Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Is the cost of security and self-preservation worth it?

Security has become a bit of a conversational past time the last couple of weeks. The Syrian refugee crisis and Paris attacks have, of course, brought this to a significant head. But the issue is not new and comes up with various issues, including gun control, police force, just war theory, etc.

My problem is that, like many issues, we have dichotomized the sides, which doesn't help any solution-finding. We need to validate that a sense of security for ourselves is important. But security for other people is important, too.

Assuming refugees pose various dangers to us (on Monday, I talked about my personal experience with Muslim peacemakers), is our safety more important than the safety of the refugees? Should we be putting our needs and (more commonly) comfort about the basic (often life and death-related) needs of others? It's human nature to do so, so it's understandable, but is it what we should strive to do?

When we start denying people asylum in order to protect ourselves from potential (not guaranteed) cultural changes and potential (again, not guaranteed) attacks, we should also not place these as opposites and acknowledge the true costs. Few people want cultural change, and no one wants the safety of their loved ones and themselves to be put at risk.

What we are saying is that maintaining our culture as it is is worth hundreds of thousands of lives of the Other who have no safe place to go. We are willing to let hundreds of thousands of innocent people live in limbo with a horrible quality of life with many likely dying in order to maintain a status quo culture and give us a sense of security. Is that cost worth it?

Let's assume for a moment that denying refugees prevents another 9/11-like attack, so we have saved 3,000 American lives. The cost is hundreds of thousands of refugees' lives. All are innocent victims. All would be tragedies. So are our lives worth more than theirs? What does it say about our value system that we put psychological security above human rights? The problem is the cost of denying refugees isn't ours to pay, at least in the short term and materialistically. It's theirs. But it's ultimately our cost morally.

What is our obligation to our fellow human? When do we put ourselves at risk in order to reduce the risk to someone else?

Should security be pursued at all costs? Is self-preservation or (wise) self-sacrifice for the sake of another the higher goal? 

Monday, November 23, 2015

My First-hand Experience with Muslim Peacemakers

As we all know, there has been increasing ignorant, critical dialogue about Muslims being a threat to the foundation of American and Judeo-Christian society. I have seen and heard comments ranging from ISIS representing over 90% of all the world's Muslims to ISIS followers being the most serious and honest Muslims. People are regularly claiming that followers of Islam are fundamentally interested in divisiveness and contention.

During graduate school, I had the opportunity to work with a group of both Muslims and Christians from across the United States on an interfaith peacemaking effort. I literally had the opportunity to break bread with Muslims who took their faith very seriously, which led them to advocate for, raise awareness of, and build competency in interfaith peacemaking. Oh, and this effort was funded by a grant from the US Department of Justice.

This experience led to my dissertation, entitled Being a Peacemaker: A Qualitative Study on the Faith-Based Values of Exemplar Muslim and Christian Interfaith Peacemakers. This title should help emphasize that peacemaking can actually come from deeply-rooted serious faith, even from Islam.

There is good in the faith world. There are wonderful people doing amazing, important work. They have been doing it for decades, getting very little credit, but positively transforming people's lives. And both Muslims and Christians are doing it because of their faith. I believe the values of the people involved in these efforts are far more representative of the larger Muslim and Christian cultures; the perspectives are just not as well-known because the participants do their work quietly and humbly, in contrast to the work of groups like Westboro Baptist and ISIS.

Let's acknowledge the amazingly positive, pro-social transformative power Islam can provide, not just the destructiveness of minority extremism.

Wednesday, I'll explore the cost of security and self-preservation.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review: De-Stigmatizing Depression

As a psychologist and Christian with a particular speciality and passion for the integration of spirituality and behavioral health, I was hopeful when I started David Murray's Christians Get Depressed Too.

While Murray explicitly admits this is a short text to introduce Christians to some of the facts about depression, he regularly oversimplifies things in a way that probably contributes to on-going stigma and discrimination. He has an excellent intent to reduce such stigma from the Christian community, and the book starts out appropriately combating some common theological myths with regard to depression. However, he also quickly makes other statements that stigmatize and inaccurately represent other diseases (like addiction).

He also gets many facts wrong about treatment options, often due to the theme of not acknowledging the complexities of behavioral health, including depression. Further, he makes assumptions about the readers, once even saying, "as Reformed Christians, we..." Not all Christians are Reformed, and not all Reformed Christians would agree with his more extreme theology that falls in line with people like John Piper.

