Essay / Culture

Anxiety, Depression and Meditation I

I once heard a Christian psychologist say that we were made to live in a camel culture—slow-paced, relational and no electric lights to keep people up beyond sundown and deprive them of the eight and one half hours of sleep they need each night. But ours is no camel culture. We live is a rapid-paced, highly stressful society. We are constantly surrounded with noise, cell-phones, Ipods, television and, well, you get the picture. As a result, anxiety and depression are epidemic in America, especially among highly committed, achievement-oriented people.

Several years ago I fell into a seven-month period of severe depression peppered with anxiety attacks. There were several things that helped me pull through it—exercise, medication, Christian therapy, worship music. But in this and the next article, I want to share with you at form of deep meditation from the heart that has been invaluable in my bough with anxiety and depression.

The sort of meditation I have in mind weaves together three strands, two biblical and one scientific. Besides meditating on specific biblical texts, there are two Scriptural strands of meditation sometimes overlooked. As the first Scriptural strand, we are also admonished to meditate on general abstract themes in Scripture, for example, on agape love, on justice, on hope, and so forth. Thus, Paul wisely urges that “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is attractive, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8). Certainly we would want to remember and meditate on God’s wonderful acts towards us and those for whom we care. Remembering times we received or gave of ourselves in love or extended forgiveness, times when the presence of God was especially precious, and answers to prayer (a topic will return to later), these are also proper objects for meditation.

Additionally, along these lines, we could also meditate on anything that is edifying and encourages you towards a life of Christian maturity and gratitude towards God, whether grand or small. And God’s creation is a vast repository of objects to ponder and offer thanks to God, such as attending to the sound of rain, or to ducks swimming in a pond, or even to the wonderful tastes of what we eat. When you’re anxious and depressed, the so-called grand things of life may be too difficult to hold one’s attention. But anyone can start by being thankful for the taste of one’s morning coffee or a glass of orange juice. How wonderful of God to create a world with such gratuitous pleasures!

A second important, Scriptural strand involves the nature and role of the heart in a life of peace, hope and joy. The term “heart” has many uses in Scripture, but its basic meaning refers to the deepest core of the person. The heart is the fundamental, sometimes hidden fountain at the deepest recesses and absolute center of a person from which spring one’s more real feelings, one’s most authentic thoughts, one’s actual values and take on life. In this sense, it is obvious that the heart is the deepest aspect of one’s soul, one’s inner self, and it is not to be equated with the organ that pumps blood.

However, many theologians since Augustine have taken the soul to be fully present throughout the body. On this view, one’s various body parts can actually contain, be associated with sinful or holy tendencies to act, think and feel in certain ways since the soul is literally diffused throughout those parts. In my view, it is no accident that the term “heart” is used to represent one’s deepest core, for the physical heart area, what C. S. Lewis called “the chest” is the “location” we actually experience our deepest values, feelings, attitudes and ways of seeing the world. In some mysterious way, then, the physical heart area is to be the center of meditation if it is to flow from and impact our deepest core, our metaphorical “heart.” And when one is experiencing anxiety/depression, one needs to get to the core of what is going on.

A third, scientific strand of thought derived from recent discoveries may shed light on biblical teaching about the core of a person and it’s relationship to the heart organ. Neuroscientists have discovered that the heart has its own independent nervous system referred to as “the brain in the heart.” In a real sense the heart “thinks for itself.” Some forty thousand neurons are in the heart, which is as many as are found in a number of important sub-regions of the brain.

The heart sends signals to different parts of the brain including the amygdala. The amygdala specializes in strong emotional memories and is what the soul uses to process information for its emotional significance. By influencing the amygdala and other regions of the brain, scientists believe that “our heartbeats are not just the mechanical throbs of a diligent pump, but an intelligent language that significantly influences how we perceive and react to the world.” Some scientists talk about “heart intelligence,” an intelligent flow of awareness and insight, an intuitive source of wisdom and clear perception that embraces both mental and emotional intelligence.

In biblical terms, the soul is the person, but the soul has two faculties of intellectual cognition and intuitive perception, and each is associated with a different body part, the brain and the heart, respectively. Thus, the brain and the heart work together to shape our thoughts, emotions, moods and attitudes. Given that a person is just one self—not two–with one soul, it is obvious that the “I,” the soul, uses both the mind (associated with the brain) and the deepest intuitive core (associated with the heart organ) to think, see and feel about the world.

In light of this, I marvel at the incredible accuracy of Saint Paul’s statement “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7, emphasis added). Note carefully that the context is one of feeling anxiety. Given this context, we learn that both the heart and mind areas of the body (the heart organ and the brain) are to be involved cooperatively in opening up to God and dispelling anxiety.

Why is this important? Because when one is fighting anxiety and depression, one often has a racing mind that obsesses on an anxiety-producing thought over and over in an attempt to battle the thought and defend oneself against it. The problem is that if one tries to battle obsessive-thoughts in one’s mind, it literally creates a grove in the brain that gets deeper and deeper the more one entertains the anxious thought. After time, one literally loses one’s freedom to get away from the thought. It simply takes over and has a life of its own. You can taking your morning shower and still half asleep when, as if out of nowhere, the anxious thought starts running through your mind over and over again. What does one do in this case? The key is to stop battling the obsessive thought in you mind, and start working on it with the heart. In part II, I will offer a strategy for how to meditate in the heart so as to take the power out of anxious thoughts.

Read: Anxiety, Depression and Medidation II

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