21. Let’s Talk about Self-Image
Hi there. Welcome to Journey On. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
God bless you and yours this week in our crazy time. Perhaps some things are reopening in your area--not yet in mine, but I’ll live through you for the moment.
This week, we’ll look at some of the great spiritual teaching about challenges to our self-image. We’ll look at wisdom from a popular current teacher who talks about a so-called “evil dream” that perhaps you and I are living. We’ll look at ways that Jesus and modern neuroscientists give the same advice And, in the end, we’ll look at the great ace in the hole we’re given in this: what great spiritual teachers call “loving kindness,” which has the potential to change us from the inside and to flip around the ways we’ve tended to think about our and other peoples’s flaws. Of course we’ll have plenty of stories and perspectives from the Bible and even wisdom from a modern Western
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Okay! Kick us off Ryanhood for: Let’s Talk about Self-Image
I have a friend whose negative internal voice is really strong. I can relate! I totally can internally and loudly hear all the ways I suck if I notice. But he puts me to shame in this and when we talk I’m reminded how powerful and persistent this voice is.
On a related note, as my wife and I, during the lockdown, hunt for things to watch together many nights, I was reminded this week of how the classic Western hero is not like my friend, is not filled with self-hatred and negativity, is pretty, for lack of a better word, Zen.
And how that quality in itself makes them ready for whatever comes their way in a way that’s hard for us when we’re self-image-challenged.
So Grace and I watched this relatively obscure recent Western called Appaloosa, with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson and Renee Zellwegger. And here, for instance, is the opening narration from the Viggo Mortenson character. This is set in the late 1800s in the West.
As a throw-in, there’s some pandemic perspective there too, isn’t there? “Life has a way of making the foreseeable that which never happens, and the unforeseeable that which your life becomes.” As if that’s just fine, and as if flowing with that is how we expand our soul. I wonder if this is related.
So researchers tell us that something like 80% of our thoughts are self-criticism or another form of negativity. Here are two different ways of considering why that is.
So one popular mystic calls this the “evil dream” we all live in. As if it’s a magic spell.
Neuroscientists make a similar observation, telling us that: Our brains store negative experiences like Velcro, while positive experiences are like Teflon--or butter.
This makes sense evolutionarily: If we’re hunting and we think we hear a lion behind the bush and are terrified, even if 99 times out of a hundred there’s no lion, that one time will save our lives. But this negative bias will also make our lives often feel bad.
This is the baseline starting point of the human condition on the contemplative graph that I mention now and again: REACTIVITY. Reactivity is, on these terms, living the evil dream.
There are scriptures which at least go this direction:
The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. (John 12:31)
Lots of scriptures call Satan “the god of this world”--who, granted, has the main role of “blinding the eyes of unbelievers.” But how does he do that?
And then we’re told in 1 John that:
The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)
So how exactly does Jesus overcome him?
Contemplatives and neuroscientists each have takes on that.
Contemplatives say that, if we can sit even briefly with things that feel bad or scare us, they mostly dissipate. In this view, as we sit in contemplation, Jesus sits with us, destroying the works of the devil.
I’m reminded of how, some years back, a friend of mine told me of a brief moment when he got still in this way and, from his perspective, God changed his perspective in a way that stuck with him. He was in a work meeting that, like most of those meetings, made him feel insecure, and he said that when he felt insecure like that, he’d make a joke to lighten things up. And afterwards he’d feel insecure about his joking, as if his colleagues couldn’t take him seriously. So during this one meeting, he again felt himself doing that and, feeling insecure in the moment, he said. “Don’t mind me. This is just what I do to fill up space.” But he’d been working a contemplative practice, and for the first time, he found himself getting behind the waterfall right in that moment and watch himself saying that. And he immediately felt God say to him that that was not a story he had to worry about or feel bad about, that that was just the devil trying to pull shame out of him, that he could just let it go and not worry about it. And, he said, that dynamic largely changed and, when it didn’t, he didn’t worry about it anymore but trusted it would be okay.
Neuroscientists, again, talk about how we reprogram our brain. Sitting for even a moment with small positive experiences actually reprograms us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously says:
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29)
So some contemplatives would take this literally-- “see” the flowers of the field, take them in, and note how your worry ebbs back.
On a recent Journey On, I talked about how God seemed to remind me that, however uncertain the future might be, just for the day ahead, I had everything I needed both materially and in all other ways--and that it would be nice to take a moment to feel how good that felt. I’ve taken a moment to do this almost every day since, and it has felt great. I think that’s in the spirit of how the neuroscientists encourage us along these lines.
Contemplatives tell us there are three different kinds of meditation practice--similarly, I suppose, to how historic Christianity tells us that there are three different kinds of Christian spirituality.
We’ll most likely review the three different kinds of historic Christian spirituality sometime soon.
But, for today, the three types of meditation that people talk about are:
Concentration is the most basic meditation practice of taking time to notice your breath and then, when thoughts come, to gently let them go and return to your breath. We’re told that the benefit of this starts by learning that our thoughts and emotions are not actually who we are.
Mindfulness is what we’ve talked about on Journey On as “getting behind the waterfall.” [Etc.] Mindfulness tells us that there’s a kind of noticing in meditation which isn’t the bad kind of getting lost in our thoughts, of what they call “ruminating.”
