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Three Practical Ways to Modify Type A Behavior: Eating, Talking, and Thinking

December 16, 2013

Throughout this long series, we’ve been discussing how chronic Type A behavior is not a healthy behavioral pattern physically, psychologically or spiritually. The outline for this behavior should now be clear and crisp in the reader’s mind. We’ve seen where changes in orienting beliefs are necessary and where monitoring self can be helpful. It’s now time to turn our attention to some small and simple, yet also concrete and practical, steps that someone with Type A tendencies can take in order to change this way of relating to the world and others.

In their work, “Reducing Type A Behavior Patterns,” Bracke and Thoresen outline what they call “daily drills” that can be practiced as a way to minimize Type A behavior and impulses.  The first concerns how we approach meals and the daily ritual of eating.  Rather than eating quickly in order to move on to what is perceived as more important occupations, the Type A individual can practice eating slowly.  If the Type A person takes meals with others and focuses on eating slowly while engaging in conversation with family members during mealtime as an alternative to “eating on the run” or dismissing meal time as a waste of time, sharing a meal, including breakfast, with family members should help to minimize the desire to eat quickly so as to move on to work.  This may require scheduling times for meals and blocking out time on the calendar for such important activities.  In this scenario, the simple act of consuming food becomes what it should be—a communal event that includes sharing and communicating with loved ones.  Undoubtedly, it will require focused attention on the conversation and the act of enjoying the meal while at the same time warding off those thoughts that urge us on to other activities.

Christians should know full well how important meals are. Saint Hilary of Poitier notes, “in the Passover supper our Lord completely signified the whole mystery of His Passion and our faith” (On the Trinity, Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 3.06.40 PMbook X). This could never have taken place in a rushed context. Saint Athanasios the Great, moreover, notes that only one “disciple” was in a hurry to leave the dinner and attend to other matters: Judas the betrayer and deceiver (Letter 7). The widespread practice throughout all of Christendom of saying grace before meals is there for a reason. It slows one down and shifts one’s attention from earth to heaven before beginning to eat. Saint John Chrysostom notes that in multiplying the loaves Christ taught us “not to touch a meal, until we have given thanks to Him who gives us this food” (Homily on Matthew 49). Orthodox Christians traditionally pray before eating, after eating, and in the case of monks, during the meal through attentive listening to the readings.  All of these Christian traditions about eating can strengthen and deepen the practice of eating slowly to offset Type A tendencies.

A second drill suggested by Bracke and Thoresen involves admitting the possibility that you could be wrong in communicating with others.  This has a two-fold effect: first, it disarms the hostility that may be engendered by a differing opinion.  It also provides an opportunity to practice a little humility, vocalizing the fact that you don’t always have all the answers to a problem. This too is a practice that harmonizes beautifully with the Christian faith. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I referred to the Elder Paisios’s advice to nuns: “Is everything really the way it appears to you? Always put a question mark after every thought, since you usually look at things with a negative slant…If you put two question marks it is better. If you put three, it is better still.” There is a wealth of patristic passages that can support this admission that we don’t always see things clearly or communicate properly. Saying this out loud—“I may be wrong, I may be terribly wrong, I may be completely wrong”—can be a great help in humbling our pride.

A third practice offered by the authors involves taking time to reflect upon positive achievements that have been made during the day.  Surely, this will engender a spirit of gratitude for the positive results as well as a spirit of serenity and well-being. Of course, this should lead not to self-satisfaction, but gratitude to God for all things good and bad.  Saint John Chrysostom calls thanksgiving “a great treasure, an immense wealth, a good that cannot be taken away, and a powerful weapon” (Homily 1 on the Statues). Elsewhere the Saint notes that we cannot possibly serve God “without a sense of gratitude to Him for all things, both for our trials and their resolution. That is, let us utter nothing hasty, nothing disrespectful, but let us humble ourselves that we may be reverential. For this is ‘with reverence and godly fear.’” (Homily on Hebrews 33).

All of these positive activities can help an individual to slow down, to experience the present moment in a new way, and come to a new perspective. If these activities are all oriented towards God through prayer, humility, and thanksgiving, a beautiful change in the soul can occur. In fact, when placed in the context of one’s relationship with God these practices can lead not just to secular mindfulness, but to Christian watchfulness. In Ancient Christian Wisdom I refer to this concept in writing, “For the ancient ascetics, watchfulness, like true philosophy, is the ‘science of sciences and the art of arts’.  They liken it to Jacob’s ladder extending up into the heavens and a pathway leading to the kingdom within, where the believer encounters ‘a spiritual world of God, splendid and vast, wrought from moral, natural, and theological forms of contemplation (theoria).  The fathers refer to watchfulness as ‘stillness of heart, . . . attentiveness, . . . guarding the heart, . . . watchfulness and rebuttal, . . . the investigation of the thoughts and guarding of the intellect.”

These drills counsel a focused concentration on the here and now rather than the frantic chasing after one thought and than another that characterizes Type A behavior.  Of course, a daily prayer rule is an indispensable component in this transition from Type A behavior to a thoughtful, purposeful approach to life.  Yet, in this attempt at a new life, one does not need to “go it alone” or perform these drills through sheer will or human intellect.  Rather, the Christian can allow each new activity to be guided and assisted by the power and grace of God who sustains all things, including each of us.

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