Depression, Anxiety & Insomnia
A Mindful Perspective or Coming Back to Christ
A new form of treatment for depression, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain is growing in support and validity in the scientific community. What is being called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT after only 8 weeks is showing significant improvement in these conditions and reducing the risk of relapse - and it is all without drugs. MBCT is the fancy scientific term for what the layman calls meditation.
A Johns Hopkins University research review of 47 clinical trials performed through June 2013 among 3,515 participants that involved meditation and various mental and physical health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, substance use, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and chronic pain, demonstrated very positive results far beyond what could be classified as a placebo effect.
“A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” Dr. Goyal says. “But that's not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, finds that mindfulness meditation may rival antidepressants in easing the symptoms of depression. Mindfulness meditation may not cure all, the research found, but when it comes to the treatment of depression, anxiety, and pain, the practice may be just as effective as medication.
My understanding is that the purpose of the process or practice of meditation is not to think of nothing, nor is it to think of one thing. Rather, as we sit, or lie down to meditate, we are to call our attention or focus back to the anchor we have chosen. One common anchor is the breath. We simply observe our breathing as we inhale and exhale. When the mind wanders, we gently shift our attention back to the rise and fall of our breathing. Some may choose a word, such as OM. By thinking, humming or chanting this OOOOMMMM, it can become the anchor with which to return when the mind goes elsewhere.
We know that this process of calling the mind back when you notice it has wandered or become distracted is what quiets the mind and reshapes the neuronal pathways in the brain. Scientific research has demonstrated that those who suffer from depression, anxiety, insomnia or chronic pain have a thickening in the area of the brain called the amygdala as observed with an MRI. After 8-weeks of meditation practice, participants not only reported improvement in symptoms but MRI follow-up demonstrated changes or a thinning in the amygdala region. It is thought that the thickness of the amygdala has a correlation with the persistence (like a positive feedback loop) of feelings of depression, anxiety, insomnia and even pain.
The study of neuroplasticity teaches us that changes in the brain can be dynamic and we are not stuck with how the brain may be or how it has developed.
Additionally, the new field of Epigenetic teaches us that a mere 5% of our DNA is being expressed at any time and we are not limited with the current expression of our DNA. As your environment shifts and changes, your DNA can adapt changing your brain and physiology to make the appropriate modifications. All of this simply means, we can change our brain, we can change our physiology.
During meditation, as your mind wanders or you become distracted, you may choose to employ another tool called Mental Noting. This is done by naming the distraction that comes to the mind. A general term such as this is a “thought”, “emotion”, “sensation”, or “urge” . You may choose to be more descriptive such as that is a “fear” or dog barking or foot itching. Mental noting gives the thinking mind something to acknowledge by naming it, which makes it easier to pull away and come back to your chosen anchor, rather than leaving the mind to its own devices (for example: escalating worrying).
Learning to control your mind by gently bringing it back is what is meant by mindfulness.
Developing a lifestyle of mindfulness or bringing back your attention can be practiced during all activities of life - at church, a boring lecture, etc. As we train our minds through a mindfulness meditation practice, we achieve better focus and concentration as well as calmness and peace.
Coming Back to Christ
Over the years that I have tried to learn to meditate, I have never found a practice that really resonated with me deeply enough that I have continued with the practice. I went through Deepak Chopra’s 6-day meditation workshop (20 years ago) as well as read books and to be very honest, it was often so immersed in Ayurveda (the traditional health care practice of India) and the religions of India that as a Christian, I somehow felt that I wasn’t being true in my devotion to Christ.
Recently, I have renewed my pursuit of meditation, however with a focus on Jesus the Christ. What I have discovered is called Christ-Centered Meditation. The task is to reflect upon Jesus Christ. Some may choose a particular verse of scripture, others may reflect on his name repeating it as they would the OM sound. Personally, what I am doing is using a document entitled, “The Living Christ”, which is a written witness or testimony of the Savior Jesus Christ.
For me, I needed an anchor that held greater meaning and purpose in my life. As mindfulness or meditation is the spiritual practice of many throughout the world, for me, it is vital that this avenue of spiritual practice reflect my personal and religious beliefs.
This is how I do it. Again, this is just me, Kyle, and I am not suggesting that this is THE WAY you or anyone else should meditate or engage in your spiritual practice. As you engage in a serious practice of this you will discover what works best for you.
