As a spiritual being having a human experience, I like to follow the science. Not that I disvalue more traditional sources of spiritual wisdom. But it’s thrilling when they and science dovetail. It’s thrilling when wisdom thousands of years old and cutting-edge science sing in harmony.
I had a moment of thrill, recently, when I read a certain paragraph from University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross’ recent book entitled Chatter. Here it is:
The psychological experience of challenge and threat have unique biological signatures. When you put a person in a threatening state, their heart starts pumping blood faster throughout his body. The same is true of a challenge. A key difference between the two states is how the tangle of arteries and veins that carry blood in the body responds. When a person is in a threat state, their vasculature constricts, leaving less room for their blood to flow, which over time can lead to burst blood vessels and heart attacks. In contrast, when people are in challenge mode, their vasculature relaxes, allowing blood to move easily throughout the body.
This single quote has so many implications for spirituality. One relates to the distinction between seeing something as a challenge versus seeing it as a threat. When it’s a challenge, you trust that you will somehow have the resources to cope. When it’s a threat, you trust that you won’t, you have somehow become certain that you are going to be blown away. If spirituality is anything, it is a capacity to imagine that whatever stress you are facing is a challenge you can manage with creativity and courage. Even if the source of the stress is the worst (as in facing an incurable cancer, or in facing some structural social oppression that targets you) you trust that in some ultimate sense the most important part of you—your dignity—is safe, and that nothing and no one can take that away, unless you let them.
Spirituality is a journey of learning that, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Yet another implication for spirituality coming from Dr. Kross’ observation (that “the experience of challenge and threat have unique biological signatures”) is this: if we can get into a spiritual mindset when we are facing stress (meaning that no matter how terrible the source of the stress looks, we regard it as a challenge and not a threat), then the very arteries and veins in our bodies stay relaxed and can receive the blood being pumped into them. This has profound relevance too, and it goes beyond simply being more effective in our responses to life. Writer D. H. Lawrence puts his finger on it when he says, “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.”
In other words, the mind-body connection is intrinsic to spirituality. It’s not a cut-off thing. It’s not about just a protected corner in our lives. It’s about everything. Wherever and whenever blood is flowing in your body, there is that question about how easily (or not!) it is flowing. And it is very possible for people to feel like they are in a threat state all the time, so that their arteries and veins are constricted all the time, and their bodies suffer from unending inflammation, with all the sickness that that leads to.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
As the Buddha taught, Suffering is not inevitable. The cessation of suffering, through the Nirvana experience, is achievable by all.
Or, as Viktor Frankl, a contemporary representative of the thousands-of-years-old tradition of Stoicism, would say, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
All these insights about spirituality, inspired by a single quote from a book on psychological science!
And now we are ready to get into the heart of this sermon: the voice in your head. The voice in my head. How, faced by stress, our inner voice can put us firmly in a threat state, in so many ways; (1) through hyper reflection and self-analysis, or (2) by saying monstrously cruel and vicious things about ourselves or about others, or (3) through rambling soliloquies about how you’re headed for disaster, or (4) by endlessly repeating one single horrible thought, or (5) through free-association pinballing from one negative thought to another.
Do you know this voice?
I certainly do.
How about the worrying voice that wakes you up at 2pm and won’t shut up?
I know about that one too.
Here’s just one story I want to tell about my inner voice.
Back in 2010, when I was in-between ice-dancing partners, I decided to compete in freestyle. That meant stress. That meant doing something very different from what I was used to. I was used to dancing with a partner, doing ice-dance moves to ice-dance music. But freestyle was about being on the ice solo, performing a routine that included jumps and spins.
All this stress, in front of a crowd and also seven judges who would be watching me like a hawk.
Public speaking? The sort of activity that puts most people into a fright? For me—no problem. I was an ordained parish minister, after all.
But skating alone on the ice, in front of God and everyone?
I won’t ever forget my time at the 2010 Adult National Championships. I’m remembering back to the hour before I’m to skate. Unconsciously, I have decided that the stress I am feeling is a threat. Somehow I’ve become certain that I just can’t cope and I’m going to be blown away. And so: the blood that my pounding heart is trying to move feels thick and lumpy. My palms are clammy and cold. My coach is beside me telling me—has been telling me all along—that the quality of my jumps and spins and skating in general far outshines the seven other men I’ll be competing against. But I can’t hear him, for all the shouting that’s going on inside my head. The voice in my head is screaming at me. I’m having intrusive thoughts. I see myself fall. I see myself stumble. In one hour, I’m supposed to go on ice and perform skating skills that I’ve been working on for years, the sorts of skills that are so complex and intricate that the only way to pull them off is just to let my body go on automatic, but right now the voice in my head is demanding that I bring awareness to each of my program elements and break it down, take each one and think it through.
Guess how my program went?
