Change Your Brain, Change Your Health
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Ps 8:4)
God is mindful of us. And when he created us in His image as the masterpiece of his creation – the greatest miracle in the universe – he gave us three things that no other creature on the planet has: free will, reason, and a heart capable of love. To the extent that our fitness incorporates these three uniquely human gifts, we could see that it’s a uniquely human fitness. Our goal is to make them a part of every program we form.
Let’s start with the brain and our ability to reason and will things. A fundamental part of turning action into activprayer is the process of dedicating it to an intention greater that self. Why is that so powerful? From a strictly scientific point of view, dedicating an action to something or someone outside of ourselves involves doing something that no animal in the world can do: we override our animal instinct to simply “do what we want to do” and we make a free, rational choice to dedicate our action to an intention outside of ourselves. We have the freedom to do that. The part of the brain responsible for doing those things is the pre-frontal cortex: the uniquely human part of the brain that we share with no other creature in the universe. That’s a human way of acting!
When we ran a scientific study on the campus of a major U.S. university with a group of students who dedicated their actions – study periods, workouts, meals – to intentions greater than self, the initial results suggested a dramatic decrease in stress, anxiety, and depression and an increase in resilience. These students were engaging the highest part of themselves, the “spiritual” part that allowed them to reach beyond the limitations of ordinary activity and plug into the power of God by turning their actions into a form of prayer.
When we choose intentions that move our hearts, we’re also tapping into that third uniquely human gift of the heart. When all three centers of our human lives – free will, reason, and heart – are working together, the impact is powerful. All four pillars of the human person are activated: physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional.
That’s the science.
Now as Christians, we believe that the most important reason for dedicating our actions and sanctifying them is because it’s a share in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. When we unite our human sacrifices to his divine sacrifice, they’re transformed by grace and their human power becomes a divine power – to transform everything that they touch. When we truly understand this, every day, every encounter, and every action turns into an opportunity to love.
So what exactly are we saying? We’re making the bold claim that the way we run a 5k, the way we cook dinner for our spouse, and even the way we sacrifice the second piece of cake that we want to eat can be turned into a prayer in action that can literally impact other people in ways that we could never foresee.
Every action matters.
Attitude and Purpose
“But then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” (Mt 14:29)
We live in an age of information overload. I can barely check my Twitter or Facebook account without getting stressed out. It’s information vertigo. I see 1,000 posts and 1,000 opinions from people claiming that they hold the secret to my happiness. What in the world am I suppose to believe? Who am I supposed to listen to?
The voice of truth that will never lead us astray comes from the One who is the Truth: Christ. We all know from experience that it’s easier said than done, though. Peter failed, and we’ll fail sometimes too. Why can’t we just focus?
Although Peter’s walking on the water toward Christ is primarily about faith, it also has a lot to do with focus. They’re connected. When did Peter begin to sink? It was when he “saw the wind”. He apparently took his eyes off of Christ, and he began focusing on something other than Christ. Fear immediately took hold.
In the Gospel account of Peter walking toward Jesus, there’s a tangible, sensible way for Peter to stay focused: to look at Christ. When he “sees” the wind, he falters. His faith breaks down. He gets scared. It’s a very human experience: we come to know the world through our five senses, and they’re important in all that we do. Especially focusing! We know that 50% of the brain is dedicated to the visual sphere. In the Daniel Plan, “anchor images” are recommended as one way to honor the role that the sense of sight plays in our day-to-day lives . The Daniel Plan has an extraordinarily deep understanding of human nature.
One tool that we’ve developed and continue to perfect in the activprayer community is a wristband that allows people to write a key word, name, or phrase on it with a dry-erase marker in order to anchor certain daily goals or intentions in our minds. Because we know how easy it is to lose focus, we’ve found that a visual aid before our eyes is a powerful way to renew our minds and begin to form behaviors that we’d like to become habits. The act of physically writing a word and the act of making that word incarnate in our daily life leads to inspired action.
These activWords, as we call them, acknowledge that change is a step-by-step process. Focusing on one simple thing each day – even if it’s the same thing every day for a month – develops the habit of taking our wellness journey one day at a time. There’s no way to fail. As with any prayer, the only prayer that fails is the prayer that we didn’t make. God always listens. The same is true for dedicating our actions, our days, and our bodies. When we dedicate inspired action to an intention greater than self and then act to the best of our ability, the activprayer is created. It’s born, and it never dies. It doesn’t matter if you gain a pound this week or fail to reach all of your goals: your inspired actions – each and every one of them – matter. There’s a deep sense of fulfillment and joy in knowing that you dedicated the best of yourself to someone or something freely and willingly. And before you know it, you’ll find that you’ve arrived at a destination far beyond the one you originally set out for. Dream, and your dreams will short.
Action As Prayer
“Pray continually…” (1 Thess 5:17)
At the heart of activprayer is the fundamental belief that action can be prayer. Not just any action, but inspired action: action dedicated, action done to the best of our human ability with diligence and love, and action that glorifies God down to the tiniest detail. The revelation that sparked a movement is this: “pray continually” does not mean that we need to become a hermit or a monk or try to say Our Fathers while we’re doing a plank in the gym, but that the why and way we perform an action can itself be a form of prayer. It’s a game changer.
This requires focus. The focus, though, is not always immediately God. In other words, we aren’t expected to be thinking about God at every moment of the day. As awesome as it would be, it’s not humanly possible. That’s what we’ll do in heaven! And it’ll be beyond anything we can imagine. On earth, we can still pray continually, though. We must. The Holy Spirit, through St. Paul, tells us to.
There’s a simple way: we can focus on God in and through our actions by dedicating them to an intention greater than self and then doing them in such a way that our prayer is expressed in the action. We are in essence saying this:
“Lord, I love you. I’m going to glorify you by dedicating this next hour of work to you and to your daughter, and my wife, Gail. I’m going to pour myself out and use the gifts you gave me to make these phones calls, to run these errands, and to pick my daughter up from school with as much love and care as I’m humanly capable of. I ask for the grace to smile, to listen, and to act with excellence that radiates your son, Jesus Christ, who did ‘all things well’. I offer you this time and this action as my prayer – an act of prayer.”
In doing this, your focus is on God. But through your dedication, you’re making a promise and offering God the focus that you put into your action as that focus. And we believe, though faith, that those actions offered sincerely will be heard every bit as much as the prayers that we say when we’re on our knees at the foot our or bed. Amen
It’s with this supernatural vision that we can truly begin a life-changing journey on the Daniel Plan. It’s our sincere hope that these words might lead you to take the inspired actions that only you know you’re called to take. There’s something sacred in every act that expresses the mystery hidden within: it bears the marks of Christ. In Him, the Word took flesh. May you not allow these words to stay on this page!