Friday, September 30, 2011

Tricking our Brain for Happiness?

I received an article from a friend by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson titled "How to Trick Your Brain for Happiness."  I initially discarded it thinking it was another feel-good article promoting positive affirmation as seen on so many TV talk shows.  But then I began to think about the nature of the Orthodox Way of Life and how it truly brings one happiness.  Not in the sense of everything being good in life, for after all, life eventually ends with death no matter what we do to avoid it. But in the sense that it brings us to a relationship with God with the knowledge that there is eternal life where the cares of this world no longer exist.  The hope of this truth is true happiness.  Once this truth becomes a reality for us then we will experience well-being no matter what circumstances we face.

The article points some important things about the brain, which is part of our physical makeup and will be destroyed when we die, and its relationship with our mind which is part of our soul which will live eternally.

He points our three facts about the brain
   1. As the brain changes, the mind changes, for better or worse.
   2. As the mind changes, the brain changes
   3. You can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.

Now in spiritual terms this means that we can use our soul guided by the Holy Spirit which connects us to God to change the brain.  We can modify it so that it is not focused only of the trials and tribulations of this world leading us to feelings of depression, anger and so forth, all which are indication of a soul separated from God.

Dr. Hanson says, that "when people consciously practice gratitude, they are likely getting higher flows of reward-related neurotransmitters, like dopamine.  Research suggests that when people practice gratitude, they experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind, and that is probably correlated with more of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine."  What this says is that our conscious efforts to put into practice God's commandments can have a positive effect on our our brain works in everyday life.  This is the basis of the ancient ascetic practices in Christianity.  We are taught to pray regularly, to fast, to participate in the sacraments, to read the Bible daily and so forth.  These are all ways which we can use the mind to change the brain.

One of the fundamental practices of Christian monks and lay people is the practice of the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner). It is important to always remember this is a prayer and not just a technique and is only used based on faith and love of God.  As one engages to recite this preyer over and over with attention, our brain is changed becoming more open to the work of the Holy Spirit and increases our capacity to actually live according to God's commandments.  As Dr. Hanson says, "What flows through the mind sculpts the brain... As the mind flows through the brain, as neurons fire together in particularly patterned ways based on the information they are representing, those patterns of neural activity change neural structure."

Dr. Hanson says the key to the mind changing the brain is the use of attention.  Our brain is constantly being bombarded with stimuli that is, in most cases, beyond what it is capable of processing, so it takes automatic shortcuts.  Therefore, to control it we need to focus its attention on what our mind and soul knows to be important.  Attention is the most important aspect of prayer outside of the faith that leads us to prayer.  When we recite the Jesus Prayer we must draw our attention to the words and let them sink deep into our hearts.  As we do this time after time the prayers become ingrained in our heart and programed in our brain so that each action we take becomes an act of prayer where we have an awareness of God.

The Church Fathers refer to both this idea of attention and also wakefulness.  In prayer we need to have the attention of the mind to focus the brain on the words, forcing it to be directed where we choose on the prayer and with an awareness of to whom we are saying these words.  Then, in our daily life we must have a brain which is programed to listen and obey the mind and is ever watchful for those automatic shortcuts that lead us to actions that we which we would not have made.  

Research has shown in several experiments that prayer does change the nature of the brain.  Scripture is very clear that our challenge is to allow the mind in the soul to control all aspects of the body which lives in the fear of death and direct our attention to what is beyond this life.  This is done through the mind controlling the brain.  As Dr. Hanson says, "You can intentionally change your brain to create lasting happiness and well-being."

References: Article by Dr. Hanson, More on the Jesus Prayer and Orthodox Way of LIfe

Monday, September 26, 2011

What Causes Coldness in Prayer?

Many will blame the prayer or their prayer rule when they experience coldness in prayer.  Saint Theophan says, "If prayer is going poorly is not the fault of the prayer but the fault of the one who is praying." He points out that it is our haphazardness in our approach to prayer that is the most common problem.  For me, this occurs when I am in a hurry. I want to rush through my prayers so I can get on with a busy day.  When this happens my prayer become routine and my heart is cold in relation to the words of the prayer and it is no longer prayer.  It becomes simply another task for the day.

What do we do when we experience this coldness in prayer?  Saint Theophan says simply, "reprimand yourself and threaten yourself with Divine judgment."

When we are in a hurry we are making God secondary in our life.  Most of us spend very little time in prayer in relationship to all the other activities of our life.  We really do not have any excuse for trying to rush through our daily prayers.  We need to shame ourselves for this.  No one else can do this for us.  Our haste only leads to a compete waste of time. Prayer without feeling is not prayer.

