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My new spiritual practice: Coping with feelings that want to dominate

Wednesday May 17 2017

My new spiritual practice: Coping with feelings that want to dominate

I’ve written the last two weeks about a new spiritual practice that I have been engaging in for the past year: separating thoughts from feelings, letting the thoughts go and feeling the feelings. Last week I wrote about the RAIN acronym that helps me feel my feelings. I argued that this is a Christian spiritual practice because it helps me bring my feelings into God’s presence, as modeled in the Psalms. It helps me love and serve God more fully because I am less distracted by negative thoughts and feelings.

In this post I want to talk more about the third step of the RAIN process: investigate the feeling or feelings. Part of that investigation involves figuring out where in my body the feeling has the most impact. That helps me grow in identifying feelings more easily.

Another part of investigating involves trying to figure out if there is something I need to do right now in response to the feelings. Since many of my negative feelings involve fears for the future, occasionally I can see that something specific can be done right now which will help me feel less anxious. Most often, though, there is nothing that I can actually do right now. This is quite enlightening, because if there’s nothing concrete I can do right now, then all I can do is pray and relinquish the situation into God’s hands.

A third part of investigating feelings involves asking the feelings what they want. This takes some practice. Our feelings do have a voice, and we can learn to listen to that voice.

Sometimes my feelings just want to be acknowledged. “Oh, okay,” I say in response as if I’m talking to the part of me that’s having the feeling. “You’re there. I’ve been ignoring you. I hear you and see you.”

More often, though, my feelings want to dominate. They are saying something like, “You’re scared about X. You’re right to be scared. Something awful could happen! Fear is the right response! It’s awful! It’s terrible! Be afraid every moment!”

A few years ago I learned a mind-body technique called the Lightning Process. The first step is to say no to the thing we don’t want to do or think. So when I hear my feelings saying they want to dominate, I simply say, “No, I don’t want that.”

The second part of the Lightning Process involves asking a question: “Do you want that, or do you want something else?” The “something else” needs to be spelled out clearly. So here are two of the questions I ask, along with my response, when I’m on the investigate step of RAIN. Saying the response in our minds, or even saying it out loud, is very significant because it shapes our brains.

Do you want fear to dominate, or do you want to see your fear as only one part of your life? I want to see it as one part of my life, and I want to be aware that I experience many other joyful emotions over the course of every day.

Do you want sadness to overwhelm you, or do you want to let Jesus come alongside you and experience his comfort? I want to let Jesus come alongside me. I want to experience his comfort and peace. I want to know he feels every emotion with me. I want to know I’m not alone and that Jesus bears my burdens.

The “N” step of RAIN, non-identify, is very helpful in dealing with feelings that want to dominate. Saying, even saying out loud, that feelings are like weather and this one is transient, not permanent, is helpful. Equally helpful is naming other positive emotions that have been present that day, no matter how fleeting. Naming tiny moments of joy or thankfulness will help those moments increase.

The challenge with RAIN is remembering to use it when negative thoughts are swirling in my brain or when I feel a strong desire to eat when I’m not particularly hungry. It’s so easy to let the thoughts or the desire for food to dominate. They lead me away from God’s peace. RAIN has helped me grow in experiencing God’s peace so I can love and serve God more fully.

(Next week: dealing with “demonic” thoughts. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

My new spiritual practice: Feeling the feelings

Wednesday May 10 2017

My new spiritual practice: Feeling the feelings

When I’m stressed about something, my feelings get buried under my thoughts. Some of those thoughts center around questions about the future: “What if this happens? What if that happens?” Other thoughts are about the feelings: “You shouldn’t be feeling these negative feelings. You should be trusting God.”

I wrote last week about advice from my therapist about separating thoughts from feelings. Some months ago he suggested that I practice self-compassion as a way to cope with negative feelings, and I’ve had a wonderful year learning more about what self-compassion looks like and why God would desire it for me.

The form of self-compassion that I have found helpful is summarized in the acronym RAIN:

  • Recognize feelings
  • Acknowledge them
  • Investigate them
  • Non-identify with them

1. Recognize. It takes a bit of effort to figure out what I’m feeling because the thoughts swirling around my brain are so vivid and powerful. When I feel my negative thoughts careening out of control, I’m learning to stop and try to discern the feelings that lie behind the thoughts. Most often those feelings are fear or sadness, but I also sometimes feel anger, hopelessness and frustration.

2. Acknowledge. After recognizing the emotion, I sit with it for several breaths. I focus on my breathing and let myself feel whatever it is.

3. Investigate. I try to identify where the emotion is located in my body, because this helps identify emotions the next time they happen. I also try to figure out what the emotion wants. Sometimes it wants to dominate my life. Sometimes it just wants to be acknowledged.

