Neuroplasticity: The Power of Prayer

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Since coming to AA almost 6 yrs ago I have prayed, to some extent, nearly every day. The serenity prayer was a revelation to me, an opportunity for me to exhale and stop trying to control the uncontrollable for the first time in my life. I refused to say the word God but I prayed regardless, often looking at the sky or the tree outside my window. The semantics of other set prayers made me cringe violently so I just reworded them.

Over the following years my relationship with prayer has been turbulent yet consistent. My ego does not like to be silenced and so periodically tries to convince me of the futility of prayer. Essentially, a voice inside me tells me I am an idiot for praying, it doesn’t work and I should give up trying.

What has helped me is persevering, regardless of how I feel about it, and reminding myself that when I do pray I have a better day. Further to this, a bit of clarification and scientific evidence usually quashes my rebellion.

Prayer is the setting of an intention, it is not a plea. It is a resolve to do things differently – to think differently and to behave differently. For me, it expresses a desire to live along spiritual lines, to be guided by love and compassion instead of hate and resentment, to pause when agitated and allow my responses to be kind and gentle rather than defensive and critical. Whether God is “out there” or an internal archetype somewhere within me is an arbitrary distinction where prayer is concerned.

Prayer influences our state of mind, which in turn influences our “state of body”. My inner petulant child, that frequently interjects dismissing prayer as useless bollocks, can be muted by the scientific evidence that it reduces anxiety, elevates a depressed mood, lowers blood pressure and stabilizes sleep patterns. Even more appealing is the proven power of prayer to influence our thinking.

This prompts a shift in the habits of the mind, and, subsequently, patterns of behavior. These changes, in turn and over time, induce changes in the brain, further influencing our subjective and objective experience of the world and how we participate in it.

The Science, Psychology and Metaphysics of Prayer – Michael J. Formica MS, MA in Psychology Today

In a nutshell, prayer works! This incredible capacity of prayer to literally transform our brains (neuroplasticity) absolutely fascinates me. Our thinking and behavioural habits CAN change and prayer facilitates these changes. Ever the stickler for evidence before I do something this definitely propels me to want to pray more.

Emotional Stability in a Transient World

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For the duration of my life the only thing I can guarantee will always be there is me. Every single thing outside of myself is governed by the law of impermanence, its continuity can never be predicted. Whilst I too am obviously impermanent, I am a permanent fixture in my own life.

This notion used to absolutely terrify me, the implication being that ultimately I am alone and have nothing or no one to rely on. I couldn’t accept the repeated uprooting of my home, the volatility of my parents relationship, changing schools, the boyfriends that came and went, the friends who disappeared – the transience of everything. Each new vacancy created a black hole. Emotional stability was a fantasy concept beyond my grasp because I depended on unstable external things for my internal balance – each time a prop was removed I came crashing down.

Today I must wholeheartedly accept the proposition that nothing is permanent, and to attain anything like emotional stability I must be guided by universal truths (the principles of the program). As laid out in the Big Book, giving rather than getting needs to be my guiding principle, and monitoring my emotional state should be done in order to optimise my ability to do this, not for its own sake. I frequently forget this though and can obsess about achieving emotional buoyancy, desperate to be free of the full range of human emotion. I want to be at peace ALL THE TIME and if I’m not I can find myself scrabbling around for the reasons why. This can quickly degenerate into an exercise of self-obsession and the erroneous assumption that my feelings are facts and should be used to navigate my life and my decisions. Relying on my emotional temperature however is an inaccurate, volatile gauge. I need to focus my attention on the AA program and helping others, instead of wallowing in self, and do the next right thing regardless of how I feel about it. My experience shows that when I do this, happiness, peace, power and a sense of direction are the inevitable result.

Stepping Stones – Loving the journey

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We are not stuck, never stagnant.

If I hate where I am today, always fixating on a different life and shinier future, I create a jagged split within my soul and bitterness and toxicity in my mind.

Love the journey.

See everyday as a stepping stone and bless each one – express gratitude for the little things, the lessons and the mistakes, for each experience is an education. Glide through life, don’t kick against the current. Ask for the next right thing and know that acceptance is not resignation. Changes are possible and inevitable and can be made when I acknowledge my fear.

