Friday, January 28, 2011

Practices and Processes

Last week's discussion fluttered around a vague notion of practice as invigorated (and invigorating) strivings of the heart and soul which are deeper, fuller and richer than the aims themselves or the final results achieved. Today, I'd like to shift gears toward contemporary understandings of the embodied mind which I feel only serve to reinforce this ambiguity.

The human brain is the great instigator, processor and archive of our practices. But the brain is plastic, and is constantly reshaped by the very practices it executes. Nowhere is this cycle more apparent than in the impact of the substances we choose to put in our body.

In Nick Reding's Methland, the brains of "regular folks" like you and me are disturbingly distorted over time by repeated decisions to ingest methamphetamine. In extreme cases, the result is delusion and depravity, manifested in formerly unthinkable acts of perversion and violence.

Out of context, these anecdotes can be dismissed as the desperate and irrational behavior of the criminal and/or insane. But Reding's more fully developed depictions of chemically-induced falls from grace raise troubling questions about our brains' (not to mention our hearts' and souls') vulnerability to destructive forces.

Our diverse collective of undergraduates, grad students and professors gathered Wednesday night for the second meeting of Emory's first university-wide course to hear two very different kinds of experts on the nature of drug abuse, addiction and treatment shed light on this issue.

The first, Dr. Michael Kuhar, shared his conclusions from basic research with animal subjects. Given the opportunity, all kinds of different species will abuse all of the substances we abuse (except hallucinogens whose disorienting properties are apparently not so appealing to monkeys).

All of these drugs have very different properties (depressants, stimulants, etc.), but they all give us pleasure by producing the biochemical rewards our brain normally gives us for performing behaviors which promote survival and propagation: eating, hydrating, exercising, and yes, having sex. So, like all these natural practices, they make us feel good.

Of course, human beings have been getting high on various things for thousands of years across many, many cultures: drinking wine, tea and coffee, or chewing coca leaves, for example. The carefully regulated electro-chemical system is altered, and the brain adapts to reestablish equilibrium. Sometimes the changes are rather mild and manageable, and sometimes there are radical and destructive changes which we call "abuse." Thus, "the addicted brain is a different brain."

Modern processing methods have simply upped the ante. Synthesized, ultra-concentrated drugs like cocaine, heroine and meth don't just stimulate our brain's natural reward system, they completely overwhelm it.

From Kuhar's pragmatic perspective of expert manipulation of chemical processes, addiction is a biochemical imbalance which can be treated with ironically, more drugs, just as we treat mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The problem isn't moral, it's biochemical. Dr. Kuhar also suggests the same root cause and solution for people who are obese or addicted to gambling (whose brains look remarkably similar to drug addicts when scanned with an fMRI).

But from the perspective of Dr. Karen Drexler, an associate professor at Emory Medical School who treats drug addicted veterans at the local VA Hospital, neither the problem nor the solution are so straight-forward.

Dr. Drexler pointed out that neurotransmitters like Dopamine don't just make us feel good, they focus us and sharpen our senses, preparing us to successfully execute survival promoting tasks, such as recognizing and killing game in the wild. Thus, drugs don't just hijack our brains' reward system, but our instincts themselves.

You may stop abusing a drug. Your brain may even generally restore normal chemical equilibrium after some months. But the moment you take a puff, your brain "thinks its meth hunting season again" and the well-developed meth-hunting system reemerges to plunge the recovered addict back into addiction. Dr. Drexler has seen it a thousand times, and that is why she endorses the Alcoholics Anonymous doctrine of "once an addict, always an addict" and encourages her patients to participate in Twelve Step programs.

I asked Dr. Drexler after her presentation how she felt about framing addiction as a moral issue. She said it could be dangerous if the addict is too ashamed by his/her "weakness" to seek help. On the other hand, the success of AA and Narcotics Anonymous demonstrate the effectiveness of admitting one's powerlessness over the preferred drug and soliciting moral resources from a "Higher Power."

One thing that neither expert was able to shed much light on is how we can determine whether a certain practice is addictive or not. It may be pretty clear at the poles, but the expanse between addiction and utility is wide and nebulous.

Our third visiting professor, associate professor of psychiatry Charles Raison suggested that it is helpful to think about drugs as an invasive species that threaten to create an "experiential monoculture" which ultimately deprives us of the ability to enjoy other, more natural experiences. This metaphor seems perfectly appropriate to describe the experiences of the meth addicts in Reding's book.

Now, it may seem obvious that smoking meth or shooting up heroine is stupid, self-destructive. It's tempting to conclude those who do so repeatedly despite life-destroying consequences are simply fools or weaklings or both.

But Dr. Raison suggests that we are all exposing ourselves to less overtly sinister "invasive species" all the time: in the "processed food-like substances" (to use Michael Polin's terminology) we eat, the polluted air we breathe, the hazardous chemicals in our environment, even the medications we ingest.

We all share the struggle to limit our intake of destructive substances and establish a pattern of life-promoting practices.

My sister, Ginny Johnson, has become increasingly committed to perfecting her pattern of practices, pursuing education in integrative nutrition which has recently given rise to a new consulting career. Her powerful passion for real, life-giving food (as well as exercise and spiritual practice) and her gentle way of expressing her refreshing blend of idealism and pragmatism have convicted me to gradually improve my own diet.

