Message 45, Positive Change for a New Year: Changing the Way We Think, 1-16-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Service-Program, 01-16-11

Rick Warren, of the evangelical Saddleback Community Church in California – and erstwhile Obama inaugural prayer leader, has many views on faith, Jesus and the world – most of which I do not agree.  On a few points, however, regarding the purpose for churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, I believe he is quite right.  Fundamentally, all institutions exist and continue to operate for a purpose.  Warren challenges faith communities in his book The Purpose Driven Church to be more than inwardly focused clubs.  He essentially makes four points: faith communities grow warmer through social fellowship, deeper through learning, stronger through Sunday services and larger through community outreach.  Thankfully, over the past year I have seen our congregation grow in each of these four areas.

For us at the Gathering, what purpose does our church serve?  I have often asked that question and your thoughts and answers to it will vary by individual.  Ultimately, I believe we – along with most dynamic and growing faith communities – are change agents.  Hopefully, the Gathering is a place where change happens and where change is encouraged – both inside and outside our walls.  Yes, we arrive here on Sundays and we participate in social events as a way to meet and connect with others.  Humans are social creatures.  But I hope a primary reason many of us are here is that we seek change, growth and learning.  We want to gain more understanding and intuition about our world and our lives; we seek greater self-confidence; we yearn for happiness; we want to detach from our past; we want to make a difference; we seek the elimination of destructive life patterns; we are in search of wisdom, maturity and humility.  We are not perfect.  We acknowledge a need to evolve.  We need others here in this community of friends, guests and visitors to help us change ourselves so that we can help change our world.

In that regard, this January series on positive changes for a New Year is really no different than any other monthly message series offered here.  They are all about change to one degree or another.  And today, I hope to discuss one of the most fundamental changes we might execute in our lives – how to change the way we think.  Our minds and the way we mentally process thoughts, emotions, dreams and memories determine how we behave and act.  To change the way we think may not necessarily involve altering our basic personalities or the unique ways each of us sees the world.  Instead, changing the way we think might, for most us, involve eliminating some of the negatives in our thinking – how we might be prone to anger, depression, arrogance, doubt,  bitterness, fear or a host of other attitudes which often prevent us from being true to our better selves.

Many people at this time of year make annual resolutions to improve their lives in some fashion.  In doing so, they focus on changing their behavior.  In a recent study coming out of the National Institute for Mental Health and the Ohio State University, altering behavior is not nearly as effective in producing long term benefits as is changing cognition – changing the way we think.  For example, one might resolve to change behavior and eat less as a way to lose weight but this study indicates that unless one changes how one thinks about oneself, about eating and about food, the success of the diet will not be as strong.  What this study seems to show, and experience has long shown, is that the way we think about ourselves and our world determines how we act and behave.

And cognitive change is not a mundane or routine exercise.  I believe it is, like most areas of our lives, a fundamentally spiritual endeavor.  Our thoughts and emotions are inextricably linked with what we believe about existence, purpose and relationships.  Paul, in the Biblical letter to the Roman church, implored us not to follow standard behaviors but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  Such, for him, is the key to change.  The Buddha asked that change be embraced, teaching that it is a fact of life.  As we understand this, accept it and then change the way we think about ourselves and our desires, negativity and self-absorption are reduced.  Peace, wisdom and gentleness are the result.  Gandhi also opined on the subject by saying that we must be the change that we want in the world.  To emphasize his point, he also said that men and women often become what they believe themselves to be.

As spiritual creatures passing through this present state of existence, who we are, the relationships we form and the differences we create in this world are determined by how we think.  Is life alive with possibility or is it a dead-end street?  Do I exist to insure that I am comfortable and happy or is my purpose to bring comfort and happiness to others?  Is my mind open to other opinions and thoughts or am I the only one with valid ideas?  Is love found in giving it away or in receiving it?  Is life about suffering or about joy?

Interestingly, I believe most of us know how we ought to think.  But mental health experts tell us that while we often know how to think in positive ways, there are negative thoughts, assumptions and attitudes in our minds which operate on the fringes of our daily thinking.  As I drive down the road and am suddenly cut off by another driver, a fringe attitude might immediately trigger feelings of personal insult and inadequacy, thus impelling me to rage with indignation, honk my horn and extend a rude gesture.  Changing the way I think about such incidents – now and in the future – might prompt me instead to understand that the actions of the other driver were not personally directed at me, I am not significantly impacted in terms of time, and the needs of that driver may exceed my own – he or she might be hurrying because of some emergency or it might have been a simple and unintended driving mistake.

