Mindfulness-based pastoral care

The situation of late modern society is often described with the characteristic of “respiritualization”  (Matthias Horx), desecularization (Peter L. Berger), or as the re-enchantment of the world (Ulrich Beck), in contrast to the secularization of society in modernity. Instead of predictions that modernization processes such as industrialization, urbanization, individualization, and cultural pluralization led to the marginalization of religion, it is now observed that religious beliefs and practices remain compatible with modernity and can even become a source of modernity and clairvoyants.

Respiritualization led to new therapeutic approaches, among other things. In addition to many scientifically vague methods, the so-called mindfulness-based therapies with their scientific justification stand out. For a contemporary Protestant pastoral care with a scientific profile it is indispensable to enter into a dialogue with these therapy procedures and to develop an independent, profiled answer.

This is to be undertaken in the following in two steps. First , the neuroscientific background of the mindfulness-based therapy approaches is described. Subsequently, the therapy approach “Mindfulnes Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) and its work with Far Eastern spiritual exercises are presented as examples. MBSR is only one of many spiritually based therapeutic methods of postmodernism. Renaud van Quekelberghe, Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at the University of Koblenz-Landau, published an overview of currently important methods in his manual “Grundzüge der Spirituellen Psychotherapie” in 2007.

MBSR is exemplarily well suited due to its scientific character and because further mindfulness-based therapy approaches have been derived from it. The Mindfulnes Based methods and the numerous other therapies with spiritual approaches challenge pastoral care to create its own contemporary spiritual profile and at the same time to proceed in a scientifically sound manner. In postmodern times, it has become increasingly common for people to work with spiritual exercises for self-clarification, personality development and therapeutic purposes.

Neuroscientific Background: Neuroplasticity

The mindfulness-based therapies were developed in close dialogue with neuroscientific research. In the following, I present the basic neuroscientific discovery for these procedures: Neuroplasticity.

Neuronal plasticity is the ability of synapses, nerve cells or entire brain areas to change their anatomy and function in order to improve ongoing processes. In specific areas, synaptic plasticity or cortical plasticity are used. The brain changes for the rest of one’s life. It is not permanently programmed by a period of life such as childhood, but remains a dynamic organ. It is mainly changed by the form of the user’s attention. Something inconspicuous like the thoughts of the “user”, his everyday actions and feelings constantly shape the structures and functions of the brain. Due to its dynamics, the brain can be more appropriately compared with a plant than with a machine or a computer.

The psychologist Daniel Goleman corrects outdated basic assumptions of neuroscience: “For a century, the prevailing dogma of neuroscience was that the brain forms in early childhood and does not change later”.  With the departure from the machine or computer paradigm of the brain, new therapeutic approaches have emerged that aim to initiate specific neuroplastic processes.

The decisive breakthrough in proving the lifelong neuroplasticity of the brain was achieved by imaging examination methods such as MRT and by methods such as EEG, which reflect more strongly temporal processes. They show how quickly and in the long term the brain can reorganise itself.  In the meantime it has been proven: Not only the child’s brain, but also the brain of an adult can generate new nerve cells and new connections throughout life. “They move to where they are needed and where they fit into existing brain circuits or even form the basis for a new circuit.  Even at an advanced age, the brain enlarges functional areas after a short time, which are strongly challenged such as the sense of hearing and touch, for example when learning an instrument.

The brain can also shut down circuits for pathological reactions. Depending on what a person thinks, feels intensively or does frequently, he or she enlarges or reduces certain brain areas. For frequently performed functions, the brain provides more tissue and limits the area responsible for activities that are performed less frequently.

The US neuroscientist Richard Davidson describes the consequences of the discovery of lifelong neuroplasticity and the dynamic view of the brain as revolutionary for therapeutic approaches: “I am convinced that psychology will be turned upside down by neuroplasticity in the coming years.  Davidson continues: “Current psychology is largely based on the notion that the brain runs immutable programs that determine behavior, personality, and emotional states. This view has been deeply shaken by the discoveries of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity will counterbalance the deterministic view (that genes determine behavior). The message I take from my own work is that I have the choice of how I react. Who I am depends on the choices I make. I myself am responsible for who I am.”  The Professor of Neuroscience Michael M. Merzenich at the University of California stated as early as 1996: “We decide in a very real sense who we will be in the next moment, and these decisions leave us with a physical imprint.

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