Renewing Your Mind: Worry: Planning for Peace

December 17th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

This Christmas season is the busiest time of year for many people. When angels appeared in Bethlehem on the first Christmas to announce that Jesus Christ had come to Earth, they declared that it should be a time of peace. Now, we often stuff our schedules so full of Christmas activities that we’re stressed to the point of worrying how we’ll be able to do it all.

What we need this time of year is peace of mind.

One of the keys to experiencing that is wise planning. You can start planning well by reflecting on what you’re giving our attention to right now and whether or not each thing you’re focusing on is really worth occupying your mind and schedule. My recent Crosswalk.com article “Have Yourself an Uncomfortable Christmas” challenges you to ask certain questions to pull yourself out of your comfort zone and start focusing on what truly is most worthy of your attention.

Speaking of Christmas, my About.com site about angels and miracles will return later this month after being archived for a while. Thank you, wonderful readers, for continuing to visit the site even while it was archived. The page views have been so high that now it’s being activated once more, and I’ll be able to produce fresh content for it regularly! Since angels and miracles play such important roles in Christmas, the site features lots of Christmas content that I hope you’ll love.

How can you change how you plan your schedule to increase your peace of mind?

Renewing Your Mind: Worry: Closed and Open Doors

December 10th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

Has your life turned out as you expected? Neither has mine.

Lately, I’ve encountered some closed doors in various parts of my life — from career to family — that I would open if I had the power to do so. But since I can’t, I’m faced with a choice: Get stuck staring at the closed doors, or get moving in another direction where I can find open doors.

We all face that choice when opportunities we’d hoped for don’t materialize. Making the right choice — changing direction to look for other doors that may open for us — begins in our minds. It starts with moving away from closed doors rather than wasting time and energy worrying about the fact that we’re not able to do what we’d thought we wanted. Besides the fact that what’s on the other side of closed doors isn’t what’s best for us after all, worrying about them only distracts us from finding the doors we’re meant to open and walk through.

Visiting Hampton Court Palace in England this summer, I learned a lot about doors. The massive complex of buildings contains many different sections built for the courts of various kings and queens, starting with the notorious King Henry VIII. I expected the unexpected when I walked through doors there, because the rooms to which the doors led were all distinctively different. From the outside, the palace has architectural integrity, appearing as one unified whole.  It’s surrounded by carefully manicured gardens that give the whole outside appearance an orderly, symmetrical appearance. But walking through the inside, it seems like a hodgepodge of mismatched (though elegant) apartments.

The difference? Perspective.

Walking through our lives from the inside, we may not understand why certain doors close while others open, and our circumstances may look like a mess. But from the outside — a larger perspective — everything is connected well. I believe that God has the larger perspective on our lives, and we can gain that perspective ourselves whenever we seek his guidance for which direction we should walk.

So rather than worrying about closed doors, we can search for open doors. In the process, we can find peace no matter what circumstances we’re walking through at the moment. I’ll be writing much more about overcoming worry in upcoming blogs…

What closed doors are you facing in your life right now? How can you move away from them and search for open doors?

Renewing Your Mind: Mystery

December 3rd, 2014 by whitneyhopler

A church sign I saw recently made me think: “There are some questions that Google can’t answer.” Even though we live in the digital age, when we have access to more information than at any other time during history — mind-boggling amounts of data — we still haven’t come close to answering every question in life. As an information junkie who loves to research to learn about everything I can, I’m grateful for Google and other search engines that make that research possible. I admit that I get a thrilling sense of power from being able to look up facts quickly and easily. But I’m also grateful that I don’t know everything, and that I actually can’t know everything there is to know in this world. I’m glad that I still have to live with mystery.

Why?

Mystery inspires us to keep asking questions and searching for answers in life. It keeps us from growing complacent and arrogant as we would be if we knew it all. Because we don’t truly know it all, we’re motivated to keep learning and growing, which leads us toward new exciting adventures every day if we choose to be lifelong learners.

Humbling ourselves to embrace mystery and keep learning every day is key to the process of renewing our minds.  This is especially vital when it comes to exploring life’s most important questions (which are the least likely questions to be answered by a simple Google search!).

Sometimes even our own minds are mysterious to us. We may find ourselves thinking something and not know what triggered that thought, for example. As noble as it is to try to become more aware of our thoughts — as I’ve emphasized so far in this blog —  we can get stuck in too much analysis, going around in circles trying to figure out what simply won’t be revealed to us for now.

This is where faith comes in.

The Bible defines faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). As we enter the Christmas season, this is a great time to reflect on how some things truly are greater than what can be encompassed by a computer search or understood completely by our minds.