Paralysis by analysis. Exactly like the poem by Katherine Craster suggests:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
I stepped on the ice, and my body was tight. My vasculature was constricted. I was shaking. I fell or screwed up on practically everything. Those other skaters which I was presumably far better than: they far outskated me.
I ended up winning the last place medal.
I finished at the bottom—number 8.
Can you relate? Have you ever fallen victim to the cruel voice inside your head?
What makes this all so very difficult is, first of all, the fact that the voice in our head is not always cruel. It is, in fact, sometimes our best coach. It really is. What got me doing something different in skating to begin with—what kept me going after my first ice-dancing partnership ended in 2006—was a voice in my head that was encouraging and generous and kind.
It’s a puzzle! Dr. Kross himself says that “it is the great puzzle of the human mind … the inescapable tension of the inner voice as both a helpful superpower and destructive kryptonite.” “How can the voice that serves as our best coach also be our worst critic?”
There’s another reason why this issue of the self-undermining voice in our head is so tough. It’s because it comes from within us. It comes from the place that is supposed to be under our control. But it feels like we can’t control it. That 3am demon, for example: it wakes you up with its shouting, and if you’re like me, you try to wrestle it into submission. You try to hit back with hard power. And that only makes things worse.
In that hour before I got on the ice, I knew I was caught in a downward spiral. I knew it. But my terrified inner voice was like a screaming baby and it did not matter how hard I tried to hush it up. The screaming only got louder.
This is just tough. It really is.
But now hear again what contemporary Stoic Viktor Frankel says: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Faced with the reality of the inner critic who is firmly lodged in us, and won’t go away no matter how hard we try to force it out, we are challenged to change ourselves.
By changing how we imagine what’s going on.
Change that, and it changes what we can do.
But, a change in imagination often requires a change in vocabulary.
So consider two words that might be new to you, which come from Dr. Kross’ research:
immersing and distancing. Immersing is when a person experiences a stressful event completely from within a self-centered place–from an inflexibly first-person perspective. In other words, difficult emotions in the moment happen, and you stay inflexibly zeroed in on the hurt or the fear, the sense of betrayal, the sense of being shamed and stepped on, or whatever the flood of emotions may be. You stay in that. Maybe you find people to talk with, but these are the sort of people whose questions cause you to rehash what happened and reexperience the difficult emotions again and again and your conversations never move beyond that to the larger picture. The ultimate result of all of this to your body is a release of adrenaline and cortisol, which only serves to reinforce the intensity of your emotions which, in turn, revs up the negative chatter in your head: the free-associative pinballing from one painful thought to another, the demon that comes at 2am, the distorted and debilitating inner commentary.
Above all, with immersing comes the illusion that there can be no choice of standpoint, no choice of the perspective on the situation one can take. Frank Herbert, author of the classic science fiction novel Dune, memorably says that “fear is the mind-killer.” Yes. Fear kills the mind in its capacity to make free choices, if fear is allowed full sway. Anger or anxiety or fear flood your system, and in that undertow, quicker than you know, your freedom is drowned and the choice has already been made: to see what you are facing as a threat, a threat that will blow you away.
But that’s not true. It never is.
One’s dignity is the ultimate thing, and no one and nothing can take it away—unless you let them.
Stoic that he is, Victor Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” But immersion hides that space. It covers up that space. It collapses that space.
Thankfully, immersion is not inevitable. Now we can turn to Dr. Kross’ other term, which is distancing. Distancing is when you use your imagination to zoom out from a too-close perspective and get a larger, more balanced sense of things. Distancing is the solution when the negative chatter in your head has gone into overdrive, and you’re needing a way out. Distancing is also the solution if you are wanting to be proactive and prevent that negative chatter in the first place (or reduce its frequency in your life).
In cases when the negative chatter in your head is already amped up, here are some things you can do which psychological experimentation has shown really works. Note that none of them involve exertions of hard power, as when you try to force the negative inner voice to shut up. Instead:
Travel into the future. Consider the stress that’s in your life now, and then ask yourself to imagine how you are likely to feel about it 10 years into the future. 10 years from now, is this thing you’re dealing with now really going to be worth all the worry?
Travel into the past. Remember previous stressful times and how you found a way through. You did it then—and you can get through present stressful times now.
Remember humility. Sometimes the destructive inner voice can communicate unconscious biases. I am talking racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes, age stereotypes, religious stereotypes, and on and on. You hear others parrot them, and it’s disgusting. But now the voice in your head–your very own Unitarian Universalist head!–is saying the same things! This is exactly the time to remember humility–that you are not self-created, that you do not live on your very own island–that, as Dr. Kross says very well: “The voices of culture influence our parents’ inner voices, which in turn influence our own, and so on through the many cultures and generations that combine to tune our minds. We are like Russian nesting dolls of mental conversation.” And so, given this perspective, let’s not fall into the trap of immersion (which looks like blaming oneself as a horrible person) but let’s distance, let’s bring compassionate awareness to the biased ideas.
