In part 2 of this series, I outlined a good starting place for developing joy capacity – engaging with appreciation and gratitude. Noticing what we appreciate trains our brain to focus on good things and brings people together, both calming our nervous system and releasing bonding hormones. Gratitude draws us close to God and His peace is one of the fruits of a grateful life. Here are two more brain training exercises…
Practice 1: Immanuel Journaling
Immanuel Journaling is taken from James Wilder’s book Joyful Journey. This is not a process of just thinking or talking, rather we are building relationship, connections, and intimacy with God as we journal back and forth. It’s a way of developing a growing awareness of God’s presence in our thoughts, hearts and lives. It builds on living a life of appreciation and gratitude and can be a very powerful and intimate way of communicating with God.
How to do it:
Start with Interactive Gratitude
- Give thanks to God and write down your appreciation to Him.
- Pause and ask God to respond to your gratitude.
- Write down what you feel God is feeling, thinking, and saying back to you.
- Don’t filter your thoughts, just write and allow Holy Spirit to lead you.
- Next, write down what you feel, think, or sense about His response to your gratitude. (This is one way we can feel connected with Him.)
- You can also read it aloud with a trusted person. Testimonies of our interactions with God allows others to experience His joy too!
Next, Journal on a Struggle
- Journal about something you are struggling with. The following structure allows you to slow down to hear from God and receive his validation in the midst of your struggle. Write a few notes/sentences (or more) about what you hear God say to you with the following sequence:
- I can see you…
- I can hear you…
- I can understand how hard this is for you…
- I am glad to be with you and treat your weaknesses tenderly…
- I can do something about what you are going through…
An example may be:
Anne, I can see you sitting at your desk. I see your shoulders are hunched up and you look sad. I hear you saying to yourself that you are frustrated at this situation and don’t know what to do. I understand how hard this is for you, but I am here for you, and I know you can handle this. You have handled bigger things than this in the past with my help. I am so glad I can walk this journey with you. Lean into me as you think about how to respond and together we will handle this. You are not alone.
A further step is to read aloud one journal entry to a trusted person. Doing so can deepen this practice as an integrative and restorative experience takes place. You see, as you read aloud about your interaction with God, you take what you have experienced into the presence of love and compassion from others. When we read our own writing, it not only allows us to hear for ourselves the conversation we had with God, it also allows the words and meanings to go to new places in the brain. Even sharing painful moments can be healing. When we listen to another’s explanation, we create a ‘sacred space’ for the person to encounter themselves, others, and God.
When I first engaged with this practice, it seemed stilted, and I wondered if I was just making it up. However, those fears were quickly allayed when I wrote about a struggle I was having, and out of my pen poured all that God had to say to me about it. I realised that my prayer times often consisted of me telling God my struggles in great detail, but how often was I pausing to allow Him to respond? Through Immanuel Journaling, my relationship with God was deepening and creating a healthier attachment to God that was not only changing and renewing my brain but affecting my day-to-day life. I felt seen, understood, and believed in, in a deeper and more profound way than ever.
Practice 2: Joy Memories
This practice comes from Shepherds House® and involves engaging with memories of joy from the past.
As we remember joy from special moments, people, and places that bring us comfort and make us smile, we experience joy and appreciation. This exercise involves practicing joy in a specific way, on a daily basis. To build a lifestyle and habit around this practice, Wilder encourages engaging with this practice for at least 30 days.
When we think about something we are literally ‘re-presenting’ the memory and thoughts again. Neurologically, it is like we are reliving whatever it is we are remembering. Creating a story/narrative really helps the brain give more value to things that are important to you. This gives you a chance to experience and spread joy.
How to do it:
- Start by making a list of at least 10 appreciation memories where you experienced joy. It is best if you can include memories with God or people in them. Give each memory a one or two-word name.
- Take one memory and write it down, focusing on all the aspects that are most meaningful to you. Include as many details as you can about what you have experienced. You can start with who, what, where and when and use your five senses to further expand your memory. What did I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? What sensations and emotions did you experience? Try to describe what emotions you felt and what you felt in your body.
- Notice how you feel as you dwell on these experiences. Give thanks to God for them.
- To work with this practice on an ongoing basis, the recommendation is to have about 20 memories. It may take you a while to reach this and that’s not uncommon.
Now, practice for 30 days:
- Ideally, we want to be remembering these memories (and others that come to mind) three times a day, for at least five minutes. This is why you need several memories, so when one begins to fade, you can jump to another one.
- Even better, find another person that you can share a joy memory with at least twice a day for 30 days. If you can’t do this, then you can share it and speak it out loud with God. Each time you share a memory, try and get to the stage where you experience the original emotion. This is an important part of the exercise.
- If you can, engage in a memory as you go to sleep at night, whether that is sharing it with another person or with God. What we engage with as we go to sleep can have profound effects on our brain.
The more time we spend in a state of appreciation/joy, the more our capacity for joy will grow. If you practice this a few times a day, your brain will begin to reset to a state where appreciation/joy is its norm.
These practices really work. If you asked me five years ago to share a memory of joy, I would have gravitated to a key few times in my life. However, today my brain looks for joy everywhere! These practices are redemptive processes for integrated brain development. They can deepen your relationship with God, and with others, and allow you to live a more abundant life in the way God designed for us to do. Are you willing to give them a try?
- Outsmarting yourself by Dr. Karl Lehman.
- Joyful Journey: Listening to Immanuel by Anna Kang, John Loppnow, and Sungshim Loppnow.
- Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone by E. James Wilder, Chris Coursey, Edward M. Khouri, Shelia D. Sutton.