Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


End of Overeating 6 – Start With Awareness

Posted: May 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: End of Overeating | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on End of Overeating 6 – Start With Awareness

End of OvereatingDr. Kessler, in his book the End of Overeating, devotes the latter section of his book to the theory of treatment. And before we can even begin to protect ourselves from all the stimuli, we have to recognize just how vulnerable we are. And to do that, we must be mistrustful of our brain. We have to learn to recognize when a conditioned response is being triggered and stop our response. And that’s not easy.

Effective intervention draws us away from the conditioning power of a stimulus before it triggers its usual response. It reminds us that it’s possible to say no. Intervention begins with the knowledge that we have a moment of choice — but only a moment — to recognize what is about to happen and do something else instead.

Our vulnerability to the stimuli will not disappear. Once those pathways have been established in our brain, we can lessen their force and we can build new ones, but the old connections will remain. Dr. Kessler uses ex-smokers to illustrate the way the connection between a cue and a memory is never fully severed.

Cigarettes are a good illustration because they build the same sort of highly reinforced connections as hyperconditioned overeating (and cocaine addiction, for that matter). For many people, the urge for a cigarette never completely goes away and can resurface at certain times or in response to certain triggers even decades after you’ve quit smoking. While the substance itself may have been removed from the body and we have worked through any systemic physical withdrawal, our brains have been rewired by the addiction.

I could certainly empathize with that description. I quite smoking on July 26, 1996 after smoking — often quite heavily — for roughly two decades. That was almost sixteen years ago, but hardly a day goes by that something doesn’t trigger a desire for a cigarette. I can still remember the sensation and anticipate the “rush” from that initial drag. And it takes an act of will each time to tell myself I’m not a smoker. After this many years, it’s not particularly difficult to resist anymore, but those old pathways are definitely still there.

Of course, we can live without cigarettes. We can’t live without food. So how do we overcome conditioning and create a more healthy pattern of eating? The very first step is awareness.

Being aware means that you have a conscious knowledge of the risks of a given situation. “You have to figure out the situation that leads you to eat, that leads you to start the chain of behaviors,” said Miltenberger. “That is the absolute first step — to catalogue all of the stimuli, all of the situations, all of the cues that start that chain.”

Once we can identify the premonitory urge, the initial step in the compulsion, we can begin to train ourselves so we don’t respond to it. We can set up competing behaviors. And we can formulate thoughts to quiet the old ones we are trying to remove. Most of us also require support. We can’t do it on our own. But it all starts with awareness.


End of Overeating 4 – Conditioned Hypereating

Posted: April 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: End of Overeating | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on End of Overeating 4 – Conditioned Hypereating

End of OvereatingNext the End of Overeating explores why the syndrome Dr. Kessler calls conditioned hypereating is an emerging threat in our modern world. For centuries, homeostasis kept our consumption of food as a population more or less in balance. That balance has now been overturned. In large part that’s because our brains are actually being rewired. Dr. Kessler notes this phenomenon in his book.

I began to develop an overarching theory about eating for reward: Chronic exposure to highly palatable foods changes our brains, conditioning us to seek continued stimulation. Over time, a powerful drive for a combination of sugar, fat, and salt competes with our conscious capacity to say no.

So, how do we become trapped in this cycle of conditioned hypereating? When the chemical reward from eating a hyperpalatable food has made us feel better in the past, we become conditioned to associate that feeling with the food. And it tends to work. We crave that Butterfinger because we have felt good when we’ve eaten them in the past. So when we obtain one and take that first bite, we tend to feel that same sensation.

In many ways, conditioned hypereating is like many afflictions with both a genetic and environmental component. That’s similar to celiac disease. Some people never suffer from conditioned hypereating, just like a third of the population lacks the genes necessary for celiac disease. But even among those with the genetic predisposition for hyperconditioned eating, like those with the genes for celiac disease, not everyone will manifest the condition. For the rest of us, again like celiac disease, conditioned hypereating could be triggered at any time.

However, it’s certainly clear that a significant portion of the global population is susceptible and as we import the highly processed and hyperpalatable American diet into other parts of the world, the obesity epidemic begins to take root in those countries as well.


End of Overeating 2 – Sugar, Fat, Salt

Posted: April 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: End of Overeating | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on End of Overeating 2 – Sugar, Fat, Salt

End of OvereatingSo, the End of Overeating next addresses the big question — why is homeostasis under assault? And there are multiple levels to that answer.

