Hope’s Habits (Hope and Anxiety Series)

At Gateway Church in Austin, John Burke kicked off our series called Hope and Anxiety.

Overcoming anxiety may feel impossible at times. The struggles we experience may seem like mountains too tall to climb. But what if we could be so practiced in habits of mind that anxiety and fears have no chance to take hold?*

*Consider professional help if your anxiety has been severe or prolonged.

The Hope and Anxiety series included the following messages:

With your family, roommates, or life group, work through the Message Next Steps:

Hope’s Habits Next Steps

Listen to the message I shared at Gateway in South Austin:

Here are the notes from the message by John Burke:

Free-climbing Yosemite—that’s impossible. Yet he did it.  He said, the only way is to be so practiced in each movement, that it’s habit in your body—so that fear or hesitation have no way to take root.

What if we could do the same thing with Anxiety?

Overcoming Anxiety may feel as impossible, but What if we could be so practiced in Habits of mind, that Anxiety and fears have no chance to take hold—instead, what’s literally engrained in our muscle memory of our mind are habits that produce joy and peace—even in the scariest and craziest of life’s circumstances.  It’s not impossible, but it does take practice spiritually.

Quick disclaimer: Sometimes prescribed medications under the direction of a therapist or psychiatrist are needed like crutches are helpful for a broken leg to mend—sometimes our brain needs crutches to heal up.

The Scriptures show us we can “renew our minds.”

Science tells us that our brain which may be wired for anxiety as a default can be rewired to assist us in Hopeful habits.

Last week, we gave a 4 Step Practice (found in Dr. JP Moreland’s book Finding Quiet) that helped him (along with other things) to overcome out-of-control anxious thoughts.

Today, we’re going to go proactive.

Not just trying to control anxious thoughts, but like climbing an impossible mountain—with practice over and over—we can wire our brains for greater Hope, Peace, and Joy as more a default.

Making it automatic through repetition, memorizing, visualizing. When it comes to worry and anxiety, two practices come out of this Philippians 4 passage we’ve been dissecting that produce Hope’s Habits if we practice.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:6-9

The two practices found in this passage that make up Hope’s Habits are Contemplative Prayer—Fixing our Minds or Meditating/Dwelling on God’s good gifts in prayer, and the second is Gratitude—or thanksgiving.

These are Hope’s Habits that will get us into a new default of Peace and Joy from God where anxiety once ruled.

First, let’s understand why putting Hope’s Habits proactively in our lives matters so much. Neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf points out something about our minds that we may not be aware of—Most of our outward behavior and action is habitual and non-conscious.  You don’t even think about it. We tend to think our brains work like this—they’re resting until something stimulates a thought, I see a friend, start thinking about going to say hello.  But actually, our brains are turned on 24/7.  Your mind (which is the thinking/feeling capacity of your soul—uses the physical brain, and is dependent on the physical brain while in the body) – Your mind is processing all the time, independent of the conscious mind. In fact, Dr. Leaf notes that 60-80% of energy usage by the brain is independent of any stimuli. Even when you’re sleeping, your mind’s still sorting and processing. In other words, there’s a deeper, intuitive thing going on with you than you realize. Which is what Hope’s Habits go after.

Dr. Leaf explains it this way:

“What we consciously think and what we say and do is all driven by the information and activity in the nonconscious mind. So the nonconscious mind has the roots of all our words and actions, and we choose with our minds what these roots will be.” 

Given what Science is discovering, think how marvelous God’s Word is, written 2000 of years ago,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God…will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

Guard both—your heart and mind—with God’s peace. God understands things about us we keep trying to understand.

That’s why the first of Hope’s Habits is so important.

Contemplative Prayer or Meditation

What this does is it starts to root into our minds and hearts—into that non-conscious intuitive self—a default state of mind that’s in line with God’s Peace and Joy.  Dr. Moreland said his extreme Anxiety, months of panic attacks, were held at bay even during 4 bouts with cancer, by practicing daily Contemplative Prayer and Gratitude, along with the exercises I gave last week.

