We know, theoretically, that a happy life requires a balance in physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Our culture, it seems to me, is a little imbalanced in what it promotes. We are reminded constantly to care for our physical selves. We are talking more and more about our emotional well-being and at long last, mental health is an acceptable topic of conversation. But there is no “spiritual health” month and if you ask someone how they are doing, they are unlikely to tell you about the current status of their spiritual life.
I imagine lots of people get out of bed a little stiffly and remind themselves they are due for a stretch or a swim or a trip to the gym. Many people may get out of bed and think about the things they do to maintain their emotional and mental health. But what does spiritual health even mean? While we can acknowledge the mind-body connection in terms of mental and emotional well-being, do we think about the connection between our physical and spiritual vitality? And even if we are willing to acknowledge the reality of that connection, again, what does spiritual health mean?
Richard Wagamese said this about spirituality:
It seems to me the act of being spiritual is simply the act of allowing myself to feel my spirit move.
The Dalai Lama says this about spirituality:
Spirituality, I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others.
But for those of us who don’t find our spirituality in any of the pre-fab forms (religion), where do we begin?
Here is my basic philosophy on religion: Figure out what works for you and don’t tell anybody! As soon as people start grouping together around religious ideology, we get into trouble! We laugh, but I’m not really joking.
I think this is partly because none of us know how to develop and maintain our own spiritual fitness. Education about spiritual health is not readily available and as a result, we tend to look to religion. And that works for millions of people. Good on ya!
However, what about those of us for whom it does not work? I was raised as a Christian and I may have been able to maintain my spiritual health using that particular “gym”, but I had my membership revoked when I broke one of the club rules. (The gay one.)
Now, membership requirements are different and I could easily find a Christian church that would grant me membership, but the exercise of being booted to the outside made me take a closer look at my spiritual health club and it turns out, it doesn’t meet my needs.
So, where do we start to find support for our spiritual growth? If we are starting from scratch, maybe the thing to do would be to treat it like our physical health. We know we need to rest, nourish and exercise our bodies. So maybe that’s a good place to start with our spiritual self.
I wonder if spiritual rest is built into sleep? That seems like a good design thing, doesn’t it?
I have often felt that I was working out emotional issues in my dreams. I don’t necessarily need to understand what every dream means or be able to articulate “the lesson”. I just trust that my soul is doing some spiritual good work while I’m sleeping.
And what about conscious rest? If Richard is right and spirituality is the act of allowing myself to feel my spirit move, then I must spend some time everyday paying attention to the things in my daily life that move me; the kindness of my friends, the joy of my pet, the love of my partner, the beauty of my surroundings. As a writer, I have finally learned to understand and acknowledge the importance of time to daydream. We know our children need time to play and imagine; to have vast quantities of unstructured time. Why do we deny our adult selves this important part of our rest?
When I moved to Cortes Island, I finally learned about food. My first lesson was picking up “greens” for a friend from the store. She looked into the bag I handed her, saw iceberg lettuce and shoved it back at me, refusing to eat it. She didn’t know anyone who ate iceberg lettuce. I didn’t know there were other kinds. Thus began my education about nutrition.
What I give my body for sustenance is no more important than what I give my spirit for sustenance. Physically, I need more protein and have to stay away from carbs, while you may need to avoid dairy and can get by with very little protein. So also, we both need to find out, through trial and error, what works best for us spiritually. I am learning what spiritual practices give me sustenance. I like the meditation of Buddhism. I like the nature connection of First Nations spirituality. These things feed me and with the right balance of these as well as swimming and art and all the little things that move my spirit, I find the optimum performance of my spiritual health.
Daily exercise. Everyday, I have to exercise my spirituality; love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others. (Dalai Lama)
Again, your exercise program is a very individual thing. Some of us need to work out vigorously to stay fit, others just need to walk the dog every day. My physical body needs a good workout every day and so does my spiritual body. If I don’t work the bod, I gain weight and if I don’t work the spirit, I get judgmental. That’s me. We’re all different. I have to work harder at certain aspects of those things that “bring happiness to both self and others” and you might have to focus on different aspects, but self-awareness is the key.
When I get up in the morning, I can generally tell if I should focus on stretching and flexibility or if I need a good, sweaty workout. I am getting better at knowing if I need a new challenge in my life to stimulate my mind. I can tell if I’m feeling blue and need to get some sunlight in my eyes or if I need a hug.
And one day, I hope to wake up, rub my eyes and know exactly what my spirit needs. Until then, I will stick with what I know; rest, nourishment, exercise.