First, it’s critical to understand the scientific concept of palatability. In our common usage, it just means that food tastes good or is pleasant. In scientific usage, it refers to the capacity of a food to stimulate the appetite, thus prompting us to eat more. And the most palatable foods, in that sense, are usually foods that contain sugar, fat, and salt. Why? In large part, that seems to be because those are relatively uncommon in natural food, yet are pretty important to our survival.

However, it’s not simply the case that we can keep piling on sugar or lard and make something palatable. We will quickly begin to interpret that sensory input in negative ways as cloying or greasy or too salty rendering the food unpalatable. No, it’s the particular combination of sugar, fat, and/or salt that makes a food highly palatable. And both human and animal research indicates that the right combination of sugar, fat, and salt creates foods that many of us will eat in excessive amounts.

Dr. Kessler provides many examples throughout his book of the ways different foods are processed and cooked to make them highly palatable. By way of illustration, I’ll quote just one such example here. It’s the Bloomin’ Onion, something I used to enjoy at Outback before I was diagnosed with celiac disease.

“Bloomin’ Onions — the trademark Outback Steakhouse dish — are very popular, and they too provide plenty of surface area to absorb fat. Fried in batter and topped with sauce, their flavor comes from salt on sugar on fat.”

Our constant access to foods high in sugar, fat, and salt is pushing up our bodies’ settling point, the homeostatic point which your body believes is your proper weight. And once the settling point has been adjusted upwards, it’s very difficult to reset it to a lower weight. That’s one reason our weight as a population is increasing even as our obsession with diets also increases. In a way, that’s somewhat ironic.

Sugar, fat, and salt are also clearly reinforcing. In animal studies, scientists focus on two questions to determine if a substance is reinforcing.

Are they (the animals) willing to work to obtain it?

So they respond to other stimuli they’ve learned to associate with the substance?

In this section of the book, Dr. Kessler outlines many scientific studies illustrating the ways that sugar, fat, and salt — especially in combination — are reinforcing. He also details studies that show that three additional features exert a powerful influence on our desire for more.

First, quantity. Give a rat two pellets of food rather than one, give a person two scoops of ice cream rather than one, and they’ll eat more. Portion size matters.

Second is the concentration of rewarding ingredients. Adding more sugar or fat to a given portion boosts its desirability (although only up to a point; in excess, either one can lessen its appeal).

Finally, variety plays an important role.

Dr. Kessler then spends a number of chapters exploring the different ways these stimuli impact and condition our brains. He makes the studies extremely accessible to the lay reader; I learned a lot as I read this part of the book. One of the interesting things I discovered was that we become conditioned by stimuli suggesting that a rewarding food is nearby. Our brains release dopamine when we encounter such cues in order to encourage us to seek out and obtain the food. We are rewarded more for the hunt in some cases than for the actual experience of the food itself. When you think about the way things work in nature, that makes sense, of course. But it works against us in an environment full of highly palatable and highly available foods.

Emotions also help make foods memorable. If you think about meals you remember in your past, most of the time it’s not so much the food itself that makes it memorable. It’s the setting, the people, and the events associated with the meal that fixes it in our memory. And all of that leads to an emotional attachment through association. A particular food spurs a memory of emotion and we begin to link the emotion with the food. The food industry tries to tap into that sort of association in much of its advertising.

Ultimately, our brains can be rewired and a particular eating behavior habituated. I was struck while reading this section of the book how much that habituation resembles what the Christian Fathers have called a ruling passion. It’s a process where trigger leads to action without the deliberate activation of our will. We do something without thinking about it and sometimes even without awareness. Obviously, some of us are more likely to reach that point with highly palatable food than others, but as a population we are clearly susceptible.

 


End of Overeating 1 – We’re All Fatter Now

Posted: April 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: End of Overeating | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on End of Overeating 1 – We’re All Fatter Now

End of OvereatingThe End of Overeating begins with something that we are only now truly recognizing. For thousands of years, typical human body weight was pretty consistent. In fact, it was so stable and consistent that scientists believed we had biological systems operating in most of us to keep our weight within certain norms — automatically balancing our consumption with the calories burned.

In the eighties we began to realize something had changed. Or rather, one researcher, Katherine Flegal, began to recognize the new trend. At first, she thought her numbers were wrong. They indicated that in fewer than a dozen years, 20 million people had joined the ranks of the overweight. Her team checked and double-checked their data and finally published the results in 1994. The average weight of Americans had greatly increased since the sixties and the rates of obesity had exploded.

