentation is feeling the sorrow of the world. Allowing yourself to feel passionately, both grief and sorrow, at the injustice and brokenness of the world is a building block of love. The meaning of the word lamentation in Latin signifies wailing and weeping. The more psychological distance we have from the pain of others, the less love we will experience.
There are famous experiments from the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram that showed that people, when given greater amounts of psychological distance, will opt for allowing more pain to others who are further removed from them. Dr. David Eagleman has also found this in his research. Social rejection causes pain. When we see those who we love experiencing pain, the pain matrix in our own brains produces real pain for us as well. This pain can be productive as it enforces our drive toward connection. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in helping establish ingroup and outgroup. Dr. Eagleman detailed in his PBS series on the brain that the medial prefrontal cortex is less active for many people when seeing photographs of the homeless because there is less connection to them.[xiv] The brain is shut off to their pain as if they have less existence or worth. This is the tragedy of indifference. The humanity of the other is lost just as our own humanity is lost. Love is lost.
Strengthening the Habit of Love
- Understanding Our Emotions
Empathy is at the heart of love. Unless we can relate to the feelings of others or our own feelings, we will not understand how to love others or ourselves. As shared earlier, the anterior cingulate and the insula are highly involved in our process of emotions.
It is very important to teach our children about how to identify and help regulate their emotions from the earliest of ages. We would not send mechanics into the world without first understanding how an engine works. Teaching children where the knee or toes are is as important as knowing how our parietal lobe works when we surrender to God’s love and knowledge that all is God. The brain is in large part the engine of the body. Why not give ourselves and our children the tools to access and shape it more effectively?
Some of the most inspiring work to draw unconscious feelings into awareness is being done by the psychotherapist Babette Rothschild. She studies the function of the body’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) especially in how it helps carry out commands sent to the body from the brain. The two main branches of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) are the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems. They play very active roles in our experience of emotion. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) functions with our body’s efforts to rest and digest. When we rest, more blood goes to our belly to digest food. We are more emotionally calm. A good metaphor is to think of it as our body’sbrake system. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is more involved in our body working to fight, take flight or to freeze under stress. It helps for a quick release of energy. It is more of an accelerator system. Activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) might increase heart rate, sweat and muscle tone as the body readies to fight, though many of us are unaware of our own bodies responding in these ways. Often the work of either of the two main branches of the ANS is unconscious. Sadness, grief, or shame might draw us into a more lethargic state such as that of the Parasympathetic Nervous System working in low arousal. Muscles slack, heart rate is lower, and breathing is shallower when the PNS is engaged. Emotions of rage, fear, anger, and excitement are much more associated with the Sympathetic Nervous System’s fight and flight activation.[xv] The amygdala and the body’s stress response system are also involved in the SNS. By becoming more aware of our bodies, we become more aware of our emotional life and the life of the world. We also become more aware of how the fruits of the Spirit are working inside of us or how bad fruits are working inside of us.
Below are some common bodily reactions to our emotional states. These are very real processes that are at work within us. An emotion is not merely a mental concept, but a cascade of actions and reactions within us. The more that we are aware of our involuntary bodily processes, the more we can influence our reactivity.
Common Bodily Reactions of Emotional States
|Feeling of connection, expansiveness, gratitude, curiosity, warmth, goosebumps, tears of wonder||Sick to the stomach, heaviness, pulled down, physical pain, feel like crying||Relaxed muscles, easy breathing, normal heart rate, rosy skin|
|Fast heart rate, cold sweat, dry mouth, evacuate bowels, tense muscles, hyperventilation, only able to focus on object of fear||Access to frontal cortex, aware of body and sensations, warm hands, expansiveness, digestive system at work||Clinched fists, tense muscles, fast breathing, elevated heart rate, likely not able to access frontal cortex|
Each emotional state comes with many different things. There is a sensation. Perhaps tightness, butterflies in the stomach, or blood boiling to name a few. It might be connected with an image of a particular event or person. Maybe there are certain behaviors of others or certain of your own behaviors that draw out the emotion. What behaviors are “playful’? What behaviors are “peaceful”? What does the emotion mean to you?
Peter Levine’s SIBAM method is an excellent tool to practice understanding how your emotions relate to your actions.[xvi] The SIBAM method takes into account five areas that create our emotional states and experience of the world. They are:
Sensation·Image ·Behavior ·Affect·Meaning
As an example, let’s take the behavior of watching the news.
Sensation: Tension in shoulders from stress, bewilderment, and dizziness from being overwhelmed, feeling of being drawn into hatred or anger at an opposing side
Image:Carnage, trauma, death, political corruption
Behavior:Watching the news
Affect:Sadness, anger, despair, frustration
Overall Meaning:Perhaps overall, there is a sense of wanting to connect with others by being informed. But with all the information in the world, why is there such a focus on the most horrible things going on? Overall, my time is better spent working for a church or nonprofit on actions that will help my community and build true and lasting connection.