I  believe that much of what we’ll know one day in heaven is obscured by sin in this fallen world, as the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

And what’s even better than knowing fully? It’s being fully known by the One who created us — minds and all — and loved by him completely and unconditionally!

What mysteries intrigue you the most, and why? How has a mystery in life inspired you to seek an answer to a question, and led to greater faith for you as a result?

Renewing Your Mind: How Gratitude Changes Perspective

November 26th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

Soon it will be Thanksgiving here in the USA, so this week I’m focusing on how you can renew your mind simply by being thankful. Gratitude is a powerful way to change your perspective on topics that trigger negative thoughts for you right now, because when you notice elements you can be grateful for, it opens your mind to new, positive thoughts. Whether you’re struggling with negative thoughts about difficult people or challenging situations, you’re bound to find something to be grateful for about them if you intentionally look.

This Thanksgiving is a difficult one for me, because a family member has recently hurt me and other family members by making a decision that has caused lots of unnecessary pain for us all around the holidays.  Frankly, when I think about this particular family member right now, the only thoughts that come to my mind, at first, are negative. So I’ve challenged myself to figure out how to think more positively about this difficult person in my life.

What works for me, when I try to do that, is to purposefully take an inventory of anything I do like about her. For example, this family member is kind to animals. Noticing just one positive trait opens the door for me to find others, and once I’ve started a flow of positive thoughts about her, my perspective on this person gets bigger — and more accurate, since everyone and everything in this world has both negative and positive characteristics.

Who or what is triggering negative thoughts in your mind right now? This week, I challenge you to find several positive traits about that difficult person or challenging situation in your life, reflect on those traits, and see how that changes your perspective for the better. Then the next time you must deal with that person or situation, you’ll be better equipped to do so.

Renewing Your Mind: Identifying Thought Patterns to Change

November 19th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

Have you ever tried to stop yourself from thinking about something, only to find that the more you try to avoid thinking about that particular subject, the more it pops into your mind?

This counterintuitive process really hit me when I tried to give up chocolate for a 40-day period, when I was preparing for Easter by observing Lent and wanted to fast from something that had drawn my attention away from God. Prior to that, chocolate had become almost an obsession for me. I’d thought about it so much that I actually planned my daily schedule around when I could eat some chocolate, to make sure that I got my “fix” several times a day. Usually, I wasn’t even hungry when I ate the chocolate; I ate it for emotional reasons (to reward myself for hard work or to relax) rather than physical reasons. My unhealthy chocolate habit wasn’t just bad for my body; it was also bad for my mind, because my thoughts about chocolate controlled me rather than me controlling them.

So, with good intentions and all the willpower I could muster, I stopped consuming chocolate of any kind and repeatedly reminded myself not to think about it.

What a joke!

The more I reminded myself not to think about chocolate, the more mental energy I ended up using to focus on chocolate. Even though I directed my thoughts about chocolate  to be warnings against it, I was still thinking about chocolate — and more than ever before! Chocolate suddenly seemed to be everywhere around me, tempting and taunting me as I struggled not to think about it.

Then I discovered that if I didn’t remind myself not to think about chocolate, but simply used my mental energy to think about something else, chocolate thoughts started to melt away (:>) in my mind. When I saw chocolate and felt frustrated by my commitment not to eat it, I reminded myself that I’d made that commitment in order to focus on a greater goal than eating chocolate: drawing closer to God. Instead of scolding myself not to think about chocolate, I let the thoughts of chocolate that inevitably came into my mind trigger me to decide to think about God instead. By the end of the 40 days, my blood sugar levels were healthier, and so was my mind!

You can make unhealthy thoughts fade away in your mind by first identifying unhealthy thought patterns (recurring thoughts that you find yourself dwelling on despite not wanting to) and then replacing them by directing your mental energy elsewhere, to something healthy about which you do want to think.

What is one unhealthy thought pattern you’d like to change? Why is it important to you to work on changing that (because the thoughts fuel a bad habit in your life, perhaps, or because they negatively influence your relationship with someone)? What other thoughts can you replace those thoughts with that will help you grow?

Renewing Your Mind: Breathing

November 12th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

Another effective way to focus your mind when you’re distracted, besides sharpening your senses, is by using your breathing as a tool to make you more aware of your thoughts in the present moment. Just as you constantly have thoughts flowing through your mind, you have breath flowing in and out of your lungs. Paying attention to your breathing patterns during times when you want to focus on your thoughts gives you a tangible cue to connect with what’s going on in your mind at that time. Some people use breathing in this way during meditation or prayer, and the practice can lead to decreased stress and increased peace.