This discovery upended conventional scientific understanding. Dr. Kessler’s book attempts to gather both existing and new research together in a way that makes it accessible to those of us without a scientific background.

One of the first points, and a critical one, is that we get fat mostly because we eat more food. While that may seem obvious, it was not clear in the research initially. And one of the reasons it wasn’t clear is that people tend to underreport how much food they eat when they track it themselves. It’s not that people are being deliberately deceitful. Rather, we tend to hide the reality from ourselves and we tend to underestimate how much we are actually eating. So we had to improve our study techniques. Dr. Kessler puts the finding this way.

How much we eat predicts how much we weigh. Sometimes the most obvious explanation turns out to be the right one.

Ok, so it’s important to start with the right basis. But our bodily homeostatic system, which scientists thought was more powerful than it actually appears to be, kept our weight as a population more or less in balance for much of our history. What has changed over just the last few decades to overpower it and render it less effective?

The answer seems to be that the reward system in our brains has overpowered our homeostatic system. In the first part of his book, Dr. Kessler explores the different ways our reward system has been supercharged and the impact that has had on us.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 20

Posted: May 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

71.  Perfect love does not split up the single human nature, common to all, according to the diverse characteristics of individuals; but, fixing attention always on this single nature, it loves all men equally. It loves the good as friends and the bad as enemies, helping them, exercising forbearance, patiently accepting whatever they do, not taking the evil into account at all but even suffering on their behalf if the opportunity offers, so that, if possible, they too become friends. If it cannot achieve this, it does not change its own attitude; it continues to show the fruits of love to all men alike. It was on account of this that our Lord and God Jesus Christ, showing His love for us, suffered for the whole of mankind and gave to all men an equal hope of resurrection, although each man determines his own fitness for glory or punishment.

My mind often runs in slightly odd directions. As I meditated on the text above, a line from the season five finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer kept running through my mind. Buffy tells her sister, “Dawn, the hardest thing in this world… is to live in it.”

An infant is born naturally capable of perfect love. And then life happens. It could come crashing down on the helpless child as fetal alcohol syndrome, crack addiction, or similar unwanted chemical bath from the mother rewires the infant’s brain. Sometimes that love is crushed in the first few months or years through acts of abuse or neglect.

But even absent such extremes, life still happens. A child learns that people can and will fail them. Every child learns that others will try to take from them. Children learn that life is fraught with danger and risk. Love becomes a commodity in a zero sum game.

Jesus restored all humanity to life. But in order to live we have to love.


A Fractured Mind

Posted: April 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

A Fractured MindI have a difficult time knowing where to begin with my thoughts and reactions to A Fractured Mind by Robert B. Oxnam. That task is further complicated by a need to carefully edit what I should and should not say in a public forum. But I found this a powerful book and I want to encourage others to read it, so I’ll do my best to walk that particular razor’s edge.

Robert B. Oxnam is, by most measures we tend to use, a highly successful and accomplished man. Ivy League education. Scholar and academic in Asian studies from a time when that was less common than it is today. Head of the prestigious Asia Society for nearly a decade. Appearances on the Today Show and other media outlets. His curriculum vitae is quite impressive.

Robert B. Oxnam also discovered late in life, as everything crumbled around him, that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder or DID. That’s the clinical DSM-IV name for the disorder formerly (and still popularly) known as multiple personality disorder or MPD. This autobiographical book captures the story of that journey in an unique manner. Robert records the experience of his discovery of the disorder and his journey through treatment from the various perspectives of each personality. It’s a glimpse into the inner world of those who have a disorder which is difficult to understand from the outside.

The book also includes an excellent epilogue by Robert’s therapist, Dr. Jeffery Smith. If you read the book, don’t skip the epilogue. Dr. Smith provides an excellent overview of DID as well as a description of what he was trying to accomplish in the various stages of therapy and how he approached Robert’s disorder and his various personalities.

Dissociative identity disorder is not as bizarre or strange as people often consider it. Rather, all of the elements which together create it are normal pieces of the way our brains function and protect themselves. It’s just that in DID, each of those pieces is pushed somewhere close to its maximum extent. I want to take a moment to examine the primary two components.

