By Amy Meadows
You consider yourself to be a pretty healthy person. You exercise and eat right. You get enough sleep. By and large, you feel physically fit. Yet, something seems a bit off. You don't always feel like your body is in balance. It's almost like there's a piece of the puzzle missing. Maybe it's because you haven't been focusing on a certain element that could truly make you feel whole: your spiritual health.
True, complete health encompasses every bit of your being: your body, your mind and your soul. "The mind, body and spirit are interconnected. Although we talk about them as having distinct attributes, the spiritual view holds that this triad represents the wholeness of our being," says Dana Lisa Young, Reiki teacher and owner of Dragonfly Reiki. "It helps to understand that our bodies are dwelling houses for our souls. Physical health is influenced by the state of our mental and spiritual health. So, to be truly healthy, our efforts should focus on integrating all three aspects in our daily life."
In addition to the diet and exercise plans you've been following, you may want to consider adding a spiritual element to your health regimen. Because spiritual practices mean different things to different people, there are a variety of options available. You may find yourself turning to religion or a higher power. You may begin exploring mind-body practices that help ground and center you. Or you could look outside of yourself and find activities that give you a sense of purpose. As you embark on your spiritual journey, it's important to identify what speaks to you and how you can incorporate it into your life.
According to Father Miguel Grave de Peralta, director of pastoral care for Emory Healthcare, religion not only plays an important role in spiritual health—it is essential. As people think about spirituality, they often find themselves asking philosophical questions about the meaning of life. "It could be any major event or a series of small events that can trigger these questions—like the birth of a child, the death of a parent or dealing with illness," Grave de Peralta observes. "Religion helps to provide structure for that content."
Regardless of specific tenets or rituals, religion in general gives people a foundation for facing a wide variety of situations. For instance, if you or a loved one faces a health crisis, being able to turn to your faith can help. "It provides an anchor in the midst of the storm," Grave de Peralta notes. "Studies have shown that when you are dealing with an illness [whether chronic or temporary], the role of spirituality is profound. It helps you come to grips with the reality of what you're experiencing. When you deal with an illness, it knocks you off balance. But spiritual exercises help us to regain or obtain that balance so we are able to maneuver these events in our lives."
Fortunately, Grave de Peralta reveals that there are many opportunities to find a religious path. He says, "We have an abundance of opportunities for religious expression and experiences in our culture." He recommends looking to your own past; if you've had religion in your life, you can always return to your roots. Or, if you are searching for a new religious direction, research the options or ask friends and neighbors for input based on their own journeys. Just keep in mind that the search may be a protracted one, which can be positive. "There are so many dimensions, levels and angles,'" Grave de Peralta notes. "[Those] who attain the most peace recognize that this is a very long journey."
For some, spirituality begins by turning inward. "Spiritual health is connecting with the ground of fundamental healthiness and sanity that each of us is endowed with. In Shambhala, we call this 'basic goodness.' This is goodness not in the sense of good versus bad, but goodness in the sense of basic wholeness or worthiness," says Chris Wenger, director of practice and education for the Shambhala Center of Atlanta. "When we do not have the experience of trusting and resting in basic goodness, we find ourselves in a constant struggle. We see and experience ourselves as separate from others and from the world. We grasp at experiences we want or push away experiences we don't want. This sense of struggle is the root of suffering."
Whether that struggle manifests itself as physical or mental suffering, meditation can be a useful practice for controlling it. The simple—yet challenging—act of focusing your mind has numerous health-related benefits. In terms of the physical,
Wenger reveals, "There are a growing number of studies on how meditation helps people manage stress and chronic pain, develop a sense of well-being and so forth. It's not a replacement for medical treatment if that's what's needed, but it can significantly help people deal with physical challenges." And when it comes to spiritual health, which ultimately relates to overall health, he continues, "[Meditation] provides a way that people can begin to lessen their habitual struggles and adopt a non-aggressive approach. We often refer to this process as 'making friends with yourself.' We begin to see how we struggle, how we shut down and how we might open up and inhabit our lives more fully and genuinely."