Saint Theophan outlines what some people do in regards to prayer.
They set aside a quarter of an hour for prayer, or half an hour, whatever is more convent for them, and thus adjust their prayer time so that when the clock strikes, whether on the half hour or hour, they will know when it is time to end.  While they are at prayer, they do not worry about reading a certain number of prayers, but only that they rise up to the Lord in a worthy manner for the entire set time.  Others do this: Once they have established a prayer time for themselves, they find out how many times they can go around the prayer rope during that period... There are others who get so accustomed to praying that the times they spend at prayer are moments of delight for them.  It rarely happens that they stand at prayer for a set time only. Instead, they double and triple it. Select whichever method pleases you best.  Maintain it without fail...  
A large part of my daily prayer rule is reciting the Jesus Prayer.  For a while I would set a set number of prayers to accomplish my rule.  I found myself rushing to complete them in a shorter and shorter time. I even came up with innovative ways to say them faster.  I finally realized that I was not praying when I did this.  Prayer was not about numbers but about a arm feeling in the heart in an intimate relationship with God. So I changed my practice to one based on a set time.  Now I concentrate only on the words of the prayer, my Lord and Creator, and not on how many times I am repeating the prayer. This allows for a varied pace depending on your current state and allows for some spontaneity in your prayers as well. 

More: Daily Prayer & Jesus Prayer

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 287-289

Friday, September 23, 2011

What Kind of Books Should We Read?

What kind of books should we read?  Saint Theophan gives us advice on this after he warns us about placing too much emphasis on reading books. Our primary emphasis should be to put our spiritual lessons into action.  When we do read, we should select books that will enhance our spiritual growth.  So we need to select books with careful discrimination. 

Saint Theophan advises,
Read with discrimination and verify what is being read through the genuine truth of our faith.  What agrees with it, accept.  What does not agree with it, reject as  thought against God, and throw out any book that expresses such thoughts.
When we are serious about progressing along the spiritual path we will focus our study only on those things related to this goal.  Most of us already have a general knowledge gained through our general education, but, we lack wisdom about following the spiritual path.  Christian spirituality not taught in most schools of general education, especially at the college level.  Saint Theophan reminds us that "human wisdom cannot be compared with spiritual wisdom."

If you have the goal to be united with God and to attract the Holy Spirit to work actively thorough you, then you need to focus on this goal.  Saint Theophan warns that if "you pursue two different goals, you will not accomplish even one."  I had a Japanese friend who reminded me once that if you try to chase two rabbits you not catch either one of them.  

The question then is should we read anything besides spiritual things.

Saint Theophan says,
I would tell you with reservation, in a low voice: You may if you like, but just a little and not indiscriminately.  Take this as a sign: When you are in a good mode spiritually and begin reading a book containing human wisdom, if the good mood begins to desert you, git rid of the book.
He then advise us to seek books that give us insights into the nature of God's creation or the history of mankind which has been guided by God.  He says, "God reveals himself in nature and history in the same way as in His Word."  But there is a problem with many scientific explorations of nature .  They often try to explain the origin of the world without God and have lurking in them a rejection of God.  Obviously these books should be avoided.

Saint Theophan says,
It is good to understand the structure of plants and animals, especially man, and the laws of life as they are manifested in them.  Great is the Divine Wisdom in all of the! Unknowable!
Finally he addresses the question of novels.  Should we read them?  Here is what he says,
There re good ones... To find out whether they are good, however, you must read them, and after you have finished, you will have acquired such tales and images... I think its better to not read them.  When a benevolently minded person who has read some story recommends it, you may read it.
Keep you eye on your goal. Do not be like the hunter who tries to cause two rabbits and gets neither one.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 285-286

Monday, September 19, 2011

Can Reading Books Hinder Spiritual Growth?

If you are like me, you probably take great pleasure in reading books.  But can this be a hindrance in our spiritual growth?  The current issue of The Orthodox Word has a story about Elder Nikodim who tells of his experience under obedience to Elder Theodosius of the Holy Mountain.  He says, "I loved to read books, but the Elder forbade me to read books altogether.  Only the Gospel, the Psalter, Abba Dorotheus and the The Ladder - and in that only the chapter on obedience.  For nine years he didn't let me read books."

I can't imagine not being allowed to read books for nine years.  But as I reflect on it, if I did concentrate on the few he allowed, I might have gained greater knowledge about the spiritual path.  I seem to have a tendency to over seek intellectually and take in too much knowledge, which does not give clarity, but only ends up with a confused mind.  I think this is the danger that is being pointed out.  