Let me say again, for some to even sit still and practice this, you may need the help of a therapist or psychiatrist to help you begin new practices—we’re addressing this holistically Spirit, Soul, and Body.

Contemplative Prayer is practicing what Phil 4 says, here’s how one version translates the original language:

“whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” Philippians 4:8

Other translations say “dwell on/ponder these things”. So this is biblical meditation, you’re intentionally slowing down and relaxing,

“Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10 

You’re quieting your mind, you’re slowing your heart and thoughts. It’s not a meditation that’s emptying your mind or thoughts, but you’re fixing your mind on God.  To enjoy good thoughts, pondering all that God says is true, good, right–dwelling on positive things about God and the many good gifts God has given.  What we are doing is rooting into our minds and hearts, into our deeper intuitive core, a new default bias—a default bias that focuses our non-conscious self on true, right, just, good things.

We’re practicing what Isaiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures: 

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Isaiah 26:3

So There are two purposes for contemplative prayer as a spiritual discipline:

(1) to attach emotionally and intimately to our loving God, to love God with all our hearts, to seek God for His own sake even if you don’t experience anything;

(2) to transform your character by learning to center and calm yourself, to focus without distraction on the truth of God, and meditate on God’s good gifts, and to experience anxiety leave and be replaced by peace and joy.

A study showed that 15 minutes of this sort of attentive, focused prayer each day for eight weeks can change the bad grooves in the enough to be detected by a brain scan.

Now the more you know what’s true about God, and how God feels about you, the more this will be a positive, rewiring experience. That’s why knowing the Bible, especially reading about Jesus and what he revealed about the loving, compassionate heart of God is so important.  I suggest Romans 8 or Ephesians 1 as starter passages to meditate on how God feels about you.

Contemplative Prayer shapes the non-conscious brain.

How do you do this? Here’s a process Dr. JP Moreland practiced. Its not the only way, feel free to tweak and mold. I have used slight variations of this.

Step 1: Find a comfortable, quiet, private place you can regularly use.

Somewhere you enjoy and won’t be interrupted. I will often set a timer for the amount of quiet meditative prayer I’ll do, that way I don’t have to look at the clock if you have a time limit. And after 15 minutes of this Contemplative prayer, I’ll also pray in other ways.

Step 2Spend a few minutes relaxing your body and mind.

Take deep breaths, relax your shoulders, slow your heart-rate with slow, deep breaths—then do a body scan to see if there’s any tense, anxious place and ask God to bring peace to that place—try to fully relax.

Step 3: Focus on Truth and God’s Goodness.

There are some encouraging verses—truths God says in His Word that I focus and meditate on. I dwell on one or two until I really start to experience them. It’s helpful to memorize a few Like

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

I’ll meditate on this “You care for me… Lord I cast all my cares, worries, anxieties on You. You care for me.  I lay them at your feet.”

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will guide your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-7

I’ll say these over and over, laying any worries, anxious thoughts, to dos – all at His feet.  Acknowledging God has the future in His control, I don’t, and I can trust him to care and guide me.  If your mind wanders off, and you start thinking about all you have to do, or some worry, say it again, and lay it down again.

Then invite God’s Peace.

Jesus said:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you…Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27 

I’ll invite God to give me His peace.

Step 4: Love God.

From this open, calm, receptive place, I open my heart to God and love Him from my heart, to seek to attach or connect with Him, and to put myself in a place of receiving and expressing love. That’s what it’s all about—Love God who is Love with heart, soul, mind.  By the way, many times, nothing discernible happens after this, so I simply wait calmly and patiently—just being still and knowing he loves me.  As I wait, I may repeat the verse “Be still, and know that I am God.”  Or John 15 where Jesus says

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.”
John 15:9

Dr. Gail Ironson, a leading mind-body medicine researcher and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami did research on this. She discovered our Spiritual beliefs, practiced in our self-talk and daily lives, how we dwell on what God says is true, good, right truly affects our physical bodies and brain.

