Faith shapes our lives because concepts shape our reality. This isn’t magic, but a powerful truth. How I see someone effects who that person is. When a divorced parent sees their spouse in their child, that child will be like their spouse. When we expect rejection, rejection comes. Not because of some magical formula like “The Secret” or some divine biblical promise like “sowing and reaping” or because God moves in accordance with our faith, but simply because this is how we are wired. We co-create our selves and our worlds.
“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James. James was one of the great pioneers of the science of psychology. His statement has proven timeless and powerful the more we understand how the brain works. I love the word “agree.” Agreement implies multiple parties in a decision and this is an appropriate depiction of our self. We are many parts and what those parts agree to attend to becomes our experience. Do I focus on the one person that did not come to my party or the nine that did? Do I pay attention to the compliment I received or the criticism? Do I focus on the smooth sweet taste of the ice cream before me or the rain outside? In my relationships, what I attend to defines how I experience that person and it shapes who that person is to me and what that relationship means in my life.
The secret to gratitude, awe, joy, and peace are found in James’ statement. These experience are not a function of environment, but of attention.
In order to understand faith and awe, we must understand how right and left hemisphere brain operations influence our experience of life. Though a bit of an over simplification, the left hemisphere can be considered our analytic, linguistic side, whereas the right hemisphere “contains” our emotions. But to me more complete, just as there are left and right functions, there are top and bottom. The top of the brain being more of the “executive” functioning and the bottom being more emotional and sensory experience. So when we refer to top-down processes, we are referring to the way in which the top area of the brain mediates and moderates the bottom or how language and reason changes the way we feel. On a deeper level we could say that language and reason impacts the way that we make contact with the world. This “contact” is a very important concept. We experience life through our senses, these perceptions activate thoughts, feelings and emotions. In other words, we make contact with our world, we touch it through our senses, and that contact is what becomes our reality. When you enter a room, your first understanding of the situation is not an analytical appraisal but an impression- you have a feeling. Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel anxious? Do you feel accepted or judged? These experiences are understood and modified by top-down processing.
Emotions and feelings make up our experience of something, but it is the executive functioning that governs what we do with these feelings and emotions. As such, both are very important and carry their own sense of power in our lives. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that these top-down, right-left processes are the basis for our understanding of ourselves and our reality. There is a malleability to our experience that is very important. Many times when I talk with clients about anxiety, I’ll give the illustration of a football player setting their feet upon the NFL field for the first time. One’s heart is racing, palms sweating and he’s thinking- what if I drop the ball? The other is standing there, heart racing, palms sweating, thinking- I can’t wait to get out there! In this case it is the thought life of the individual not the physiological symptoms that determine the experience. Now that thought life may be the product of years of a particular way of interpreting events and experiencing life.
The point I want to make here is that we often make a big deal out of language or maybe “positive thinking” but I want you to understand that this is much deeper that rhetoric. Thoughts shape our experiences in a way that goes far beyond the abstract.
Dan Seigel explains that “we come to know the world through concepts.” Concepts have the ability to mediate and moderate our experiences by impacting how our senses and visceral experiences are activated. The power here is that concepts/beliefs/language can help us deal with painful experiences, but they can also close us off to powerfully positive experiences like joy and awe.
As we put our faith in God, it involves believing in and implementing the “lens” by which we see ourselves and the world. I think of the verse “Let the weak say I am strong.” Time and time again I’ve witnessed how powerfully the language that people use about themselves impacts how they feel about themselves. Sometimes it seems innocuous, “I’m so stupid” after dropping a plate, but this seemingly small statements over many years forms a narrative that impacts how readily shame becomes accessible and how easily joy and self-esteem can be accessed.
“What we attend to,” there is an intentionality in that statement. We have to actively CHOOSE how we see ourselves and the world. We have many options with each choice of words and each appraisal of a situation, what option we chose both reveals and reinforces the “concepts” we live out of. We can say we believe in grace and love but what do our words and appraisals reveal? This isn’t a condemnation but an encouragement.