The Sound and Touch of Joy

Growing from this understanding of right/left brain stuff is a practice that Sam walked me through. It’s been this practice which has helped me return to joy, to do so consistently and with staying power. I was familiar with the basic structure of the practice, but there were a couple of twists new to me.

The summary is: ask Jesus to reveal a memory of when you experienced joy; a time when you felt his delight in you (because God is bigger and stronger than you and he delights in you because you’re weaker). When you have the memory, try to recall how you felt physically. Where in your body did you feel joy? What did joy feel like? Now, hold that feeling in your body right now. You can return to joy.

Because this memory is connected to your body, and your body is connected to your right brain, and because your right brain is where attachments occur, you can reconnect with God deeply, rather than just trying to think, reason or “will” your way back into an attachment…which just doesn’t work.

Along with a couple of other breathing and posture practices, I’ve been finding lasting relief from the effects of all those losses. It’s not that they are gone or that I don’t feel them (some of them are very present and relatively intense) but I can actively return to a state of joy even in the midst of those feelings.

It’s trippy. It’s not an act of will. I haven’t reasoned my way into joy or out of sadness and anger. It’s not like there were a couple of pages stuck together in my Bible all these years concealing knowledge I previously missed. It’s not like my will power got a shot of steroids and now it can move my heavy feelings around with ease. That’s all left-brain stuff and I’ve been feeding it and nurturing it for 59 years. I’m simply allowing God access to the other half of my brain: the place where young Dan (who is brave and curious; largely unaffected by what other people think of him and deeply attached to Jesus) lives.

Two quick examples of how this presents itself. The other day, I was about to get in the shower and “noticed” (not consciously) that there was no bathmat on the floor. In a split second, wordlessly, this enormous internal transaction took place in me (apart from my will or really conscious thought) that went something like this:

“I want to feel that nice mat on my feet when I get out of the shower.”

It’s not there. You don’t have *time* or *resources* to spend looking for it and laying it down. It’s not necessary, don’t be a pansy. Just get in the fucking shower.

“No. That’s a stupid lie. You CAN enjoy the feeling of a nice bath mat on your feet. It’s Good! And while you’re at it, take the extra *time* and *resources* to move the pile of towels, choose the one that you like (that feels like a good SCRATCH on your back) and put that on the hook. That’ll be really nice when you get out.”

Without thinking, I was already reaching for the nice towel and caught myself smiling…

Again, I’ve put into words what happened wordlessly in less than one second. In the past, the second voice would win every time…because I was deaf to the first voice…that part of me which is deeply attached to Jesus.

The second example was just a few days later during band practice at church. I was standing in the auditorium as the band played and I listened (most weeks my role is just to “direct”). I don’t recall the song they were playing, but it was good. They hit a groove and the lyrics caught me and I could feel the kick drum in my chest, the vocals were tight and it was just….good. Before I knew what was happening, I caught myself sort of…dancing…


My divided Brain

These ideas which Sam was presenting were getting traction with my symptoms right away. I felt better. My mind was clearer. I was leaning in to spending time with God again without fear of “losing it”. I was/am rediscovering joy.

Joy is all about attachment (to God and one another). Anger, Fear, Shame, Sadness, Disgust, Overwhelmedness are all part of life on a fallen planet. They are inescapable. BUT they are not our default condition and when they sow up, we can return to joy from them…if we know what Joy is, if we understand that it’s ok to return to joy and if we know the practices that achieve it.

The foundation of all this is neurobiology. Research shows that our ability to access joy is largely a right brain affair (supported by the left brain for sure, but joy kind of “originates” in the right). The right brain is the first stop for information as it comes in from the world through our senses. 6 times/second it is processing the sensations, the sights , sounds, smells of the world, the context in which we are living, and then other parts of the brain compare that information with the stories and the meanings we have collected. It tries to make sense of what we’re feeling compared to what we believe about the world, what we’ve been taught and what is expected of us by the others around us; what is considered “good” or “normal” behavior.

Not the Author’s actual brain

This is happening ALL THE TIME in fractions of a second, faster than conscious thought. In other words, you can’t will yourself to think differently because “will” is a slower process. Interestingly, early Christians seemed to know this.

God designed the brain to be constantly asking “Who am I, what is happening right now and how should I be relating to it?” all in the background of conscious thought. Examples of conscious thought are: “She was pretty mad at me yesterday, I should make sure I’m extra kind today…” or “The kids haven’t called in a week. They must have forgotten about me.” Those are complicated, conscious thoughts that take a LONG time and a lot of work to emerge, compared to the stuff the right brain does, even though is feels like those more complex thoughts just pop into existence.

There’s obviously a lot more to this, and I’m possibly misrepresenting parts of it in an attempt to be brief, but you can look into it more here. Or if you prefer podcasts: here. (This 30 minute first episode of the podcast is deeply meaningful for me because the interviewee (and co-author of the book) has walked a remarkably similar vocational path as me. If you want to grasp this story better, I highly recommend this.)

But here’s the take-away:

I (we) are very left brained. It’s our culture. The basic structures of our world depend on a left-brained emphasis. It’s a left-brained bias that allows me to type these thoughts on a computer sitting in a heated home. The left-brain is not bad. But the losses I was experiencing overwhelmed my “slow-moving” left brain where I had invested all my coping tools. My right brain, the place where joy originates, was sitting idle.

When I was in deep trouble at Mt. St. Helens, my right brain woke up because it had to (and because, in his mercy, God set-it up to work that way!). It spoke with the voice of a forgotten child. It spoke with the voice of someone simple, someone physical, someone brave but vulnerable.

My right brain had also awakened years before when I entered a state of deep rest and found myself in a joyously absurd wrestling match with Jesus…because God loves me, and delights in being with me. In that moment I knew Joy: someone bigger and stronger than me delighted in me because I’m weaker.

The other half of my brain is waking up. I don’t want to go back to sleep.