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The Science of the Unforced Rhythms of Grace

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Over the past two decades, I've been studying (both academically and popularly) the intersection of science and spirituality. I've also been a percussionist for about 40 years. One clear conclusion from this combination of experience: Life is best lived with the right rhythm.

It's what drummers call being "in the groove." As a drummer, it's when you're feeling the rhythm so deeply that you're almost obligated to stay in it. Not too fast, nor too slow.

In life, being in the groove is feeling "the unforced rhythms of grace." Or to give a fuller context from Jesus' offer in Matthew 11:28-30 (at least when Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in "The Message"):

Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me--watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

This unforced rhythm of grace -- the groove -- happens when we find the right rhythm of yes and no, of notes and spaces. How does science describe the groove?

Psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikzentmihaly outlined it best in his book, "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience": "When consciousness is harmoniously ordered," a flow experience is "so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous." Finding flow, Csikzentmihaly discovered, arises when we live in that sweet spot, the "Goldilocks" point, between too much stress (too many yeses) and too little stress (too many nos), or boredom. Simply put, the right rhythm is when we're in the groove.

We start to groove by stopping and listening to the ultimate space of silence.

One way to summarize a large chunk of the history of Christian spirituality is two simple words: Be quiet: I quote the Oxford literary professor and Christian spiritual writer, C. S. Lewis, "The first job each morning consists in shoving [all other voices] all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in."

But this is so difficult. So how do we do it? Currently I'm co-directing a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Scientists in Congregations, which looks at how science and spiritual life come together in churches. More particularly at my home congregation, Bidwell Presbyterian Church, we are doing a study of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: In mindfulness, we observe experience as it unfolds, and we don't judge what comes our way. We receive and pay attention. Soon we relax.

Does it reduce stress? Can it provide for a more productive life? So far, the data seem strong and the results are promising. When we are mindful, we become healthier. Through this attentiveness and saying no to judgment, we say yes to greater mental functioning. There we can say yes to God and begin to groove.

But with the onslaught of communications we all receive every day, we sometimes have to work hard to make some more spaces in our lives -- and for good reason. Staying "wired in" too much increases allostatic load, a reading of stress hormones and other threat responses. We are ready with our fight or flight response -- great in the past for running away from tigers, but today it creates an artificial sense of constant crisis. So we are locked in continual partial attention. Or continual partial inattention.

As a result, I've learned that each day, we need time to return to the unforced rhythms of grace. We need breakouts.

Contemporary cognitive science agrees. Recent studies have proven that we are better off reducing the amount of notes and noise in our lives. One University of London study found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capacity by an average of 10 points on IQ tests.

Herbert Benson, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, has given a clear description of why breakouts work from his research into the science of the brain. Here's an example: You're sitting at your computer, pounding out what you hope will be a hot new article on, let's say, how to create the right rhythms in life. But you're stuck on one sentence and you keep plugging away, but no word emerges. So you keep pushing. But the creativity never flows.

Using research from neuroscience and brain mapping, Benson describes that up to a point, stress helps us to think better. Beyond that, however, it frustrates us. If you keep pushing yourself when you're at a dead end, your "primitive brain" (the deep core that drives basic functions and raw emotions) goes wild. That's when you feel fearful, angry, forgetful, frustrated, etc. Benson warns: If you push on, you do it at your own risk. In other words, when you see these signs, it's time to switch gears.

So breakout! Breathe deeply. Float in the pool. Beat a drum. Fold laundry. As the 12-steppers put it, "Let go and let God." Find those unforced rhythms of grace. Countless possibilities emerge, but the key is to do something completely different. Then the stress function is relieved and creativity emerges. Imaging studies suggest that deep meditation and creative activity lead to "coherence" -- a synchronizing of the logical left brain with the intuitive right brain. There we enter into a cool Latin term, vis mediatrix naturae -- or, loosely translated, "the power of natural healing."

Often it won't be easy. String-theory physicists theorize that there are vibrating strings of multi-dimensions at the heart of the universe. This, if nothing else, represents a fascinating metaphor for the undulating unforced rhythms of grace beneath all of life.

May we all learn to groove with them.

Greg Cootsona has written two books on this theme, Say Yes to No, and The Time for Yes. He also blogs regularly on topics in science and spiritual life.