a meditation on Matthew 6:25-29
Do not be anxious! Jesus tells his followers this morning. Surely, if Jesus was making time in his busy schedule to preach about anxiety, his followers must have had their share of anxious worries even in the first century. Still, I wonder what Jesus would think if he arrived here in 21st Century America. I wonder what he would make of what researchers today are calling an epidemic of anxiety among us modern folk, and particularly among our children and youth. Epidemic levels of anxiety seem to be particularly pronounced today among adolescents and young adults: nationwide, 20 percent of college students report being diagnosed with or treated for an anxiety disorder, with many more surely suffering without diagnosis or support.
Perhaps we modern Americans would find Jesus’ advice more helpful if the gospel writer had expanded just a bit on how, exactly, one goes about not being anxious. After all, we don’t intentionally choose anxiety. It seems to come upon us unbidden and unwelcomed. Often, anxiety feels like to be a force beyond our control. Maybe everyone in Jesus’ original audience already knew techniques for managing anxiety. If so, the gospels leave those instructions out of the text.
The good news is that today, we have access to a growing body of research about the relationship between our neurophysiology and our emotional state. And out of this research have come some very practical techniques for breaking the cycle of anxiety. So, while it may be true that we modern humans have more anxiety than our first-century ancestors, it is also true that we may have some tools our ancestors didn’t have. Tools that give us a fighting chance at following Jesus into a much less anxious and more joyful state of mind.
So this morning, I want to share with you what researchers have found to be one of the most helpful techniques for managing anxiety. It may not surprise you to hear that this technique is none other than the practice of gratefulness. Neuroscientists have discovered that it is not actually possible to simultaneously be in a state of gratefulness and a state of anxiety. This is because what we call ‘emotions’ or ‘feelings’ are neural activations in the neocortical regions of the brain. And it turns out that when we are experiencing gratefulness, there are so many positive emotional messages flooding the brain’s neocortex that the fearful, anxious messages from the amygdala (which is the fear center of the brain) get cut off — they can’t reach the brain’s neocortex. In other words, when we are experiencing gratefulness, we block the mechanism by which anxious messages reach our conscious awareness. It appears that we humans are not capable of feeling grateful and anxious simultaneously.
And here’s even better news: we don’t have to wait around for an experience to make us feel grateful. We can intentionally bring ourselves into a state of gratefulness any time at all. And the more we do this, the easier it gets. This is because our brains can change with practice: the neural pathways we use most often grow stronger. As we practice more and more gratefulness, it becomes easier and easier to feel grateful. Which means that as we rewire our brains for gratefulness and joy, we have a way — a practice — to lift ourselves out of anxious thoughts, and anxious feelings, and the often destructive behaviors that arise from anxiety itself. It turns out that Jesus was onto something. We can make a choice to be less anxious. And now we have a way to get there.
The important thing to note about the practice of gratefulness is that we have to stick with the experience long enough for it to take effect in our brains. Many of us tend to skate along the surface of gratitude, thinking about things we’re grateful for, but not taking enough time to let the experience sink in and change us. This is why Dr. Rick Hanson, who is a neuropsychologist, offers a three-step practice that can help rewire our brains through gratefulness (1).
Want to try it?
I invite you to close your eyes if you like, and call to mind something you feel grateful for. It might be an experience you’ve had, a person you love, an animal you love, a beautiful sight you’ve seen.
Now, stay with that mental image long enough to really notice its details. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel?
Now notice any positive feelings that come with this image, and let yourself feel grateful for these feelings. See if you can feel this gratefulness not just in your mind but in your body. Maybe you can feel it as warmth or light. See if you imagine this feeling spreading throughout your body, saturating every cell
When you’re ready, you can open your eyes. Dr. Hanson suggests that to see a change in our level of anxiety, we should do this short exercise 3-5 times every day. Maybe you’ll want to schedule it into your calendar and give it a try.
What Jesus seems to understand, and what neuroscientists are now confirming, is that anxiety is not just an individual affliction. Nations can feel anxious. Cities can feel anxious. When we are together, we form a body, says the Apostle Paul. This isi why, in Christian tradition, we take up shared spiritual practices–so that together, we can become more of who Jesus calls us to be: less anxious, and more able to access hope and joy…for ourselves and for the world. This is our call.
This is one of the reasons why, every month now, we set aside time here in worship to practice together by sharing our gratefulness. If you have had a celebration this past month: birthdays, anniversaries, other milestones, you’re invited to come up and tell us what you’re celebrating, so that we can all share in your gratefulness and joy.
(1) Rick Hanson, PhD., Hardwiring Happiness: The New Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.