Author Archives: Andy

The Experience of Being Emotionally Moved

At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.

This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.

Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows  kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.

There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.

The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:

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The Meaning of the Cross

Last week, my family and I returned from 9 days of touring France, including 6 days in Paris and 3 days in Normandy (click here for my updated photography page). Part of our interest in this trip was a sort of pilgrimage to visit the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans died on D-Day. In preparation, before we left, we watched the horrific opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, to get more of a sense for what happened on that epic day.

I don’t cry very often, but when I surveyed 9,388 crosses and stars of David at the American cemetery, I wept. I replayed in my imagination what happened at this site, and I connected with the sacrifice made on our country’s behalf. Watching filmed testimonies at Pointe du Hoc only reinforced this, as survivors recounted what it was like going into this day, how young most everyone was, and how afraid.

Many talked about how they prayed, and how they felt like their ultimate sacrifice – though tragic – might be needed: for God and country.

 

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What To Do When Stressed

A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.

My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.

Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.

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Unsheltered

When I look backward into my youth – forward all the way to today – I observe an undeniable, constant strand: Part of my identity is that of being a learner and a teacher.

Of course, there are many ways to be a learner and a teacher (two sides of the same coin for me, anyway). Right now, in my life, for example, I a professional teacher, a college professor. However, I also learn and teach at church (as I did recently in leading a group on gays and the church), as a parent, and even sometimes as a friend. This blog post, in fact, is also an act of learning and teaching for me, as it involved reading, thinking, and now sharing. Others learn and teach in their roles as managers, coaches, crew leaders, volunteer leaders, mentors, and pastors. Learning and teaching are roles many of us play in everyday life.

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Gays and the Church

Although the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges seemed to settle many civil issues about same-sex marriage in the United States, the topic remains contentious in many religious communities. In recent years, some denominations have broken with the historical Christian view that same-sex relations “miss the mark” and have become more LGBTQ affirming. Many have not, however, meaning they will not support “unrepentant” same sex sexual behavior or same-sex marriage in their churches.

From February 23-26, 2019, another major denomination will meet to discuss its official stance about same-sex relations, as leaders in the United Methodist Church will convene in St. Louis, Missouri to discuss “a way forward.” The plan recommended by the Methodist Council of Bishops would allow local decision-makers to implement policies about matters such as same-sex marriage that best fit their social contexts. If approved, this would enable more progressive districts to support the ordination of gay and lesbian Pastors and marry same-sex couples, subject to the conscience of the local pastor, while allowing more conservative districts to remain unchanged in policy and practice.

At play in these deliberations are questions of how to know what is true about matters of faith. The founder of the Methodist tradition – John Wesley – proposed four “ways of knowing,” now organized in what is popularly termed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral:” experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture. Basically, Methodists look for “converging evidence” in these four domains when creating church policy, although Scripture is prioritized.

Gays_2In anticipation of the denomination’s upcoming meetings, I have led a discussion group at my local Methodist church exploring same-sex relations, using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an organizing tool, for the past six weeks. Members of my church community have discussed their experiences with gays and lesbians, we invited several gay Christians to our group to listen and learn from their stories, and we have explored Scripture from both conservative and progressive perspectives. As a facilitator, my charge was to lead this group neutrally, meaning I have not shared my opinion very often, I have tried to make sure the best of materials are shared from both conservative and progressive viewpoints, and I have sought to create an atmosphere that is hospitable and conducive to honest, respectful conversations among individuals who often disagree.

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Letter to a Middle School Student

Last week, I was delighted to receive this Letter from a Middle School Student asking for my thoughts about the meaning of life. My response is below. I think this brings together several elements of my thinking.

***

Dear Jasmine,

It was a pleasure to receive your letter. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the great tradition of letter writing with you.

I share your interest in the meaning of life. In fact, probably most of us ask ourselves about the meaning or purpose of our lives at some point.

I think there probably are three ways to think about this. The first is about the Meaning of Life overall. Questions that fall into this category include: Why is there life at all? What are the origins of life? What happens after we die? What does it mean that we live in a universe where there is life? The second way to think about this is more personal. Questions include: What does my individual life mean? What is my unique purpose? What am I going to do with my “one wild and precious life?,” as the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver put it. The third way is to approach the question as a psychological scientist. Following this, we could ask ourselves how we might measure the perception of meaning in life, in general, and then consider how to perform scientific studies seeking to uncover what predicts the experience of more or less life meaning in a broad group of people.

