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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.)

Three Psalms for Holy Week

Tuesday April 11 2017

Three Psalms for Holy Week

A handful of psalms are quoted in the Gospels. Here are reflection questions about three psalms that have strong connections with Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Psalm 69
Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

Psalm 69 is one of the most often cited psalms in the Gospels, and two of those quotations occur in Holy Week: John 15:25 and John 19:28. The mood of the entire psalm, with the pleas for deliverance and deep sorrow, evokes the events of Holy Week that take Jesus to the cross. As you pray this psalm, imagine you are praying it with Jesus.

Questions for reflection

  1. What do you need deliverance from right now? What about your community and the world beyond?
  2. As you walk with Jesus to the cross and feel some of his sorrow, what do you want to thank him for?

Lord Jesus Christ, I take you for granted. I forget the pain you suffered for me, for all people, and for the entire creation. Help me to see your love more clearly.

• • • • •

Psalm 41
Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

On Thursday of Holy Week we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, when he gave them instructions and prayed for them (John 13-17). Judas, who ate bread with Jesus and the other disciples, then left to betray Jesus (John 18:1-11). It’s so easy to view Judas’s actions as something quite extraordinary, but all of us have the tendency to betray those we love.

Questions for reflection

  1. In what ways have you behaved so unkindly to people you love that they may have felt betrayed?
  2. When you have acted unkindly toward others, what helps you turn back to God to receive forgiveness?

O Lord, the capacity for betrayal is so powerful in me. Be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.

• • • • •

Psalm 22

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Psalm 22, a plea for deliverance from suffering and humiliation, is another of the psalms quoted most frequently in the Gospels. Two of those quotations, in John 19:24 and 19:28, occur just before Jesus’ death, in the account of the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes and of Jesus’ being thirsty right before he dies. “It is finished,” Jesus then says (John 19:30), his obedience to the point of death bringing us salvation and peace with God.

Questions for reflection

  1. What do you most need to learn from Jesus’ death?
  2. Spend some time in silence, pondering the gift of Jesus’ death for you.

Lord Jesus Christ, Redeemer and Savior, thank you for your sacrifice for us. Thank you for your great love that took you to the cross.

Dunedin event - For those of my readers who are women in Dunedin, I am leading a women's retreat on Saturday 6 May from 10 to 3. The theme is "Falling in love with Jesus afresh: Jesus' encounters with women." Location is Leith Valley Presbyterian Church, 267 Malvern Street. If you'd like to come, please let Nancy Parker know: 021-457-360, parkernmr@gmail.com.

(Excerpted from my Lenten Devotional, Draw Near. Next week: Spiritual Practices for the Easter Season. 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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