Reading: from Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke
“Recessed in the most primitive part of the brain lies the amygdala, a cluster of cells the size of a grape. The amygdala serves as an early warning signal for danger, constantly scanning the environment for information about what might bring us harm, pain or injury. Linked to the sensory system, it is ready to blast off an alarm to the brain stem that will set off the automatic reactions of the fight, flight or freeze.
In studies of people whose amygdalae are active, researchers have found that the subjects’ memory systems have been affected in two ways: (1) less information about their immediate environment and what is happening is available to them; (2) the pool of objects that resemble the original stimulus is much larger. Threat assessment deteriorates with the triggering of the amygdala. A minor comment is perceived as a major insult. Benign details suddenly take on an emotional urgency. Things are out of proportion. ...
When we are flooded with anxiety, we can neither hear what is said without distortion nor responds with clarity. Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist, comments that stress limits our repertoire of responses. Fixated on what is endangering us, we forfeit our imaginative capacities. … With fewer alternatives, we act foolishly. When the amygdala is in control, our perception warps measurably. Our mind is set in imaginative gridlock, we obsess about the threat, and our chances of changing our thinking are almost nonexistent. Reactive forces rule.
The left prefrontal cortex houses our humanity. It is the brain region just behind the eyes that integrates information and inhibits emotional impulses that rise from the amygdala. ... It is crucial for all higher-order, purposeful behavior. Neuroscientist Anexandr Luria has called this region of the brain “the organ of civilization” … if it is impaired, we lose hindsight, insight and foresight.
Notice that when Jesus taught people, he directed his energy to their left prefrontal cortex, not the amygdala. He sought to reach people thoughtfully, not reactively. He told stories; he asked questions. He spoke about the future. He respected and noticed those who came to him. Jesus clearly stated his position and defined himself. Both Jesus’ invitation to trust God’s unconditional love and the instruction on loving action are designed to free us from our survival brain with its defensive instincts, self-serving protective behaviors, and reflexive reliance on aggression.
In 1997 when Star wars “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” came out, I was almost done seminary. I had been told, over and over, that one of the most important things a minister can bring to a congregation is what we called a “non-anxious presence.” I was in my first congregation as an intern, and thinking about ministry pretty much all the time, even as we headed out to see the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Towards the end of the movie, the Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn is battling the villain “Darth Maul”, when a Force field comes between them. While he waits for a force field to go down Qui-Gon drops to his knees in meditation. It made quite an impression on me. Was this what a “non-anxious presence” looked like? Could I ever have that kind of self-control and presence of mind to drop into meditation in the middle of battle?
Fortunately, as a UU minister, my job has yet to require a light saber battle. That doesn’t mean I don’t face difficult situations. I know what it’s like to try to minister with my heart pounding, my palms sweating. I chose that story about Thich Nhat Hanh today for 2 reasons. First it so clearly shows the power of how one angry person can change how a whole group of people feel, and then the influence of one nonanxious person. Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk in today’s reading writes:
“Imagine a boat full of people crossing the ocean. The boat is caught in a storm. If anyone panics and acts rashly they will endanger the boat. But if there’s even one person who is calm, this person can inspire calm in others. Such a person can save the whole boat. That’s the power of non-action. Our quality of being is the ground of all appropriate action. When we look closely at our actions and the actions of those around us, we can see the quality of being behind these actions. “ [How to sit p. 15]
We have the power to effect the people around us. We can make choices about what actions and “quality of being” we contribute to a situation.
The second reason I chose this story, is that it shows us that you don’t have to be perfectly enlightened and calm to be a nonanxious presence in community. Knowing that even a Zen Master like Thich Nhat Hanh was sometimes angry made me feel better about my own roiling sea of inner emotions. Peter Steinke, who after serving as a church pastor because a consultant over 150 congregations, writes:
“Regulating anxiety to the point of having no anxiety is humanly impossible. Anxiety is always present; it is a fundamental human expression, even a healthy response to life...”
That was a relief to me – to realize that no matter how skillful or conscious we are, we are still going to be anxious sometimes. So if being a nonanxious presence does not mean not being anxious, what does it mean? Steinke continues:
The nonanxious presence is a description of how a person works to keep the center of control within oneself and as a way to affect relationships in a positive manner. To be a nonanxious presence, you focus on your own behavior and its modification rather than being preoccupied with how others function. In a hospital, a rule for caretakers reads: “In case of cardiac arrest, take your own pulse first.” [-p. 31]When Nhat Hanh was confronted by that angry man, instead of treating the man like an enemy to be defeated, Nhat Hanh focused on himself, on his own breathing, on his own words. He stayed centered in his own values.
As we heard in our opening reading, the amygdala is what helps us respond to an immediate life or death threat, like a charging rhinoceros, but unfortunately the amygdala sees charging rhinos everywhere. Often big changes that endanger our identity or threaten our world view trigger an amygdala response: when we or someone in our family comes out of the closet. When we fear we may lose a job. Perhaps you’ve noticed the anxiety about the change of leadership of our country. Almost everywhere I go I feel a layer of anxiety thrumming. I feel it among liberals and conservative alike- hoping this peaceful transfer of power really will be peaceful. Fear that our voices will not be heard. Our Amygdalae are being activated, as if we were facing a charging rhino – as if we were in a life and death situation requiring action so fast that careful thinking would waste valuable time.