4. Non-identify. When the feeling wants to dominate, it wants to be pervasive. It wants me to identify myself with that feeling. When I non-identify with the feeling, I might think about feelings as weather. They come and go. Living on an island nation like New Zealand, where the weather frequently shifts quite dramatically, helps illustrate this. Or I might focus on other feelings I’ve had that day – such as contentment, joy, happiness, or gratitude, no matter how fleeting – to demonstrate to my brain that this strong negative feeling is only a part of me, a part that needs to be acknowledged, but a part that does not define me.

Some versions of RAIN use “nurture” or “nourish” as the last step. I find “non-identify” more concrete, and I also find that non-indentifying is a powerful form of self nurture.

Why is feeling feelings a Christian spiritual practice? The Psalms demonstrate that all emotions can be brought into God’s presence. How can we do that if we don’t know what we’re feeling? God made us, knows us, and calls us to love and serve him. How can we do that with our whole beings if our feelings are driving us into counterproductive thoughts and behavior? My swirling negative thoughts truly are demonic, and I’m much better able to let them go if I acknowledge the feelings that lie behind them.

This process of feeling the feelings, called self-compassion by some people, extends the same kind of compassion to myself that God asks me to extend to others. Why would God want me to show compassion for others but not for myself?

Living under the burden of stress makes it harder for me to love and serve God. This gift of self-compassion through the RAIN process enables me to love and serve God more fully because I am not preoccupied with my swirling thoughts and feelings. Christian spiritual practices help us walk with Jesus and help us grow in faithfulness, and this process helps me do that.

If you’d like to read more about self-compassion and the RAIN process, these two sites have been helpful to me. Click here and here.

(Next week: how to cope with emotions that want to dominate our lives. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings

Thursday May 4 2017

My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings

A year ago I was feeling stressed by several things, so I started seeing a therapist twice a month. My times with him have been very helpful, and in these next few blog posts, I want to reflect on what I’ve learned. In fact, I want to argue that what I’ve learned is actually a spiritual practice.

Last year I could tell I was stressed because of the thoughts swirling in my head: What if this happens? What if that happens? How will I cope? Why am I not trusting God more with these things that are stressing me? What’s wrong with me that I’m not coping with stress better? Why am I spending so much time thinking about negative future outcomes?

These thoughts – and the variety of feelings that accompanied them – would swirl around in my head off and on during the day and especially during wakeful periods at night. I was steadily gaining weight without being aware of overeating. The only way I could explain the weight gain was to see that the spinning thoughts and feelings were creating stress within my body, and I was soothing the stress with a bit of extra food every day.

I would try to stop the swirling thoughts and feelings, but I had no success in doing that. Then I felt guilty for not being able to focus my thoughts and feelings on something more positive. I felt continuously guilty for not trusting God more.

After listening to me talk for several months about these thoughts and feelings, my therapist, John, suggested that I learn to separate the thoughts from the feelings. No one had ever suggested this to me, and I now see this as a spiritual practice, a choice that needs to be made over and over. In this series of blog posts, I’ll tease out what that looks like in practice.

What’s the difference between thoughts and feelings? Feelings are a normal, healthy part of daily life. Of course I would feel scared, sad, and angry from time to time because of challenges in my life. Everyone does.

But the catastrophic thoughts – What if this happens? What if that happens? How will I cope? What’s wrong with me that I’m responding this way? – are demonic, according to John. They are literally demons that pursue and enslave me. They damage my life.

John suggested dealing with the thoughts like a person would deal with distractions during meditation or contemplative prayer. Imagine them as leaves floating down a river. Let them go. But the feelings are to be felt.

John gave me suggestions for dealing with the feelings, and I’ll write about that for the next two weeks. On the fourth week of this series, I’ll write about dealing with the thoughts.

Always before, I saw coping with my swirling thoughts and feelings as a black or white thing: either I’m disciplining my mind to have positive emotions and thoughts, or I’m being honest and feeling/thinking about the negative stuff. The choice was optimism or honesty. And I wasn’t able to pull off very much optimism!

Now I have a different perspective. I see that “honesty” is not the right word to describe catastrophic thoughts about the future. My thoughts focus on things that haven’t happened yet, so they cannot be honest or dishonest. Catastrophic thoughts are simply unhelpful and dysfunctional, which makes them demonic. And indeed, they do demonstrate lack of trust in God.

However, “honesty” is the right word to use to describe the process of acknowledging feelings. When I feel sad, scared, or angry about things in my life, I need to know what to do with those feelings. Those feelings are indeed present. They are a part of me. I find that as I learn more about how to feel them, I am more able to bring those feelings into God’s presence and experience God’s peace and hope.

(Next week: Feeling the feelings and why I view that as a Christian spiritual practice. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

One year ago on this blog:  "Sabbath Keeping a decade later: What I do on the Sabbath."