As I've noted in other blog posts and reviews, this theology is incredibly damaging. Murray makes several statements along these lines, including stating that if someone is depressed, God made them depressed and wants them depressed. He argues that God working all things for good supports this, which is a warping of this Scripture. Just because God can use something for good doesn't mean he made that something happen. This kind of explanation is what leads people away from Christ.

I'm frankly conflicted about this book. For those coming from extreme views, it's probably helpful to validate their beliefs and help them be open to alternative explanations and understandings of the world. But again, Murray actually contributes to on-going stigmatization of the behavioral health community. I don't for a moment believe this is intentional. Especially as he narrated the audiobook, it is easy to hear his heart of compassion and true desire to help others. Therefore, I pray this book will be helpful to those who read/listen to it, but I would not recommend it for most people.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, November 2, 2015

Review: Love Truly Casts Out Fear and Hatred

In a time of increasing globalization and exposure to people with different ideas, cultures, values, and faiths, putting a face and a personal story to the Other can be quite powerful and meaningful in building love, respect, and understanding. Love Casts Out Fear: A Jihad Survivor's Journey from Revenge to Redemption is a personal testimony of one man's experience of pain, tragedy, hatred, and personal transformation that has led to the transformation of many other lives.

This book is the story of Brother Nathan, an Egyptian Christian who witnessed his father's murder by Islamic extremists. He details how this event changed his life and could have led him down a path of responsive, retributive violence (and he was planning on going down that path). However, the consistent love and support of community helped him experience the transformative power of Christ, replacing his fear and hatred of his father's murderers. He went on to build relationships and demonstrate the love of Christ to all in his community, including Muslims of the dominant, ruling party in his country.

While many Christians in America claim to be oppressed and discriminated against and yet continue to show hatred to those "oppressors," Brother Nathan's story is a powerful reminder of priorities and what real oppression looks like. It also reminds us of what Christ's true love calls us toward. All those who want to continue to pursue self-protection at the cost of destroying others should read this book and remember core Christian values.

The audiobook version was very well done, and narrative Youssif Kamal was excellent. I frequently had to remember that this book was not read by the author, as Kamal put appropriate emotion to bring the story to life.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: The Reality of the Dark

The dark night of the soul is one of my passion areas because of the way it can help us reframe priorities, grow, and strip away extraneous parts of our lives. Unfortunately, some books on the topic over-spiritualize a dark night too much and try to find answers where sometimes the point is not having an answer at all.

Nancy Ortberg's latest book, Seeking in the Dark: Finding God's Light in the Most Unexpected Places does not make the mistake of explaining away dark places. While she doesn't really talk about a "dark night," that's exactly the experience she describes. She poignantly notes the way tragedy can impact our lives without watering it down or explaining it away like so many Christian authors can do. Rather, he emphasizes the need to let these experiences be as they are. The describes the pain and doesn't try to change it in any way. She acknowledges and accepts reality. And that's what allows us to move forward. As Ortberg says in quoting Dallas Willard, "God only meets us in one place, and that's reality."

She does acknowledge the challenges of the dark times, especially when they're in contrast to good times: “Living in between is hard work. It’s much simpler to make a choice, color it black or white, draw a line. But even though this living in between is more difficult, it’s better. Definitely better. What lies in between is nuance, richness, and meaning. It’s only in the in-between that we can live in color, with heartaches and joys combining hues.” There is more difficulty in living with complexity, but how much richer is life?

I find these times often help give great clarity to priorities and the meaning in life. When we over-spiritualize, theologize, minimize, or other-ize pain and darkness, the power behind them is often lost. I found Ortberg's work to be moving and reinforcing of where I should put my values and efforts.

Ortberg also does a nice job of connecting dark nights to later movement in improving the world. She states, "Stories are powerful, but stories from brokenness, stories that intersect with another’s pain–that, my friend, is life-changing stuff. This is gospel. Good news. Great news, really. It is the same power that puts us in the fight for justice, for serving the poor and the marginalized in the name of Jesus. It’s what keeps us, in the face of overwhelming odds, going the other direction, using hope as a shield for the fight against human trafficking, poverty, and inequitable access to health care, education, and work.”

We often try to avoid the pain, but it is usually because of our brokenness and pain that we are able to meet others where they are at and help bring hope to others in their darkness.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was well-done. The narrator spoke with enough inflection and passion that the book seemed to be her own (in contrast to many audiobooks that seem dry).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Muse: Technology-Assisted Mindfulness

The Muse is a relatively new product, dubbed the "brain sensing headband." InteraXon, the company behind Muse sent me a Muse to review. I also had the opportunity to have a short interview with InteraXon's co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Trevor Coleman. Below is a thorough review of the device and its application. It starts with some background on mindfulness and neurofeedback, so skip ahead if you're familiar with these topics.

