Mind Over Marriage: Transforming Your Relationship Using Centering Prayer and Neuroscience
P. Gregg Blanton
The couple sitting across from me was playing the oldest game in human history: the blame game. Like so many couples I have seen before, Steve and Linda were defining their relationship problem in terms of the other person. Steve, a creative architect, saw their difficulty as resulting from Linda's "selfishness and self-centeredness," while Linda, a successful lawyer, viewed Steve's "bullying" behavior as the source of their marital unhappiness.
At that moment, in my imagination, I could see each one of them being overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. And this wave of feelings was pushing them into memories, thoughts, and actions that were detrimental to their marital relationship. I was convinced that they would have chosen other behaviors, ones that would have protected their marriage, if they had been in their "right minds."
It saddened but did not surprise me to witness Steve and Linda stepping into a familiar mental trap; that is, defining the marital problem in terms of the other person. This response seems to be an ancient means of self-defense. According to Christian thought, the first committed couple engaged in this form of behavior. In Genesis, we read that when Adam and Eve got into trouble, Adam was quick to point an accusing finger at his wife (Genesis 3:12). And just like Adam, Eve readily created a narrative that cast herself in the role of victim, putting someone else in the role of villain (Genesis 3:13).
I have heard it said that how you start determines how you finish. Well, Steve and Linda were picking the wrong place—the other person—to start working on the cause and solution of their marital woes. Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson, both professors of psychology and co-creators of a counseling model called Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT), phrase it in a slightly different manner, saying that the way we understand a problem determines the way we cope with it. Now, if we define the relationship difficulty as resulting from something our spouse does, then we will naturally demand a change in our partner. However, we have all discovered that accusing the one we love of wrong actions and character flaws rarely elicits the change we desire.
If we resist the urge to lay the blame on our spouse, then where do we start? How do we begin to understand the unhappiness that may exist in our marriage? Both modern scientific findings and the ancient Christian contemplative tradition point us in the same direction for answers to these questions. They suggest that, instead of looking outside for a culprit, we look inside. Perhaps the root of our marital problems lies as close our own minds.
As Christensen and Jacobson suggest, identifying our own mind as the basic cause of marital problems points us in a new direction for change. Identifying and exploring this new direction is the purpose of this book. First, we will attempt to understand how the ordinary mind works and how these mental functions affect our marital relationship. Then we will set out to describe how to retrain the mind through a specific contemplative practice called Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is a contemporary version of the ancient Christian custom of contemplation. In the process of exploring Centering Prayer, we will identify new skills and abilities that grow out of a regular contemplative practice. Finally, we will develop a plan for improving our marriage through the application of these new skills and the development of new behavioral traits.
In this book, we will examine the topics of mind and marriage through the lens of both Christian contemplative thought and scientific discoveries. Turning to science, we will look more specifically at recent findings from psychology, the science of human behavior, and neuroscience, the science of the brain. Turning to Christian contemplative thought, we will explore ideas that go back 2,000 years. Even though Christian contemplative thought precedes scientific thought, we will see the two streams of knowledge converge at the points of minds and marriages. By emphasizing an approach of mind over marriage, we will develop useful strategies that allow us to change our minds so that we can change our marriages.
This book is built upon three positive assumptions about a dialogue between Christian contemplative and scientific thought: First, the discoveries these two disciplines have made about minds and marriages are often similar and almost always complement each other. Second, because scientific and contemplative findings are complementary approaches to our study of minds and marriages, we do not have to choose one field over the other. Finally, a conversation between these two approaches to knowledge should yield valuable insights into the cause of marital unhappiness—the mind.
If we adopt the position that our mind is the cause of marital unhappiness—and I believe that it is—then we must start with some understanding of the mind itself. Let's start with some definitions of the mind. Gerald May, a Christian psychiatrist and contemplative, suggests that the mind is not a thing, nor is it a place in any physical sense. Rather, the mind consists of a variety of activities or processes that are performed by the brain in conjunction with other parts of the nervous system and the body. In the field of neuroscience, Daniel Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, also draws a connection between the brain and the mind. According to Siegel, the brain—the extended nervous system that is distributed throughout the entire body—produces a flow of energy and information. The mind, then, in part, is what regulates this flow of energy and information. These definitions, one from a Christian contemplative and the other from an expert in neuroscience, point to the interaction between the brain and the mind. If we bring our marriage into the equation, then Siegel suggests that how we share the flow of energy and information with our spouse directly affects our marital relationship and happiness.
