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Into the Mystic: How Christian Mystical Practices Can Connect Our Unconscious to God

Written by: on November 25, 2023

When psychology, neuroscience and spirituality connect, it’s an ultimate trifecta of interest for me. That’s exactly what Daniel Lieberman offers in his 2022 book Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind.  Dr Lieberman is a professor and vice chair for clinical affairs in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at George Washington University. He’s also a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and has published over 50 scientific reports on behavioural science. In his most recent book, he unpacks both the potential and the danger of engaging the unconscious part of the human brain.

As a self-described Christian mystic, I devoured Lieberman’s insights, using Jung as his teacher, on how the two parts of the human mind (ego and unconscious) are different, yet essential for experiencing the fullness of human life. To this point, I have struggled to articulate how Christian mystical practices are connected to psychology and neuroscience. This book provided the vocabulary and understanding I was missing. In the remainder of this blog, I will connect what I learned about the unconscious from Lieberman with two common Christian mystical practices.

A Few Definitions

Let’s level set this conversation with a few definitions. In a podcast interview about Spellbound, Dr. Lieberman defined unconscious as “all of the activity of the brain that you’re unaware of.”[1] He described ego as consciousness “because it’s the part of the mind that you’re aware of.”[2] Key differences between these two parts of the human mind include 1) ego having significantly less processing power than the unconscious 2) ego not being able to supply mental energy the way the unconscious can 3) the unconscious being responsible for the things we value most in life: love, friendship, inspiration, compassion[3] and 4) the unconscious housing  our shadow side. Throughout Spellbound, Lieberman explains how strengthening and accessing both parts of our mind together is essential to achieving individualization and eventually transcendence.

As I read through Spellbound, the parallels with Christian mystical practices were abundant. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll define Christian Mysticism via one of the most cited authors on the topic, Bernard McGinn. He defines Christian mysticism as “a special consciousness of the presence of God that by definition exceeds description and results in a transformation of the subject who receives it” [4] With these definitions in mind, let’s take a look at how the practice of Lectio Divina and breath prayer can serve as portals to access the power of human unconsciousness and the Divine Spirit of God.

Lectio Divina

Lieberman suggests certain practices that aid the human mind in accessing the power of the unconscious and integrating it with the ego such as contemplating symbols from tarot cards and mystical numbers. For some believers this may evoke feelings of fear due to association of such tools with the occult, but Christian mystics have been doing the very same thing with Holy Scripture for centuries through a practice called Lectio Divina (the Divine Reading). Rather than engaging the Bible through the ego (or rational thought), Lectio Divina invites the reader to engage with the text via the unconscious mind and the Spirit of God.  This practice involves the slow prayerful reading of text several times, not focusing on the literal meaning of the text, but on how it resonates with the reader and what images, experiences or insights it invokes.

[The] goal was not to finish a passage, but to enter prayerfully into its depths by dwelling on a sentence, a phrase, or even a word – mulling over it, ruminating on it, allowing it to sink into their being and resonate on many levels of meaning. [5]

The similarity between Lectio Divina and reading tarot cards is stunning. The only difference being the subject of what is being contemplated. In my personal experience, meditating on scripture in this manner always brings up greater connection, insight and interpretation. I now understand that is because it is engaging my subconscious in a way that a rational reading does not.

Breath Prayer

Another tool that Lieberman suggests for engaging the unconscious is meditation and mindfulness. Again, believers may be skeptical of such practices because of their association to Eastern religions, but the Bible invites us to meditate on the Word of God and be still in His presence.  Christians can receive the same benefits of traditional meditation that Liebermann describes by meditating on the Word of God or focusing on the very breath God breathed into us in creation.

Spellbound provided a deep dive into the mysterious workings of the human mind and provided me with scientific language to explain why Christian mystical practices like Lectio Divina and Breath Prayer have become such a powerful part of both my spiritual and creative development. I eagerly anticipate learning more about ways that ancient practices are more relevant than ever to unlocking the potential of human beings and connecting us ever deeper to Spirit of God.

 

[1] Simphiwe, “Ep 1 of 7: Secrets of the Unconscious Mind with Dr Daniel Z. Lieberman,” CliffCentral (blog), October 7, 2022, https://cliffcentral.com/brain-brand-show/ep-1-of-7-secrets-of-the-unconscious-mind-with-dr-daniel-z-lieberman/.

