Re-program Your Brain for Lent

February 22. 2015

sky imageDon’t you wish you could exterminate every bad/sinful habit you have in one second and replace it with virtuous behavior? Unfortunately, fallen body and soul that we are, life isn’t that simple. Fortunately, we have solid brain research that reveals some surprising evidence that we can re-program ourselves toward positive, holy thoughts that lead to holiness of action. Lent is a great time to make changes in our brains because we have an extended period of focused spiritual practices that, with the help of God’s grace, will move us towards the new man in Christ that is the secret drive of every human heart.

In his February 6 column in The Mirror, Springfield/Cape Girardeau’s diocesan paper, Father Oscar Lukefahr, CM, tells us how to re-program our brains for Lent based on Bible teachings and the latest findings of science. These are some facts Father notes:

Neural connections in the brain that are most heavily used are reinforced and retained, while those that are rarely used will atrophy.

This is our first clue: abandon and replace our bad, negative thoughts with good and virtuous ones so that the bad will be rarely used and atrophy. Easier said than done, but at least we have a practical starting point.

As life goes on, we develop a network of connections established through experiences, thoughts, feelings, actions, and memories. If we worry a lot, the “wires” that carry negative thoughts will develop well-worn pathways. Each event of worrying smooths out the path along which worry loves to travel.

The same is true of sinful thoughts, such as rash judgment, lustful musings, gossip, foul language, unkindness, and every sin imaginable. Neural pathways provide the bodily highways for sins of the spirit, for bad habits called “vices” in traditional moral theology.

Brain pathways are also created by negative thinking processes like self-pity, second-guessing oneself, and unnecessary self-blame. The emotional pain that follows such negative thoughts also develops its own neural connections that grow stronger with time.

Why is this? Father Lukefahr notes that an expert in brain study says it’s because of human history. We’ll recognize it immediately as the result of the fall of man. In the early days after we were expelled from Eden, we survived by hunting/gathering food and avoiding predators, neither of which we would have had to do prior to Adam’s sin. If we missed a day or two of food, sooner or later we’d find something and stay alive. But if we failed to avoid a predator, we had no second chances. This living condition created a deeply-rooted negative bias. However, the brain expert says, we can overcome our innate negative bias by learning to focus on positive things.

It’s possible, of course, according to Father Lukefahr, to do this by ordinary human effort, but if we turn to God for assistance “the job of rewiring the brain becomes much easier. Most of us have struggled with bad habits, negative thinking, and other such problems. It’s easy to get discouraged, but what might seem impossible for us becomes possible when we turn to God.”

In the next post I’ll continue with the rewiring idea, but first, we need to take stock of our lives so we know what and why we want to rewire.

Where are we habitually dissatisfied with our response to doing God’s will? In what ways are we “shooting ourselves in the foot” so to speak? Walt Kelly in his famous comic strip, Pogo, is known for the comment, “We have met the enemy and he is us” and those of us schooled in traditional Catholic spirituality will recognize in this statement one of the three sources of sin, concupiscence.

What am I habitually griping or complaining about to myself or others? Am I trying to control others in order to control outcomes I desire rather than respecting other people’s boundaries and daily seeking God’s will for me?

Where am I not doing my best in my daily duties and why? How many broken promises have I made and to whom?

In what areas or situations of my life am I frustrated or anxious and why? Do I feel like a failure? Why? Do I accept bullying and constant criticism by others? Why?

Very often our negativity towards ourselves and others is a family practice handed down through generations. My mother was an habitual worrier and I learned it from her. One of the most difficult life lessons for me has been to, as they say in AA, “Let go and let God”, or as we pray in the Divine Mercy theme, “Jesus, I trust in You.”

 Take heart, we have no reason not to rewire our brains to strike the chains of sin and tether ourselves tightly to God. No matter how bad things may be in the state of our souls or in our lives, we can say with St. Paul in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”

For the second installment on this subject, click here.

This post linked to Sunday Snippets.

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V. Praised be Jesus Christ!

R. Now and forever!

(Click on the link above to read why I end my posts this way.)

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Sunday, February 22nd, 2015 spirituality

4 Comments to Re-program Your Brain for Lent

  1. As you know, I am a worrier. And I do have all those old tapes playing from when I was a child. I am trying to “record” over them and make “new tapes”.
    Amen to Phil 4:13
    Colleen recently posted..Time for Resting

  2. Colleen on February 22nd, 2015
  3. Yes, that worry tape is sure a well worn rut in my brain, but I have finally developed the instant reaction when I find myself falling into it: Jesus, I trust in you. Also, since most of my worry traps are financial, I’m turning to St. Joseph as the father of the Holy Family to help me/us out. It sure makes a difference to place myself in his hands. I know he will help us with our material needs at the right time and in the right way. Since my parents died, the Holy Family has become a front and center refuge. It’s wonderful to be an adopted child of God, sister of Jesus Christ, and member of the best Family ever.

    Keep working on making those new pathways and let the old ones atrophy. Then they are worthless to Satan for disturbing the peace.

  4. Barb Schoeneberger on February 22nd, 2015
  5. Great and hope-filled post, Barb! It’s not only the brain that responds but the body.
    Phil Sandoval, http://ihradio.com/shows/phil-sandoval-show/, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, in quoting scientific studies on forgiveness,stated that even imagining ourselves forgiving someone,produces IMMEDIATE Improvement in our cardiovascular systemS. “WE ARE FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE.”

  6. Joann Nelander on March 8th, 2015
  7. Now that is really cool!

  8. Barb Schoeneberger on March 8th, 2015

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