Mindfulness is all the rage. Corporations are promoting mindfulness at work, and mindfulness-based therapies are the focus of regular research in the behavioral health world. I've seen the benefits first-hand, being intensively trained in the mindfulness-centered Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and therefore regularly teaching and leading mindfulness activities. More and more people are also recognizing the congruence and benefits of spiritual forms of mindfulness to enhance their spiritual lives, as well (centering prayer and lectio divina can be considered forms of mindfulness).

For those unfamiliar, mindfulness has many different definitions and forms, but my oversimplified summary is essentially awareness of and being present in the moment. It has been shown to be helpful for things from depression, anxiety, and ADHD to improving relationships to enhancing one's spiritual life. There is a lot of overlap with meditation, which is in some ways a specific type of mindfulness, where one maintains attention on a single object, thought, phrase, etc. Based on my training and a sense that people are more open to the term "mindfulness" than "meditation," I tend to use the term "mindfulness."

A year or so ago, I explored neurofeedback for my department as a potential intervention we might want to consider. In short, neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that uses EEG (electroencephelography) technology to provide feedback to a user about their brain activity. Biofeedback traditionally focuses on easier-to-capture biometrics, like heart rate, breathing, sweat level, and muscle tension, to provide immediate feedback to the user about physiological symptoms related to a variety of conditions. It has been particularly effective for anxiety disorders. Raising awareness of one's physiology, even parts that we cannot directly control (like heart rate), allows us to adjust (sometimes subtly and unconsciously) parts of behavior (including breathing, elements of attention, etc.) that help us become calmer and in turn impact the involuntary physiological symptoms that create conditions like anxiety. This immediate feedback reinforces new skills that help us better cope with emotional dysregulation, and these skills generally "stick" after therapy ends.

I see neurofeedback as essentially a more efficient way of reinforcing skills, especially around mindfulness. Brain waves are not something we can directly control, but our behaviors influence brain waves, which in turn influence behaviors. Changing some of our behaviors, such as where we direct our attention and how we breathe, impacts our brain activity, which reinforces calmer, more focused behavior. Some neurofeedback providers claim their systems directly change the brain. I have seen no evidence of this, and I view it as either a blatant lie to sell a product/service or ignorance on the part of the clinician (I'm not sure which is more dangerous, frankly...). This is an important distinction, as many people would be (appropriately) concerned about direct brain intervention.

The beauty of neurofeedback and biofeedback in general is that they help us become more aware of our bodies to aid us in shaping our behaviors and building new habits that allow to live healthier lives. It's actually a very natural, culturally sensitive, non-invasive way of improving all elements of holistic health, including physical, psychological, and spiritual.

Neurofeedback can be quite pricey, easily running at least $1500 for a course of treatment by a licensed provider (still cheap if it's effective). Some insurances cover it, some don't. But does all treatment, especially when it's focused on improving health rather ameliorating pathology, need to be mediated by a provider? What is appropriate to be done on your own? Health care providers regularly encourage at home practice of a variety of exercises that shape our behavior (think diet, physical exercise, relaxation exercises, thought records, etc.). Mindfulness is regularly "prescribed" as an exercise to practice on your own after some education about how to do it (which does not require any licensed provider). So why couldn't technology-assisted mindfulness be done on your own?

The Muse Method
Enter the Muse, the "brain sensing headband," which I see as essentially a $300 consumer neurofeedback device focused on reinforcing mindfulness. Now to be clear, this is not advertised nor meant to be a health care device or to take the place of any professional advice. It is "a brain fitness tool that helps you do more with your mind by helping you calm and settle your mind." InteraXon, the company behind Muse, has a long history of brain sensing technology integrated into consumer life.

InteraXon generally uses the term "meditation" in conjunction with the Muse, as it is currently based on maintaining one's attention on an object. When using the Muse, there is a one minute calibration to ensure the Muse knows what an active brain looks like for you (everyone's brains are quite different). Then you engage in a focus activity for a length of time you choose. The calibration and activity are done with eyes closed, and the instructions are to focus on your breath, a common mindfulness meditation that is also convenient as it can be done anywhere, as needed (we always have our breath with us!). The feedback portion is achieved through sound. There are currently two audio environments, one a beach with a windstorm, the other a rainforest with a... (wait for it...) rain storm. Coleman stated, anecdotally, they have found people who want to boost their mind use the storm, while those who want to relax use the rain. Interestingly, I prefer the rain, and my interest is really relaxation... The more you maintain focus on your breath, the calmer the sounds are. When your brain waves hit the "calm" region, you also start collecting birds.