And that thinking shift is the essence of cognitive change for the better.  We must alter our perspective and the way we interpret or see events in our lives.  I must first acknowledge my own fringe perspectives of negative thinking.  I then resolve to examine them and why they exist within my mind.  Are they the result of past hurts, feelings of insecurity, inadequacy or unresolved anger?  By recognizing why I have acted in such a manner – what motivated my thinking and my actions, I can better prescribe a solution.  Many therapists encourage people to practice free association thinking.  For example, when I feel insulted – which may or may not be the reality of what has just happened – what is the first thing that comes to my mind?  Is it that I am weak?  Incapable?  A person abandoned or unloved by a parent or partner?  What thought do I immediately associate with feeling insulted and then what is my emotional response – anger, sadness, shame?

Another way to diagnose why we negatively act in certain situations is to keep a diary of daily life events and how we think or feel about them.  This will help us in our self-awareness which I believe is absolutely critical to healthy living.  We must, as much as possible, know ourselves and our own weaknesses, strengths and emotional triggers.

Once we identify and diagnose the fringe thinking that triggers a negative mode of action – for instance, “I can never be a likable person” – we can then choose an alternative and positive way of thinking, “I am not perfect but I am a kind person who is friendly to others.” And this new way of thinking must be practiced and even recited over and over in one’s mind.  Such rephrased thinking can be memorized and consciously used to replace our previously identified negative thought.  Therapists tell us this takes time, practice and willful effort – it is not easy.  But changing our negative thinking IS possible and it IS effective in then changing our behavior.  Instead of reacting with anger when I feel insulted, I might instead brush it off or charitably assume the other meant me no harm – all because my thoughts about the perceived insult are positive.

Indeed, many people believe strongly in what is called the Law of Attraction.  How we think and what we believe about ourselves will fundamentally determine the kind of friends, lovers, associates and life events we attract into our lives.  What more important reason can there be, then, for us to alter some of the ways we negatively think? Can we renew our minds in order to live, work and relate in happy and fulfilling ways?

An additional means to cognitively change for the better is to practice the Buddhist art of mindfulness.  Many people study, practice and meditate for a lifetime seeking greater mindfulness, which is focused thought solely on the present.  This way of thinking lets go of the past and its hurts or pleasures.  It also does not think about the future – plans, expectations or dreams of what might be.  Instead, mindfulness, as I understand it, is about accepting the gift of the here and now – this moment when every breath and every heartbeat exists within an eternity of one second.  I am here.  I am alive and present within the warmth and blessing of this place and this group of people.  I am content and I am happy.

In that regard, seeking mindfulness might come as one by-product of a greater emphasis in our lives on spiritual growth – through meditation, prayer or silent reflection.  As much as changing negative thinking to positive thinking takes conscious and willful effort, finding happiness in our thinking can also come from spiritually renewing our minds.  As we turn to prayers of intercession – when we think about and hope for the well-being of others – we often transform the troubles of our own lives.  Even more, such thinking impels us to work to transform the troubles of other people.  Prayer for others is a classic way to move our minds away from ourselves and towards the needs of family, friends or strangers.  Indeed, an ancient Persian proverb says, “I had the blues because I had no shoes – until upon the street I met a man who had no feet.”

Spiritually focused thinking seeks unity with the wider community and all creation.  It forgets the self and instead ponders the realm of cooperation, common cause and mutuality.  Let me leave behind thoughts of my needs, desires, and selfish ambitions and ponder, instead, what small role I can play to build heaven on earth.  As Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is here and now – we must get to work to make it even better.  Buddhist loving kindness meditation is one form of such positive thinking.  In our silent reflections or meditations, we might repeat over and over mantras or prayers about someone else, “may you be happy”, “may you be healthy” or “may you live with ease.”

However it is that we pray or meditate or reflect, our task is to change our self-focused thinking.  We dream, we hope and we envision contentment, joy and peace for other people and, indeed, for all creatures.  Surprisingly, in doing so, we also find our own peace.

Dear ones, I am a man riddled with insecurities.  They manifest themselves repeatedly in my daily life.  I hold back from communicating to others my true feelings because I fear their judgment.  I can shy away from genuine intimacy because I do not fully accept myself.  I walk in here every Sunday with a small knot in my stomach, uncertain how the service will go and concerned that it will not be liked.  I’ve learned and I’ve grown a lot in my 50 some years of life but I know I am far from perfect.  I have so long to go on this road as I seek to be fully content in my own skin and to know that each action and each thought will nurture and love others.  I want to go to sleep each night knowing that even in some small way I have changed for the better my thinking and thus my behavior.  In my dreams, I hope to sing the song of angels – to act with kindness, to practice peace, to speak with gentleness and to live with humility.  In this New Year of 2011, will you join me on this journey of change?