I set aside 30 to 40 minutes (with the intention that I want to meditate for at least 20). For me, it’s early in the morning before the craziness of the day begins. I will choose a phrase or sentence from The Living Christ to begin with, such as “He went about doing good, yet was despised for it” or “He walked the roads of Palestine, healing the sick, causing the blind to see, and raising the dead.” I will repeat in my mind the phrase and visualize it. Soon, usually very soon, my mind wanders - “what’s the dog barking at” - then gently, without any judgment (like, Come on! Kyle focus! - can’t you stay focused for even 30 seconds!), I pull my mind back to my phrase and focus of Christ. I let my imagination take me to the life of Christ - I imagine Him healing the sick, teaching the people, and walking the dusty roads. Then I discover, I am thinking of the itch on my left foot. As soon as I realize I’m no longer with Christ, I gently come back repeating a phrase. Sometimes, I will read a paragraph or two. Sometimes I will repeat a phrase again and again, memorizing it.
I am accomplishing at least two objectives during this practice. Number One, as I continually return my focus to my anchor (Christ), I am retraining my brain so that it enjoys the full benefits of a meditation practice as documented in the scientific literature. As a result, I find a greater sense of calm and focus in my life.
Number Two, I am developing the spiritual practice of drawing closer to God and Christ. I believe that one of the purposes of the Holy Spirit is to testify of truth. This means that when a truth is expressed, I will feel a measure of spiritual confirmation of that truth to the degree of it’s importance in my life. For example, if I say “my shoes are brown”, I may feel a subtle impression that says - “well, sure, that’s true”. However, when I say, “Christ will rule as King of Kings and reign as Lord of Lords.” - I feel the spirit say “YES! That is True!” The resulting benefit is that my faith is strengthened and I feel a greater connection to Christ.
Many who have enjoyed the practice of meditation have reported an experience that is referred to as “the gap” between the thoughts. As the mind fluctuates between the anchor (Christ) and the distracted thought (the dog), occasionally, you can experience a sensation where you are neither thinking or aware of either thought. This is said to be the space or gap between the thoughts. This is often where we experience profound calm or joy or feel at one with God or mankind. It is said that miracles occur in the gap between your thoughts. I know this all sounds metaphysical, but there is truth here. Particularly if you understand that one of the purposes of Christianity is transformation. As Paul put it, to become a new creature in Christ. Or to be renewed, born again or experience a mighty change. During meditation, you can receive deeply spiritual experiences of peace, comfort and answers.
My experience is that the practice of mindfulness (meditation) has more for us than simply pulling us out of chronic depression, anxiety or insomnia. It can become a vital part of our spiritual growth and development.
It can easily be practiced without tools, money or advisors. For example, when I struggle with insomnia, I have decided, as I lie awake, it is time to pray. It’s time to meditate. Heck, I’m not doing anything else anyways. So lying in bed, I gently (without judgment) call my distracted or racing mind back to my anchor - Jesus. When it comes to prayer, it has been said that we have one mouth and two ears. Use them accordingly. In other words, we need to listen twice as much as we vocalize our prayers. Mindful meditation can help us to listen as we call back the mind to our anchor.
Many studies have shown that this type of daily practice is just as effective as pharmaceutical drugs, but without the side effects (which for some are worse than the condition the drugs are taken for).
So, if you are up for a challenge and an adventure, commit yourself to an 8-week experiment in mindfulness. Dig around and do some research on your own, but get started. You’ve got nothing to lose and peace to gain. As you experience the positive benefits, you just may want to incorporate this mindfulness meditation as part of your lifelong spiritual practice.
Here's another permutation of the concept. Many have reported angst, exasperation and anxiety with even the thought of having to set aside 20 minutes to do anything. Here’s something that may help.
You don't need to necessarily spend a set amount of time. 2 Minutes. If all you have is 2 minutes - Come Back to Christ for two minutes - understand that your mind will wander 8 times during this two minutes - but the goal and the concept is coming back to Christ - NOT staying focused. Each time you become aware that your mind has wandered off - you bring it back to Christ. It is the "becoming aware that you've gotten distracted AND coming back" that re-trains (actually entrains - the synchronization of the mind to an external rhythm - in our case Christ) the mind.
Want to super charge the experience? Take Notes. I promise you, God will not be offended if you bring a note pad and pencil to meditation or prayer. Understand that the purpose of all of this - Meditation & Prayer - is to commune with God. Many times have I been given an insight, understanding, directive or revelation and said to myself - "I need to remember that" - and then of course, I forget. Well take notes. When I meditate or pray with the question "What Should I do?" answers come (you know for sure the Holy Spirit is speaking to you, when you begin to make excuses or rationalize why you don't want to or can't do what you are being told"). Anyways - take notes, write down your impressions. And yes - that still counts as your meditation and prayer experience. Don’t get caught up in with the clock.
Are you brave enough, Bold enough to try this for 2 minutes? Two minutes is all it takes to get started and get a taste of this form of communion with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Kyle Christensen 2016