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Soulfelt

Craig is the worship leader at my church. To say his style is unique would be a great understatement.

Craig mostly plays piano and sings at church, combining a mix of folk and country with a bit of blues and funk thrown in for good measure. He is humble, but once in a while, he plays a solo, and when this becomes apparent, my wife and I glance across the aisle at each other, and smile knowingly that we are about to share a sacred moment. Whenever Craig sings his one-of-a-kind rendition of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah,” for example, tears flood our eyes. And we leave church a bit different as a result.

Craig is nearing retirement and recently pulled back from leading all three worship services, restricting himself to the early 8:00 service. His replacements are talented musicians in their own right, but many in the congregation started attending church earlier just to hear Craig play. There is just something intoxicating about his music.

The best way I can describe Craig’s music is that it is “soulfelt.”

“Soulfelt” appears in none of the major dictionaries. By this criterion, it is not a word.

But, I think it should be.

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The Courage to Create

This past summer, I spent a glorious month teaching at “the most experimental college in North America,” Quest University Canada, north of Vancouver, British Columbia. One of my favorite aspects of Quest’s one-of-a-kind educational model is that, rather than majoring in something broad such as Business, Communications, or Psychology, students focus their work around one self-selected question. For example, one of many talented students spent her university years focused on the question of how creativity and happiness are related. As a part of a final project, she asked to interview me – along with about a dozen others – and ultimately created the short documentary below.

In this spirit, may 2019 bring you great creativity and happiness!

One Thing Among Many

I’ve been reading and discussing Parker Palmer’s new book, “On the Brink of Everything,” recently, and with great benefit. Many of my discussions seem to return to a portion of a poem, which I share below. Its insight requires no elaboration.

“Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”

~Czeslaw Milosz

My Journey with the Bible

I’ve written some personal essays before – these on death and the relationship between science and faith are examples – but below is maybe the most personal essay I’ve ever written. It technically is a narrative essay – focusing on my lifelong experience with the Bible – and I developed it through the help of some amazing folks at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Our teacher at the Loft encouraged us students to submit our work to literary publications, and I sent mine to a very cool Christian literary magazine called Ruminate. I was so honored when they accepted!

Anyway, here it is. I’d love to hear your reaction.

My Journey with the Bible

 

When Religion Promotes Violence

In a survey released last week by U. S. News and World Report, over 21,000 people from all regions of the world most commonly rated religion as the “primary source of global conflict today.” Individuals identified power, economic factors, and political beliefs less frequently.

Of course, the fact that survey respondents believe religion drives global conflict more than any other factor doesn’t mean it actually does. However, the survey does raise questions of how religion may contribute to conflict and what could be done in religions to better promote peace.

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Mary Oliver, Poem #4

This is Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, which ends with one of the most important questions we ever could ask ourselves. I love how she frames it.

***

The Summer Day

“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Religion Needs a Savior

A few weeks ago, a journalist from U. S. News & World Report called to interview me about new data showing that individuals across the world most commonly rate religion as the greatest source of global conflict today. She asked about why religion contributes so frequently to conflict and what to do about it. You know, simple questions!

Here’s the article.

It’s interesting to see how a journalist decides what to include and what not to include from a 45 minute interview. If I could summarize my take-home advice more simply, I’d say this:

1. Identify first as a fellow human.
2. Then identify with your groups.
3. If your groups don’t help you do (1), find different groups.

Mary Oliver, Poem #3

This part of a Mary Oliver poem deeply resonates, at least with me.

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.”

Mary Oliver, Poem #2

This Mary Oliver poem reminds me how such a complex universe requires multiple ways of knowing, and how our preconceptions sometimes influence what is possible in our perceptions.

***

The World I Live In

“I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.”

Mary Oliver, Poem #1

The older I get, the more I am (to my surprise) drawn to poetry. When I read the Bible, I spend more and more time in the Psalms. A few years ago, I shared my favorite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Recently, I finished Mary Oliver’s book on “Devotions.”

Biography-Mary-OliverMary Oliver is best known for her nature poetry, and has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. For those who don’t know anything about her, here is a rare interview on my favorite radio program / podcast, On Being.

I’m tempted to comment, but over the next week or so, I plan to just share some of my favorites of Mary Oliver’s poems. They speak for themselves.

Here’s the first, called “Swan.”

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Quaker Quotes

Several years ago, a student of mine shared with me an online survey to determine my religion: the “belief-o-matic.” According to my results, I apparently am “Orthodox Quaker.” This piqued my interest, especially since I knew nothing about Quakers and had never attended a Quaker meeting!