First there is our capacity to, in effect, function as different people in different situations and settings. We all do this to one degree or another. Personally, when I’m focused on solving technical computer design or programming problems I tend to enter into a place where my mind is working at a level of abstraction that renders me less verbal. If you try to communicate with me while I am in that place, you are likely to get a blank stare initially if you get any response at all. It’s not that my ears didn’t hear the sounds you made, it’s that my brain is not engaged and operating in a way that allows me to immediately interpret those sounds as language. Now, I can fairly readily switch gears from that state into one that’s better able to communicate, but those around me can observe the shift. When I’m in the office, I find my coworkers understand that shift (most of them experience something like it themselves) and when they need to talk to me will wait for a moment to be sure I’m engaged with them. When I’m working from home, my family is less familiar with that process and they have a tendency to start telling me something before I’m ready to absorb it. I find I often have to tell them to stop and backup a bit when they need to talk to me while I’m working. They don’t experience that when I’m in the office because they have to call me and the process of hearing and responding to a ringing phone provides me all the time I need to shift gears.

However, while that’s the first example that comes to my mind, it’s hardly the only one. We all tend to present different aspects of ourselves in professional settings, in casual social settings, with more intimate friends, and with those who are closest to us. It’s so easy and natural that we hardly even think about it unless the “face” we are compelled to portray in a particular context feels so alien to us that it becomes a “mask”. Even then, we don’t have any particular problem pulling off the required masquerade. It just feels unnatural. But for every “mask” we notice, we likely have a hundred “faces” that we don’t. So even though we all feel like a single, unified person, the reality is that we are constantly and largely unconsciously rearranging the elements of our personality to meet the demands of particular settings and circumstances.

Dissociative identity disorder is a disorder because this natural function of the mind becomes cast in iron as distinct and divided personalities rather than more fluid “faces”. Those walls between the personalities are built through dissociation. But dissociation itself is a very common defense mechanism. It’s one of the ways our minds protect themselves from trauma.

One of the dissociative disorders that people are pretty familiar with today is post-traumatic stress disorder. While dissociation is hardly the only feature of PTSD, it is a significant piece of it. The dissociation can take the form of a total amnesiac block of the traumatic memory. You will still suffer to some degree from the trauma, even without the specific memory, but it seems to lessen the overall impact and allows the person to continue to function, even if in a diminished capacity. In other cases the dissociation can take the form of some sort of detachment, where you can recall the traumatic event, but it’s almost as though it’s from a third-person perspective.

My father is a Vietnam veteran and by the confluence of a number of events, he served in a particularly dangerous role. I remember a time when the sound of a breaking glass suddenly placed him back in a memory from the war from which he had dissociated until that moment. Dissociation helps us keep functioning in the face of trauma, but it’s not necessarily permanent. The traumatic memory isn’t actually gone. We just don’t have full access to it. (In fact, traumatic memories, by their nature, are the memories least likely to fade. They are seared into our psyche.)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have never yet experienced trauma of this sort, consider yourself blessed. Try to remember that many of the people with whom you interact each day have not been as fortunate.

While I’m not inclined to share details, I will say that my earliest memories are like the shattered shards of a mirror. I see bits and pieces of scenes, but they are in confusing disorder and slide from one to another without connection or transition. There are also other periods across my childhood where I can see evidence in my mind of dissociation. I will give one example to illustrate my point.

I remember a number of nights at a young age (no older than 7, though I can’t place my exact age or place) when I would lie in bed and imagine that my life was a very realistic dream. I would pick a point in the past where a younger me was asleep and dreaming and I would try to convince myself that everything since that point in time was just a dream and soon the younger me would awake and the dream (or perhaps nightmare) would fade. As an adult, I can recognize that that is not exactly a typical train of thought for a young child. But I can’t remember why I wanted some significant portion of my life at that time to be a dream. Nothing. That part of my memory is simply gone.

And if I’m speaking truthfully, given the nature of much that I do remember, I’m not certain I really want those memories. That’s the sword of Damocles hanging ominously within dissociation. If the memories were not traumatic, there would be no need to dissociate. As a result, at least speaking for myself, there is a reluctance to try to pierce the veil and something of a fear that the veil might one day drop on its own.

So the various elements of dissociative identity disorder are either part of our normal, everyday mental capacity or  pretty common defense mechanisms. But in this disorder, they are ratcheted up to the Nth degree. Typically it’s the result of severe abuse at a very young age with no hope of escape. And it’s often the result of such abuse over an extended period of time. The traumatic memories are divided up between personalities to hold them. Some element of the ethos of the abusers tends to be encapsulated in other personalities. And finally, personalities that do not have any of those memories are created to function in the outside world. It’s a survival response in the face of an otherwise unbearable onslaught. Dissociation forms the walls between the personalities or identities. In order to survive, the whole person shatters.

