As a pastor, I am always wanting to grow in my understanding of relationships. The psychology, sociology, and neurology that go into the ways we relate to one another, ourselves, and even the ways we pursue a relationship with God are of significant value.
Presently, that means I’m reading a book called “Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections”. One of the technology books I read with our older daughters this past year talked about the importance of face to face interactions in terms of building healthy relationships. It ranked the strength of communication styles for building a deepened connection, and texting (a primary form of communication for most of us) was toward the bottom, under phone calls, video chats (another primary form under COVID), and of course the number one – face to face, in person, conversation.
With such a low amount of connecting in person during the past couple of years, it’s no wonder that the worlds of psychology, sociology, and neurology are paying attention also, and figuring out how to help people understand (and of course, I realize, capitalize on this moment for profit-making also). Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, you’ve experienced loneliness during the past couple of years, and if their research for human relationships holds similar for our relationship with God (my guess is, there are definitely connections), you might be feeling a bit disconnected from the presence of God as well.
One of the basic premises of the book, is that their research shows a fundamental part of building more meaningful connections is this element called “Attunement”. They break it down into four components: “relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness.” The book goes into exploring these components, offering ways to become more aware, research to understand & improve each area, and exercises they have found to be helpful. Of course, it’s written for all people, and not a “religious” book. You won’t find them suggesting meditation on scripture, quiet breath-prayer/prayer walks, cultivating an awareness of God’s presence, etc. But they still offer some helpful insight, which can be adapted as needed.
Of particular note neurologically, is the research on how the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system responds to stress by releasing hormones, “including cortisol (often considered the body’s main stress hormone)”. The authors note that “experiments conducted at McGill University have shown that a stress response involving cortisol release can block a person’s emotional empathy for another person.” As we look at our culture today, especially the promotion of anxiety and stress by those who profit from our attention, we can easily see one of their conclusions then: “modern human culture has brought us a variety of long-term worries and stresses, and chronic activation of our bodies’ stress systems can have negative effects on our physical health, as Sapolsky points out, and can also have negative effects on our ability to tune in and connect to each other. This continual activation of the stress systems can promote a vicious cycle as stress increases a sense of disconnection; and being isolated and disconnected, in turn, increases stress.”
As a pastor, it helps to be aware that people are coming to church, and to life in general, with a decreased ability to form or participate in relationships with empathy. It also helps me to understand that simply praying “Lord, help us all have decreased levels of cortisol.” is not a faithful response to the understanding God has given us about how we’ve been created. As the authors write, “the activity of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) can reduce the activity of the HPA system.”
So what can I do to help activate and strengthen the activity of the PNS? Dr. Stephen W. Porges stresses the importance of the “polyvagal theory”, as his research has found that the vagus nerve (which runs from our brain stem down into the abdomen, and is a major nerve of the PNS) can be calmed purposefully in several ways (here are some examples). One of the easiest ways, as we stand in the front of our churches in a moment of prayer or worship, aware of such things – is to slow our speech, model deep breaths, and even invite our people to pay attention to their own breathing. To pause and take a deep breath not only allows us to prayerfully consider what words to say next, it is also allowing a holy pause which can allow our PNS to wash our minds with responses that reduce cortisol and raise levels of oxytocin (a “neuropeptide involved in social bonding…including feelings of trust, generosity, empathy, and understanding.”)
It also means, as I encourage people young and old to spend personal time with God – I should emphasize that such time with God will be deepened by awareness of our breathing and body. It’s not as helpful to “dip in and out” of a 5 minute devotional, forcing God to connect in the time we give Him. We will improve and deepen our moments with God by finding ways to relax, de-stress, and become more physically attuned to our own emotional state as we move into His presence.
May you take a moment to breathe slow today, finding ways to turn away from the anxieties and stresses (even legitimate ones), knowing that purposefully embracing patterns of Sabbath and physical peace allow our relationships with others, with ourselves, and even with God to flourish in new and deeper ways…
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.’ – Jesus (Matthew 11:28)