[2] Daniel Z. Lieberman MD, Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind (Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2022), 14.d

[3] Lieberman, 16.

[4] Julia A. Lamm, The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, 1. Aufl., 1, Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Religion (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 30, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118232736.

[5] Louise Nelstrop and Kevin Magill, Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches, 1st, 1st edition. ed. (London: Routledge, 2009), 131, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315571881.

About the Author

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Laura Fleetwood

Laura Fleetwood is a Christian creative, certified Enneagram Coach, doctoral student at Portland Seminary and Creative Director at her home church, Messiah St. Charles. As a published author, national faith speaker, podcaster and self-described anxiety warrior, Laura uses storytelling to teach you how to seek the S T I L L in the midst of your chaotic life. Find Laura at www.seekingthestill.com

8 responses to “Into the Mystic: How Christian Mystical Practices Can Connect Our Unconscious to God”

  1. mm Chad McSwain says:

    Hi Laura

    Great connection between Lieberman and Christian mysticism. I would be one who is working through the similarities with contemplative practices and tarot card readings. I have enjoyed practices like Lectio and the ways to “unlocks” different ways to read scripture.
    I’m curious about two things:
    1) How do you invite people into different spiritual practices when their experience is solely rational?
    2) How have you responded to those who are hesitant because of the similarities to other practices like tarot card reading?

    • I love this question, Chad. Here are my thoughts:
      1) You position it as an invitation rather than an ultimatum. I believe God created humans to experience Him in different ways. Not everyone is going to be drawn to contemplative practices, but they are options that allow you to experience the prescence of God in a new way. That’s how I would invite someone.

      2) I typically refer to verses like Psalm 46:10 and Joshua 1:8. There are plenty of scripture references to experiencing God with the heart and Spirit, not just the head. Also, there are so many Christian mystics who are wonderful guides. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Augustine of Hippo and many even include Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, John the Baptist and Paul as the earliest Christian mystics. There is actually a large portion of early Christianity that practiced this way that largely got replaced by more rational practices after the enlightenment. So I’d encourage them to look into the early leaders of the Christian faith!

  2. mm Daron George says:

    Hi Laura,

    Considering the parallels Lieberman draws between accessing the unconscious and spiritual practices, what are some specific ways you’ve experienced or observed these practices enriching not just personal spirituality, but also fostering creativity and more profound insights in everyday life?

  3. This is a wonderful question because the way I prepare myself for a creative endeavor is the same way I meditate and use breathe prayer before I begin writing or creating spoken word verse. Just like when I’m communing with God, these practices get rid of the “noise” in my head allow me to access insights and concepts that would otherwise be lost in rational thought. That’s what I love so much about these practices is that they are so versitile! I’ve also used them prior to a meeting I know will be tense or to ease my anxiety.

  4. Michael O'Neill says:

    Great post, Laura. Thank you for helping me to see the positive side of the mystic. I had heard of Lectio Divina before but never tried it. I look forward to trying it. Thank you!

  5. Michael – Let me know how it goes! This is the “How to” that I share with people who are new to the practice. https://mcgrathblog.nd.edu/how-to-practice-lectio-divina-praying-with-scripture

  6. Audrey Robinson says:

    Laura, this is an excellent deep dive into the similarities between Christian Mysticism and the psychology and neuroscience. You mentioned:
    “The similarity between Lectio Divina and reading tarot cards is stunning. The only difference being the subject of what is being contemplated.” Content is different, but how does the supernatural (spiritual realm) aspect factor into what is opening up the unconscious or providing the revelatory information?

    • Thanks for pointing out that quote, Audrey. I would now clarify it by saying, “ONE of the differences is the subject of what’s being contemplated.” Like Dr. Lieberman mentioned in the Zoom today, I think the unconscious opens doors to the Spiritual realm that the conscious does not. And we know that there are dark spirits along with Divine spirits. So, as the Bible instructs, it seems prudent to take Philippians 4:8 into account: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I chose to tune my unconscious to the Divine aspects of God and His promises, so those doors can be explored and opened. We see people who chose to tune their unconscious to the dark aspects of the spiritual world, and I think that is the content that Scripture warns of. I hope that helps clarify!

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