Bringing compassionate awareness to the biased ideas is itself the path to transformation.
If immersion is like trying to deal with shoelaces that are knotted up, and you think you’re solving things but you’re just pulling on the strings harder and making the knot even tighter and worse, distancing seeks to go the opposite direction and loosen things up, so that our emotional knots can come undone….
The research on distancing that was most surprising to me personally revolved around speaking to oneself as though one were speaking to someone else. This distanced self-talk, says Dr. Kross, has remarkably quick results in calming an inner voice that is spinning out of control. In that hour before I stepped on the 2010 Adult National Figure Skating Ice, I really could have helped myself if I had said, “Anthony, Anthony, you are going to be ok. You got this.”
Just saying your name to yourself works. Just that.
It really does.
It’s about changing the tone of our inner voice, tuning it to something more constructive in our lives. When we can distance, we can more regularly operate from a spiritual place that sees every source of stress as a challenge (not a threat!) and therefore the blood in our bodies can flow more freely….
And then there is proactive distancing—distancing that is not so much about firefighting in the moment to manage an out-of-control negative inner voice, as it is an ongoing discipline of living. Proactive distancing is about the regular things you do to enable you to stay in a place of spiritual centeredness, as much as possible.
Here’s one of those regular things to do: to choose to be with people who, after they’ve made you feel validated and understood, help you find a bigger picture sense of things. In other words, people who don’t encourage you to stay in immersion mode and continually rehash and relive the stressful thing that happened. Dr. Kross calls that a “co-rumination trap.”
So, choose your friends carefully.
Same goes when we’re talking about social and political leaders. Some nurture resentment, and victimization, and want to stir up a spirit of warfare; others might address real problems but still preach, ultimately, a vision of hopefulness and of common humanity.
Choose your leaders wisely, too.
Yet another form of proactive distancing is through ritual. Listen to Dr. Kross: “Experiments show that cueing people to engage in completely arbitrary acts that are nevertheless rigid in structure has benefits. For instance, in the karaoke study in which participants had to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” they were asked to draw a picture of their feelings, sprinkle salt on it, count to five out loud, then ball up the paper and toss it into the trash. This mere onetime reliance on ritual improved their performance.”
Did you hear that!? Drawing a picture of your feelings, sprinkling salt on it, counting to five out loud, then tossing it into the trash—this has nothing at all to do with singing. And yet, the experiment shows that when people did that before singing the karaoke song, they were more able to quiet the anxious voice in their heads and sing better.
Psychologists call this “compensatory control.” It’s what tennis great Raphael Nadal does when he heads out onto the tennis courts. He always places his ID face up on the bench. He always carefully arranges his water bottles so they are perfectly aligned in front of his bench. He always makes sure his hair is just right before a serve. None of this has anything to do with playing tennis—and yet it helps to keep his inner voice quiet on the court. It helps him play from a spiritual place of “this is a challenge,” not “this is a threat.”
Next time I compete, I am definitely going to need to add a ritual to my warm-up routine.
I would also suggest that right here, in this practice of compensatory control, we can find scientific justification for the power of religious ritual of all kinds, as when we light our chalice. But it also justifies pagan spellcraft. Yes, you heard me right. Magical spellwork which has been around for thousands of years can be seen as just one form of the practice of compensatory control.
This is just following the science, folks.
Again and again, ancient religious traditions and contemporary science, dovetailing.
But I must mention one more form of proactive distancing before I close, which is enormously helpful in calming a negative inner voice and dwelling in a spiritual place that sees stressful events as challenges and not threats.
It’s this: to regularly experience moments of awe. “Awe,” says Dr. Kross, “is considered a self-transcendent emotion in that it allows people to think and feel beyond their own needs and wants. This is,” he adds, “reflected in what happens in the brain during awe-inspiring experiences: the neural activity associated with self-immersion decreases similar to how the brain responds when people meditate or take LSD, which are notorious for blurring the line between a person’s sense of self and the surrounding world.”
Talk about practicing distancing…..
So: put yourself before natural scenery that takes your breath away…
Make the Cleveland Metroparks your home away from home….
Or, place before your eyes poetry that sends shivers down your back…
Go see famous places that fill you with the wonder of history…
When Dave plays an organ piece and the music swells and flows, go with it….
Be in this space with its vastness, with its vertical sense of going up and up and up—how it is architecture that just feels spiritual….
Awe-filled experiences like these literally reduce inflammation in the body, calm things way down, change the synaptic flow of your thoughts, soften an inner voice that is screaming fear, screaming pain, soften it, soothe it ….
and in its place, instead, arises a voice that is wiser and deeper, the voice in your head that you truly need here and now, in this world filled with stress, in this world that needs you to be your best spiritual self…
This wiser and deeper voice…
This voice in your head that may not say the exact words I am just about to say, but the calmness is the same, the sense of ultimate security is the same….
The voice in your head that says:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.