Cultivating an Unbroken Mind

Thanks to Laura Hildebrand’s Unbroken, the story of Olympic runner and WWII veteran Louie Zamperini has become famous in the modern world. Since the book has been made into a movie, a wide range of audiences have had the pleasure of watching Louie go through many trials of war and have found themselves hoping for his return to the track. Currently, I am somewhere in the middle of the book, and I haven’t seen the movie. So no spoiler alert here, I don’t have enough information yet.

While the sheer quantity and intensity of the trials Louie endures throughout the story are shocking, the thing that floored me, that caused me to close the book and just sit, was the idea that Louie and Phil (his fellow cast-away) survived not only because they managed to find food and water, but because they didn’t let their minds atrophy.

Louie knew that more than just physically rotting in the elements, he and his men were in danger of losing control of their minds, of going insane from hours spent doing nothing but floating. His solution, was to quiz Phil. And Phil quizzed him. They shared memories with each other in excruciating detail, down to the ingredients in the recipes involved. It was by exercising their brains that Louie and Phil were able to keep themselves lucid.

Even more interesting was the idea that as they continued floating, quizzing, and thinking, Louie realized how loud civilized life can be. After days of only conversation, and presumably the lapping of water against his raft, Louie recognized he was able to move deeper into his mind than he ever had been before. He intentionally tried to recall his earliest memory, and found himself able to dredge up a memory of a dog he hadn’t previously been able to recollect. 

Our minds have been given to us so that we might come to know ourselves, and the world around us, which makes up a crucial part of coming to know God. Much of modern culture, however, perhaps more than it encourages physical laziness, often encourages mental laziness. The entertainment industry is largely about providing ways to pass the time with minimal mental exertion. Intellectual pursuits are often considered either boring or haughty. Of course, these are generalizations, but they are not without their basis. In order to properly serve it’s function, I think our minds need two things, exercise and contemplative rest.

Exercise: This one seems pretty self-explanatory. When you don’t use your brain, it atrophies. I’m not a psychologist or neurosurgeon, but I would venture to say that when you don’t use different parts of your brain, those parts atrophy. If you don’t read, you are going to find it more difficult to pick up important plot points and symbols in a novel (which means you might miss not only the enjoyment of a well written book, but also the point). If you don’t think about the physics of the world, you lose a sense of how the world works, and you miss the beauty that is written into the very structure of everything around you. If you don’t think about God, it becomes impossible to know Him. Now, I am not calling for a strict quizzing regiment to be implemented in your daily routine, but rather, calling you to learn about new things. There are plenty of books on economics written for those who aren’t fans of numbers, as well as biographies on people from various times and places (here’s another plug for Unbroken if you haven’t read it already). There is a wealth of classical literature that touches on politics, philosophy, and history. There are books on physics that don’t require a knack for mathematics. Reading isn’t the only way to expand your mind and give it the exercise it needs. Learning a new language, crosswords and other puzzles, writing, or coming up with science experiments to do with the kids down the street all provide your brain with the activity it needs to keep growing.

Contemplative Rest: There is very little to dispute the fact that our brains need rest…that’s why we sleep. We also, however, need to take the time to absorb everything we are putting into our minds. Supposedly, when we sleep, our brains organize and store information taken in throughout the day. We, in order to re-access that information, need the learn how to navigate our brains storage system. This means we need time to think, not about new things, but about things we have already learned. In doing so, we become better masters of our own minds, and are better able to find information when we need it. This is also how we can evaluate the information we have absorbed, allowing the truth to inform our daily living, and the false to be consciously rejected. I know this is probably a given, but it deserves mentioning that this does not happen in front of a screen. When we are in front of a screen we are not giving our brains a break, rather, we are putting our brain on auto-pilot, leaving it to process and store information without our being aware of where it goes or what it is worth. We aren’t resting our brains; we are distracting them. Contemplative rest happens in quiet, when we aren’t trying to take in new information, and we can focus on exploring the facts and ideas already taken in and creating connections between them. You don’t need to sit cross-legged in an empty room, but taking some time each day to sit somewhere peaceful without your phone, or your computer, or even a book in your hands gives you the chance to explore what you have learned. Here, is where you can begin to see the depth of beauty in things around you, and each one’s unique ability to point you to God.

Your mind is a beautiful thing. Your mind can bring new depth to your understanding of God. Your mind can also deteriorate, and these tasks can become more and more difficult. It is incredibly easy to rest in a place where your mind gets you through your daily tasks and then finds respite in distractions. This, however, is not living, but existing, and I would beg you, my friends, not to let your minds fall into this state.