Let's return to Steve and Linda and see what was actually happening as they sat there in my office. Even though I couldn't read their minds, I had some pretty good ideas about what was going on. I believe that Steve and Linda's minds were first tipped out of balance by a sense of disconnection and insecurity. I assume each of them had done something that was perceived by their partner as being hurtful or uncaring. We know now that if something happens to undermine our need for security, our mind begins to fall under the control of forgotten memories, uncontrollable emotions, and destructive actions.
Whenever we feel distant from our spouse, a warning signal of insecurity is sounded, and then an entire cascade of mental processes follows. Perhaps this announcement of danger was at the root of Steve and Linda's behavior. According to Paul Gilbert, a British psychologist, this alarm is activated by the mind's threat and self-protective system. This threat system has been designed along fairly simple lines: to detect danger and to protect us. When a risk to our security is noticed, the emotion of fear quickly surfaces. And then, this state of fear begins to direct our narratives and behavior, and numerous problems can happen.
According to Daniel Siegel, when the mind gets out of balance, it moves toward either chaos (over-arousal) or rigidity (under-arousal). Looking at the faces of Steve and Linda, I was sure that both of their minds were in a state of chaos. As a result, they were lost in intense memories, disruptive emotions, irrational thoughts, and impulsive behaviors. As John O'Donohue, an Irish poet and Christian contemplative, would say, they had become trapped in a mental prison. The mind of each had become a "small room without a light." We will explore how we get caught up—or trapped—in these mental processes in the first part of this book.
Scientists and Christian contemplatives put it in different ways, but both disciplines recognize the need to restore balance to our minds. In order to bring this balance, scientists such as Daniel Siegel and Paul Gilbert advocate training the mind, replacing old mental functions with new ones, or freeing our mind from old mental patterns. Similarly, Christian contemplatives talk about purifying, refining, emptying, opening, freeing, or liberating the mind. Richard Rohr, a Christian contemplative, says that we can restore balance to our minds by changing our minds. Rohr points out that Jesus' very first message in the Gospels, which is usually translated as "convert," "repent," or "reform," (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15) is the Greek word metanoia, which literally means to "change your mind."
The insights that Christian contemplative and scientific thinkers give us into the workings of the mind and how these mental processes impact our marital relationships give rise to important questions. How do we restore balance to our turbulent or sluggish minds? How do we calm the threat-based system of the mind that prompts us to attack our spouse, close off, or shut down? Instead of being pushed around by fear, how can we love our spouse the way we really want to? How can we make a mental shift from fear to one of love?
In the last three decades, science has begun to echo an old Christian answer to the question of how to change or liberate the mind. The answer is through contemplative practice. Daniel Siegel points toward a growing body of research that demonstrates that contemplative practices can strengthen minds and interpersonal relationships.
According to Siegel, scientific studies support the idea that contemplative skills can move our mind toward greater health. And by creating balance in our mind, we can then form a better connection with our spouse. Research clearly shows that transforming our minds through contemplative skills creates well-being in our marital relationships.
The contemplative practice that we find within the Christian tradition is called contemplative prayer. According to John O'Donohue, contemplative prayer is the key that liberates us from the mental prison in which we too often find ourselves. In order to clear up some of the misunderstanding associated with contemplative prayer, David Benner, a Christian psychologist and contemplative, offers us some basic instruction. In essence, he says, contemplative prayer is simply being with God in wordless communion. The goal of contemplative prayer is being open to God, turning to God in faith. The rest is up to God.
When I suggested to Steve and Linda that contemplative prayer could possibly not only change their minds, but change their marriage—and I was happy to say that my claims had scientific backing—they were immediately interested. They were eager to know how it worked, so I told them that I would teach them a simple method of contemplative prayer called Centering Prayer. Thomas Keating, the principal architect and spokesperson for Centering Prayer, says that Centering Prayer is an attempt to present contemplative prayer in an up-to-date form, one that puts a certain order and method to it.