I invite you to contemplate what emotional states are of concern in your life. The example from my life was watching the news each day. I discovered that I was very anxious. My heart rate was up. I was tense. I had stress and tension in my back. After contemplating it for some time, I realized that underlying my desire for news was a desire to feel connected. I discovered that watching more news was not connecting me more to others, but creating tension in my life. I decided with the help of others, to limit my news diet to 30 minutes per week. Since that time my anxiety has gone down. My blood pressure went down by ten points. I feel more connected to my family, friends and work environment. It was because I looked at all the aspects of the emotional process that I was able to change. If you look at all the aspects of your emotions, how will you be able to change?
The Process of Emotional Experience
What we experience is embodied by thoughts, meaning, sensations, feeling, and images. Conscious reflection on your feelings and behaviors will move your unconscious patterns into the light. The awareness of our mental and bodily states will help us gain control and form new neural character traits. You could start small by picking just one behavior. The chart above of common bodily reactions to emotions can also help you get started. If you are having trouble, you could use music to help you get in touch with your feelings. Music is powerful in eliciting our feelings. Each of us has songs that connect to our joy or pain. You can use them to help you know how your body responds in feeling to these emotions.
Use the SIBAM categories to get at the heart of what you were feeling. Using the above resources will help build your empathy toward others and yourself. With more empathy, the walls inside and outside of each of us will fall so that we will see the world more as our world rather than “my” world. This is like the Lord’s Prayer reminds us: “give usthis day ourdaily bread”. When we take time to understand how we feel and process experiences we can better love ourselves. We can also better understand how others feel so we can better love them. Through these practices, our neural circuits will change. Our capacity to love will grow. We will better love God.
Deeply listening to our bodies helps us better listen to the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Sometimes it is hard to feel and hear what God is calling us toward. We need to slow down and let the Holy Spirit speak to us through our bodies. Scripture reminds us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).
The SIBAM tool can help us find the deeper meaning behind what is going on in our bodies. It can be used for any experience of the fruit of the Spirit or of a bad fruit working in your life. Deep within our bodies we often groan for the very things that are hard for ourselves to receive. We groan for peace and joy. When we listen deeply to our bodies, then we can also find the source of the anxiety. To look deeply at the processes at work in our bodies will help us see the hidden chains that keep us bound. When we slow down, we can see the deeper meaning of why there is anxiety. We can also see how to overcome it. By looking deeply into ourselves we can be healed like the blind man of scripture. We can say to ourselves just as he said, “one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Think of one experience of a good fruit or bad fruit in your life, such as joy, addiction, peace or anxiety. Break down the experience of the good or bad fruit below sensing the various components:
Once you isolate the behavior of a bad or good fruit, you can start being more conscious of the feelings associated with it. You can also start seeing the meaning behind it. This will help you grow in that fruit or overcome a bad fruit. Take some time to linger on this tool each day and it will change your life. When you have an intense feeling let yourself take a step back and consider it as if you were doing research. You can examine your feelings and actions without being overcome by them. You can feel the emotion, such as anger or anxiety, inside of you without letting it define you. You can step back for a few minutes and consider what more might be going on. Some of the unconscious feelings or urges coursing through you can be overcome once you better understand their meaning.
- Meditation on God’s Love
There is nothing more powerful and life-affirming than our connection to God’s love. Meditation on God’s Word will draw us deeper and deeper into connection with God’s love. Combined with the previous exercise, meditation on scripture can help us feel God’s love and presence with us. Scripture helps us be drawn into the presence of God and to sense that presence coursing through us. It will help refocus us and reframe us. Scripture is infused with references to meditation: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14). Another example is Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Psalm 1:1-2 is also a good example: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” I am certain that you have favorite scripture that you remind yourself of often to remain in connection with God’s love. If not, I highly suggest it. Building and growing your knowledge of scripture will give you more strength and guidance. An excellent resource for meditating on God’s Word is the daily podcast of https://pray-as-you-go.org.
Our minds include both conscious working memory and unconscious implicit memory. When we dedicate our minds and our lives to meditating on God’s Word, we internalize and strengthen our neural pathways that remind us of God’s presence in the world. The more we concentrate on God’s love for us, the more that we will feel it in our bodies. The thalamus relays information that comes into our brains, but also overlays information onto the information we receive by interpreting it one way or another. We may not be consciously aware of all the ways that we interpret and remember our reality, but the more we infuse every moment, thought and action toward God’s love and God’s Word, the more that reality will live within us. In psychology there is a concept known as priming. Priming is our brain’s way of wiring unconscious influence toward specific responses. Continued reflection and relishing of God’s goodness will prime us to unconsciously expect and observe God’s goodness at work. The process works in the negative as well. We can be unconsciously drawn toward the negative when we perpetually dwell on and accept the negative. Constant meditation on God’s love will change our being. One of the best reminders of this is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” There are so many distractions and invitations pulling our minds one way or another. Many of the distractions are not good for us at all. Stilling our minds will still our bodies so that we can become vessels of God’s goodness and love. We can retrain our focus so that our holiness is both conscious and unconscious. When our working memory is aware of God’s presence working in and through our bodies and minds, we are deeply blessed: “for blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). Not only will we see God, but we will feel God’s love in us and with us.
