Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One Week Without Television

Today marks one solid week of eliminating constant television viewing from our lives.

This lent we decided (which basically means I decided and my husband went along for the ride--you are the best, Eddie Ray) that we would not just turn the television on and surf the night away. It would be better for us to decide what we were interested in watching, turn the TV on when the program started and turn it off when the program ended. We don't have 127 cable channels, so you'd think this would be easy for us.

After week one, I have started and finished 3 books; had a few great discussions with my husband; have gotten more sleep; am able to pray more, and better. It's like a fog has lifted. I'm also starting to think of some of the things that I need to get done around this house, but have been putting off.

It's still hard. It's so much easier for me to come home and talk myself into "relaxing" in front of the tube, rather than exerting a little effort on something productive. After all, didn't I work hard all day and deserve a break?, because if I don't do it, it won't get done, and there are a million and a half "its" around our home that need done, along with a million and a half "its" in the Church that need attention. All these "well-deserved breaks" I talk myself into are nothing more than procrastination in disguise, and procrastinating is a symptom of an undisciplined life.

Let's face it, Americans don't like discipline. Fast food? Cable? Gaming? Forget the effort it takes to cook, to read, or to do something that actually requires leaving your house and engaging real live people; and these aren't even the biggies. We fool ourselves into thinking that its all ok, that God still loves us.  Loving us and being pleased with us, however, are two very different things.  We thus make a conscious effort during these 40 days to reflect on those areas of our lives where we know we are disappointing God, and we give up something, spend more time in prayer, do works of mercy, and if we're doing it right, we'll develop the discipline we need to fight temptation.

If you're not on the Lenten walk yet, it's not too late to start today. You can even make it as simple as picking a book of Scripture and reading a little of it every day.  Some other ideas:

Start using off-brand personal items, and donate your regular brand (unopened, of course) to a shelter.
Cut out playing Wii for an evening and go volunteer at the homeless shelter.
Take giving up sweets to the next level, and use the money you save to buy canned goods for a food pantry.
Turn off your car radio and talk to God while you drive.
Be silent for an hour a day.
Go to Church one more day a week.
If you don't already, pray at the same time every morning--this is a great prayer with which to start:

The Road Ahead by Thomas Merton

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. 
I do not see the road ahead of me. 
I cannot know for certain where it will end. 
Nor do I really know myself, 
and the fact that I think that I am following your will 
does not mean that I am actually doing so. 
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. 
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. 
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. 
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road 
though I may know nothing about it. 
Therefore will I trust you always 
though I may seem to be lost 
and in the shadow of death. 
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, 
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Buy This Book!

I got it only this afternoon and I absolutely devoured it.  The Gargoyle Code by Fr. Dwight Longenecker is genius. It's written as a series of letters (think Screwtape Letters, Dracula, etc.) -- a series of pride-soaked letters written by rotten, scheming, nasty little demons to each another about the various souls they're trying desperately to corrupt. It made me laugh out loud, yet still prompted me examine my faith and the condition of my soul.  It's an excellent book for the Lenten season.

Fr. Longenecker's book opens with a letter of introduction from heaven containing a challenge to read "as you would read a mirror".  Take this bit of advice to heart when you start reading it.  I, for one, identified with many of the struggles of those poor souls targeted by Slubgrip, Dogwart, Snoot, Grimkin and the entire hellish host. I would never have thought it possible to strike a perfect balance between clever, satirical humor and sound Catholic teaching. I enjoyed the scheming, lying, boasting and backstabbing among the demons, shedding a new light upon Jesus' words in The Gospel of  Mark: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

I've never read The Screwtape Letters, but I just may pick up a copy. I'm going to need something else to read, since The Gargoyle Code is going to be passed around to all my friends starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Meditation, TV and the Reptillian Brain

I've been meditating on the following excerpts of Interior Castle rather intently for the last few days:

8. I, myself, have sometimes been troubled by this turmoil of thoughts. I learnt by experience, but little more than four years ago, that our thoughts, or it is clearer to call it our imagination, are not the same thing as the understanding...As the understanding is one of the powers of the soul, it puzzled me to see it so sluggish at times, while, as a rule, the imagination takes flight at once, so that God alone can control it by so uniting us to Himself that we seem, in a manner, detached from our bodies. It puzzled me to see that while to all appearance the powers of the soul were occupied with God and recollected in Him, the imagination was wandering elsewhere.