Usually, the dominant personality or personalities are not aware of each other or of the inner selves who protect the secret. And since the entire construct of personalities were created in the face of severe trauma and typically exist to protect secrets, they are masters at hiding. As such, it’s a notoriously difficult disorder to diagnose.

And that’s the case in this book for Robert B. Oxnam. As “Bob” he functioned in the real world for decades without any awareness of the world within him. He achieved high degrees of success, even if he also suffered a host of chronic problems. It was only as “Bob” burned out and began to collapse that he reached a point where another personality revealed himself in the context of a therapy session. The book records his journey of discovery and healing from that point onward.

This book does an excellent job of taking us into the inner world of a disorder we have a hard time understanding and which, unfortunately, is the subject of much skepticism and humor. Take the time to read it. You won’t regret the experience.


Celiac & Depression

Posted: May 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I found this video by a Dr. Vikki Peterson interesting and helpful. As I mentioned in my post explaining celiac disease, as an autoimmune disease, it can damage your nervous system. If it does, it can produce a host of different symptoms up to and including altering the chemical balance in your brain leading to clinical depression. As I’ve looked through the list or neurological symptoms I’ve realized that though I never had severe gastrointestinal problems like some people, I have had the neurological symptoms for years, up to and including a bout with depression. Other nervous system symptoms I’ve had include numbness and tingling in extremities, periods of mental fogginess, unexplained irritability, sharp pain in different locations/muscles that would show up for no reason, last usually for hours, and then fade away. For me, the most significant short-term benefit of going gluten free has been that those symptoms are either gone completely or are going away.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Posted: May 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Before I continue in the direction I pointed at the end of my first post in this series, I want to spend a little more time on the intertwined, interlocking, and interpenetrating nature of our body, mind, and spirit. I know it is often a foreign idea to those shaped within our American culture, but the concept is central not only to this series, but to the formative thoughts behind this entire blog. I think the common attitude of our culture is captured by a statement like this:

Celiac is an autoimmune disease. It’s a medical condition and the medical prescription is a gluten free diet. It’s purely physical (or some might say secular or natural). What does a disease or medical condition have to do with anything spiritual?

Such is the nature of our age. Even if we’ve never read Plato and never studied philosophy, we have absorbed from the cultural air we breathe and within which we live something of his deep dualism between the material and the spiritual. We see the two as separate categories. And thus we talk about a person’s body or a person’s spirit as though they were separate things and had little to do with each other. But that does not describe reality. Change the chemistry of my brain and you will change my personality. Much of the life of my spirit, for good or ill, is played out in the field of my body. I am not a spirit contained in a body nor am I wholly defined by the matter which forms my body. As a human being I am the union of the spiritual and the material. I am the dust of the earth imbued with the breath of God. I am a living soul – the union (and often disunion) of body, mind, and spirit. You cannot alter or remove any of the three without changing who I am in essential ways, without changing my very being.

So yes, celiac is a medical condition, an autoimmune disease. The treatment is a strict diet that requires me to fast from anything containing gluten – an entire category of food. And a fast is always spiritual as well, for good or ill, whether or not we acknowledge it as such. As the faithfulness of my adherence to this fast will heal or harm my body and my mind, so the spiritual impact of the fast will propel me along the way of life or along the way of death (as the Didache describes the two ways).

If I ignored the spiritual dimensions of this fast, I would effectively be fasting without prayer. And the Fathers of Christian faith have many warnings about such fasts. Fasting without prayer is the ‘fast of the demons’, they say, for the demons do not eat at all because of their incorporeal nature but they also never pray. So I see already that this fast must be intertwined with and shaped by a strong rule of prayer if it is not to shrink my spirit. Interestingly, we also find that fasting without love is another fast of the demons. St. Basil the Great writes:

What is the use of our abstinence if instead of eating meat we devour our brother or sister through cruel gossip?

I do not believe it is at all wise to be careful in the physical aspects of this or any fast and ignore the spiritual dimensions. I also do not believe our actions or inactions in such things are morally neutral by default. If I do indeed follow Jesus of Nazareth, then I am saying something definite about both God and man by doing so. And I must act and live accordingly.

In the next post in this series, I’ll continue in the direction I had originally planned for the series.