I imagine that hospital waiting rooms are full of frightened amygdalae. Waiting for a relative in surgery is not too dissimilar to a Rhino charging – issues of life and death are real and present. But Peter Steinke and other Systems Theory folks remind us that freaking out at the nurses will not improve outcomes. Because when the amygdala is activated, it actually reduces our capacity to think, it shrinks the amount of information we can take in, and our capacity to imagine outcomes. Someone has to listen carefully to what the doctor says to be ready to advise and support the patient as they recover.
That is why one of the main jobs of a minister is, as much as is humanly possible, to provide that nonanxious presence. To remind us that a budget deficit is not actually a charging rhino, so instead of flight or fight responses, we want to use our left prefrontal cortex to come up with creative solutions that embody our UU values. According to Steinke, this is not just the most important job of ministers, but of all church leaders, including volunteers. He admits this is not easy, advising: “I know you will need courage to maintain the course… The courage will be well spent because anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation, important learnings, and changes that will strengthen the congregation.” [p. xiii].
Our congregation's discussion about the “Black Lives Matter” banner, for example, has brought some anxiety into our congregation. We do so many things by consensus, carefully making sure we are all on the same page before moving forward, that wading into an issue where we have many different, and passionate, opinions makes us anxious. I bet just about everyone who has waded into the troubled waters of the Black Lives Matter conversation, no matter their point of view, has felt the powerful anxiety of a whole nation in turmoil around this deep and old issue in our country. And we, who meet in beloved community in this conservative valley, know that sometimes standing up for our beliefs, that even “coming out” to the public with dissenting views has real risks-- the risk of ostracization, of nasty Facebook comments, of a rock through the window.
Part of the anxiety we feel is connected the anxiety flooding the whole country right now. The minority communities are anxious. Police are anxious. Whenever we are feeling a fight or flight response, we need to make a conscious effort to engage the left pre-frontal cortex. As we heard in today’s reading by Peter Steinke:
“The nonanxious presence involves engagement, being there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain, and yet not fighting fire with fire. The nonanxious presence means we are aware of our own anxiety and the anxiety of others, but we will not let either determine our actions.”So let’s be clear, being a nonanxious presence doesn’t mean backing down. We need people to say the true things that will help the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice. And often that will make people anxious. The challenge is, can we get really clear on our UU values, and hold fast to those values even in the middle of a storm? Even in the middle of a discussion about divisive issues?
When I heard the story of John Murray and the rock through the church window decades ago, I imagined that inside he was as calm as he was outside. But when [our church members] were at ground zero preparing Thanksgiving dinner when the rock came through the window of the Towanda Fellowship, and have told me that when they the surge of chaotic, violent energy that came crashing with the rock through that window it was powerful. So now when I imagine that story in my head, I imagine John Murray a different way- probably when the rock came through the window, his muscles tensed, his heart lept and pounded in his chest. I imagine it took every bit of self-control he could muster to come up with a witty comeback. Maybe when he left the church that day he, like Thich Nhat Hanh, was struggling to breathe. History doesn’t record what he says when he got home to his wife, or how he slept that night. Back when I was a new minister, I hoped that I too could handle a disruption to a Sunday service with that kind of circumspection and wit. Now I feel like even just taking a deep breath and waiting to freak out until I got home would still be an important ministry.
As with any important skill, the best way we can increase the odds that it will be available to us when we need it most is to practice. Just as the imaginary Jedi and the very real monks practice daily, we too can practice our non-anxious presence in the small battles of the everyday. The next time our neighbor insults our political point of view, or the customer service rep says he can’t help us and we feel that fight or flight response, is a great opportunity to practice. First, just noticing consciously that your amygdala is activated is an important practice. Notice how it feels. Notice your responses. Next, consider focusing on your breath. Without changing anything just notice your inhales and your exhales. Then you can create the intention to smooth out the breaths and slow them down in a way that feels comfortable. Now notice your thoughts. Notice any sense of urgency- a desire to solve the problem once and for all in this moment, or a desire to run and never look back. Are these fight/flight/freeze solutions, or are they the kind of creative thoughtful solutions that will serve you in the long term?
When I worked at the farm, one of my jobs was to bring the deposit to the bank. One day when it was my turn to come to the counter, I noticed I had a brand new teller. Now the farm deposit was a thick one, full of small bills and a stack of checks for small amounts. Even with an experienced teller, the process always tried my patience, and those of the folks behind me in line. On this particular day, I decided I was going to follow the example of Qui-Gon Jinn, and use this as an opportunity to meditate. I focused on my breathing, smooth and even, and repeated a mantra about compassion and patience. The practice was so effective that not only did my sense of impatience move to the background, but I began to feel a genuine fondness for this rookie teller, and a compassion for everyone stuck in the line. When finally the teller handed me my deposit slip, she met my eyes and smiled warmly, and thanked me for my patience with genuine gratitude. I didn’t save the world that day, or vanquish evil, but instead of sending our ripples of anger and impatience, I used the situation as an easy, beginner’s way to practice a non-anxious presence.
We live in anxious times. It’s not really a light saber battle, but to our amygdala it feels like one, and may be as important. “Anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation” so I suggest that it is not just ministers, not even just leaders who are called to be a non-anxious presence, but all Unitarian Universalists. Can we be the ones who stay engaged, “being there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain, and yet not fighting fire with fire”? Can we be the ones who “are aware of our own anxiety and the anxiety of others, but we will not let either determine our actions?” Can we be the ones who continue to embody our UU values even when we feel like a herd of rhinos are charging towards us? Because that is what I believe the world needs us to be right now.