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Recently, I started doing some reading about Quakerism. One element of this tradition that I love is the emphasis on quotations. There are some really lovely quotes I’ve found in Quaker tradition, but – following the Quaker testimony of simplicity – I’ll only share a few here. From this tradition, quotes are not merely nice little axioms; rather, they are intended to be prompts for contemplation. Most of these I found through two books, both by Catherine Whitmire.

“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home.
The truth is not that it is going to be alright.
the truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)

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Psalm 1: The Psychology of Meditation

“Blessed are those…
who delight in the law of the Lord
and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.”
~Psalm 1: 1-3~

Meditation occupies an important place in contemporary society. What most people associate with the term “meditation” today is mindfulness-based meditation. This form of meditation originates in Buddhism and generally encourages individuals to empty themselves of difficult sensations, thoughts, and emotions by mindfully focusing attention, for example, on their breathing. Psychologists now widely accept mindfulness-based meditation and incorporate it into psychotherapy. Unfortunately, as recently argued in a major research review released by the Association for Psychological Science, much of the practice and hype for mindfulness meditation seems a bit premature given the lack of rigorous scientific study on the topic.

I personally use mindfulness meditation as a way to manage stress, anxiety, and pain. For instance, if I’m feeling anxious, I often will take some time to focus on what I’m feeling and where in my body I’m feeling it. Sometimes, I will mindfully observe my thinking and intentionally label my thoughts as “anxious.” Usually, when I connect with how I’m experiencing anxiety, I also recognize that the sensations really aren’t that bad, that I’m not in any real danger, and that my feelings usually have an understandable cause. This helps me to let my anxiety go and direct my attention toward something more productive.

ben-white-Unsplash

Source: Ben White | Unsplash

Although potentially very useful, this isn’t the kind of meditation the psalmist had in mind.

Whereas Eastern meditation seeks to empty, traditional Judeo-Christian forms of meditation attempt to fill. As discussed by Richard Foster in one of my favorite books, “The Celebration of Discipline,” Christian meditation comes in four major varieties.

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Six Forms of Resolution

As we begin a new year, many of us find ourselves in a bit more contemplative mood than usual. What were our highs and lows in 2017? What do we want for 2018? We all could use some clarity to live our best lives.

Sometimes, we’re waiting for clarity to strike us from the outside, maybe in the form of a sign or revelation. But more often than not, the clarity we seek is already within us, waiting to be discovered.

When I was a Sophomore in high school, I started to connect with my own unclarity. What was I going to do with my “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it? A friend gave me a copy of Anthony Robbins’ “Awaken the Giant Within,” a book I generally now regard with great skepticism, but nonetheless that helped change my life.

Eventually, I found my way to a chapter on goal setting. Like most everyone, I had been taught I should set goals for my life. But just like how I had also been taught I should dust my room and floss my teeth, I wasn’t particularly motivated to do so. Goal setting just seemed painful, with no clear benefit. So, when I started reading the chapter, I was surprised to find a quote from Carl Sandburg: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” I had never thought that goal setting may be more akin to dream identifying. I continued to read:

“Are you ready to have some fun? Are you willing to be like a kid again and let your imagination run wild?”

The tone caught me off guard. Maybe goal setting wasn’t like dusting my room or flossing my teeth.

I then was led on a series of tasks in which I dreamed what I wanted to create in my life. I brainstormed for 5 minutes about four areas each: personal development, career / economics, adventures, and contributions. Ultimately, I identified the most important one-year goal in each area.

The effects of this exercise on me can’t be overstated. It brought me clarity for the first time in my life. I had been a mediocre student, for instance, often struggling in difficult subjects, sometimes getting into trouble with my dad because of earning a “D.” But, during my goal setting session, I decided I wanted to be an “A” student. From that point forward, that’s exactly what I made happen. I earned straight “A”s through the rest of high school. This allowed me to enroll at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I continued being an “A” student. This, in part, allowed me to get into a top-rated Counseling Psychology program at the University of Minnesota. My future opened before me. And it all started with a goal.

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Christian Wiman’s Thoughts on Faith

In his op-ed, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks calls “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” “the best modern book on belief.” The author, Christian Wiman, has struggled – for many years – with a rare form of cancer, and he lays bare many of his rawest thoughts in this book about many aspects of meaningful living, particularly in relation to faith. I think the best way to give a quick glimpse is to share a few select passages.

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“No one ever believed in God without perceiving God.”

“To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.”

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