Support for Earth Day from hundreds and thousands of years ago

Tuesday April 25 2017

Support for Earth Day from hundreds and thousands of years ago

Earth Day has been important to me ever since I was an undergraduate student majoring in biology. I fell in love with the beauty of God’s creation and felt sure that humans were called to care for the earth simply because God made it and entrusted it to us. Earth Day 2017 was last Saturday, April 22, and the science marches around the world were scheduled to coincide with Earth Day.

Sometimes we fall into the error of thinking that the notion of caring for God’s creation is something new, unique to our age. Not so!

Psalm 104, which dates back well over 2,000 years and maybe a millennium more, expresses tenderness about the beautiful world God made, and shows God’s intimate involvement in it. John Stott called Psalm 104 one of the earliest ecological documents we have, and C. S. Lewis referred to the writer of Psalm 104’s “gusto for nature.”

Here are some selected verses from Psalm 104. If these verses are true, how can we not take care of this precious world created and sustained by God?
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
   O Lord my God, you are very great. . . .
You set the earth on its foundations,
   so that it shall never be shaken. . . . 
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
   they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
   the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
   they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
   the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
   and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth. . . .
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
   In wisdom you have made them all;
   the earth is full of your creatures.
These all look to you
   to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
   when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
   when you take away their breath, they die
   and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
   and you renew the face of the ground.
            (Psalm 104: 1, 5, 10-14, 24-30, NRSV)

And here’s part of a poem from two centuries ago, Auguries of Innocence by William Blake (1757-1827), which expresses the rage and concern in heaven when God’s creation is violated. I love the passion in these words:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage . . .
A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood
Each outcry from the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.

Here are some suggestions for responding to God’s call to care for the beautiful world he created:

  1. Each day this week find something in nature that you enjoy, and spend some time praising God for it.
  2. Ponder the ways you care for God’s creation, and commit those actions to God in prayer.
  3. Ask God to help you figure out one more way you might manifest your concern for the creation, one more action you might do consistently.

(Next week I'll start a new series called “My new spiritual practice: Separating thoughts from feelings." Watercolor by Dave Baab. If you’d like an email update when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

Tuesday April 18 2017

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

This week I’m reposting an earlier post because the ideas are still so relevant. Maybe I’m reposting it because I need to follow my own suggestions!

Did you know that in many times and places in Christian history, Easter has been viewed as a season, not just a day? The Easter season goes from Easter Day to Pentecost Sunday (June 4 this year), a period of seven weeks. Because Jesus’ resurrection is such a huge, amazing, overwhelming, fantastic gift to us, focusing on it for seven weeks allows time to ponder many aspects of what we receive on Easter Day.

The liturgical color for the Easter season is white to reflect the holiness and purity of Jesus, which enabled him to die in our place. White also symbolizes light. Jesus submitted to the darkness of the grave, and Easter morning he came back into the light, and his own light was again revealed. Paintings of Jesus after the resurrection often show him surrounded by light.

What spiritual practices are appropriate in a season of light and joy? This is a season of feasting, not fasting. Celebrate joy and light in whatever ways you can. Ponder, journal or talk with others about the joyful events of Easter and what they mean for you. Here are some suggestions for spiritual practices for the Easter season:

1. Practice thankfulness. Watch for God’s good gifts in your life and your loved one’s lives. Look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection life in events and people around you. Go out of your way to express gratitude and love to people who have cared for you. Pay attention to the small gifts of daily life, and thank God for them. To help you pay attention, consider starting (or re-starting) a thankfulness journal and commit to adding five items to the list each day. Or partner with others to talk through the things you’re thankful for every day. Be sure to pray your thanks as well.

2. Focus on light. Watch for the word “light” in scriptures, praise songs, hymns and poetry. Write a poem or statement about the ways Jesus is your light, and ask for further light in specific areas of your life and in the lives of loved ones. Use various names for God and Jesus in breath prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, light of the world, shine your light on me” (John 8:12). “Jesus, bright morning star, guide my steps” (Revelation 22:16).  “Word of God, be the lamp to my feet and the light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). “Lord God, sun and shield, give me your light and protection” (Psalm 84:11). All of these prayers can be prayed for others as well as for yourself.

3. Ponder the fact that Jesus has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). In what ways has Jesus freed you from that fear? In what ways would you like to experience more freedom? What do you think that might look like? Journal or talk with a friend about the role fear of death has played in your life. Pray your thanks, and pray for further growth in this area.

The seven-week Easter season nudges us to look at life through the lens of resurrection power. Maybe you’ll think of additional ways to do that.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
   O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
   wrapped in light as with a garment (Psalm 104:1).

(Next week: Support for Earth Day from hundreds and thousands of years ago. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

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