It’s Only a Thought
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
~ Romans 12:1-2
I am going to ask us to take a couple minutes and ask you to do something you try hard not to ever do at church. I have provided scraps of paper. I want you to take one and write down, stream of consciousness, everything that is weighing on your mind. Make a list. Big or small. What are your distractions and anxieties? Take a minute or two and just brainstorm. And don’t worry, you won’t have to share.
I find when I allow myself to do an exercise like this, I identify worries I didn’t even know I was worried about. It’s amazing how much stuff we carry around with us all the time, isn’t it? I entered a Triathlon yesterday. A few days before the race, I woke up in the middle of the night afraid I was going to drown on the swim course in Deep Creek Lake. My fear began to take on a life of its own. To make it worse, I also had an old ad jingle for Easy Off oven cleaner stuck in my head on repeat. It drove me to prayer: “Please God, when it’s my time to die, please let me last thought be on you, and not Easy Off oven cleaner!”
It’s Amazing we get anything done at all! The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called worry “the next day”, meaning that we do not know what is going to happen “the next day” and so…we worry! We often try to anticipate all that can go wrong and we make plans to get everything right. Winston Churchhill once said, “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
Our tendency toward negative thoughts about the past and future leads to a few difficulties, including:
• We discover emotional pain with negative memories or fears
• We get distracted from the present moment
• Our problem-solving abilities weaken when we over-focus on things outside of our control
Maybe you’ve experienced the difference between healthy and unhealthy worry. Healthy worry is a response to danger. It’s meant to protect us – it makes us run from unsafe situations. Unhealthy worry can’t tell the difference between a real and a perceived threat. Our brains can trick us into F.E.A.R.
On a spiritual level, our tendency to worry ourselves through the past and fantasize about a terrible future creates distance between ourselves and God. When we don’t show up for the moment, we are unlikely to notice God with us, right here, right now. In my experience, God tends to speak in the quiet of the heart. A cacophony of mental noise about an unpleasant past or a frightening future dilute God’s still small voice.
Just because we feel fear doesn’t mean there is danger. Just because we think something doesn’t mean it’s true. The alternative to the aimless wandering worry is what Romans 12 calls, “the renewing of our minds.” We can be transformed. The Greek word Paul uses here is related to the words metamorphosis and transfiguration. It means to change form — a complete change from the inside out. It’s the verb the author of 2 Corinthians uses when he says, “we all … are being transformed into the same image … as from the Lord, the Spirit” (3:18) It is not a one-time change, but a process in which our lives resemble God’s divine spirit.
In Romans 12:2, Paul’s grammar seems to imply we cannot just transform ourselves. Our minds, our worries, our anxieties, our regrets, our actions – they are all made new with new input. In other words, we don’t get new results by doing the same old stuff.
The process begins with mindfulness. It’s another way of saying deep awareness of the present moment. Instead of worrying about our worries, mindfulness creates curiosity and acceptance about our anxious or wandering thoughts.
My typical pattern goes like this. A negative thought enters my consciousness, and I begin to worry about it. The thought often comes with some negative voices from the past with messages that want to lock me into my current pattern of responses. I might indulge in some self-soothing behavior to ease the pain. One of my coping mechanisms is binge eating. eating. I indulge the unhealthy worry with unhealthy action. I might feel bad and try to un-think the painful thought– just make it go away. Then what happens? Try it. Try to not think about a purple llama doing cartwheels in front of the sanctuary.
It does not have to be this way. What happens when a negative thought enters my mind and without judging or suppressing it I can say, “Hey, it’s only a thought. I wonder what that’s all about?” I can become curious. I can become present. I can become aware. I might ask: What physical sensations do I notice in my body as I think this—is there muscle tension, a shift in the breath pattern, quickening of the heartbeat, clenching in the gut? Where do I feel this? How do I want to respond right now? Cry? Eat and drink? Judge? Isolate? Talk it out?
Notice, I did not ask any “why” questions. “Why am I feeling this way? Why did this happen to me?” I did not ask, “What’s wrong with me?” We don’t always know why a thought pops into our heads. Don’t go there.
Remember, I said our minds are made new with new input? Brain research shows that physical neurological changes occur in the brain when we practice mindfulness on a regular basis. Mindfulness meditation quiets parts of the brain that react to pain and lights up parts of the brain that support happiness. The brain is constantly rewiring itself. All the negative self-talk that has uniquely wired your brain and guided your worries and your actions for months or even years can change over time. So, don’t believe everything you think. It might not be true. Be patient with yourself, Be curious. Be kind to yourself and the people around you. Open-hearted waiting and gentle speech may enable our minds to re-wire old patterns and use our lives to inspire and uplift others.
Let us end as we began, with a time of silence. As you are willing and comfortable, with eyes closed and in the quiet of this moment, observe whatever arises to take your attention. Just watch it. Let it be. Don’t try to change it or fix it. If you have the urge to change or fix it, observe that desire. The object of your observation can be anything at all. A thought. An idea. A sensation — something your body feels, something you hear. It can be an urge, a desire, a sense of needing to do something. Just watch the urge. Experience it with loving, non-judgmental, caring attention. Be a quiet presence, like a friend who stays close in silence with a loving attitude, toward your own inner experience …
There is an old, Medieval Christian prayer guide called The Cloud of Unknowing. The anonymous author offers this advice:
“If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as ‘God’ or ‘love’ is best. But choose one that is meaningful for you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defense in conflict and in peace … Should some thought go on annoying you, demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one word alone. If your mind begins to intellectualize over the meaning and connotations of this little word, remind yourself that its value lies in its simplicity. Do this and I assure you these thoughts will vanish. Why? Because you have refused to develop them with arguing.”
I love that last sentence. Watch your thoughts and feelings, but gently refuse to “develop them with arguing.” They are just thoughts. Without engagement or resistance, these thoughts and urges and feelings will change over time and return into the atmosphere from which they issued forth as you are transformed by the renewing of your mind.