Jan 21st: The Science of Spirituality, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
A Part of the Series:
The Science of Spirituality with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski. Series: The Awkened Brain A Spacious Christianity, First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon. Scripture: Psalm 23, Romans 2.12, Luke 10.27, Matt 6.28 &6.24.
You are invited to join us this Sunday to hear a message from Pastor Steven on widening the space between what happens in our lives and how we respond. Through stories from his own life and insights from neuroscience, Pastor Steven will explore how slowing down, breathing deeply, and focusing on God’s presence can strengthen empathy and compassion within us. Please join us this Sunday to be encouraged in your spiritual journey.
Steven: Psalm 23 says, even though I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death, I’m not afraid for thou art with me. I mean, that’s our spiritual work for 2024. As we walk through the valley of the shadows, with all that’s happening in the world, all that’s happening in our lives, our spiritual work, is to not react from a place of fear, anxiety, anger, but instead connect with our spiritual core, so that we might respond to life’s challenges. from a deeper place of wisdom, and love. There’s a space between all that happens to us in life, and how we respond. And in that space resides the awareness of God’s presence in that space resides our strength in that space, resides wisdom, and strength. A study was done at Harvard Medical School, looking at brain scans from MRIs of people who, who took part in an eight week meditation training, simply focused on on slow, deep breathing, a sustained practice of slow deep breathing, shrink the amygdala, which is the fear center in the brain, and thickened the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that that supports clarity and reflection and good decision making. So in other words, a sustained practice of creating space, reduced fear and anxiety, and increased thoughtfulness, less fear, more wisdom, now that could change the world. But the problem is that for most of us these days, there is no space, or the space is razor razor thin. I was at a red light and the light turned green. And the driver in front of me didn’t move as she was looking at her cell phone. And I missed the light. I’m embarrassed to say that I was irate, fuming hands clenched the steering wheel ready to blast my horn. Until I realized it was somebody from my church. Yikes. I took a deep breath. You know, my reaction was so disproportionate to the event, I mean, have you ever overreacted? Think of a scale of zero to 10. With zero being calm and centered and 10 is you’re about to blow a gasket. I actually think we’re living at eight or nine these days with with 24 hour cycles of breaking news and mental health struggles, loneliness, conflict, division, polarization, climate change, war, gun violence, lack of affordable housing addictions, I could go on. The air we breathe, is saturated with fear and anger and anxiety. Life is so relentless, that eight or nine on that scale I mentioned, starts to feel normal. And we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re actually at three or four. But the space between what happens and how we respond is actually razor thin. And all it takes is for someone to look at their phone when the light turns green, to push us over the edge. And when we react from anger and frustration or fear, it just adds to the stress. Our spiritual work for 2024 is to commit to practices that will widen the space between what happens and how we respond. Because in that space resides the power to choose love over fear. Now, each one of us is a critical link in the chain of consciousness required to change our own reality and to change the world. So imagine a world where there’s less fear and anger and more wisdom and love. A few years ago my wife was critically ill in the ICU fighting for her life. And the nurse could tell that I that I was I was overwhelmed with with worry and anxiety on that scale. I was beyond 10 I was breathless with fear. The space within me with was was not just razor thin there was no space And the nurse said to me, Stephen, you’re gonna make yourself sick, continuing to worry about, about what might happen tomorrow. And she said something really interesting. She said here in the ICU we, we live in six hour installments, sometimes six minutes, even six seconds. But here, we never think past six hours. And she said, Here’s my best wisdom. Try the best you can to live in six hour installments. She said, I know you’re feeling helpless. But you are not powerless. Focus your mind and your heart, on bringing as much love and heart and soul to these next six hours as you can. She told me your wife doesn’t need your fear and anxiety. What your wife needs is the full presence of your love. The presence of your love, she said is healing and the medicine your wife needs. Right now. It’s not needed yesterday. It’s not needed tomorrow. It’s needed right now. And this nurse actually suggested she probably may not have known it, but she suggested some spiritual practices. She told me that whenever I felt overcome by anxiety or fear to stand up, to put lotion on my hands, to take deep, slow breaths, and to slowly and rhythmically rub my wife’s feet, imagining that I’m sending the healing energy of my love to every cell of her being. And she told me to set a chime on my watch. So at the beginning of every hour, to stand up, and to go to my wife and to remind her, just whisper in her ear, that she’s safe that she’s loved, that she’s not alone. Honestly, these, these simple spiritual practices saved my life. They widened the space between what was happening and how I was responding. And in that space, I had a chance to breathe. I became aware