You’ve probably had someone tell you to “take a deep breath” sometime when you’ve been stressed; or maybe, you’ve reminded yourself to do so. I certainly have. There’s real power to change your perspective when you focus your thoughts on your breathing, because it connects you completely what you’re experiencing now, making you fully aware of it. Your thoughts can run wild, but your breathing is naturally consistent — and you can only take one breath at a time.

As you breathe in, you can focus on what thought — positive or negative — happens to be in your mind at that moment. Then, if it’s a negative thought that you’d like to change to a positive one, you can imagine yourself exhaling that negative thought. When you inhale again, you can intentionally think a positive thought to replace the negative thought you’ve exhaled. Even if you’re not trying to change your thoughts yet, but simply trying to tune into them with greater awareness, your breathing’s natural consistency can help you deal with your busy mind in a way that brings order out of chaos.

How has taking a deep breath helped you focus your mind in a stressful situation before? Do you ever use your breathing to help you meditate or pray — and if so, how has that proven helpful for you?

Renewing Your Mind: Sharpening Your Senses

November 5th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

An especially fun way to sharpen your focus on your thoughts is by sharpening your senses. Training yourself to pay careful attention to your physical senses — the classic ones like seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, as well as others such as temperature and motion — makes you more aware of the information that your experiences are giving you. Just as living fully in each present moment helps you wake up your mind, so does sensing the world around you as fully as possible. The external stimuli you experience can enliven your internal thoughts.

I practiced this at the famous floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Holland):

* Seeing: A crush of color — from bright yellow and vibrant red to pale pink and soothing lavender — met my eyes as I walked among the flowers. Holland’s signature flower, the tulip, was in abundant supply, and so were many other varieties of flowers, like daffodils and roses. Each had its own distinctive shape. Then there were large bins of brown bulbs with future flowers inside, waiting to burst out in all their glory after planting. There were other products spilling out of the market’s stalls, too, such as seeds, wind chimes, wooden flowers, magnets, candy, and cheese. Finally, I saw a crush of people as we all tried to navigate the stall’s narrow aisles without bumping into each other.

* Hearing: I overheard conversations happening around me in a variety of different languages — Dutch, English, German, French, and Spanish — punctuated by the sounds of bicycles and trams going past on the streets nearby and boats traveling past on the nearby canal.

* Smelling: The fresh scent of flowers was everywhere, of course. I also experienced the aroma of the Gouda cheese I bought and ate at the market, as well as the pungent scent of the canal water that wafted up to the market’s stalls in the breeze.

* Touching: From soft flower petals and squishy cheese to hard magnets and rough flower bulbs, there was a wide array of different types of touch to experience at the Bloemenmarkt.

* Tasting: As I snacked on Gouda cheese, I savored its creamy taste. Then I washed it down by finishing the clear, refreshing spring water in a bottle I had carried with me.

This week, I’d like to challenge you to visit a place that makes your senses come alive and spend some time there paying full attention to what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste there. Take notes on what you experience with your senses, describing the details and considering how that awareness makes you more aware of the thoughts in your mind.

Renewing Your Mind: In the Present Moment

October 29th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

How often do you find yourself distracted from fully experiencing the present moments of your life because you’re busy thinking about the past or the future instead? A key part of the foundation of renewing your mind involves living in the present — waking up to what’s happening inside of you and in the world around you, moment by moment.

I’ve sometimes struggled with too much nostalgia for the past, especially when something triggers grief about one of my loved ones who has died. Memories of my late mom and others I knew well before they passed away can easily overtake my present moments and lead me to yearn to be with them again.

More often, though, it’s the future that distracts me from thinking about the present. As a person who loves to plan, I’m constantly planning ideas for future projects I’d like to work on, future events I want to attend, future trips I hope to take, etc. My mind is so often immersed in future plans that I have to remind myself regularly to appreciate wherever I am and whatever I’m doing right now.

The key to successfully living in the present, for me, is embracing each moment as a simple yet profound gift from God.

That really hit home for me when I visited the Royal Observatory Greenwich in England recently. More than any other place on Earth, I believe, Greenwich offers a thought-provoking perspective on our human relationships to time and space. It’s the place where time and space are officially measured on our planet. The observatory there keeps Earth’s official time, and the prime meridian (the 0 degree longitude line that measures distances heading east and west) runs straight through the observatory’s grounds.

After touring the observatory and the nearby maritime museum to learn how people have measured time and space throughout history, I was struck by the fact that everyone who has ever lived seems to be compelled to try to master time in some way. Yet none of the cleverest gadgets (from ancient sundials to current GPS satellite atomic clocks that can accurately measure nanoseconds) or the most brilliant ways of managing time can change the fact that we all have a finite amount of time — and none of us can predict when our earthly lifetimes will end.

