A changing presence

How God Changes Your Brain has made it to my list of favorite spiritual reads. It is not like most other spiritual books I have read. This one has some nifty scientific stuff in it like references, an index, and everything.

It even has atheists. Although atheists don’t believe in the traditional God of the Bible, they, too, perform meditative and contemplative exercises, and their brains show the same improved activity as those who do believe in God.

Occasionally dry and a bit high level, the authors talk about the brain and how it generally likes to run things. The limbic system (nothing to do with limbo games or that special place in hell where virtuous pagans reside for eternity after they die but both words have their root in the Latin word limbus meaning border or edge) in our brain is a major center for emotion formation and processing, for learning, and for memory. The limbic system likes stability. It likes for things to stay the same. It is probably the reason why the brain dislikes the presence of change.

On page 175 of How God Changes Your Brain, the authors talk about “the belligerent brain” and why it is difficult for us to change our habits and ways even when we want to, even when our thoughts and behaviors don’t serve us well. They state (and I believe them) that our brain gets nervous when we try to change something about ourselves that kept us alive and at least got us to this point in our lives. As near as the brain can tell, whatever methods we are using work well so why change anything?

What’s a presence to do when it wants to change? It is difficult to argue with the limbic system given that the brain is pretty much in charge of everything . . . just try getting along for a few minutes without one. The brain rules with complete autonomy.

Here is why I like this book: the authors offer practical methods that anyone (even atheists) can implement to work with the reluctant brain. Underlying the methods is the need for a conscious commitment to change (those of us in psyche world like to use the word “intent”) and making only small changes each day, along with social support, optimism, and faith. Faith can mean faith that a higher power will support us, but it can also mean that we have faith in ourselves to persevere.

The methods are a set of 12 meditations and relaxation exercises. They are commonly known. To implement them without freaking out your brain and engaging resistance, you need to spend a few minutes each day engaged in one of them. Regularly. Every day. You sit with your nervous brain, allow your limbic system to wring its little brainy wrinkles, and you do what you know you need to do anyway. What you will discover is that your old habits and ways of being will still be there for you to rely on (which reassures your brain), but also you will have the choice of a different behavior available because you have activated a different part of your brain.

At the end of the meditation or exercise, your presence is changed in some tiny, yet significant way. You have more presence available to both you and your brain, and your limbic system will engage to support that change because it is now the you that it recognizes. You are changed, but now you are more of who you truly are.

And your brain will love you for it.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

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9 Responses to “A changing presence”

  1. ButterfliesGalore-Kimberly Grady Says:

    Good Afternoon Barbara

    As I was reading ths the very back of my head felt hot and the started tingling! Wow was that a nervous system response or what!

    I will check oout this book….maybe its on kindle so I can see a sample.


  2. Barbara Kass Says:

    Hi, Kim — I hope it is on Kindle, but if not, it is well worth buying in paperback. It is one of those books that I will refer back to over and over again for its ideas and the science behind the ideas. It is a wonderful way to bridge the spiritual with science.

  3. holessence Says:

    Barbara – I can always count on your blog to provide my brain with great food for thought. This is another fine example.

    And I love when you said, “…allow your limbic system to wring its little brainy wrinkles…”

    Your choice of words painted a fun picture in my brain!

    • Barbara Kass Says:

      Yeah, well, Laurie, my brain rips these things apart and I often have to spend days integrating this stuff before my brain even agrees to write about it much less make fun of itself. I guess we can act in spite of ourselves . . .

  4. sandiwhite Says:

    Barbara, I am often amazed at how you can take take some dreadful subject, like “changes”, add the odd twist or two and make it not only palatable but even entertaining. I’ve just come from a friend’ house where we were discussing the lifestyle changes I would have to make if I hope to continue long on this Earth . And how I feel so overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping my own body healthy when I have always considered myself healthy. For instance, can I learn to love cream zipper peas that have not been cooked with bacon? Will I scream at people on the street when I have totally given up cigarettes and am still craving one? This book you are describing sounds like the one I’m looking for, because I have some changes staring me straight in the eyes and wanting to take over.

    • Barbara Kass Says:

      Sandi — you should definitely get it. I think to make any kind of major makeover in lifestyle and habits, this book has it all in one place. I have read some of the books the authors recommend, too, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Mindfulness Living) and Herbert Benson (The Relaxation Response). Some of the book is downright intriguing. Some of the researchy stuff is a real snooze alarm. But the book is written to appeal to anyone regardless of religion or spiritual beliefs. I remember back when I quit smoking. It was 8 months before I knew I would not kill anyone. I still wanted a cigarette, but homicide was no longer an option. In the beginning, I would have easily killed if I’d had a weapon handy. Within a year of quitting, though, I knew I had to leave my job and go back to school. I absolutely could not bear working for those lawyers anymore. I had used cigarettes to cope with the stress and their egos and my general unhappiness with not living up to my own expectations. I do know that the craving, the crankiness, the irritability, all get less and less as time goes on. You will find what you need to fill those empty spaces that nicotine used to fill. Distraction helps an awful lot. Be easy on yourself. Nicotine is an addiction that some say is more powerful than cocaine. Embrace one change at a time because you are right — you can easily get overwhelmed with all of the changes that you know you SHOULD make and that just causes more stress. Just do one until you are comfortable and secure enough to take on something else.

  5. ButterfliesGalore-Kimberly Grady Says:

    I read the sample book on Kindle. It was very much thought provoking and very much like a few other books on the subject.

    It made me think of my Nun friends that are being studied for thier longevity and knowledge, not to mention studyoing thier brains after they pass away.

    Thanks for sharing.

    I am having a hard time right now with my own faith, homilies that I really get nothing out of, clic’s at church, people who just are superficial, and others that always seem to have time for everything but strengthening their relationships. I guss I am too much into making sure that I am doing all I can. I actually have gotten to a point that some Sundays I get phisically sick and can’t go to church. I am ashamed and also curious at the same time. WHat would make me deter from my faith that I have practiced all my life. I guess the big thing is to trust myself and give myself a break.

    Love Kim

    • Barbara Kass Says:

      Kim, your religion has nothing to do with your faith; you express your faith through your religion but you can also pick other ways to express your faith. I am learning from my classes at Loyola and the other students that our spirituality stands alone. It does not need any religion or ritual or affirmation. It would be nice if you could worship in a place where people set aside their not-so-nice ways, but you don’t have to worship at a church or only on Sundays. You can create your own rituals of worship and express your faith in other ways (like volunteer work at a shelter). I don’t think God (or Jesus) would want you to suffer all that much just to go to church.

  6. ButterfliesGalore-Kimberly Grady Says:

    Thanks so much, I will ponder your thoughts this week….


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