How can Steve and Linda hope to benefit from engaging in Centering Prayer on a consistent basis? What skills and qualities can they expect to develop as they enter into a regular contemplative practice? In the second part of this book, we will see how contemplative prayer teaches us to be still, attentive, open, and detached. With these skills, we can move toward the ultimate goals of contemplation: union and love.
Contemplative prayer, in which we spend time with God, has transformational possibilities. According to Richard Rohr, transformation is a type of journey, one that starts with knowing where we are and a willingness to go someplace else. Contemplative prayer can take us from chaos to stillness, from distraction to attention, from rigidity to openness, from attachment to letting go, from the illusion of separateness to union, and from fear to love. This was a transformation that Steve and Linda desired. They wanted to embark on a journey that had the power to change their minds, and thus their marriage.
The last section of this book brings to light this idea: changing our mind can change our marriage. We will discover how the six skills that are examined in the second part of this book—stillness, attention, openness, letting go, union, and love—are six traits that can meaningfully impact the health and strength of our marriage. Each trait is associated with a specific skill. Stillness gives rise to the trait of calmness, attention produces attunement, openness leads to the quality of presence, letting go helps us learn how to reconstruct our narratives, union gives rise to resonance, and love enables us to trust. The development and application of these behavioral traits—calmness, attunement, presence, storytelling, resonance, and trust—provide us with the tools we need for rebuilding a secure and happy marriage.
Everything in this book rests on three fundamental principles. The first, addressed in part I, is that changing our mind begins with a thorough understanding of how the ordinary mind works. This first section will rely equally upon scientific and Christian contemplative findings. Part II illustrates the second principle that contemplative practice is a learnable skill that can alter the way the mind functions. Here, we will draw primarily upon Christian contemplative thought in general, and Centering Prayer in particular. The third principle, in part III, is at the heart of my work as a marriage counselor. Well-being occurs in a marriage as we develop the traits that emerge from a regular practice of contemplative prayer. This last section of the book depends largely upon scientific thought, but also appeals to Christian contemplative ideas.
Are you willing to work on your marriage by starting with your own mind? Do you want to learn how to bring healing to both your mind and your marriage through Christian contemplative prayer? Are you eager to learn how to move your mind from a place of fear to one of love? If so, this book will help guide you on your journey.
Let's begin by taking a survey of the chapters that lie ahead:
Chapter 1, Separation: In this chapter, we will see how the mind is wired for connection. When this longing for attachment is denied in our marriage, we manifest different patterns of insecurity. This feeling of insecurity activates the mind toward either chaos or rigidity. A sense of separation engages our mind's threat response system, which then activates memories, physiological sensations, emotions, narratives, and behavioral reactions. When these responses get out of hand, they can cause all kinds of problems for our marriage.
Chapter 2, Self: The workings of the mind would be completely in the dark without the self. The self, that thing we carry around inside that allows us to witness the flow of our mind, helps us experience our memories, emotions, and thoughts. In spite of its usefulness, the self also carries with it certain deficiencies that can threaten the health of our marriage. In this chapter, we will identify these limitations.
Chapter 3, Body: In this chapter, we will examine the connection between the body and the mind. Once the self-protection system of the mind picks up on a threat, it activates the body to take action against the perceived danger. When we experience our spouse as that risk to our safety, our bodies become keyed up, this reaction can get out of hand, and then we are at war with our spouse. Studies show that this physiological arousal can almost perfectly predict a decline in our marital satisfaction.
Chapter 4, Memories: Memory comes in two different forms: totally conscious, or outside of our awareness. The memories that operate below our awareness, implicit memories, are at the very core of how we interact with our spouse. In this chapter, we will learn how implicit memories are activated and what happens once they are. In the presence of a perceived threat, memories can quickly arouse old fears, strong physical sensations, and automatic protective behaviors.
Chapter 5, Emotions: In this chapter, we will explore the threat-based emotion of fear. Starting with the neurobiology of fear, we will describe how fear is activated and then how it works with memories, narratives, and protective actions. Thomas Merton, the famous Christian contemplative, says: "At the root of all war is fear."Sometimes, fear causes us to see our spouse as a threat and the enemy, and as a result, we feel overwhelmed with emotions. Being flooded with feelings can cause us to say and do things we later regret.
