A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
AS the highly transmissible Omicron variant is infecting record numbers of our citizens, (23,817 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the State on one day last week) it was heartening to hear that NPHET is not recommending the imposition of any additional Covid-19 restrictions to Government. Experts are also predicting that the Omicron wave will peak in a few weeks; hopefully the rate of infection will decline afterwards.
I was really heartened to hear Professor Teresa Lambe declare lately that, “the pandemic will end; the virus will become endemic.” Professor Lambe is the Irish born, Oxford-based scientist who co-developed the AstraZeneca vaccine. I have spoken with other experts in the field of virology and they also predict more positive outcomes in the future because of the increasing levels of immunity to infection.
However, the WHO has warned that unless there is a determined effort to end vaccine inequity, mutations of the virus will continue to compromise immunity.
‘Simple practices in loving and compassionate meditation can indeed alter the brain circuitry to effect profound change in our outlook and thus promote well-being’
The cycle of imposing and lifting of restrictions and then re-imposing them has taken its toll on our mental health. We can stay safe physically by social distancing, wearing of masks, limiting social contacts, working from home. But how to stay safe mentally and spiritually?
I have recently been introduced to the work of Professor Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin – Madison as well as founder and Chair of the Center for Healthy Minds. He is best known for his study of the neuroscience behind meditation and mindfulness. He passionately promotes the radical conclusion from his research that well-being is a skill that can be intentionally trained, just like any other skill, and that practice is the key.
Davidson’s research has focused on identifying the brain circuits critical to emotional well-being. He sets out four key constituents of well-being, all of which have known brain circuits underpinning them. His research demonstrates that all these brain circuits are plastic, meaning that “…if we exercise these circuits they will strengthen and provide a substrate for enduring change”. Just like we improve in sport or music through practice, intentional practice is the key to this ‘neuroplasticity’.
Davidson has identified four constituents of well-being and mental health: Positive Emotional Outlook, Attention, Generosity and Resilience.
By Positive Outlook, he means the ability to see the positive in others, the ability to savour positive experiences, the ability to recognise the innate goodness in others. He claims that simple practices in loving and compassionate meditation can indeed alter the brain circuitry to effect profound change in our outlook and thus promote well-being.
Few of us would have expected to find that emotional well-being is linked to our ability to pay ‘attention’. But Davidson is adamant that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” He references research conducted by a group of Harvard social psychologists with a huge cohort of the adult population, asking them “what are you doing right now? where is your mind? and how happy are you this very moment”. They concluded that as much as 47% of adults’ waking life is spent not paying attention to what they are doing in the present. Davidson believes that this quality of attention is fundamentally important. Being able to be present to another, to listen intently, is key to good communication. But we must be present to ourselves, to the present moment. When we are focused in this way, we stop going over memories of past interactions and consequently we tend to be less “judgemental” and consequently more content with our lives.
The third constituent of well-being is generosity. When people engage in generous and altruistic behaviour they activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being. Anecdotal evidence from the experience of people in the parish who volunteer for ministries would verify this claim. Volunteers invariably conclude that helping others is a source of great fulfilment and joy in their lives.
Davidson highlights resilience as another key component of well-being. He defines resilience as the rapidity with which you recover from adversity. Individuals who can recover quickly have higher levels of well-being and can cope with the adverse consequences of life. The good news is that these circuits controlling our parameters of recovery can be developed through a systematic practice of meditation.
What I find fascinating is that these developments in neuroscience corroborate the fundamental claims of spirituality and faith. Indeed, much of Davidson’s research has been inspired by his dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The disciplines of science and spirituality are complementary and mutually supportive. Take for example the Christian faith. Christians are exhorted to pray and meditate and to engage in worship. The rosary is a method of meditating on various points in the life of Jesus, his altruism, his love for others, the total sacrifice of his life that others may have life abundantly. The beads allow our mind to be free to meditate; the repetition of the prayers is a form of mantra. It is a form of compassionate meditation.
Contemplation as a form of prayer has been traditionally promoted and encouraged in every era of our tradition. I would argue that Christian meditation is more enriching than other forms of mindfulness as it invites us into a deep personal relationship with the Lord whose providential care and love sustains us and guides us through the most challenging of times.
The good news is we can take responsibility for our well-being, as well as for our citizenship. We can intentionally shape our lives rather than allowing our minds to be shaped unwittingly by external forces. Well-being is a skill which, if developed, will enable us to navigate even the greatest threats to our well-being posed by the current pandemic.