FORT COLLINS, Colo. – A professor at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross posed Colorado State University students a moral challenge during an Aug. 28 presentation: To live their lives as the story they want to tell.
On the Feast of St. Augustine, Father Robert Gahl, a priest of the prelature of Opus Dei, gave a talk on “Freedom vs. Addiction” to more than 100 students on the CSU campus. He invoked Augustine by bringing up, among other points, the ideas of Book XI of the saint’s “Confessions,” which says each person’s life is a story.
“[Our] whole lives have the structure of a story,” said Father Gahl. “There are some lives ... that don’t have any plot and they don’t really go anywhere. Those lives don’t have much meaning and they’re not really happy.
“If you are the main character, the hero of the story which is your life, what kind of story would you like to live? Would you like to live a horror or would you like to live a tragedy or would you like to live a comedy? ... How about the story that ends in ‘and they lived happily ever after?’”
The Milwaukee native and former Silicon Valley software guru cited sources from Aristotle to YouTube as he emphasized the importance of staying in the present moment — while keeping future goals at the forefront of the mind — as one lives one’s story.
“Remember, mindfulness is being present to ourselves ... knowing what our goals are and directing our emotions in such a way they’re in accord with achieving those goals,” he said.
“Mindfulness is all about structuring our own emotions such that we can delay gratification so that we can get something higher.”
Choosing the Higher Good
Mindfulness isn’t always easy to achieve, however. We worry about the future, ruminate on the past, and are vulnerable to addictions ranging from chronic smartphone use to drug and alcohol abuse. But we can strive to improve, constantly re-creating ourselves and strengthening our powers of mindfulness, said Father Gahl.
“One of the fathers of the Church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, says that in some way we are the parents of ourselves. Each of us, we are the mother and father of ourselves,” he said. “We give birth to ourselves through our actions. We shape ourselves.”
Most addictions, he added, are in a way a matter of choice, a decision about what activity would have the most meaning and virtue at any given moment. And using diagrams of the brain — showing the decision-making prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the center for emotions — the priest went on to explain how to manage the cravings that are at the core of addiction.
“[A] good way to overcome [a craving] is to activate the front part of the brain — not in the sense that it totally eliminates” the craving, he added, but that it helps to control it. For example, he said, a heroin addict experiencing a craving for the drug could diminish that craving by activating the pre-frontal cortex in an activity like counting to 100.
“The capacity for delayed gratification is a manifestation of the state in which we are able to control our cravings, control our desires of all kinds in view of achieving some higher good in the future that we don’t have now,” Father Gahl said.
Freedom from Addiction
Father Gahl went on to discuss various tools people can use to improve their mindfulness and control their addictions, from cognitive behavioral therapies to pharmacological interventions.
His presentation included information about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a psychological intervention that helps patients to see their unhealthy thought patterns and modify them into healthier patterns. And he highlighted the use of Naltrexone, an opiate antagonist used to help people fighting drug or sexual addictions, and the antibiotic d-cycloserine, used to treat phobias and addictions.
For CSU philosophy student Sean Brown, 29, who attended the talk, Father Gahl’s presentation provided tips for refocusing the brain when distractions come.
“When we have that trigger that starts our craving and we do something to kind of reignite the frontal cortex, that [animalistic crave] will die inside of us,” Brown said. “That’s a really helpful hint to get the on brain on fire — doing accounting, doing math homework, something strategizing, thinking about tomorrow, anything that gets you out of that animalistic behavior.”
Brown also appreciated the priest’s explanation of drugs like naltrexone and d-cycloserine, which the student saw as a “gift” and an important tool, analogous to crutches for a broken leg, that “scientists put forward to help people who are really sick, where will-power isn’t enough, and brain chemistry can be helped.”
For CSU forestry student Sean Walker, 24, the concept of distracting oneself from harmful desires resonated strongly. “Your brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so when you think about something other than your addiction you will think about your addiction less,” he said.
Making that choice, of focusing on writing the story that we want to live, is true freedom, said Father Gahl. We exercise that freedom when we decide to sacrifice pleasures of the present moment in the effort to achieve a future goal.
“When you’re studying, very often it’s hard, you get tired, you get sleepy, but you are cognizant and exercising delayed gratification for some higher good in the future,” the priest said, using an example his college student audience could identify with.
“By being mindful and present to ourselves we’re able to coordinate and shape our own desires. ....[We] shape ourselves through our actions.”
Register correspondent Anna Maria Basquez writes from Denver.