of God’s presence. I mean, God’s presence is always there. We just don’t notice it in our fear and anxiety. In that space, love had a chance to breathe, helping me to choose love over fear. That’s our spiritual work in 2024. As we walk through valleys where there are so many shadows threatening to overwhelm us, our world, our world does it need more anger, anxiety, fear. Our world needs us to show up, to show up with the fullness of our love. Our spiritual work is to commit to those practices that will help us widen the space between all that’s happening and how we respond. To let love breathe, to let love breathe in and through us in six hour installments. Last week, I mentioned that neuroscientists have proven that if you have a sustained spiritual practice of contemplating a God of unconditional love, and you remind yourself daily, that you are a reflection of that love that actually awakens and strengthens the part of your brain connected to empathy. In other words, taking the time to breathe, to widen the space to be present to the Divine Love that is always present to you. Literally makes you a more empathetic and loving person. The Dalai Lama said the brain we develop reflects the lives we lead. It actually reminds me the Apostle Paul who said Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. I mean, maybe Jesus was the first neuroscientist as Jesus said, Love the Lord your God with Follow your heart and with all your soul with all your strength, and with all your mind, Jesus said, Don’t worry, don’t worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Our brains have a built in negativity bias. That is called the fight flight syndrome. What this means is that that our brains have a propensity to experience negative events more intensely, in order to alert us to potential danger. Now this built in negativity bias was actually vital when we humans lived as hunter gatherers ever at the ready to flee from a hungry lion. But today, this bias tends to cause excessive and excessive negativity tends to create anxiety and tends to make us overreact. It causes us to assume the worst and overreact because we’re constantly in fight or flight mode. compassion, empathy, wisdom, don’t have any space to breathe, when fight flight is in charge. And frankly, some people many people live their lives in a constant state of fight flight. You know, maybe there were times when, when you weren’t safe when you were younger. And those automatic responses of fight flight actually served you well and help keep you safe. The problem is that what may have served us earlier in our lives, so often works against us later on. Our brains can kind of kind of get stuck. And we keep reacting as if everything is a threat. Even if it’s not we fight when we really don’t have to. We run away when it when it’s not called for the brains automatic response of flooding our bodies with adrenaline to fight or to flee. may have actually helped us survive truly dangerous situations once upon a time. But pushing people away who could actually love us? Judging, attacking, assuming the worst in people, assuming everything is a threat, putting up walls so we don’t feel vulnerable, withdrawing, always running away. Those things no longer serve us or serve the world. These automatic reactions are not the path of healing the path of love we need in the present. But the good news. The good news is we’re not condemned to primal negativity. The good news is our brains can change. We can change. Neuroscientists have discovered something else about the miraculous way that God has created us. The brain has the capacity to change to create new neural pathways to reshape existing neural pathways. And this is called neuroplasticity. I actually think Jesus understood this when he said, Stop worrying. Consider the lilies. In other words, Jesus was saying, breathe. Just take a moment to meditate on the beauty of this flower. Take a moment to savor goodness take a moment to widen the space between all that’s happening and how you will respond. Georgia O’Keeffe said nobody sees a flower really. It’s so small. We haven’t time and to see to really see takes time. Space. Like to have a friend takes time. You know this quote reminds me of how rarely. How rarely we take time in our hurried chaotic, over anxious world. How rarely we take time to notice. Savor goodness, beauty, love because of the fight flight mechanisms of our brains, negative emotions, fear anxiety, a Anger are experienced, received, absorbed, stored immediately. But it takes at least 15 seconds of savoring positive emotions for those positive emotions to be fully received, experienced and stored. That’s why Jesus said, Stop, Breathe. Consider the lily. Create the space to savor goodness, beauty love. Because it will change the neural pathways in your brain. It will change you and how you respond to life. You know, the simple spiritual practice of slowing down. And breathing slowly and deeply, can actually help us hijack our brains back into the present moment when our brain starts telling us to fight or to flee. It’s like God has given us this, this reset button, readily available and as close to us as our next breath. That’s our spiritual work and 2024 when the air is so saturated with, with fear and anxiety, and there’s so much anger, within the space between all that’s happening in our world and in our lives is razor thin. Our spiritual work is to commit to those spiritual practices that will widen that space that will let love breathe, that will let love breathe in and through us. That will help us to choose love over fear. Each one of us is a critical link in the chain of consciousness required to change our own reality and change the world. Imagine just imagine a world where there’s less fear and anger and more wisdom and love. Such a world is as close to us as our next breath. May it be so