It can help us not just respond to being triggered.
The NY Times did an article on an Ohio school that was teaching kids mindfulness and claiming good results. When they asked the kids what mindfulness was for them, one 11-year-old boy said, “It’s not hitting another kid in the face.”
Mindfulness values curiosity rather than reactivity. It tells us that it can actually be a safe thing to do to sit and observe unpleasant emotions. That feels scary! Mostly what we want to do is just stuff them down as best we can. But then we run the risk of the sort of evil dream that my friend, if I can say, seems to struggle so much with--and that we all struggle with left to our own devices.
But then loving kindness takes this a step further.
So we’re mindful of negative emotions without judgment.
Story about: “Welcome judgment of the scooter rider using the sidewalk…” Etc. And we get curious about those emotions--or about physical sensations--without judgment.
These meditation teachers tell us that nonjudgmental curiosity does lots of great stuff. We learn that these emotions and sensations, when observed, are often fleeting--which is a great thing to learn. We also get compassion towards ourselves for having normal human emotions. Again, we don’t try to suppress negative emotions. We just get curious about them. Rather than just reacting to or running with the--whatever-- 80% of our thoughts that are negative, we’re told that perhaps we find that emotions like self-hatred and self-judgment are quieted down in us. Famously, the Dalai Lama once was told that Americans were prone to self-hatred--and he couldn’t understand what he was being told, that such a thing could exist.
Here’s an analogy--from, if memory serves, Sharon Salzburg--that struck me.
You’re walking down the street carrying two or three big bags of groceries. And a thoughtless person walking the other way slams into you and all your groceries are scattered. And you, annoyed, say, “What are you, blind?” And then you see their cane and you realize they are, in fact, blind. And the whole situation changes. Then you just worry that they’re all right.
What if that’s the actual world we live in? It raises interesting questions about sin and judgment. Is “sin” a picture of blindness rather than moral corruption? If so, is it possible that the things we judge in ourselves are more blindnesses than horrible-ness-es?
In any case, we’re told that, functionally, as we continue with contemplative practice, we find ourselves more compassionate towards ourselves, and then we find it naturally extends beyond ourselves to others.
Now there is a whole type of meditation devoted just to loving kindness that has a lot to do with a sort of prayer Christians would call intercession, but for today, in the spirit of thinking about leaving behind the evil dream, I just wanted to talk about the effect we’re hoping for of loving kindness.
The great spiritual teachers give us no hope of just having a better self-image, of just quieting the negativity flooding our brains. I can’t tell you how often I’ve told my friend that he’s too hard on himself, but that sage bit of perspective has not, from what I can tell, done anything for him.
So what can we do that will help us become the unflappable, Zen-like Western hero that’s always been in us? How can we invite Jesus to destroy the works of the devil in us in this way?
So, the biggie is to:
Regularly get behind the waterfall of those negative thoughts.
And watch them dissipate.
Loving kindness in and through us is said to be a byproduct of doing this.
Second, the neuroscientists tell us to:
Consciously take in beauty and encouragement multiple times a day.
However terrible your brain tells you you--and your circumstances--are, take time to notice encouragements or beauty to get between the synapses of the trigger and your negative response.
You might enjoy praying Psalms regularly.
The idea in praying Psalms in this way is to turn off your critical faculties--you’re not there to assess the Psalms--since many were written by the warrior King David, some of them can seem pretty war-like, which is easy to wonder about as we read them critically.
But for three thousand years, people have been learning to pray through the full range of human circumstances and emotions by just very slowly praying through them without judgment, as if they were your words and seeing how they feel. And then often going back and praying the Psalm in question even more slowly.
Grace and I talk most days about the power of some Psalm we’ve prayed that day. They often encourage us at a deep level that God sees us and loves us and is actively working for our good.
And some Psalms directly challenge our poor self-image in ways that can be powerful if we pray through them in this slow, contemplative way. Consider, for instance, Psalm 26.
Declare me innocent, O Lord,
for I have acted with integrity;
I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Put me on trial, Lord, and cross-examine me.
Test my motives and my heart.
For I am always aware of your unfailing love,
and I have lived according to your truth.
Notice and enjoy encouraging music.
Finally, Saint Paul, in Philippians 4, has this tip along these lines:
Having done all this, when you pray, pray with thanksgiving, as if God is hearing and answering the heart of your prayer and is meeting your needs right now as well.
Some time later in Appaloosa, Viggo Mortenson’s character revisits his opening narration--I’m hoping in ways that don’t spoil the plot in case you’re motivated to take a look at this decent Western. Here’s how he loops back to it.
[Narration starts at 4:02 and goes to 4:34.]
You and I might in fact be terrible in the ways our thoughts sometimes insist we are. And the world might be stacked against us. But what the mystics realize after awhile is that it doesn’t matter and that, with diligent spiritual practice, increasingly those thoughts just sort of fade out of their consciousness as loving kindness takes its place.
Yes, we’ll face uncertain times, but we’ll do it with a loving God guiding us and with an open heart as we go. And it turns out there’s a lot of strength and possibilities that accompany us on that particular ride.