There are wins and losses. I may have passed up a doughnut for a bowl of granola and a banana this morning...but I relapsed this afternoon, lacking the will power to resist a Dr. Pepper a bag of Smartfood popcorn (which is not actually not that smart, but very addicting). My caffeine dependence is disconcerting. And let's just say I've not always known "when to say when."

I may not be living for any of these substances, but I know that I could use some of that "Higher Power" help to align my consumption practices more perfectly with the strivings of my heart.

You are what you eat (and drink, smoke, etc.). Literally. How are you remaking yourself today?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Under Construction

For over a year now, a group of young men have been gathering every Monday night in a duplex on Virginia Avenue to eat, pray, sing, read, laugh, and share the rhythms of our lives with one another. As this week's meeting coincided with the MLK holiday, I suggested that we listen to one of Dr. King's sermons. I chose "Unfulfilled Dreams" for its simplicity, intensity, and intimacy. This is not the venerated King of my education: the towering, triumphant, superhuman hero of "I Have a Dream." The King of "Unfulfilled Dreams" is a humble, transparent mortal employing a vulnerable heart and learned mind to deliver the Word as only a Southern black Baptist preacher can.

On March 3rd, 1968, Rev. King preached from 1 Kings to the congregation which raised him, Ebeneezer Baptist Church--less than three miles from where six white boys were seated around a modest fire, listening to the sermon echo across four-plus decades through a laptop tuned to Youtube. King speaks of David's desire to build a temple worthy of the God of Israel. David's bloodied hands were unfit to build this temple, yet Scripture tells us that David "did well" to have this desire in his heart. King offers a similar blessing to his congregation for the worthy "temples" of peace and righteousness they desire to build.

In the first hours of 2011, my brother and I stood on a balcony high over Obelisco square in Buenos Aires, Argentina, talking about the temples we are laboring to build. We reflected upon the tension between the energy, enthusiasm and gratitude such visions bring and the weight and confusion that accompany their pursuit. In our increasingly complex yet ever-more-accessible global reality, it seems impossible to comprehend the complexity of even the most compactly drawn compartment of reality.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a relatively clear goal in view, the challenge of utilizing your time, talent and resources effectively can be overwhelming. It's difficult to determine whether an extra hour of "official business" is actually more fruitful than an hour connecting with friends or enjoying a relevant and insightful piece of media.

King soberly acknowledges that like David, we may never see our temples completed. We may even witness their destruction, just as Gandhi saw the peaceful union he labored for obliterated through the violent partitioning of his country.

Journalist Nick Reding relates the heart-wrenching story of the destruction and reconstruction of the American dream in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. As the social and economic foundations the citizens of Oelwein, Iowa had built their temples upon began to crumble, the desperate and disillusioned are further dismantled by the deceptive promises of an insidious drug.

On Wednesday night, a diverse mixture of twenty-odd undergrads, grad students and professors from every school at Emory gathered to discuss the book and begin a semester-long exploration of the dizzying and disturbing confluence of medical, economic, political, cultural and spiritual factors surrounding this epidemic in the first ever "University Course." Reding's far-reaching, deep-delving, painstaking investigation of this social disaster reinforces the unsettling reality that our world is increasingly impossible to understand and its problems ever-more daunting. By the end of the opening meeting of this academic adventure, we were waist-deep in the ultimate questions of meaning and value which any human tragedy brings to the fore: "What do we need to live? What makes life meaningful?"

The night before, I had attended a gathering called "Praying with the Mystics" at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church. Spiritual director Kimberly Broerman led a dozen or so middle-aged women, one fellow Candler student and myself through a meditation on the words of theologian Howard Thurman, one of Dr. King's heroes. He suggests that what we need to live may be a little different for each of us, and that its discovery is not only essential for our own well-being, but for the world around us:

Don't ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive
and then go do that.
Because what the world needs
is people who have come alive.

It might seem that for both King and Thurman, mere good intentions are enough. But Thurman's image of "coming alive" implies action, and King makes the necessity of effort explicit through both word and deed.

As we listened to "Unfilfilled Dreams," my friend Jonathan reminded us that King's message emerges out of the confusion and complexity of the last months of his life. From our vantage point, we see King as one of the most successful social reformers in human history (not to mention a moral and spiritual giant). But amidst the eruption of racially charged riots following his movement's greatest legislative victories, many were calling his nonviolent movement a failure. Towards the climactic end of the sermon, King raised his voice to a desperate, heartfelt cry:

"You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s children. But I want to be a good man. And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, 'I take you in and I bless you, because you try. It is well that it was within thine heart.' What’s in your heart this morning? If you get your heart right..."

At this point, the recording cuts off abruptly. King was killed a month later; a mere sinner like the rest of us, but one who did his best to get his heart right. That heart came alive, and it did all of us a world of good.

In our first meeting yesterday, the members of my Religious Practices Seminar discussed four quite distinct takes on what "practice" means. It's a pretty vague term. Indeed, part of the reason I chose it for the title of this blog is that it allows us the freedom to talk about anything and everything. But I think Thurman and King help us to identify what practice is in the most ideal sense: it is behavior which makes us "come alive," our best efforts to manifest the temples of our hearts in a complex, confusing, imperfect world.

What makes you come alive? What temple do you desire to build in your heart? What can you do, today, to build it, brick by brick? "If you get your heart right..."