We use imagination to fret and worry about the future, use your imagination to ponder what’s true according to God—you are deeply loved.  Keep bringing your mind back to how much God loves you, telling God you love him—enjoy it, it’s restful, it’s peaceful—so don’t force it. Just be still and know—God’s there and in control and so you’re ok with the universe.  Take it in.

Step 5 Keep Recentering 

As you go along, your mind will wander, you’ll get distracted…don’t beat yourself up. Just find a few biblical words to repeat like “Jesus, Abba, Father, or Peace be still—and you repeat those words not for meaningless repetition, but to refocus your mind on God and truth. This is putting into practice Philippians 4: letting your mind dwell, meditate, on what is right, true, good. Do it 2-6 months and your default mode changes.

Gratitude

The second practice to change your default mode is Gratitude. Notice again how Philippians 4 says

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving…

Go to God with gratitude. That’s a key practice for changing that Default Mode Network.  Thanking God throughout the day as a practice, remaps your brain to actually experience life in a fuller way—with more joy and hope.

Your reticular activating system is a Network in your brain that tells you what to see and what to ignore. You’re bombarded with information, so the RAS brings to mind what’s important and screens out what to ignore. It’s working all the time, but sub-consciously.  You’ve experienced it when buying a car.  Normally you drive along the freeway and you don’t think “hey look, there’s a White Camry.” But when you start thinking about buying a White Camry, suddenly you “see” them everywhere. Your Reticular Activating System deep in your brain has taken the cue from your focused thinking to say “Bring White Camrys to the front, sort other information to the back.”

This is why the Bible insists on gratitude.  It is filled with exhortations to be grateful to God and express thanksgiving to Him. Not because God needs praise, because we need gratitude.

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude…” I Timothy 4:4

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

We all have things in our lives that are obstacles to gratitude:

  • a habitual tendency to be negative and worry
  • the inability to acknowledge dependency on others
  • comparison
  • a victim mentality
  • a history of suffering

But by practicing gratitude to God, we can refocus our non-conscious mind to show us good, positive, hopeful things, and our ability to experience the good increases.  To bring the good to the front of the sorting process going on in our brain.

As we do this, we can grow to see life as a continual invitation to gratitude.

This is not ignoring reality or discounting bad or evil or injustice – it’s making sure that the worst parts of life do not become the filter for everything.

Gratitude is not primarily a feeling.

  • It’s a choice—an act of faith to see God’s good gifts and thank him.
  • If done daily, you’ll see great progress in a few months.
  • You’ll start to notice more and more you’re grateful for
  • Then you’ll start to experience the feelings of gratitude
  • Soon the days become more joy-filled, more hope-ful.

But your habit is probably not gratitude, so you have to put intentional practices in place to form habits of gratitude.

Here are some practices to try:

  • Start a Gratitude Journal –try to write down as much as you can each day. Take it with you, review what you wrote each day.
  • Use Your Phone – set an alarm to go off every hour as a reminder to thank God, be grateful. Then when the alarm sounds, write in Evernote or phone notes all you were grateful for that hour.
  • Imagine Going Without – Sometimes getting started is tough when your brain’s habits default is not to see anything good. So a way to prompt gratitude is to think “What if I didn’t have this?” It helps me start to be grateful for things I take for granted, like good coffee in the morning—what if I didn’t have it

“Thank you God for the taste of coffee and for a new day.”

I drive to work—I drive, what if I didn’t have a car–most of the world doesn’t. “Thank You God, for my car.”

And it’s not just “should and ought to be gratefuls”.

When you enjoy, laugh, succeed “Thank You God, for friends, for laughter, for this small victory.”

If you see a sunset, or beauty “Thank You for this beauty—expand your mind to think about different forms of beauty” what if you never experienced it again?

It makes you realize life is an invitation to gratitude.

Right now, it may seem impossible to overcome Anxiety or to experience Hope and Peace as your automatic, default mode.

Do these 2 practices daily—Contemplative Prayer and Gratitude, and what once seemed impossible—to live in a default of Hope joy and peace instead of anxiety, will be possible.

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