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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.

Joy

Joy : “It’s good to be together”

In my experience as a people-helper, I have come to believe that the solutions people seek are emenant, right there, already in their possession, or being actively extended to them by God. It’s just a matter of recognizing them. It felt like this was the general approach Sam would take, so we met (on-line) for the first time a couple of weeks later.

After some preliminary storytelling and clarifying questions from Sam, we just hopped right into the therapeutic deep end: childhood. Like I had done with panic attacks, I internally rolled my eyes a bit. Not because I think inner-child work is stupid or unhelpful but because I was convinced I had “completed” my own inner-child work. I had looked deeply into the pathologies of my family of origin, I had confronted the abuse, cherished the blessings, named the players and labeled the outcomes. I had graduated from inner child work…right?

I looked around at a lot of spiritual people I admire and how they seemingly move through life without wallowing around in memories of their 7th birthday party when no one came, or being laughed at in the middle school locker room. As of this writing, I don’t know if that’s true of these other people. Maybe they did graduate. Maybe they are in denial. Maybe there are other possibilities. But I can say that what’s changed is: I’m learning to stop comparing.

So, regardless of my relative “therapeutic maturity” I found myself sharing the story of the “child voice” which guided me out of trouble, then listening to Sam eagerly connect that experience to the bigger ideas surrounding childhood traumas (both capital T traumas and lower case t traumas).

In that first session, Sam layed out the theory that, like most men in our culture, my understanding of and ability to experience and maintain joy was never developed. This is critical because, as the thinking goes, we were made by God to live in joy, it’s our default state. The Fall, of course, means that there will be significant challenges in doing so, but for the follower of Jesus, through His work, we can “return to joy”. That phrase will be a core theme.

But as it relates to my childhood (and without regurgitating my therapy sessions in total here) we popped the bubble of my current struggles with this idea:

At key developmental points in my life, I was either presented with a corrupted concept of joy, made to feel ashamed or afraid of real joy, or I was denied joy altogether. This condition solidifies over decades into a pathology (well, one might say a “personality”.) It seems that the accumulated losses of the last couple of years served as pile of dry wood and the crisis at Mt. St. Helens was the spark. What burned down was that “personality”: the amalgamation of ideas, behaviors and practices that I have cobbled together to navigate a world in which I’m MADE for joy, but I don’t/can’t access it. Without that set of coping tools…I kind of collapsed.

Our entire culture has at its center this paradox, and it’s mostly balanced on the shoulders of men. For a breathtakingly profane but equally precise snapshot of this culture, watch THIS. So it seems there is the Universal joy problem from which we all suffer, a Cultural joy problem from which most of us (especially men) suffer, and then my own Individual joy problem.

All of this resonated with me, and toward the end of our first session it deeply informed an exercise Sam lead me through in which I imagined being in the presence of Jesus and he looked on me with delight. My job was simply to feel it…joy…and joy is: Knowing that someone bigger and stronger than you, delights in you because you’re weak.

Mind blow.