My fourth grader’s reading teacher challenges the kids to be aware of their “reading voice” and their “thinking voice” when they read books. That is, the part of the brain that’s reading the words, and the part that’s analyzing them at the same time. I overheard this on a Google Meet call recently and it was kind of a revelation. I read a lot of books, but I’d never explicitly differentiated the two streams of thought. I would add a third voice in my head – my “writing voice.”
I’m constantly narrating what’s happening and parsing it for the insight or wisdom or joke that would make a good blog post, article, social media post, novel (even though I don’t write fiction), text message or thank you note. In my conscious mind I am looking for parallels, connections, stories and patterns everywhere.
I am very fond of my conscious mind.
My conscious mind keeps me safe. It keeps me from missing out on an opportunity or falling into a trap. It is also very funny and entertaining and full of love and joy.
And it’s wearing me out. Even when I’m doing things that encourage mindfulness, my mind is busy. During yoga, one track of my brain focuses on my breathing and another track congratulates me on all that focus on breath. I stare at fires and try to find metaphors. I edit my journal entries as I write them. If I can’t see my progress and growth and healing and settling down and don’t see how it’s working and can’t document the process, how do I know it’s actually happening?
Someone recently told me that safety is an illusion, which I think means that putting all this energy into “safety” is a losing proposition. My flavor of control issues has always been making sure I’m doing exactly the right thing every minute to make sure I don’t ruin things for the future. I tell my kids to do the best they can and trust that they can handle the outcome, but I don’t believe that enough to give myself over to meditation and to let my thoughts and feelings integrate through stillness.
Father Clay wrote about the different parts of our brain and how we need to find ways to integrate them for our overall wellbeing in this letter. He suggests one way to integrate all parts of ourselves is through creating good habits. I can control habits, and I’m really good at that. The second way is through meditation – prayerful or otherwise. This is the next step for me, to give myself over to stillness and trust that it will help me be well (rather than leading to safety. Yikes.)
The Human Brain
By Father John Clay
It helps me to understand this full humanness by looking at our brain. There are three main parts:
The oldest part is the reptilian brain, also called the brain stem. We along with lizards and other mammals have this brain. It is essential for staying alive and without it our internal organs would not work. This is the instinctive part of us and the source of our bodily sensations. It alerts our body of danger with amazing quickness, which helps us to survive. …
All of this is the fruit of evolutionary survival. We need it to survive. Spiritual wholeness requires that we accept these lizard parts of us. They must be integrated with the newer parts. I also believe that we can’t integrate them if we don’t accept them as valuable and good. Without this integration, spiritual growth is hindered.
We move now to the newer (middle) part of our brain. This is called the mammalian brain or the limbic system. Cats, dogs, tigers and other mammals also have this part of the brain. This middle part enables us to have more than just bodily sensations. We have emotions as well. We feel anger, fear, emotional warmth and closeness. This makes it possible for us to like to hug and cuddle and be with family. It is why we like status. It allows us to feel sad. It is what makes it possible to feel the thrill of falling in love.
All of the things that come from the brain stem and limbic system have no morality about them. They are just there, a part of being human. When we deny them we lose a part of our humanity. We lose our wholeness. …
The newest part of the brain is the cortex, and the newest part of that is the prefrontal area. This prefrontal part is only in us humans. It enables us to reason, to think abstractly, to make moral judgments and to plan. It enables us to make freewill decisions. Without it we would not be human. We are all a part of the universe. All parts are connected and have value and are to be treated properly. At the same time, we humans have a unique dignity and should not be treated as just a means to an end.
Let us pause for a moment to realize that all three parts of the brain influence one another from bottom to top and from top to bottom, that is from the oldest into newer and newest, and from newest into older and oldest. This makes the spiritual journey difficult, confusing and painful – and it lasts all of our lives….
As we all know only too well from our own experiences, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Even when we do make good choices, it is often very difficult. Although the rational, free choice part of our brain can indeed influence the emotional and even the sensation parts of our brain, don’t forget that the older parts influence the rational free choice part.
The strength of these older parts can be scary to us and tempt us to try to be “good” by overpowering them. We may even repress them so that we are unaware that they are there, but the older parts do not go away. They can show themselves in destructive ways. They may cause us to be cold and not to be aware of how we hurt people. They may draw us into strong needs for power and control over people without realizing the consequences of our actions.
The remedy is to befriend all of our humanness – all three parts. We need to be aware of all the elements of our brain and accept that all together they make us human. We must accept the responsibility to integrate them so that they will work together better.
Two ways of integrating all three parts of the brain have been helpful to me. One is forming good habits. When I see that a behavior leads to my becoming better, I start doing it. I suggest not trying too much at once. We don’t have to hurry to the end of the journey. We just need to be on the journey.
The second is mindful meditation. This means becoming aware – aware of our bodily sensations, our emotions, our thoughts. It means becoming aware of all the things that arise within us and outside of us. It means not only being aware, but being aware without judging. It means not labeling them as good or bad. They are just there. The amazing thing is that this meditation builds new neurons in the brain and new synapses that connect the different part of the brain.
As a part of my meditation, I find it helpful to think about the great Love that holds us, lives in us, and provides us with great healing merciful power. Although it will be valuable to some of us and not to others, whichever way you do it, I recommend meditation to you. It helps us grow in love, compassion, mercy and understanding.
Excerpted from the letter “One Christian’s Journey, a Different Perspective” in Mysterious Love by Father John Clay, (c) 2015