10. Whilst writing this I am thinking of the loud noise in my head which I mentioned in the Introduction, and which has made it almost impossible to obey the command given me to write this. It sounds as if there were a number of rushing waterfalls within my brain, while in other parts, drowned by the sound of the waters, are the voices of birds singing and whistling. This tumult is not in my ears, but in the upper part of my head, where, they say, is placed the superior part of the soul. I have long thought that this must be so because the flight of the spirit seems to take place from this part with great velocity.

 --The 4th Mansion, Ch 1.
Emphasis mine.

Not too many years ago, when I first got into marketing, I had to learn what triggers potential interest in various products. This research led me to, of course, television.  If you want to research this on your own, simply go to your favorite search engine and type the words TELEVISION BRAIN.

The first thing I learned is that there are three areas of the human brain, and that these areas are responsible for different forms of brain activity:

Neocortex, the highest form of brain activity where intellect, reason and imagination reside.

Limbic, the secondary form of brain activity where our feelings and reactions are processed.

Reptillian, the most basic form of brain activity best described as "survival mode".

I hope anyone who is reading or has read Interior Castle just had an A-HA moment when they got to the word "Reptillian".  (Teresa repeatedly refers to creatures living within the castles who would lead us out of prayer as reptiles).

In advertising, the goal is to trigger need for any given product, and essentially it's most desireable to cut through the intellect and emotion and go straight to that Reptillian brain. Television, as it turns out, is a magnificent device for this very goal, because by design TV does exactly this. No joke. It's been studied extensively since the 1960s.

When we're plopped down in front of the old idiot box, we respond to what we see on a very base level. EEG monitoring of brain activity detects a shift of certain thought patterns into a more passive state while watching television, regardless the program.

Other studies theorize a three-view process by which television drills information into our reptillian minds. The first time we see a show, film or commercial, we have a strong physiological response. A second viewing elicits a lesser response, and a third none at all. The second and third viewings reinforce the original response, because we remember the reaction we had when first exposed to the image. With "survival mode" reinforced, we alter our behavior accordingly, often in spite of our intellect. Television, therefore, can play a substantial role in conditioning our actions, beliefs and attitudes. Advertisers have used these theories for years. It's why many of you believe an engagement ring is supposed to cost two months salary.

The neocortex is rarely, if ever, engaged while watching television.

There are other factors thought to be involved as well. The rise in endorphin levels while watching television are compared to those in runners. Next time you watch CSI: Miami or some action film, be mindful of your physiological responses. Migraines are thought to be withdrawl symptoms when TV viewing suddenly decreases. Excessive television viewing has been suggested as a link to the rise of ADD, ADHD, Autism and other neurological disorders. All this before factoring in television content, which is further believed to cause behavioral problems in children and adolescents (read from any of the articles listed here), and intensifies conditions ranging from chronic depression to anger management issues in adults.

(Note: I found only one document refuting commonly held findings regarding TV's effects on the human brain, and surprise, it was produced from within the television industry. The Children's Television Network document titled "Television and the Brain: A Review" by Katherine V. Fite, contains little more than glorified "nuh-uh's" and a few creative spins on EEG results. I also found it rather disturbing that Fite chose to cite findings on adult subjects to disprove television's negative effects on the still-developing minds of children.)


