In our present time and culture it is easy to undernourish our minds. So many of our pursuits involve entertaining but generally unenlightening pastimes. It’s the mental equivalent of high-calorie, low-nutrition food.
But our intellects are meant for more than french fries, and ultimately such fare is unsatisfying. Here are three things I’ve found helpful in nourishing the mind.
1. Challenge yourself with books
Reading is one of the most effective ways to begin. Start with the books you like, but put a twist on it. If you like theology, read a book on an area of the discipline that is new to you, or try an author from another time period or tradition as your own. The point is to encounter something you already enjoy from a different vintage or vantage.
You might also try different genres entirely. If you’ve thought of reading a certain novelist or poet before but never followed through, use this as the excuse to do so. One year I read a lot of Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, and Mario Vargas Llosa because I’d always been meaning to. Ideas I encountered in those books that year still enrich me today.
Time-honored wisdom dictates that you should never drink alone. Neither should you read alone. Ideas are often best explored among friends, people who will inject the conversation with reflections different from your own. You’ll be able to discover more of the elephant in a group than by yourself.
Just recently I read John Behr’s wonderful and challenging book The Mystery of Christ and then met with two friends to discuss it. I got as much out of the ensuing conversation as I did out of portions of the book itself. A good book starts conversations, and those kind of conversations can be great for nourishing your mind. And to that end . . .
2. Join (or start) a discussion groupI belong to a monthly theological discussion group that has now been meeting since 2004. The idea is pretty simple. We select a topic each month. Someone works up a paper or provides some reading on the subject and then presents on the topic. We’ve covered everything from the emerging church to the seven ecumenical councils, medical ethics, lying, angels, evolution, and the atonement.
It’s a diverse group with significantly varied opinions, so the room can get a bit warm, but everyone loves and respects each other as well. We just get together and hash it out. We rarely reach consensus, but it’s always enlightening and fun. And it’s a great venue for new thoughts and perspectives, all of which can feed the mind even if — perhaps particularly if — you don’t agree with them.
Ask around and see if you can wangle an invitation to a similar group in your area. If you can’t find one, consider getting some people together and starting your own.
3. Attend conferences and lectures
There seem to be so many conferences these days it’s hard to keep up, but the growing and diversifying number means there’s likely one you can find and benefit from. I’ve been to the Q conference once and Catalyst a few times. There is always a lot to take away from those kind of conferences — a wide range of speakers and topics sure to hit a least a few areas you’ve not explored before.
Every major town will have events at which authors and other topical experts will speak on their subjects. It could be the arts, music, spiritual growth, a reading from a new novel, whatever. Bookstores, community colleges, universities, and churches will often host such events, and they can be very enriching.
The idea in all of these is simply to expose your mind to new inputs, new thoughts, new ideas. Novelty is not the point, per se. But novelty can spur thought, and that’s what nourishes the mind. By encountering and sometimes wrestling with new ideas we stretch our minds and provide them with the raw ingredients for growth and renewal.
Bonus: Here’s an additional thing to try today, right now
Have a friend or colleague pick out your next book for you. Don’t worry what it’s about. Just ask, “Is there something you recommend I read?” And then take their answer to your favorite bookseller.