“Dis-ease”- I create my own unhappiness

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Most people’s normal state is unconscious, constantly “identified with thoughts and processes, reactions, desires and aversions”. Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle

In this mode I am a slave – a victim of my egoic mind – bound by the ankle, attached to a 4×4 and dragged flailing down a dirt track. I become fixated by what I want and how I think things should be, thus creating an underlying resistance to what is. This manifests as a low buzz, a “background static”, of restlessness, irritability and discontent. Sound familiar? I cause my own unhappiness – “inner psychic pollution” – by creating this perpetual state of dissatisfaction. When things “go wrong”, aka the ego is threatened (I am afraid of not getting what I want, or I experience real or imagined loss of something external I treasure), resistance increases, this state of unease intensifies, pain multiplies and I am left incapacitated. My only escape (in the past) was drink/drugs and self harm. My addictions silenced the noise momentarily and I felt free, however, short term reprieve only served to intensify my long term pain.

Today I practise a 12 step program and attempt to be vigilant around my thoughts and actions, aim to be an observer not a participant in my thoughts, and try to treat others as I would like to be treated. In the face of a challenge, however, I am often still drawn into my egoic mind and I suffer – a self-destructive habit I previously believed was unavoidable. Anger and depression can become a comfort blanket: familiar and easy – habit – but excruciating. This, I am now convinced, can change with time and practice, learning to disassociate from my ego’s demands and recognise my fears as almost comedic constructs of the egoic mind.

Utilising these techniques and bringing more consciousness into ordinary situations creates a protective barrier through which negativity and discord cannot pass (Eckhart Tolle). Habitual resistance to reality will still persist (“dis-ease”, discontent, judgement, mental projection) but with practise these can be minimised and I will learn to deal with my “problems” in a very different, much less painful way.

Habits aren’t destiny…

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Habits aren’t destiny. Habits can be changed. When a habit emerges the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard… So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find a new routine – the pattern will unfold automatically.

The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg

My new routine began on 26th July 2009, the first day I said no to a drink. Two days later I knew my will was insufficient to keep me from drinking, to uphold this new behaviour which was not yet a habit, and so I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. 90 meetings in 90 days helped me break the habit of daily drinking and over the next few months and years, by utilising the twelve steps, I have developed new habits in other areas of my life (the dissolution of my “character defects”). Of course this process is by no means complete, but by staying continuously sober I give myself a chance to develop new further behavioural and thinking habits.

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain and even with the evolution of new habits, remain dormant pathways ready to be activated with the right cues and rewards. This is why I must continue to attend meetings, continually work the steps, always work with other alcoholics and persistently endeavour to “enlarge my spiritual condition” in order to create “new neurological routines” that overpower my old behaviours.

At first this felt impossible – hard work, counterintuitive (obviously!), and at times excruciatingly painful. But as I write this I hear the echo of voices early in my recovery saying “Do the opposite!”. This makes so much sense now, as over time, doing the opposite has enabled me to create new habits that eventually become effortless and instinctive, overriding the old pathways.

Continue… improve… practice

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In trying to change a habit, an undesirable behaviour, I have experienced much resistance, pain, frustration, moments of petulance, back-sliding and disappointment. Through perseverance, however, it has been possible to cultivate character attributes transferable to other areas of my life.

The steps tell me to ” continue… improve… practice… “, and implementing change requires all three. I have had to learn to say no to harmful impulses, to trust a higher power and consequently myself, resilience – to walk through pain and not be defeated by adversity, patience – as the pace of change rarely matches my expectation, humour – the ability to laugh at myself, determination, and maybe most importantly, humility – acceptance of myself as a fallible, imperfect human being and therefore self-forgiveness and compassion.

Before AA I definitely didn’t say no to harmful impulses! There was no God and I didn’t trust myself. Pain debilitated me, I had no sense of humour, self-hatred consumed me and I was impatient to the core – instant gratification was all I knew. By working the steps, continuing to work the steps (practising and improving) and maintaining the discipline of regular meeting attendance, not only have I been abstinent from drink/drugs and self-harm for nearly 6 years, I have experienced the roundabout result of true character building. Qualities cultivated to keep me off the drink have bled beautifully into all areas of my life, proving that not only is change possible and habits can be broken, but growth, development and further change are inevitable if we persevere.

Be like Water…

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Every morning and throughout each day I need to open my eyes and allow my mind to be malleable. If my eyes are closed and my mind inflexible, boarded up by my ego, things can get very dark very quickly. I need to maintain my daily connection with a higher power and actually listen to the answers, not stick two fingers up when I’m offered a solution/ an exit from my cave.

