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Living a Spiritual Life: A Path, Not a Destination

Putting Spirituality Into Practice

Spirituality is important to our health. Consider the power of prayer. Larry Dossey, MD, has documented literally hundreds of scientific studies on the efficacy of prayer. There are also multiple studies documenting that people who engage in regular spiritual practice, such as going to church or meditating, tend to have habits that promote longer, healthier lives.

Here are seven universal qualities embodied in a spiritual life and that can directly contribute to your health and wellness.

1. Learn to forgive. When we hold on to grudges, we eat the seeds of bitterness and resentment. These toxic emotions can depress the immune system, eventually taking a toll on your health. To let go of a longstanding blame is not to let the offender "off the hook" — it's to release you from the burden of judgment, and turn the matter over to your higher power. If the person is no longer living or you can't face a phone call, write them a letter.

Writes Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey, a book of daily meditations, "To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, 'I no longer hold your offense against you.' But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the 'offended one.'...Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves."

Each of us has hundreds of circuits of connected energy, which the Indians call prana and the Chinese call ch'i. Christians call it grace or the Holy Spirit, and secularists call it the life force or vitality. According to Caroline Myss, PhD, author of Anatomy of the Spirit and Why People Don't Heal: And How They Can, this life force is equally available to all of us. She calls this our "cellular bank account." She writes: "Holding on to the negative events of our histories is expensive — prohibitively so." And forgiveness, she says, is the only way to get out of debt.

In addition to granting forgiveness, you will find equal comfort in learning to ask another for forgiveness. This is especially important in intimate relationships; in fact, it is one of the keys to a lasting relationship. You may have to pray or ask for courage to ask for forgiveness.

2. Practice gratitude. Every day, record in a journal three things you are grateful for, such as your health, your friendships, your pet. Then, at the end of one month, spend some time in mindful contemplation "counting your blessings" aloud, and reflecting on each one.

Another practice: each day, write down something you are grateful for that you never thought about before. This practice, suggested by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Carmelite monk, will awaken your senses and impart a subtlety and depth to the way you look at the world.

Meals offer a salutary opportunity to express gratitude for life-giving nourishment. Say grace and then eat slowly, savoring every bite. Prepare your table free of newspapers and clutter. Use the "good" dishes every day, with colors and patterns that please you. If you are eating alone, celebrate and savor this special time. If you are dining with a companion, make it a time of heart-felt sharing and give-and-take, not a chance to catch up on the stock market and news of the day. Observe the sense of peace that comes from this practice.