A Still and Quiet Mind: Twelve Strategies for Changing Unwanted Thoughts, Esther Smith. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2022. Softcover, 175 pages.
This book looked promising. After all, everybody has to deal with unwanted thoughts – so it’s relevant. And it’s published by P & R, a firm with a long track record of publishing reliable books. Now I wasn’t familiar with the author, but I was willing to give her a go.
Esther Smith is a professional counsellor, specializing in helping people with trauma, anxiety, and physical illness. She has an MA in Counselling from Liberty University and a certificate from the Christian Counselling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). The qualification from CCEF got my attention as another positive sign; I have a lot of appreciation for CCEF and the people associated with it.
Well, as you already guessed, A Still and Quiet Mind didn’t meet my expectations. I wish I could recommend it because it does have some good insights and helpful suggestions. Unfortunately, there are three significant problems preventing a positive review. I’ll briefly outline them.
The first problem has to do with something called polyvagal theory (PVT). This is a neuroscientific theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. PVT speculates that evolutionary development of the nervous system has affected how we respond to stress. As the name suggests, this theory particularly focusses on the vagus nerve and its branches. The dorsal vagus is said to be the oldest branch and it is responsible for immobilizing us when faced with a threat. The sympathetic nervous system evolved more recently and it is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. The youngest branch is the ventral vagus. This is active when we’re in a relaxed state. PVT calls this the “ventral vagal state.” One of the ways we can find the desirable ventral vagal state, according to the theory, is through body awareness techniques including mindfulness and controlled breathing.
PVT is controversial even in secular scientific circles. Some regard it as pseudo-science. According to an article from Psychology Today:
The notion that different parts of the vagal nerve and the nervous system reflect different levels of evolutionary development is strongly contested. Structures and functions that Porges identifies as more evolved are notably present in the physiology of animals such as lungfish, which show little evolutionary sophistication. There’s also quite a bit of hypothesizing going on, such as the speculation that certain reactions (freezing) are more evolutionarily primitive.
Additionally, there is little empirical evidence supporting any positive outcome from applications of PVT.
From a Christian perspective, this theory is based on assumptions that are based on the assumption that Darwinian macro-evolution is a fact.[i] That should be an immediate red-flag for any Christian who takes God at his Word when it comes to creation. Unfortunately, the end-notes of A Still and Quiet Mind indicate that Esther Smith has incorporated PVT into her strategies for changing unwanted thoughts. For example, she cites Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. Moreover, her strategies for dealing with unwanted thoughts centre on mindfulness techniques and breathing – exactly what PVT proposes. I don’t think PVT can be disentangled from Darwin, but if Smith thinks it can, it would have been helpful to have an explanation of how, at least in the endnotes.
A second significant problem has to do with contemplative spirituality.[ii] Smith favourably refers to contemplative authors Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline) and Brother Lawrence (The Practice of the Presence of God). She sometimes adopts their language of inviting God to be present with us – as if he needs our permission! But she also encourages mystical, contemplative practices, particularly breath prayers. Breath prayers incorporate the repetition of short biblical phrases – half the phrase as you inhale, and the other half as you exhale. Smith calls this meditation and she has “guided meditations” at the end of almost every chapter. Throughout these meditations, she often asks: “What do you feel?” or words to that effect. Instead, we ought to be asking, “Is it right?” Do we find breath prayers in the Bible? The answer, combined with Christ’s warning against repetition in prayer (Matt. 6:7), should make us wary. When contemplative spirituality is combined with polyvagal theory, we ought to be even more wary.
The last problem is a failure to recognize the importance of Word and Sacrament ministry in helping people change. Smith’s approach doesn’t involve the church and her worship. Instead, it’s what you do experiencing the presence of God in your own private setting, or maybe with a counsellor. However, there is only one place on earth that God promises to be present to bless his people and that’s where the Word and Sacraments are administered. Can the preaching of God’s Word on Sunday help someone to deal with unwanted thoughts? It absolutely has the power to do that. Can the celebration of the Lord’s Supper help someone in dealing with unwanted thoughts? Yes, because its multisensory approach is powerful to focus our thoughts on Christ the crucified. The more our thoughts are trained on Christ, the less we’ll struggle with those other thoughts. Esther Smith acknowledges that in A Still and Quiet Mind, but she disconnects it from the means of grace administered by the church.
Combining evolutionary pseudo-neuroscience with mysticism and omitting the means of grace leads me to say, “It’s a ‘no’ from me.” Perhaps some discerning readers might nonetheless be helped by some of what’s in A Still and Quiet Mind. But I can’t in good conscience recommend it.
Originally published in Clarion 72.8 (June 9, 2023)
[i] For a more detailed Christian critique of PVT, see “Counseling Theory Matters: Understanding and Evaluating Polyvagal Theory,” by Kyle Gangel.
[ii] For more information, see A Time of Departing: How Ancient Mystical Practices are Uniting Christians with the World’s Religions, Ray Yungen (Silverton: Lighthouse Trails Publishing Company, 2006).