Review the excerpts from Interior Castle I posted at the beginning of this post. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, describes the mind in prayer as using imagination and very high thought. She even discusses the physical location of our soul's activity as being in the front of the brain, which is where we find the neocortex. Prayer and meditation in the Catholic sense requires our intellect, imagination and ability to reason. While praying a Rosary, for example, we meditate on the life of Christ: we recall specific events, think about corresponding Scripture, try to imagine the details, and find meaning in these events for our own lives. Another example is Lectio Divinia, where we meditate on the meaning of a word, sentence or section of Scripture in many contexts order to fully understand what we've read. This kind of meditation requires the activity of the neocortex.

What can happen to my ability to pray if I'm spending 4 to 6 hours in front of the television, not using my neocortex, the very part of the brain that St. Teresa relies upon in order to experience Sweetness in Prayer (the title, by the way, of the chapter I quoted above)?

Think again about television being a delivery method of information into our reptilian brain. What about programming that exaggerates problems, distorts facts or presents revisionist historical information about faith, religion, our Church, God, Christ, Mary, priests, nuns, Catholics, morality...?

What about other programming? Network TV constantly pushes the morality envelope with content; cable tore through that envelope from the the word go. If our reptilian brain is conditioned to stop reacting to the immoral behavior we're seeing on TV, what happens to our moral compass?

If we don't shut the TV off long enough to intellectually process what we've watched, what will we become?

My husband and I talked about drastically limiting our television viewing as a Lenten sacrifice. The more I process all this information through my neocortex apart from the tube, the more convinced I am that we're on the right track.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Silence vs. Stuff

"If you don't believe in something greater than yourself, you'll never do something greater than yourself."   (quote by one of the Domincan Sisters on The Oprah Winfrey Show: Nuns on the Importance of Silence and Reflection, and my new favorite quote ever)

For the last few days I've been pondering some of the points made by Cardinal Rode as presented in John Thavis' CNS article. The point with the most punch:  "Cardinal Rode said it was undoubtedly more difficult today for all religious orders to find young people who are willing to break away from the superficial contemporary culture and show a capacity for commitment and sacrifice."

The other day, The Oprah Show went inside a Dominican convent and spent some time discussing with the women their choices and experiences.  The most profound question Lisa Ling asked them? 

"What about your iPod?" 

I'm totally serious. This is an excellent question. Essentially, isn't she really asking them why the've rejected contemporary society?  Look at Cardinal Rode's observation again.  The first thing we need to come to grips with is the fact that too many elements of our culture are harmful to humanity on the most important level of our existence.  These elements--television, radio, video games, computers--create excessive stimuli that compete with our souls and win.

We don't discuss these elements much, either.  We don't discuss the social skills of adults and children alike declining as rapidly as texting and emailing becomes their primary form of communication. We don't discuss the deadening effect even one minute of television has on our brain, let alone 6-8 hours of it every day. We don't discuss the background noise of our stereos, CD players, iPods, or the alienating effects of their overuse.  We don't discuss the hours spent on the internet. We don't discuss the hours spent playing video games.  I rarely hear the content of any of these things, which ranges from the morally questionable to the downright immoral, discussed from the pulpit.

We don't discuss how working 40-60 hours a week so that we may fully participate in this aspect of our culture affects our relationships with God and with one another.

These sisters, though, addressed Lisa Ling's question quite directly, both with their astute verbal answers and with their wholehearted embrace of a cloistered lifestyle that has been criticized by the laity and religious alike as archaic. They talked about the voice of God calling out--screaming out, really--to a society literally hell-bent on drowing his voice out with all of this external stimulation. I went looking for the show online to post it here for you, but couldn't find it in its entirety.  I did, however, find a post-episode discussion with the sisters about the need for silence.  Watch it here.  Seriously, watch it (yes, I appreciate the irony).