Finding a community in which to learn the practice of meditation can be very helpful. According to Wenger, personal instruction and guidance can make all the difference in bringing your mind to a natural state of being open and alert yet completely at rest. "It's like receiving a recipe for baking bread or making cookies from a grandparent," he says. "We learn best when we receive the recipe in a safe and friendly environment where someone who cares about us can share knowledge and provide support. And it's both extremely helpful and rewarding to be around others who are making the same journey."
In the same vein as meditation are the mind-body awareness practices that have become very familiar and popular in recent years. From yoga's fluid body postures and mindful breathing to Tai Chi's slow, continuous movements and focused breathing, exercises like these are designed to connect you to your body while reducing stress and promoting wellness.
Also in this category is the practice of Reiki, a spiritual healing art in which "a Reiki practitioner uses light touch, either directly on or just above the body, to assist the body in restoring its self-healing ability for improved health and positive well-being," Young explains. This non-invasive practice works well as a complementary therapy and often helps to relieve stress and anxiety, pain and discomfort from injury or chronic illness and even some side effects from cancer treatments. Many hospitals and medical communities now offer Reiki as part of their treatment plans and options.
"Although Reiki is primarily known for its therapeutic benefits, it is first and foremost a spiritual practice," Young notes. "The heart of the Reiki practice is compassion and loving kindness, qualities advocated by religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis. Reiki is non-dogmatic and can be practiced alongside other religious or spiritual beliefs." It can even be part of a daily self-treatment regimen for those who are dealing with illness or live with chronic health conditions. "Anyone can learn Reiki for mind, body, spirit wellness," Young says.
While the mind, body and spirit are all connected, so are we to the people around us. That's why looking outside of yourself to find spiritual satisfaction can be just as rewarding and beneficial and focusing inward. And long-term volunteerism is just one way to reach out to help boost your overall health.
A report published in Psychology Today reveals that people who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains, and helping others protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. This may be because people who volunteer often experience a "helper's high," a physical sensation—or "rush"—that involves the release of endorphins that make you feel happy and generally good. While it's important to protect yourself from stress and burnout if you dedicate yourself to a variety of volunteering opportunities, the positive effects far outweigh the potentially negative ones. In addition to distracting you from your own problems, volunteering will help you experience a true sense of compassion and gratitude.
The soothing and restorative qualities of nature help to reduce stress and anxiety, making you feel calm and balanced. In fact, countless studies have shown how nature impacts your physical well-being in positive ways. But it goes beyond the physical. According to a report from the Human-Environment Research Laboratory, spending time in nature connects you to the larger world around you, as well as to all of the people in it. This gives you a sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself—a key element in spirituality. And when you feel more stable in terms of your spiritual side, you will feel more complete.
Fortunately, it doesn't take much to reap the benefits of interacting with nature. You can do something as simple as enjoying some backyard gardening or as intoxicating as going on a hike in the mountains. You even can benefit from simply viewing images of nature—it is that powerful. So, if you have no other means to fulfill your spiritual needs, simply step outside and breathe in the natural world around you. It can do wonders for your body, mind and spirit.
Take Your Pick
In the end, the standing of your spiritual health is completely up to you.
"Spiritual health is vital for overall well-being—and it doesn't require retreating to a mountain cave to navel-gaze for days on end! Some spiritual practices and activities are one we can do on our own or with others, which adds to the depth and variety of connection we can bring into our life," Young concludes. "Good spiritual health cultivates a sense of gratitude, joy, peace and purpose. If we're not living for those things, then what are we living for?"
Dragonfly Reiki, www.dragonflyreiki.net
Shambhala Center of Atlanta, www.atlanta.shambhala.org
Spiritual Health at Emory Healthcare (formerly the Emory Center for Pastoral Services), www.emoryhealthcare.org/spiritual-health