In my previous post, I wrote about how Dallas Willard has classified spiritual disciplines as either being about engagement or abstinence. Here I want to discuss some of the science behind this idea. By the way, at the end you will understand why I bother to discuss this somewhat technical topic.
The idea that spiritual disciplines can be about either pursuing engagement or about refraining from behaviors has a corollary in neuroscience. There has been growing recognition that the “systems” in the brain, which are just areas of the brain devoted to certain tasks, are organized around two tasks, (1) approaching rewards and (2) avoiding threats. The brain system involved in pursuing incentives and goals has been called the Behavioral Activation System (BAS). This system is like the gas pedal of our behavior, it is what drives us to pursue a life worth living. The spiritual disciplines of engagement are ways we can strengthen this system and help us to focus on the rewards that come from living a Godly life.
In regards to the spiritual disciplines of abstinence, there are actually two systems that are relevant. The first is called Behavioral Inhibition System and the second is called the Effortful Control system. The Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) is one type of brake pedal but it is not the ideal one for most situations. The BIS is essentially a fear-based system. Imagine walking up to a cliff. The BAS says “Look at the great view!” while the BIS says “Stay back from the dangerous cliff!” This warning system from the BIS works fine on occasion but being anxious is not a great way to live. Fortunately, the Effortful Control system is another way we can stop our behaviors. This system essentially allows us to be thoughtful and say “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” It is what keeps us from making bad decisions, from focusing only on pleasure, and helps us manage our anxiety. We build up our Effortful Control through the disciplines of abstinence.
To sum it up a little more simply:
1) Behavioral Approach System – keeps us engaged in the world
2) Behavioral Inhibition System – keeps us safe by making us feel fear and anxiety
3) Effortful Control – keeps us safe by letting us thoughtfully consider what is the right action to take
Why discuss neuroscience on a blog about counseling? It’s because I believe that these findings have a direct impact on our lives in two distinct ways. The first lesson is that we need to know that engaging and abstaining are not just two sides of the same coin. We need to learn how to engage with God and others and we need to learn how to abstain from unhealthy behaviors. The second lesson is that we do not need anxiety in order to save us from bad behavior. We do not need to have constant vigilance about making a wrong decision in order to make sure we “behave well.” Instead, if we build up our Effortful Control, we can learn to control our behavior by being thoughtful and self-restrained.