"Everyone is on a spiritual path; most people just don't know it."
— Marianne Williamson
"There comes a time in the evolution of every soul when the chief concern is no longer the survival of the physical body, but the growth of the spirit..." — Neale Donald Walsh
Browse through the "Religion" section of any bookstore, and the titles beckon you on a journey to spirituality: How to Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries, by Deepak Chopra...The Seat of the Soul, by Gary Zukov...The Direct Path, by Andrew Harvey...7 Paths to God, by Joan Borysenko, PhD...and the list goes on.
You can lose yourself, and find yourself, in these and many other books no matter what your religious or spiritual background. What appears to be emerging is a universal consciousness surrounding the soul and spirit — from the seven sacraments of Christianity to the seven sefirot of Judaism, to the seven chakras of the Hindu tradition. Along these spiritual pathways are written the wisdom of the ages...and a road map to better health — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
What Is Spirituality?
For many people, it is the simple yet sacred act of connecting with something greater than oneself — often referred to as your "higher power," "the divine," or "the absolute." For Marianne Williamson, it is about "inviting God into your life." Deepak Chopra says, "God is another name for infinite intelligence."
Joan Borysenko, PhD, has devoted 35 years to the study of the world's great religions, and has distilled this definition: "Spirituality really is a deep sense of belonging to life, of finding it meaningful on every level." For her, spirituality and healing have the same definition: that is, coming into what she calls "right relationship," especially with ourselves, "so that our inside matches our outside — i.e., our values and dreams show up in how we actually live our life."
When we are in the right relationship, writes Borysenko, "we feel a sense of joy, a sense of peace, a sense of meaning; a sense of being comfortable in our own skin. It feels like a type of homecoming, a kind of belonging."
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.
Appreciate, Reciprocate, and Cultivate
3. Demonstrate appreciation. According to researchers at the HeartMath Institute, a think-tank in Colorado, "Sincere appreciation, not just a cursory or contrived gesture, is a powerful motivator. A simple act of appreciating someone for a job they've done, for their commitment, or for simply being who they are, adds a boost of energy that pays big dividends." In a work environment, "Always try to express as much or more sincere appreciation as you do criticism for the people you manage."
The same goes for home life. Be sure you are expressing enough appreciation for your partner, your children or anyone else who shares your home (including your animal friends). Counselor Kevin Buck, MS, challenges his clients by asking them: "Are you doing enough appreciation so that when something challenging comes up it is bathed in a positive environment? Appreciation is like having a savings account for a rainy day."
4. Give and receive. The act of giving requires you to give of your time, talent and especially your caring to another. As Mother Teresa says in her book, A Simple Path, "It is not how much you do but how much love you put into the doing and sharing with others that is important."
It may be taking the time out from your schedule to give a friend a ride to the store or doctor's office. It may be stopping on the sidewalk simply to inquire about your senior neighbor's health or simply chat for a few minutes. Mentoring programs for youth provide a powerful way to make a difference. Henri Nouwen reminds us that we can give many things: insight, hope, courage, advice, support, money, and most of all, yourself. When you give of yourself, you may even extend your own longevity.
In addition to your own generosity of spirit, learn to be open to receiving. For many people, it is more difficult to receive than to give. Think about it this way: when you accept the gift of another with grace and gratitude, you are perhaps giving an even greater "gift" to the giver: you are sending a message that they, too, have something worthwhile to contribute.
5. Cultivate compassion. "Compassion arises when you allow your heart to be touched by the pain and need of another," writes Jack Kornfield in his book, A Path With a Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. "Compassionate generosity is the foundation of true spiritual life because it is the practice of letting go."
6. Honor the sacredness of all life. This is reverence, says author Gary Zukov. "As you acquire a sense of reverence, you develop a capacity to think more deeply about the value of life before you commit your energy to action," he writes in The Seat of the Soul. Zukov believes that "the decision to become a reverent person is essentially the decision to become a spiritual person."
7. Honor the Sabbath. Jewish mystic and scholar Joshua Abraham Heschel wrote: "The meaning of the Sabbath is to honor time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world."
Outlook on Spirituality
We Are Becoming a More Spiritual Nation
A Gallup Poll taken in November 1999 reported that from 1994 to 1998, the number of people reporting that "spiritual growth" was a very important part of their lives increased from 59 percent to 84 percent.
"Everywhere you go, there is a conversation about spirituality," observes author Marianne Williamson, who is spiritual leader of the Unity Church in Warren, Mich. She sees this spiritual renaissance in all walks of life — business, education, relationships and politics. "People are beginning to have a higher level conversation with themselves and others. Even in world events, despite terrible violence and problems, we see efforts to move toward a more just and loving world," she says.
Williamson recently invited 40 contemporaries to contribute essays to a new book on topics ranging from education and community to sex and the soul. The result is Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century.
"We live in extraordinary times," says Williamson. "I think there is a global resurgence of spiritual forces; at the same time, there is a heightened chaos — we are living in a very divided world. One world is falling apart, and one world is being born. One world is closing the heart ever more tightly, and another world is racing open-hearted and ever more passionately toward love."
Each of us moves a little closer to that ideal when we choose optimism over cynicism, action over passivity, hope over despair. As Williamson says, "Every moment we're cynical, we could have been helping. I think being optimistic is a moral imperative.
"I think the way we help the world choose love is by recognizing that our personal world is a microcosm of the whole world, and that when we choose love, we help the entire world choose love."