The mindfulness reinforcement comes via calmer, quieter sounds when you are focused and increased storminess when you get distracted (quite parallel to how our brains can feel!). This can be a very effective way to raise our awareness of distraction. It is very easy to practice mindfulness and not realize you are distracted, so this is much more valuable than one might realize. While the storm can be very helpful in raising awareness of distraction, I found that over time I could sometimes tune it out (that was usually when I was quite distracted). More significantly, sometimes the storm made it harder to focus on my breath and could lead to frustration with not getting calmer. Lowering the volume seemed to help a great deal. A recent app update gives much more flexibility in adjusting volume of different sound elements. I highly recommend trying out different volumes to find a "sweet spot" of what's most effective for you.

Coleman explained they are exploring additional exercises and feedback methods. That's the benefit of modern technology--software upgrades can provide a lot of new features for the same hardware. While there can be no guarantees, I wouldn't be surprised if some good new features are available in the near future with no new hardware investment required. I also recently took a survey that indicates InteraXon is considering a freemium model for the software features. This makes sense from a business standpoint, but after investing $300 for a device, I hope they continue to provide significant software enhancements for free. Coleman had mentioned they were working on a way of normalizing one's calibration over time so you wouldn't have to do the calibration each time and so it would be more accurate. This was also mentioned in the survey. This is an example of something that I would hope would be free. Things like additional audio environments, extra challenges, advanced analytics, and performance comparisons with other seem potentially appropriate in a subscription context. There is no indication that a subscription would ever be required, and the basic features are still very effective and strong.

My Experience and Tips
While there are basic instructions that are available for the sessions, I think I significantly benefitted from knowing a lot about mindfulness. I was able to coach myself through sessions having this background, which I'm sure improved my performance. If you find yourself struggling with maintaining a calm state, I recommend doing some reading/training on mindfulness and its principles, especially not judging your own performance. Remembering to gently move our attention back is helpful. I would at times get frustrated with having a storm when I thought I was focused on my breath. This, itself, emphasizes a benefit of the feedback--sometimes we're not as focused and calm as we think. I found when I reduced my tension and just tried to have a posture (physically and mentally) of acceptance, my mind calmed faster and birds came and stayed longer. Trying to force myself to focus was often counter-productive. I discovered my brain also would not immediately calm when I redirected focus back to my breath. While a storm would come quickly if there was a distraction (like a cat jumping on my lap or a toddler being a toddler), the storm would usually take a few seconds to calm. This, in itself, is a good life lesson and practice of patience...

The App and Technology
It's also important to note that while your performance will hopefully improve, you're competing against yourself. With the current method of calibration, if you're having a calm day, your baseline will be lower, so it will be more difficult to achieve a high calm state (according to the software's scoring). Longitudinal calibration, if released, will be very helpful for more effectively tracking one's practice and assessing progress and challenges. In any case, the scores are relative to yourself. However, this is still helpful, as a storm in even the calmest state indicates some level distraction.

While I didn't try it, it could be possible to use the Muse with other kinds of mindfulness activities, like visual focus. However, the calibration would then have to be done with eyes open (just opening one's eyes increasing brain activity significantly). I'd also be curious to try other types of focus activities, like a centering prayer, where a word or short phrase is repeated. I would guess it would be more challenging to achieve an official calm state with this type of activity, as there would probably be more brain activity than with just focusing on one's breath.

The Muse team does a nice job of encouraging regular sessions in a variety of ways. The presence of a current streak and longest streak of doing session every day in a row has been very effective for me not yet missing a day since I received the device. They also have a variety of challenges that get you to higher levels. For those of us with a competitive streak, this encourages improving our practices in a variety of ways. I would sometimes do an extra session just to get to the next level. While it took a few days to have the time available, I wouldn't have done a 40 minute session without this challenge requirement. And it was not as hard as I had expected (and surprisingly quite pleasant!).

Technologically, the Muse connects to a phone or tablet via bluetooth. The pairing process is easy, and I experienced no problems maintaining a connection. Sometimes the sensors over the ears take a little longer to establish a strong signal, but I found if I just patiently wait (always less than a minute), they connect. I can easily go a week before charging the device, which is easy, as there are two micro-USB ports. A recent app update that allows you to see the current battery level is very helpful. The app itself is good looking and easy to navigate. The one thing I don't understand is the requirement of the screen to be on during a session. For long sessions, keeping the phone/tablet screen off would be helpful to save battery life. This may be a way to keep the bluetooth connection alive or something, but it's strange. I originally thought I'd like using the app on my iPad, but since there is not visual feedback during a session, I only use it on my iPhone, which I ultimately prefer. A smaller device to hold or keep nearby during a session is easier.

