One of the themes Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica kept returning to throughout his teaching ministry is how the human brain constantly creates its own distractions for us to react to. In every hour the average person experiences thousands of thoughts. Most of these thoughts are completely useless while many of them (i.e., negative thoughts or obsessions about myself) are actually destructive. All too often we involuntarily respond to mental stimuli by taking up each thought and playing with it before another thought takes its place. We engage in this type of mental chatter without realizing it as the mind acts like a constant video screen of one thing after another…. Given that our thoughts are the breeding ground of our emotions, it isn’t surprising that our feelings often follow the same jumping-bean pattern as our thoughts. We feel one thing, then another, then another, without always realizing where these feelings are coming from, why we react like we do, or how our emotions can be appropriately identified and managed….
I used to think that I was simply a victim of my undisciplined mind. But as I studied I found that God had given me an invaluable gift that I didn’t even realize I had. It’s called the prefrontal cortex. This is a truly wonderful part of the brain, located just behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex does many things for us, but one of its most important jobs is to enable us to observe our own brains. This is a gift that animals don’t have. Animals can think, but they can’t think about thinking; they can’t observe what is happening in their brains. Only humans can do that thanks to the prefrontal cortex. You could think about the prefrontal cortex as a guard in the brain’s guard house, tasked with controlling what enters. As thoughts arise in the brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. This is difficult since for many of us this guard has become fat and lazy while the Amygdala (the brain’s “fight or flight” center) rules. Our goal should be to strengthen the prefrontal cortex through disciplining our minds, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Only in this way can we weed out thinking errors, slow down the mental chatter, and ultimately develop the type of quiet, gentle, meek thought-life that radiates peace and stillness to those around us. In this way we will be able to imperceptibly pass the kingdom of God onto everyone that comes in contact with us.
…our goal should be not merely to pay attention to things, but to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, in order to control the focus of our emotional and mental lives. But this can only happen when we slow down and choose not to be carried away by the latest stimuli. By being mindful to reject incoming stimuli in order to remain focused on what is good, true and beautiful, we can take stock of what we’re thinking, how we’re feeling, and how we’re behaving. Then we can use practices of mindful attentiveness to regain control of our lives. This enables us to replace toxic thoughts with inner prayer and a constant internal dialogue with God.