Chapter 6, Narratives: What story do you have about your spouse and your marriage? This narrative will probably determine the outcome of your marriage. Research shows us that unhappy couples develop stories that support their fear of their spouse. "Look at how my spouse feels, thinks, and acts! Of course I should be afraid!"In this chapter, we will study how our narratives are activated and constructed. We will see what happens when a narrative comes under the influence of fear.
Chapter 7, Behavior: In a state of threat, the mind prepares for war, not love. When we become upset and aroused, our mind pushes us to act in negative ways. In this chapter, we will examine our tendency to fight with our spouse, flee, or shut down. Studies show that unhappy couples, in a state of emotional and physical arousal, get caught up in patterns of behavior that are detrimental to the relationship. We will explore the most painful and common patterns of interacting.
Chapter 8, Contemplative Prayer: How do we restore the mind to balance? In the last three decades, science has begun to echo an old Christian answer to this question—that is, through contemplative prayer. What are the characteristics of the "inner room" that we enter through Centering Prayer? What does the normal mind do during this practice? What happens when the mind refrains from its normal activities? What are the mental skills that we develop through contemplative prayer? All of these questions are addressed in this chapter.
Chapter 9, Stillness: According to John O'Donohue, the tools of contemplative prayer are stillness and silence. Father Thomas Keating says that Centering Prayer is patterned on the comparison given by Jesus that prayer is like going into your room and closing the door (Matthew 6:6). This concept may sound simple, but learning to sit in a room, alone with your mind, for twenty minutes can be quite challenging. Richard Rohr says, "You will want to run, I assure you." Alan Wallace, a philosopher, quotes writer Anne Lamott as saying, "My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone." We will want to run because of all the negative thoughts, painful memories, and turbulent emotions that emerge in this place of quiet. We will discover how restless the mind really is. However, in stillness, the flow of our mind begins to slow down. As we willingly shut off the chatter of our mind, we begin to notice the still, small voice of God (Psalms 46:10).
Chapter 10, Attention: When we are silent and still, we start developing the ability to pay attention in a special way. Usually, our attention is captured by the mental patterns of our mind: emotions, memories, and commentaries on events. And once these ordinary mental processes kidnap our attention, we find ourselves reacting in a grasping (maintaining the thought) or rejecting (pushing the thought away) manner. However, Centering Prayer is designed to help us withdraw our attention from the ordinary flow of mental patterns. We are not trying to stop or prevent thoughts, feelings, and memories. Instead, we are learning to notice the thought, sense it, welcome it, and then leave it alone. Attention is a state of active receptivity.
Chapter 11, Openness: Paying attention in this way leads us to the next skill: openness. Without mental training through contemplative practice, our first instinct is to change or control the activities of our mind. We may hold on to pleasant thoughts, feelings, and memories, while we push away the unpleasant ones. However, openness is the ability to accept whatever our mind brings us in the present moment. Nothing is shut out, eliminated, or excluded. Instead, we open our awareness to all our mental processes, so that we can notice them and then leave them alone. By leaving them alone, we can engage in the purpose of Centering Prayer, openness to God.
Chapter 12, Letting Go: As we repeatedly enter into the inner room of prayer, we are learning to let go. This idea implies that there are things we want to hold on to, but what are we most attached to? Our own urges, feelings, and commentaries. We are attached to our view of our spouse or our marriage. Our view must be right. But the principle discipline of Centering Prayer is learning to detach or let go. Letting go allows us to watch our mental processes without getting swept up in them, without letting our attention get kidnapped. This ability to let go is counterintuitive because we naturally want to hold on to things we value, but emptying ourselves of old mental processes allows us to be filled with new ones.
Chapter 13, Union: The goal of contemplative prayer is the realization of one's essential union with God. Keating describes contemplative prayer as "a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union." The skills engendered through a regular contemplative practice prepare but don't entitle us to the gift of union. Hopefully, Centering Prayer allows us to reach a deeper level of the mind, a level where we become awake to another dimension of reality. At this level, we may sense on occasions that we really are not separate from God, as our ordinary minds would suggest. Instead, just as the air we breathe is in and around us, we are awakened to the presence of God that penetrates us and is all around us.