I love Emmet Fox’s analogy. Near the ocean are both fresh water pools – clean, clear, salt-smelling, wholesome; and stagnant pools – congealed, slimy, overgrown with weeds. Twice a day, living ocean water flows through the former, carrying away anything stale or lifeless, creating a circulation of life. In the absence of this cleansing exchange, the latter remain lifeless and putrid.

BE LIKE THE FRESH WATER POOLS.
“Keep your soul flooded with tidal water” by daily visits with God.

Yesterday, whilst frustrated, self-pitying and closed-minded, I was walking home and noticed a banner for a photographic exhibition (of Victorian architecture, a profound love of mine). Wrapped up in self I was inclined to ignore it and even walked half way up the street, but something stopped me in my tracks and I u-turned. As a result, a slice of something beautiful interjected my day, I conversed with a lovely couple also attending the exhibition, and I bumped into two fellow AAs! That for me is just one microscopic example of how opening my eyes and following direction can yield results far superior to anything I could have orchestrated myself.

Battlefield of the Mind

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If AA is a spiritual kindergarten then I am a child with learning difficulties and a severe case of A.D.D. Abandoning myself to a Higher Power, shockingly, does not come easily to me. Before coming to AA I had always vehemently denied the existence of God, had never researched Hinduism, never read the Power of Now, never considered another way of life. I reviled all things spiritual as ‘vegetarian bullshit’. Charming I know. Evidently the suggestion of AA to jettison all my old beliefs and place a God I didn’t believe in first and foremost in my life was unfathomable to me. Abhorrent and impossible. To “bristle with antagonism” would have been playschool. Instead I seemed to mentally writhe violently from the confines of my old beliefs. There was an internal war going on inside me, a battlefield of old ideas vs. the twelve steps and I was helplessly being yanked around by these two opposing forces. I complained about brain washing. I remember feeling like my brain was literally being turned inside out and maybe it was. Rewiring and refiring of neurones/ impulses/ neurotransmitters- whatever the correct terminology and physiology – gave me a constant headache. I cried continually and I suffered mentally and physically.

Why bring this up now, almost 6 yrs later? I’m not quite sure. I think because every morning I experience a hugely watered down, milder version of this resistance. On awakening I rarely sprint out of bed. I lie awake ruminating, definitely not meditating. Eventually I get up, make coffee and then settle with a stack of spiritual literature. My daily morning readings are an essential component to my day. Overnight my disease has been doing push-ups, my ego bench presses. To regain some balance I need to focus on readings that remind me to place God first, that essentially facilitate the handing of my will over to a set of spiritual principles not instinctive for me: love, compassion, gratitude, kindness, patience, tolerance etc.

My understanding of God today, in a word, is Love. Yet when I read my morning books I often still hear the whispers of internal argument, the ghost of old ideas, the voice of ego, saying “This is bullshit”. Today it is fairly effortless to silence the opposition, and after a reading or two, or three, I usually find something that resonates, something that inspires me and my day proceeds much more peacefully now I am aligned with God. Now there’s a sentence I never believed would come from my lips!

Whether or not this resistance will ever truly dissipate, who knows. The ego certainly seems to be an indestructible super villain, so I hope to keep donning my cape on a daily basis.

“We all have a good wolf and a bad wolf inside us. The one that thrives is the one we choose to feed.”

Gratitude in action

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“Without action, my gratitude is just a pleasant emotion.” ~ Daily Reflections

It’s all very well feeling fluffy and positive inside, but if I keep it to myself, selfishly hoarding my treasure, I am not practising the twelfth step. If I don’t pay it forward, passing on what was freely given to me, I risk losing my gratitude and eventually my sobriety. Skipping off into the sunset with my swag of AA rewards is therefore not an option for me. But it is no longer the fear of losing these things that propels me to work with other alcoholics and talk to those still suffering, it is the feeling I get sometimes, frequently, that my heart may literally burst with gratitude, and I want others to experience the gifts I have been given.

When I hear newcomers speak in meetings, their pain a visible, palpable energy, I am transported back to my early days, my first two years, and I am flooded both my compassion for the person suffering, and gratitude that I no longer feel like that. How could I then possibly not reach out my hand and share my experience, offering the same sliver of hope that was once offered to me, by someone with sparkly eyes looking into my dead eyes.

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