 Saint Theophan writes about the limitations of book learning:
Books are only for guidance in the spiritual life.  Knowledge itself is acquired through deeds.  Even that which is known from reading, clear and detailed though it be, presents itself in an entirely different light when experienced through deeds.  The spiritual life is such a realm into which the wisdom of this world cannot penetrate.
We must be careful in what we allow to program our minds and to not allow ourselves to let book reading become a pleasure.  As Saint Theophan says, our reading should be for our "guidance in the spiritual life".  We should be careful when it becomes a pleasure or worse, a means to maintain our false sense of having superior knowledge.  Of course, we also have to read books to enhance our skills for our employment or to be a good citizen in what is now a very complicated and technical world. But we know that this is not enough to perform our jobs.  Experience is essential.  Our reading cannot become a substitute for the experience gained through deeds.  As the Saint says, it is only through our deeds we acquire the knowledge we seek. This is just as true in our spiritual life as it is in our workday life.

Saint Theophan's advice is,
Work on yourself and be attentive to yourself. Little by little, you will reach the point where you will begin holding conversations which you should sit down and write out!
This is the ancient wisdom, Heal yourself.  Only with this intention will the writings in books have any meaning. We must do as Christ has shown and commanded.  Our salvation only comes when we have allowed the Holy Spirit, given to us in Baptism and Chrismation, is allowed to work though us freely guiding all our actions. This is shown by our deeds of which we will be judged on that triumphant day.  Often we need to clear our minds cluttered with all the stuff we have read and practice what we have read. This seems to be the path to true spiritual knowledge.

References: The Spiritual Life, p 284 and The Orthodox Word, No 278 p 129

Friday, September 16, 2011

Faith Alone is Insufficient for Salvation

Many people who call themselves Christians say that it is through faith alone that you will be saved.  This is a dangerous error.  Salvation requires that we receive the Holy Spirit.

Saint Theophan comments,
"Believe, believe, and the Holy Spirit will come."  This is the biggest lie.  Faith is indeed an indispensable condition for receiving the Holy Spirit, but the very receiving of the gift comes about not from faith alone, but from faith through the Divinely-established Mysteries.  This is how it was even in Apostolic times.
Our current culture is misled by our dependence on rational thought which leads us to accept the idea that we only need to believe and we can be saved.  This is an intellectual deception.  We cannot intellectually think of God and then expect to receive the Holy Spirit which is His saving grace.  This Spirt only comes with the Sacraments of His Church.

Saint Theophan makes this point through the story of Paul in Ephesus.  When he came to Ephesus Paul encountered several believers and asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit.  They answered that they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit.  They had been baptized with the baptism of John the Forerunner.  Saint Paul then baptized them with the baptism of Christ and after that he laid his hands on them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  The baptism they had received earlier was only a renewal and a preparation for receiving the saving Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit came through the laying on of Hands.  Later the Apostles introduced Holy Chrism (a holy oil) to be used instead of the laying on of hands.  Today in the Orthodox Church one is received into the Body of Christ though baptism and the sacrament of Chrismation where one receives the Holy Spirit. This sacramental act is essential.

Many Christian churches in this country do not have this sacrament.  They preach the idea of faith alone.  They require a confession of faith and then baptize in water, an act which is often seen as merely symbolic  of their commitment to Christ. Those who follow this direction are grossly misled and never receive the Holy Spirit which they must have for union with God. 

Now once you have this gift that comes through the sacrament of Chrismation, you need to nurture it so its presence and action will grow within you.  If you fail to do so it will remain latent or hidden.  If ignored, eventually it will become inactive.  Then it is difficult to  resurrect it.  This is why we have the other sacraments of Holy Confession and Holy Communion to help us maintain the active work of the Holy Spirit which comes to us through these sacraments.  Of course we have faith, but we also receive the Holy Spirit through Chrismation and continually renew its presence through the other sacraments.  It also why we are continually engaging in ascetic efforts to purify our heart so that the "fire" of the Holy Spirit will be fanned and be allowed to act through all our bodily actions.  In this way we can become virtuous and follow the Commandments of God. This is the Way to union with God and salvation.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 282

Monday, September 12, 2011

Why the Ups and Downs?

Why is it that we go through periods of happiness followed by despondency? This seems to happen especially after some joyous event.  It happens even to those who have everything: a good home, good job, many friends, and all the means to enjoy any kind of entertainment or even exotic vacations.  Why do we still experience sadness in our lives when we are blessed with so much?

Saint Theophan reminds us that our amusements can give rise to such feelings.
Amusements, especially pleasant ones, give rise to depression, because while they are not sinful, they are unable to content the heart.
It is common for us to seek this deep contentment from the activities of his world:  A football game, a festival, a play or movie, a party and so forth.  But these are only surface and temporary satisfactions for what we long for deeply. They bring a cycle of happiness that is followed by a sadness when it ends. They do not help us with the angst of life which is death and the unknown that this implies for us. They only distract us from the deep questions our ultimate end raises deep within us.  Our heart is seeking something that such worldly activities can not give us.  We long for a contentment that all the activities, all the riches, all the friends, all the processions of this world will not give us.

