John Ortberg tells a story of the “keeper of the stream” in his book Soul-keeping. The tale revolves around a little town and the stream that flowed through its center. People walked by it. Swans swam in it. Kids splashed in it. The stream was the center piece of the town. One day the town council decided they had no need for the “keeper of the stream” so he was let go. At first, no one missed his talents. Not long after though, the stream grew dirty and polluted. Soon it was intolerable, and the village suffered illness due to the stream’s uncleanliness. Seeing their folly for releasing the “stream keeper” they quickly rehired him. Almost immediately their stream and village returned to their former glory. The moral of the story? The life of a village depended on the health of the stream. The stream is your soul. And you are the keeper. If there ever was a time to care for one’s soul, it is now. We are suffering a great deal of misfortune and challenge. It is critical we tend to our souls. But how?
I am going to devote the next two or three blog posts to this topic. As I do, I will expand our focus to also include our body. The reality is that we are not separate little compartments. My body affects my soul and my soul certainly affects my body. Therefore, it is critical to consider our whole being.
For years I’ve told people to pay attention to their body because it is the “dashboard of their souls”. Just like your car’s dashboard car alerts you to what’s going on under the hood, your body is also sending you signals. Are you paying attention to them? I know someone who had a check engine light show up on their car’s dashboard. They thought it was ridiculous because the car was still running. It ran for about another 20 miles and the engine shut down. No coolant. The motor was burned up. I meet with a good number of people who are ignoring the lights on their soul’s dashboard. At some point their “motor” is likely to shut down somehow.
Here’s why this is critical. We carry stress somewhere in our bodies. Your jaw clenches tightly. Maybe your shoulders rise up. Perhaps your gut or chest gets tight. Most everyone will hold their breath or take short, minimal breaths. These signals scream to your brain, “We’re under siege!” Immediately your nervous system readies for fight or flight. That means our best brain gives way to our amygdala, which possesses no capacity for reasoning or processing. Your body is sounding the alarm to move!!! Therefore, this is not your best time to ponder the meaning of life. Picture the squirrel in the middle of the road panicking as your car approaches. That’s what you and I when we are in this state. So, what can we do to bring our best brain back? Settle our bodies down. If you note the places of tension and intentionally relax them your body will gear down. It’s also important to take some deep, relaxed breaths signaling to your body and brain “Hey, we’re OK here.”
If we fail to pay attention to our dashboard, our body and soul wears down. We find it difficult to think clearly and to connect with God well. Hope and joy can seem like distant friends. Often the answer is to first help our bodies be still. In Psalm 46 this call to be still comes right in the midst of utter chaos. The author writes: (v. 6) “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.” Shortly thereafter his counsel is to, “be still”. Incredibly wise. Be still. Quiet your body and you still your soul.
Here’s some practices to focus on:
- Pay attention to what your body is doing and where tension is landing.
- Relax those tense areas and focus on breathing deeply and freely.
- When stress hormones hit our blood stream, they are designed to get us moving. If we do not do some focused exercise each day, we allow those chemicals to keep firing our nervous system. This accentuates the jitteriness we feel when stressed. You need about 20 minutes of focused exertion (anaerobic or aerobic: walking, cycling, weight-lifting, etc.) to help metabolize those hormones properly.
- Additionally, with all the screen use we’re enlisting be sure to rest your brain and eyes. Do the 20-20-20. Every twenty minutes stand up and move around for at least 20 seconds and before you return to the screen look 20 feet away (it helps your eyes reset)
- Lastly do your best to sleep, drink water and eat well. Our bodies really are a temple (1 Cor. 6.19).
Part two: Soul keeping practices.