One of the sisters commented in response to the constant stimuli that we're "creating the shell of a person".  I agree with her, and Cardinal Rode's observation as I quoted above is one of the more tragic bits of evidence to support her comment. Think about how all of this racket distracts us from our inner selves. I'm as guilty as the next person, and so is my husband (don't deny it, Eddie Ray)---we own a desktop computer, a netbook, TVs in every room of the house, a collection of DVDs & CDs, and we spend far too much time using all of them. We both have facebook accounts. We both have friends and family members with whom we only communicate using email and facebook. I daily plop down on the living room sofa to watch TV and surf the web at the same time, polluting my brain with too much information to process. My husband leaves TV's and radios on all over the place, including in the garage, polluting the house inside and out with noise. 

We're both very faithful Catholics; but we're also very easily distracted by all things noisy, shiny, flashy and pretty. My coworker's radio on low even competes with my ability to think clearly enough to write a few lines of copy for a mailer. If we're working to constantly upgrade our noisy, shiny, flashy, pretty things that continuously stimulate us from the outside, how will we ever truly hear the Lord calling us from within?  These sisters have truly inspired me.  With lent around the corner, maybe turing it all off is the best sacrifice I can make.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Modern Crisis: Chasing Big Numbers At Quality's Expense

Friends of the Youngstown Cursillo and apostolates everywhere who suffer from what seems like declining interest and dwindling numbers, read the following excerpts from an article by John Thavis titled "Vatican official says religious orders are in modern 'crisis'".  (emphasis in article mine). What is reported here applies to our apostolates as well.  I will offer a commentary on it in my next post.  Read the article in its entirety here

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A top Vatican official said religious orders today are in a "crisis" caused in part by the adoption of a secularist mentality and the abandonment of traditional practices.
Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said the problems go deeper than the drastic drop in the numbers of religious men and women.

"The crisis experienced by certain religious communities, especially in Western Europe and North America, reflects the more profound crisis of European and American society.

"The secularized culture has penetrated into the minds and hearts of some consecrated persons and some communities, where it is seen as an opening to modernity and a way of approaching the contemporary world," he said.

Cardinal Rode said the decline in the numbers of men and women religious became precipitous after the Second Vatican Council, which he described as a period "rich in experimentation but poor in robust and convincing mission."

He said the orders need to remember that quality of vocations is more important than quantity.

"It is easy, in situations of crisis, to turn to deceptive and damaging shortcuts, or attempt to lower the criteria and parameters for admission to consecrated life and the course of initial and permanent formation," he said.

It's more important today, he said, that religious orders "overcome the egocentrism in which institutes are often closed, and open themselves to joint projects with other institutes, local churches and lay faithful."

Cardinal Rode said it was undoubtedly more difficult today for all religious orders to find young people who are willing to break away from the superficial contemporary culture and show a capacity for commitment and sacrifice. Unless this is dealt with in formation programs, he said, religious orders will produce members who lack dedication and are likely to drift away.

Think about this as we all press forward in our missions.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lucky 13

We sat holding our breath for the entire 85 minutes.  Parts of it had us in tears.  Our formerly-Wednesday-night-now-Tuesday-night-while-our-husbands-group group absolutely loved The 13th Day.  Buy this film and pass it around to all of your family and friends.

Ian and Dominic Higgins present the true story of Fatima artistically and authentically. They took great care to be as true to not just the facts, but to the people, as possible. The cast really delivered as well. I was most impressed with Jane Lesley's portrayal of Maria dos Santos, Lucia's obstinate, doubting mother who takes out her doubts on her daughter with vitriol. It's a hard thing to believe that Heaven would open up to the remotest, poorest parts of the world, and we in our warped little minds question whom Our Lady chooses, especially when they don't fit into the molds we've constructed of what a visionary should be.

Wherever Our Lady appears, we assume there will be some magical harmony; the dos Santos family, already poor, suffered immensely as thousands of people, ranging from devout believers to curiosity seekers, trampled their land. Many accused the children of lying, claimed that they were seeing the devil or were possessed.

Two died very young, Francisco at age 11 and Jacinta at age 9.  Jacinta was incorrupt when her body was exhumed. Lucia went to school, became a nun and then joined the Carmelite order. She died in 2005.
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