Monday, March 12, 2012

Dealing with Repetitive Sins

A central element of the Orthodox way of life is repentance. We are continually recognizing our shortcomings in our life as lived when compared to the life God calls us to live.  As Orthodox Christians we grow by continually seeking forgiveness and committing ourselves to change in our behavior.  We fast, pray and participate in the Sacraments of the Church to help us in this life long effort.  We know that we cannot do this by our now efforts alone but we need the grace of God to become like Christ.

How often do we face this issue of going back to confession with the same issue time after time? What makes this process so difficult is that we are mostly focused on our body and our brain has taken control from the soul.  In our brain there are trillions of neural connections that program us to act in habitual ways.  The task is to be able to overcome these preprogramed habits and to recreate new habits that are congruent with the teachings of Christ.

Remember how Paul described this problem? Even Paul struggled to do what he willed to do.  Here is how he put it:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. (Romans 7:14-15))
Why did even Paul struggle? After all he was an Apostle, specially chosen by God, whose letters we read in our services with authority of Scripture. Modern day researchers have done considerable research on this problem we face. We can can draw from this research to help us change our behavior.  Charles Duhigg summarizes this work in his book the Power of Habit.  He says,
This process (habitual behavior) within our brains is a three-step loop.  First there is a cue, a trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.  Then there is a routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional.  Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if their particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.  It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks.  So unless you deliberately fight a habit--unless you find new routines--the pattern will unfold automatically.
He tells us that our habits are powerful but delicate and often operate outside our consciousness.  But most importantly they can be changed. To change, we must understand that each habit has a craving or desire that lies behind it. For example if we want to create a habit of morning prayer, we need to have a cue when we get up in the morning that reminds us of our love of God and our desire to be united with Him and the peace this brings to us. So when we awake we can say the Jesus prayer as soon as we awake which is a cue to seek in prayer the peace we find in connecting with God. We will then awake with an anticipation of our morning prayer session.  We might further this desire when we walk to our prayer place light a candle, burn some incense or make a few prostrations. These or other actions then begin to form a new routine which get programmed in our brain so that eventually we automatically raise and go to our prayer station for our morning prayers.  

We need to recognize that this new routine will replace an old routine.  We may have cues for this routine that we can choose to aid us.  Maybe we always start our day with a cup of coffee.  If we can connect this cue with the time for prayer we may be aided by an old cue to create a new routine.

He points out the AA works because the program forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits, and then helps them find new behaviors, new routines. This is why we stress in our preparation for Confession a detailed recollection of the act of our sinfulness so we too can identify the cues that trigger what is most likely a bad habit that is programed in our brain.  Once we see the cause of our old behavior then we have to identify an, new course of action, a new routine.  Something creates a desire or craving in nature that needs to be fulfilled in a new way.  If an  encounter with a person or an action triggers anger, then we have to recognize this cue or trigger and learn a routine that is different than anger to substitute for the way we respond in anger.  In AA they also seek guidance and help from God.  Once our cue for sinful activity is known then we can ask God to guide us to find new routines.  We can seek His help to put this new routine into action.  AA does one other thing in that it provides a supportive community to help sustain the new behavior.  This is what a spiritual community is for as well.  It should give us support in our learning new routines.

There is now a body of knowledge called habit reversal therapy which is used to treat depression, smoking, gambling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, obsessive-compulsive disorders and other behavioral problems.  Once key element of such therapies is the we must believe that change is possible.  Our faith should give us this confidence.  Once we admit a problem and share it with God, we know that He will help us find a way to change.  We know that All things are possible in God (Matt 19:26). But change begins by first having a clear and detailed understanding of the habit we want to change.

Reference: Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

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