- Centering Prayer to Strengthen Our Connection to God’s Love and Presence
Another tool that can draw us into our connection with God’s love is Centering Prayer. The parietal-frontal circuit, in particular, helps establish a relationship between our conceptions of “self” and “God”. It helps establish the feeling of God’s presence in time and space as well as our connection to this reality. The more we meditate on God’s presence, the more it becomes real. Centering Prayer is an exceptional tool to help find and strengthen our connection to God’s presence.[xvii] To practice Centering Prayer, find resources at www.contemplativeoutreach.org. A simplified version is below:
- Sit comfortably with eyes closed. Relax and let yourself be quiet. Revel in God’s love and presence surrounding you.
- Choose a sacred word, phrase, or passage from scripture that helps you remember God’s love and presence with you. Let the phrase or scripture be present to you.
- If you find that you are distracted simply return to the word, phrase, or scripture.
- Whenever you are aware of any other thoughts, feelings or images, simply return to your word or phrase that anchors you to God’s love.
- Practice the above for 20 minutes per day. You can set a gentle alarm timer to help yourself know your time.
Centering Prayer is not meant to simply be a 20-minute exercise, but a time to reframe our minds completely so that every moment of our lives we can invite and dwell in God’s presence. The more you practice Centering Prayer, the more you will feel God working in and through you; the more you will prime yourself to receive God’s riches that are hardwired into your being.
For Group Discussion or Personal Reflection:
Try this: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you most felt God’s love. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Do this for at least a minute allowing yourself to relive the experience. Now with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of lightness, connection, joy, peace, wonder, or awe? Perhaps you feel warmth? Where in your body do your feel these sensations? Describe below how it feels in your body to abide in God’s love.
Being more conscious of how it feels to abide in God’s love will help you receive and surrender to it. Also, the simple act of remembering God’s love will bring the neurological wash of healing back over you so that you can return to it again and again. You can do this exercise at the end of each day thinking of the time where you most felt God’s love the previous day.
Keeping the sensations in mind from the previous exercise, through what one habit will you let yourself go deeper to feel and relish in God’s love working in and through your body?
Try this with caution. Do not retraumatize yourself. If a memory comes to mind that is too challenging use a different memory: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you most felt indifference from someone whose love you desperately desired. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Allow yourself to briefly relive the experience. After fifteen seconds and with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of anger, despair, muscles clinched, knots in your stomach, or lost? Perhaps you feel like you’re dizzy and spiraling down? Describe below how it feels in your body to suffer from someone’s indifference.
Why even do an exercise to envision negative emotion? Being able to label and identify negative emotions and habits in our bodies helps us to drawn them into our consciousness so that we can overcome them. Often we are unaware and unconscious of the processes going on in our bodies. We can become hijacked by trauma, habit, and addiction. To slow down and safely observe our negative emotions and habits will help us overcome them. It can also help us teach others to do likewise.
What scripture, resources or tools from this book will help me overcome any of my own indifference toward others? Remember that Christ has called us to love our enemies.
What is one habitual tendency with my spouse, friends, family, or community that is stuck in a cycle of indifference and what specific changes would create more love?
What one specific and measurable goal to create more of God’s love do I have that will help overcome an ingrained practice of indifference at an organization, church, or political group that I belong to?
~ Pray ~
God, I am Yours. I say yes to love.
I will challenge and overcome my indifference.
I will lovingly invite others to overcome their indifference.
I surrender to your love.
[i]“ἀγάπη,” StudyLight, accessed April 26, 2015, http://www.studylight.org/lexicons/greek/gwview.cgi?n=26.
[ii]“Eros,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed December 5, 2018, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=eros&searchmode=none.
[iv]Timothy Jennings, The God Shaped Brain, (Illinois: IVP Books, 2014), 38.
[vi]Mark Waldman and Chris Manning, NeuroWisdom, (New York: DiversionBooks, 2017), 69.
[vii]Rita Carter, The Human Brain Book, (New York: DK, 2019), 138.
[viii]“Valentine’s Day: ‘Falling in Love’ by Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe,” Society of Jesus, accessed August 27, 2019, https://jesuits.org/news-detail?TN=NEWS-20140210025007.
[x]“אַהֵב,” StudyLight, accessed April 19, 2015, http://www.studylight.org/desk/interlinear.cgi?ref=02019018.
[xi]Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2010), 115.
[xii]Dorothy Linthicum and Janice Hicks, Redeeming Dementia: Spirituality, Theology, and Science, (New York: Church Publishing, 2018), 43.
[xiii]“Global hunger continues to rise, new UN report says,” World Health Organization, accessed September 5, 2019, https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/11-09-2018-global-hunger-continues-to-rise—new-un-report-says.
[xiv]“The Brain with David Eagleman, Episode 5, ‘Why Do I Need You?’,” PBS, accessed October 1, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/video/brain-david-eagleman-why-do-i-need-you-episode-5/.
[xv]Babette Rothschild, The Body Remembers: Volume 2, (New York: Norton, 2017), 38.
[xvi]Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice, (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2010), 139.
[xvii]“Centering Prayer,” Contemplative Outreach, accessed January 2, 2019, https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/centering-prayer.