True joy and contentment only comes with a deep relationship with God.  He is our purpose. Our aim is to be united with Him for eternity. With Him there is no death. This is the message of Jesus Christ.  This is the way of His life, His teaching, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. He showed and called  us to follow and join with Him. As long as we continue to seek union with God, do our best to carry out His commandments, remain humble in His eyes seeking forgiveness and mercy for all our missteps, we will move closer and closer to true happiness, happiness that does not come and go, something that cannot be taken away from us like the temporary satisfactions we get from our amusements.

Saint Theophan says,
Do not forget God, and thank Him for every comfort, accepting such comfort as coming from His hands... God is asking your heart once and for all, and the heart desires God.  for without God it is never satisfied, it is bored; examine yourself from this aspect. Maybe you will find the door to the peace of God there.
Thank God for everything! 

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 280-281 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Path to Heaven

The following are excerpts from an article by Saint Innocent Bishop of Alaska, The Way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The road into the Kingdom of Heaven was made by the Lord Jesus Christ, and He was the first one who travelled it. The Bible teaches that only he who follows Jesus can reach His Kingdom. But how can one follow Him? Hear what our Savior says about this: Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me (Mark 8:34).
1. First of all, a Christian must thoroughly study the foundations of the Christian faith.
2. When you become convinced that our Orthodox faith is based on Holy Scriptures and is not invented by people and that the Holy Scriptures contain the true word of God, revealed by the Holy Spirit through prophets and apostles — accept it with all your trusting heart.
3. Finally, try to nourish a diligence in yourself to follow that which is taught by the Holy Scriptures.
To reach the Kingdom of Heaven, we should determine which path leads to it, how not to falter, what we must beware of, etc. Our map is the Holy Scriptures and other Orthodox books; the rangers are the pastors of the Church, whose duty it is to help the faithful on their way toward Paradise. The provisions are the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church, which reinforce our spiritual strength. Sometimes the path leading to Paradise may become narrow, steep and overgrown with bushes, whereas other paths may seem wider and easier to travel. It is very important not to stray from the correct path. The Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles repeatedly warned that there is but one path that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven, the one given in the Gospel. All others, especially the wide and comfortable ones, lead to perdition.

Monday, September 5, 2011

True Knowledge of God

"When a person rises from bodily knowledge to the soul’s knowledge and from that to spiritual knowledge, then he sees God and possesses knowledge of God, which is his salvation." Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

It is common in today's world to forget the mission we as Orthodox Christians have to work on ourselves so we can become worthy to receive God's grace.  We also forget that this is essential for our salvation which is a union with God. We may be too comfortable with regular church attendance and periodic participation in the sacraments.  It's like we think salvation will be handed to us on a silver platter as long as we adhere to a few of the Orthodox Traditions. This is reinforced by our US culture which is basically Protestant where it is common to think, I believe, therefore I am saved.  Of course we must believe, but this is only the beginning according to the Church Fathers.  

Christ told us, "those who are pure of heart will see God".  So in addition to belief, which is bodily knowledge, we have to lift ourselves to spiritual knowledge.  This is a spiritual experience with God that is beyond any bodily knowledge.

Metropolitan Hierotheos says,
Knowledge of God... is not intellectual, but existential. That is, one’s whole being is filled with this knowledge of God. But in order to attain it, one’s heart must have been purified, that is, the soul, nous (intellect) and heart must have been healed.
Saint Gregory Palamas gave us this teaching very clearly and was affirmed in an important council. He taught us that deification, theosis, is not something abstract but the actual union of man with God.  In this union we behold the uncreated light of God like the Apostles Peter, James and John saw at His Transfiguration.  This "light" will be seen not with our physical eyes but with inner spiritual eyes.  This vision is knowledge of God that is beyond all human knowledge and our senses.

Our challenge is to ask ourselves, Do we aspire to this spiritual knowledge?  Or, are we satisfied with the mundane intellectual knowledge of this world?  With the right desire we will be lifted to the higher plain and find the true union and knowledge of God.  This is salvation from an Orthodox perspective.

In conclusion I offer the following quote from Saint Gregory Palamas in his Triads,
“One who has cleared his soul of all connection with things of this world, who has detached himself from everything by keeping the commandments and by the dispassion that this brings, and who has passed beyond all cognitive activity through continuous, sincere and immaterial prayer, and who has been abundantly illuminated by the inaccessible light in an inconceivable union, he alone, becoming light, contemplating by the light and beholding the light, in the vision and enjoyment of this light recognizes truly that God is transcendently radiant and beyond comprehension; he glorifies God not only beyond his nous’s human power of understanding, for many created things are beyond that, but even beyond that marvelous union which is the only means by which the nous is united with what is beyond intelligible things, “imitating divinely the supra-celestial minds” (2,3,57)