By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I enjoy seeing religious wisdom vindicated by modern science. Let me tell you a brief story about myself.
A few years ago, I was basically crippled by food allergies and chronic pain in my feet, the latter apparently the result of an injury I sustained while exercising. Ever since I was in high school I had been forced to exclude more from my diet as I associated more foods with immediate and severe sinus pressure. To make a long story short, I began with a dairy allergy and ended up having to exclude bread, nuts, rice and several other things, even tap water (yes, for a few weeks at the end I went regularly to buy gallons of distilled water). As for my chronic pain, by the end I was on crutches and unable to stand for more than 10 minutes at a time — and this was long after my injury had healed.
When things got weird enough, I decided to visit a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy www.drmajeres.com). I learned from him some of the most liberating truths about the working of our brains and the power of our minds. After meeting for a few sessions and practicing the meditations he recommended for several weeks, my allergies and pain disappeared.
How? What did I learn? A column is not enough to tell the whole story, but let me say a few things. The most important lesson I learned was about adopting a “mindful” attitude toward pain and pleasure, or fear and desire.
Our brains have the ability to create physical symptoms in order to push us away from what we fear and toward what we desire. For example, we blush when we are embarrassed, and we experience an adrenaline rush when we see the grass move in a way that suggests a snake. This ability is natural and good, but we are too inattentive to just how many connections our brain makes, and we rarely evaluate them thoughtfully.
Instead, we often just react on the impulses. When we are in pain we immediately conclude that we are in danger and seek to flee the situation. But what if anxious feelings, a scratchy throat, a tight chest, and a host of other sensations are not things we need to flee at all costs? What if peace lay in discovering our freedom before such feelings? I learned to contemplate negative experiences, rather than seek immediately “to fix” them. Once I stopped running thoughtlessly from pain and instead chose to be open to it, to be mindful and curious about its presence and intensity, something amazing happened: initially, the more I focused the more my pain level went higher — but then it would suddenly drop off. With each meditation the high became lower, until the point where I could eat whatever I wanted without any pain at all.
The key was to meditate peacefully, to contemplate the reality of the present moment rather than fix it. The symptoms I was experiencing were created by my brain in order to get me to react — to flee. And when I learned I was free — that I did not have to react — my brain “realized,” so to speak, that the connection it had drawn was redundant. Our brains make connections rooted in our makeup, experiences and judgments. If we judge an experience with a colleague negatively, for example, our brain may begin to fill us with negative emotions in his or her presence. If we accept this judgment and react on the emotions (either outward with aggression toward our colleague or inward with guilt toward ourselves), we reinforce the association and find ourselves increasingly helpless – or so it would seem — to change our disposition. But if we choose to attend to the signals of our brains, to contemplate them peacefully, then we can rediscover our freedom to exercise a new judgment and stimulate a new association.
If you want to know more, the psychiatrist I saw has websites to teach the liberating insights I learned. One helps people discover the experience of “flow” as they work, which is a total focus on the task at hand that leaves us energized, controlled and joyful, like an athlete “in the zone” and excelling effortlessly (www.optimalwork.com). Another helps people withstand temptation (www.purityispossible.com). More recently, I learned about an organization in Dallas called Peak Brain (www.preakbrain.com). Its work focuses on helping the brain to regulate itself better to help people reach their potential.
I see all this as a vindication of basic religious convictions, such as the power of our rational spirit and its relation to physical processes, and the healthfulness of peacefully contemplating reality — the will of God. Our attitudes and judgments exert a “top down” influence on the health of our brains and bodies. The mind heals when it prays. The older, materialist determinism, according to which human experience is only the ineluctable result of subatomic particles knocking about like billiard balls, appears more discredited as science advances (in this sense, scientists are only now catching up to those philosophers who have long known that materialism must be false if reason is to reign).
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.