Seeking truth and beauty

On our journey to better health and wellness, the spiritual dimension can be like the elephant in the room. We know somehow that it is important, but talking about it and figuring out what it means can be uncomfortable. So we avoid it as long as we can, before realizing that a fit body and mind only go so far if your spiritual health is struggling.

What is spiritual wellness? Every definition stresses that it is personal and individual. No one can create a mold for spiritual wellness and fit you into it. It involves your values and beliefs, the meaning you attach to life events and your existence, your sense of purpose in life. But some general components of spiritual wellness include having and demonstrating some purpose, the ability to be compassionate to others, the ability to forgive, the ability to spend solitary time in reflection, and aiming for a certain harmony about your relationship to the world. One of the things that make people squirmy about spirituality is confusing it with religious practice. But while religion certainly encompasses a sense of spirituality, the inverse is not true. Spirituality does not have to include any religious belief.

When we write goals for wellness, we can include spiritual values and goals as part of the overall plan, as John Evans suggests in Wellness and Writing Connections. He also proposes affirming spiritual wellness by writing “notes to yourself when you notice beauty, truth, peace, hope, courage, kindness, love, compassion.” These notes can be an antidote to our daily dose of stories about conflict, violence and hate. Writing them down helps us to remember them, and gives us something to return to repeatedly for spiritual nourishment.  A few months ago, for instance, I wrote myself a note about a 10-year-old boy who was learning how to grow a garden. He told a newspaper reporter that, “You give it love and care like you would a baby. You feed and water it.” I often like to let my mind rest on that child’s simple message of truth and love.IMG_0121

I also wrote myself a note when I read And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. He included part of a poem by the 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi that goes like this:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

Here too, I find truth and beauty that resonate with each reading.

Author Gail Radley writes that “Human beings are meaning-makers,” but “to make meaning and find purpose, we must expand our vision [by] stepping into the realm of spirituality, into belief in something larger than ourselves.” Stepping into the realm of spirituality means sensing unity with other people, with other creatures, and with nature, and seeing your connection to the larger environment. It means meeting the world from that inner soulful place that is your best self. That’s the place from which we say “Namaste” at the end of a yoga practice. It translates to something like, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” It is a way of expressing gratitude for the spark of goodness and beauty in another.

Where is the field of grass where you can let your soul lie down? Where do you find truth and beauty, hope and courage, kindness and compassion?

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Our essence

Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Do you have only the vaguest idea of what that means? Does it matter?

Spirituality is one of those amorphous words that mean different things to different people. That’s part of why it’s a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the new religious affiliation study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While the number of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion has grown to 20% of adults, 37% of those people say that they are spiritual; and even among those who do affiliate with a religion, many say they are “spiritual, but not religious”.

Spirituality is important for health, which is why it is one of the Six Dimensions of Wellness. Its role is to bring together the other dimensions by providing meaning and purpose to our lives. It is not enough to be physically, intellectually or socially healthy if there isn’t an overarching “world view” supplying significance to our actions. Herbert Benson, in his book, Timeless Healing, discusses the idea that humans might be the only species with a sense of our own mortality. If our brains were not wired to “harbor beliefs” that there is a deeper meaning to life, we could easily be overcome by dread and fear.

More and more research shows that people who are religious or spiritual are healthier and live longer than those who are not. The problem is that most studies are based on religion rather than that vague “spirituality” because it is easier to measure. So it’s somewhat unclear where the health benefits come from – the belief itself, the healthy behaviors required by some religions, or the social support that comes from belonging to the religious community?

Unlike religion, each of us can personally define spirituality. At its core, it is about feeling connected to something larger than ourselves. As we become more spiritual, we focus on others more than just ourselves, and move away from material things as a source of meaning. So how do you tell if and how you are spiritual? One good way is to ask yourself where you are and what you are doing when you have feelings of spirituality. In the Pew study, about 58% of people said that they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. For many, spirituality can be found most easily in nature.

What are your beliefs and values? Are you putting them into practice in your life? For many of us, stress results when there is conflict between our values and our actions. The Dalai Lama says, “I don’t see any difference between religious practice and daily life. One can do without religion, but not without spirituality.” He calls spirituality “the full blossoming of human values that is essential for the good of all.”

Other characteristics of a spiritual nature are compassion for others, having the capacity to love and to forgive, altruism, and the ability to experience joy. Even if you feel that you are lacking in one of these areas, they can all be developed and enhanced through practice. Whether it’s volunteering in your community or engaging in compassion meditation, there is a way to cultivate greater spiritual connection.

The root word of spirituality, spirit, comes from the Latin word for breath. A sense of spirituality may be as natural to us as breathing. We not only need it to live, we need it to live well.

Generosity

Liberality in giving or willingness to give.

An article in the newsletter from my local hospital caught my eye yesterday. It told about some hospital employees who started a program to volunteer to help patients during meal times. Many patients, especially the elderly, need a little extra help with cutting their food or opening containers. When a family member can’t be there to help them, hospital employees (from all departments) volunteer to step in, providing assistance, encouragement and companionship for one to two hours a week.

By giving the gift of their time and attention, these employees are also receiving many benefits. There is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health. People who regularly volunteer generally live longer, function better, and have lower rates of depression as they get older than people who don’t volunteer.

Volunteers also report more satisfaction with their lives, higher self-esteem, higher levels of happiness and a greater sense of being in control of their lives. In addition, being a volunteer can sometimes involve people in a new social network, with all of the stress-buffering benefits that social support provides.

Why do some people volunteer and others don’t? Sometimes it feels like giving something to others – whether it is our time, our money or our love – means that we will have less of that for ourselves. When we let go of that habit of clinging to things, we learn that to give is to receive, and to receive is to give.

As a practical matter, studies have shown that one big difference between those who volunteer and those who don’t is time spent watching TV. Active volunteers watch far less television. So while it may seem that we don’t have time to volunteer, the reality may be that we only need to give up one of our “low-value” activities.

Helping others can also put people into new social roles; this can give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life. In that context, practicing generosity can be considered a spiritual practice. While that may sound surprising, if you think of spirituality as being connected to something larger than yourself, it makes sense. Practicing generosity helps us see how we are all connected and interdependent. It breaks down the barriers of time, space, age, race or socioeconomic status that may falsely separate us.

If you want to be a volunteer, but aren’t sure how to get started, look into programs in your city or county. Many local governments have web sites devoted to volunteer needs, some keep a roster of volunteers to call upon, and others will match you according to your interests. There are usually short term, long term and one-time opportunities available in your community.

The Corporation for National & Community Service is also a good resource.