Chapter 14, Love: Ultimately, through contemplative practice, our mind gradually begins shifting from a position of fear to one of love. This one essential quality of contemplation—love—is affirmed by all Christian contemplatives. However, according to the Christian contemplative tradition, just like divine union, love cannot be achieved by human effort. Instead, the ability to love comes to us by God. As we open ourselves to God in Centering Prayer, as we empty our mind of old mental properties, we become open to being filled with love.
Chapter 15, The Science of Contemplation: For insights into how Centering Prayer can benefit our marriage, we must turn to science. Most recent scientific research is focused on a contemplative practice called mindfulness. Even though Centering Prayer has not garnered this same attention from the scientific community, research findings indicate that we can apply the discoveries about mindfulness to Centering Prayer. The new science of contemplation is now telling us that through a regular contemplative practice, we can cultivate certain personal traits that can transform our life and marriage.
Chapter 16, Calmness: Research is showing that there is a direct relationship between calmness and marital satisfaction. The findings reveal that our marital happiness declines as our heart rate increases. How do we go about calming our own and our spouse's physiology? There is scientific evidence that supports a connection between contemplative practice and one's ability to calm one's mind—what many researchers refer to as emotional regulation. It seems that the ability to self-soothe and soothe one's partner are central to marital happiness. Secure couples rely upon interactive regulation. In this chapter, we will not only learn ways to self-soothe, but also strategies for soothing our spouse.
Chapter 17, Attunement: Behavioral scientists, such as Daniel Siegel, Marion Solomon, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA, and Stan Tatkin, developer of Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy, point to the connection between contemplative practice and attunement. They say that attunement, how we focus our attention on our spouse, is necessary if we are going to feel safe and secure in our marital relationships. John Gottman, a leading psychologist known for his work with couples, offers us the acronym ATTUNE to help us understand the elements of attunement.
Chapter 18, Presence: Scientific studies show that contemplative practice is particularly useful for promoting the trait of presence. Presence, defined as a state of being open, allows us to remain receptive to our partner. It is a way of being that we bring to our marriage. It is an attitude or stance toward the present moment that allows us to attend openly and clearly to both our own experience and that of our spouse. Out of this openness, we can respond appropriately to the interaction that we are having with our spouse.
Chapter 19, Stories of Truth: According to John Gottman, the story-of-us—the one about our partner and our relationship—is an index of what will eventually happen to our marriage. Obviously, our ability to tell positive stories is essential to the health of our relationship. Our goal in this chapter is to learn how to create good stories. These stories focus on vulnerabilities, center on understanding emotions, emphasize good times together, and maximize our partner's positive qualities. If we engage in a positive story-of-us, we will most likely set our marriage off in a positive direction. A growing number of studies are showing that a contemplative practice allows us to detach from old, negative stories long enough to construct new, positive ones.
Chapter 20, Resonance: Couples who use we-ness words—we, us, and our—are happier than those who don't. The trait of resonance captures this sense of unity and togetherness. Resonance helps us see that we are not separate but actually connected. It helps us pay attention to the impact that our partner is having on us, and the impact that we are having on our partner. In this chapter, we will learn that taking care of our spouse is the best way to take care of our relationship. We will come to better appreciate the following mystery: By taking care of you, I am taking care of myself. Studies are showing that this quality of resonance grows in the context of a contemplative practice.
Chapter 21, Trustworthiness: Strong relationships are built upon a foundation of trust. Trust asks the question: "Are you there for me?" Trust, the belief that our partner has our best interests at heart, allows us to be ourselves in the presence of our spouse. In this chapter, we will learn how to set the stage for trust so that we can feel love without fear. We will discover that vulnerability is the starting point of trust, and we will learn how to respond appropriately to each other's wounds from the past. According to Siegel, a contemplative practice enables the trait of trust to grow so that we are willing to rely on our spouse for connection, for comfort, and for protection.
The regular practice of contemplative prayer invites us to move our mind from chaos and rigidity to silence and openness. By training our mind in the skills of a contemplative practice, we can become the kind of partner that fosters love in our marital relationship. We have developed a map for changing our mind so that we can change our marriage. Let's now begin to understand our mind, develop a regular practice of contemplative prayer, and build the traits of a loving marriage partner.
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