The best that any of us can do to gain mastery over time is to fully appreciate every moment of it. Whenever we do, we renew our minds by waking ourselves up to whatever we should focus on right now.

How do thoughts about the past or future distract you from living in the present? What could you do to start living more in the present — fully aware and appreciative of each moment you experience?

Renewing Your Mind: Paying Attention

October 22nd, 2014 by whitneyhopler

So many different thoughts dance through our minds constantly that we have to make a concerted effort to pay attention to what’s really happening — both inside our minds and in the world around us — to make sense of it all. Becoming more aware of our own thoughts and experiences in each present moment is the goal of the mindfulness movement, which has been gaining popularity here in the USA lately. It also plays a key role in renewing our minds, since we have to identify what we’re really thinking before we can figure out how to change our thoughts for the better.

As a chronic daydreamer whose mind often wanders, I know what a challenge it can be to focus on fully experiencing each moment as it comes. The mindfulness process is simple. Yet mindfulness can be daunting to actually practice in our culture, which constantly overloads us with information and stimulation, training our minds to be perpetually distracted.

Visiting the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia helped me understand what the process of paying attention should involve. There, the world’s largest moving telescope (the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope) measures radio waves – which are invisible to human eyes – that travel to Earth from objects in space (from planets and comets to galaxies and quasars). Astronomers from all over the world use the telescope’s data to learn more about what’s happening in space, from areas nearby our planet to locations that are billions of light years away. Some of the experiments even delve into the search for extraterrestrial life.

As NRAO scientists tune into signals from space, they follow the same basic steps that we can all take when trying to tune into the thoughts in our minds:

1. Open yourself up to receiving new insights. Just as radio telescopes open wide toward the sky to receive signals that result in new scientific data, you can open your mind to learn something new in each moment. Making an intentional decision to learn more about the thoughts and feelings you experience will help you start noticing much more than you would otherwise.

2. Eliminate distractions. The NRAO is surrounded by the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone, which is designed to minimize radio signal interference. People often lose cell phone service in the quiet zone, and many radio stations don’t work in the area. It’s all so that the telescopes can pick up space signals without the distractions of earthbound signals getting in the way. By incorporating the disciplines of solitude and silence into your life on a regular basis, you can eliminate distractions in your own life, creating your own personal “quiet zone” that will help you tune into your thoughts.

3. Listen carefully. NRAO scientists were often moving their telescopes around, adjusting them to the best positions to receive different types of signals for various experiments. You can adjust your mind by reflecting on your thoughts regularly and listening to their messages carefully.

What challenges do you face when trying to pay attention to your thoughts? How could it help you to focus better if you expected to learn something new each time you’re fully engaged in a present moment? Do you practice mindfulness — and if so, how?

Renewing Your Mind: Who Do You Think You Are?

October 15th, 2014 by whitneyhopler

It was a just a brief comment, but it made a major impact on my life.

“You’re a gifted writer,” my 5th grade teacher told me after reading a poem I’d written for her class. As a shy girl who often felt awkward, I latched onto the teacher’s encouragement, hoping that it was really true, because it if it was, it would be a lot better than other comments people had made about me: I’d been called a “dork” (because of the bifocal glasses I wore) who was the “new kid” in school after moving and seemed “stuck up” because I was too quiet for some of the other kids to like me. Then there were the negative comments I made about myself through my inner voice, as an insecure child of divorce who secretly wondered if I’d done something wrong to cause my parents to break up their marriage and rip apart my world.

That one new, positive way to view myself planted seeds of confidence that grew over the years. I was still a shy, awkward person, but that wasn’t all I was. I was also a good writer, I told myself, and by reminding myself of something positive in me I started to notice other positive aspects of myself. Finally, as a teenager, I came to faith and discovered my true identity as one of God’s beloved children. Then I really knew who I was, and my confidence was secure as a result.

Your success is in the vital effort to renew your mind depends on having the confidence to do so. In order to have confidence, you have to discover who you are — and like that person!

Many different people speak into your life in various ways every day: friends, family members, coworkers, etc. They may either like or dislike you, and their words may either encourage or discourage you. But they don’t know you completely. Other people see only a portion of who you truly are at any given moment. Others will sometimes misunderstand or mistreat you. Their perspective on you is incomplete and sometimes inaccurate, and their motives and emotions can be skewed.

So don’t let other people tell you who you are. Tell yourself who you are. Then you can live from the secure foundation of that identity, which will lead to the kind of life you really want to live!

Who do you think you are, and why? Are you basing your identity on what other people say about you, or on what you’ve discovered about yourself?