I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do... I have the desire to
do what is good, but cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but
the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:15, 18b-19
We’ve all had the experience of saying or doing something and immediately regretting it. “How could I have done that??!!” we wonder. For hundreds of years philosophers explained that our intellect and will constituted our “higher selves,” and that we needed to “subdue our passions.” We were encouraged to energetically scold ourselves, “Straighten up!” “Stop feeling that way!” "Get your act together!"
Which unfortunately doesn’t work very well. Those messy moments we all experience aren’t simply failures in character. Our brains aren’t designed to respond perfectly to vigorous self-talk, at least not when we’re emotionally upset. The more we understand how our brains do work, the more effectively we can steer ourselves toward greater peace and better behavior.
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean suggests the brain is divided into three basic parts. The theory described below is an oversimplification, but it holds enough truth to be useful in understanding ourselves:
1) The most primitive part of the brain governs basic functions like breathing and our sense of balance and physical location in the world. It is sometimes called the "reptilian brain" because fish and snakes share the same capacities.
2) The second, or limbic, section of the brain holds all the abilities we share with dogs, dolphins and elephants. It includes memory, our alarm system, and a wide range of emotions, including attachment to others. (These emotions are more than just brain functions, but that’s a topic for another post.)
3) The outermost layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex, is unique to human beings. It is the site of our analytical thinking and controls capacities like language and impulse control.
So what? Why bother learning about this? It turns out the interaction among these three brain parts is one cause of our many human missteps. The limbic/emotional brain is designed to override our thinking brain in an emergency. If someone grabs you from behind on a dark street or your toddler suddenly starts to gag, you don’t have time to logically examine all your alternatives. It doesn’t matter what your attacker looks like or what precisely is giving your little one trouble. You need to take action. This aspect of brain function can work for us when we’re under immediate physical threat but against us in a disagreement with an employer or a loved one.
Under certain circumstances the communication between our thinking brain and our emotional brain breaks down. Telling ourselves to not be mad, to be grateful, to put things in logical perspective just doesn't get us very far. Turns out what does help is action that targets the emotional part of our brains directly.
Spiritual practices, for example. When we fully engage in spiritual practices, we fire up the emotional brain, in line with our most deeply held beliefs and convictions, and over time we can reshape our brains. Literally. The change shows up on brain scans.
When our brains are activated they form something called "neural pathways." Think of someone who annoys you. What happens when you call that person to mind? Do you find yourself reviewing the exact same grievances you've visited so many times before? Using the same language in your head? Language that maybe even embarrasses you? That's an example of a neural pathway in action.
When we engage in spiritual practices we are deliberately forming new neural pathways. It's easier for us to redirect emotional energy than it is to stop it. When you write someone a note of gratitude, or ask blessing on someone you find difficult, you are laying down a tiny "groove" in your brain, just as rainwater carves out little gullies in a hillside. If you regularly listen to music that uplifts you, you have created alternate pathways in your brain. Catching yourself ruminating and redirecting yourself to being thankful or asking blessing, is a neurological as well as a spiritual practice.
So do we just give up on urging ourselves to be more hopeful, compassionate, joyful or grateful? Obviously not. Instead, we can use the logical part of our brains to remind ourselves to use spiritual practices that touch our emotions directly. The result is an expanded capacity to listen to our own best selves - and the promptings of the Spirit.