There were a couple of problems I had with the app recognizing times and days, which affected challenge completion. One email to support, and I received a very prompt, helpful response. It turns out there was a bug in the app, which was quickly fixed in the next update. As many of us know, customer service, especially with technology products, is of utmost importance and can make or break a product/service. From what I saw, Muse is putting quick, friendly, helpful customer care as a top priority.

So is the Muse effective? I'd say yes. I've known for a long time I "should" practice mindfulness on my own outside of the professional context. But it was hard to get the motivation to do so. However, I quickly looked forward to and really wanted to practice with the Muse. For me, playing with technology in itself is fun and a reinforcer, but I do notice I generally feel calmer and more centered. My mood does seem to be a bit better and more regulated after I engage in a session. I'm also more aware of being distracted throughout the day, which allows me to bring my attention back to the present moment.

While $300 is not cheap, it is quite cheap for this type of technology and could be quite worth it for the benefits. It is not a magic device; you have to work and keep engaged in the activities. Coleman explained it takes about 2-3 weeks for most people to notice a difference and regular users settle into a pattern of sessions 4-5 times a week. 15-20 minute sessions are often the minimum to be effective based on their initial findings, although I find 7-10 minute sessions are helpful and easy to fit into my day.

One of the things I really appreciate is that InteraXon is doing solid research on the device. They have partnerships with some universities using the Muse in various projects. They also ask users to opt-in to share their data for continued improvement. Their privacy practices seem strong and appropriate, and I encourage participation. The more users who contribute their data, the better chances at seeing strong updates that will help us all. While no research is yet published, anecdotal evidence of benefits matches the values of mindfulness, including improved emotional regulation, sleep, mood, interpersonal interactions, etc.

No formal case comes with the Muse, although the hard plastic packaging works well (and is what I currently use, although it's bulky and awkward). There is an official Muse case, which sells for $40, and doesn't seem much smaller than the clear plastic sales packaging. From reviews I've seen, many people question the price-point. For $300, it would seem appropriate to have a case included. I definitely recommend keeping it protected in some format, especially if you travel with it (to work, vacation, etc.). A universal headphone case or something similar might work, as well.

If you think practicing mindfulness regularly would be a benefit to your life, then the Muse could be an excellent investment. I've been using it for more than 60 straight days (every day since I received it), for a total of over 760 minutes of practice, and I plan to continue to use it daily. I even took it with me on vacation because of its benefits.

For those interested in purchasing the Muse, it is available through Muse's website, Amazon, some retailers in Canada, and will be in US Best Buy stores in mid-July.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this item free from the manufacturer. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, June 8, 2015

Review: Desiring Atonement

Atonement can sound like a boring, droll topic (and it is to many people). However, it's also central to Christian theology and the topic of many vicious debates (some people's ordinations and even salvation statuses have been questioned due to even minor differences in atonement beliefs). For those not familiar, atonement in Christianity refers to becoming reconciled with God. I have previously written on atonement, including problems with "traditional" atonement theoriesthe application of René Girard's mimetic theory to Christian atonement, and the fundamental question of whether God needs to be appeased.

A few authors have written on similar topics, but André Rabe's recent book, Desire Found Me, provides a very thorough exploration of how mimesis impacts not only atonement, but a variety of fundamental Christian theological points. His is an incredibly ambitious project, not just describing a mimetic atonement, but laying a foundation of how mimesis provides a better explanation of Scripture all the way back to Genesis 1.

Some might think this foundation is too much. To be fair, it can be a lot to digest, although he makes fine theological points accessible (with appropriate background) to those unfamiliar with the topics, while also not being overly simplistic for those with more knowledge of some topics (his writing structure makes it is easy to skim where appropriate). However, discussing things such as human nature, justice, and even Satan are critical to understanding and constructing a theory of atonement. Even while being familiar with and having written on many of these topics, Rabe provides helpful strong evidence and detailed explanation supporting more accurate Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture than other more human-centric hermeneutics. He provides a nice balance of his own writing with strong citations showing a solid scholarly approach to Scripture, hermeneutics, and Christian history.

For those interested in mimetic atonement, restorative justice, and love-centered reading of Scripture that is more cohesive than the limited narratives told by so many others, I highly recommend Rabe's text.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).