As I take a detour from Exodus 3, to reflect on what Psalm 103 shows us about who this one named in Exodus 3 as Being and Life itself, the “I Am who I Am, is, I am struck by the command the Psalm gives us:
“1 Bless the Living One, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless God’s holy name.
2 Bless the Living One, O my soul,
and do not forget all Their benefits—“
“Forget not” is such a striking phrase. In the powerful book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Dr. Rick Hanson explores the ways in which evolutionary tendencies have shaped our brain wiring and spiritual practices help re-wire our brain for greater happiness, contentment, and compassion.
In his book, Hanson explains that at one point in human and animal evolution, focus was wholly on survival. This meant behaving as if food was scarce, since to survive we had to constantly be searching for the next food source. Drought, torrential rain, and other animals who ate the same food as us threatened to remove our food source if we were not careful. Also survival required being on edge, always highly mindful of potential threats, for dangerous predators often roamed nearby that could threaten our ancestors’ lives with no medicine, nurses, or assistive technologies to aid in healing the body from disease or damage.
This created a negativity bias in our brains so that, unless we make a concerted effort, what is stored most readily in our memories are negative words, negative experiences, feelings of threat and anxiety. This is why we can have a dozen wonderful things happen to us, yet that one word of judgment or one experience of rejection can ruin a whole night. It is also why we can have countless happy surprises over the course of a year, yet our one shock to the system which creates fear or sadness we do not expect can cause us to expect danger around every corner.
This negativity bias had benefits in the wilds of the savanna where our ancestors came to consciousness, but Hanson argues, to live whole and full lives in our modern world, we need better ways to cope. In fact, it is such negativity bias which, when unchecked, leads us to so easily fall into prejudiced ways of thinking and acting without realizing it, and contributes toward our choice as a society in moments of fear or uncertainty to choose exclusion and violence against those different than us, rather than paths that bring reconciliation and healing.
In this thought-provoking book, Hanson explains that by choosing to regularly spend time focusing our attention on experiences of goodness, unexpected grace, examples of compassion in action we see or hear about, and positive feelings, we can actually begin to rewire our brains so that this negativity bias does not dictate our responses.
Hanson fleshes out practices from Buddhist spirituality and modern mindfulness research which, when done regularly, can begin to allow us to more fully see the positive, the good, the life-giving, in our own lives which can help us cultivate more joy and compassion every day.
Is it any wonder then that the Psalmist suggests to us if we want to connect with the One revealed to Moses as Yahweh, the Living One, the One Who is, the source of Being and Life itself, we ought to “not forget”. We ought to practice paying attention to the benefits that flow from life and being, which are gifts of the Living One, the great I am whom Moses experienced in this burning bush moment and who Christians see embodied in Jesus’s life.
It is easy and natural if we do not take time to intentionally, mindfully, pay attention to the good gifts that our life brings to us, to fall into this negativity bias and see life only in terms of challenge, loss, heartache, and pain. It is easy to not even recognize the goodness before us each day in the beauty of nature, the strength of our bodies, the warmth of our friends, the love of our partners and family. It is easy to only feel our struggles and not the sources of strength within us and others that make us able to face these challenges with confidence.
Taking time to see, remember, and celebrate these gifts in our lives which Psalm 103 calls the benefits of the great I-Am who guides our days, is essential.
How can we do that?
Some practices which many people find helpful are:
- Mindfulness meditation
Various types of mindfulness meditation exist. At heart this type of meditation is simply sitting with and paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions without judgment. As you do this, you will notice both areas of concern but also positive feelings, experiences, and memories
- Ignatian Meditation
I talk about Ignatian meditation on this blog post: https://progressiveredneckpreacher.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/practices-for-embracing-our-many-sided-lives-examen/
At heart Ignatian meditation, or the examen, is a practice in which you take time every day to sit with the experiences of the day. As you do so, you pay attention to life-giving and positive experiences where you feel the presence of the Living One shining through, noting where you experience them and with whom. Then you notice areas of pain, heartache, and sorrow where you feel far from what is Life-giving, and you ask where, when, and with whom you experience these. As you do so, you reflect on what allows you to get through such experiences.
I have only done this spiritual practice in a limited way, but when I have done so I have been amazed how much I began to notice even on my worst days that were life giving, were gifts, were positive moments.
- Gratitude practices
A gratitude practice is a regular practice – be that daily, weekly, monthly – in which you take time to list what you are grateful for and possibly even thank those ones in your life through whom such gifts come (be they friend, partner, neighbor, coworker, or God) for those gifts.
Some people write lists each day of what they are grateful for, maybe in a journal or on their fridge. I know some people who do this on their social media like Facebook, Google +, or Twitter.
I think some people actually share pictures on Instagram and Facebook as a kind of gratitude practice: they share with others the high points of joy in their day. Then they return at the beginning or end of their day to look at those high points.
Positive psychology research has found that just taking time to note through a gratitude practice 5 or 10 things you have experienced you are legitimately thankful for greatly changes your outlook, giving you a capacity to better recognize blessings and connect with the positive in your life. This makes you more emotionally and spiritually resilient.
These are just a few ways to recognize and celebrate the goodness each day brings, a practice of “Blessing” in which the Psalm invites us to take part. Such practices in able us to see the life-giving parts of our own lives, both when we are experiencing easy and comfortable moments and when we experience difficult ones. These life-giving parts of our life are also where we see God, for if God is I-Am, the One who Is, or the One Who Lives, that means that where life flourishes, God is present.
How do you resist this negativity bias in your life and open yourselves up to the ways the Living One breaks forth throughout your life? Please feel free to comment and let us all know.
Your progressive redneck preacher,