Spiritual Health: Lecture
These lecture notes are copied from the multimedia version of the lecture that is posted online. Some of this information may only make sense if you view the multimedia slides.
Anyone who has ever encountered a beautiful nature scene can relate with the topic of spiritual health. The awe that one experiences when looking at a beautiful sunset, a snow-capped mountain range, or a babbling brook, may provide a perfect environment for spiritual awareness. It is important to note at the outset that the study of spiritual health is not exclusive to the religious. For some people, their religious practice is an integral part of their concept of spiritual health. For others, religion plays no role in their spiritual growth. The photo is of Mount Lassen in Northern California.
What is Spiritual Health?: Submenu
Before we discuss the “how to’s” of spiritual health, we need to discuss the question, “What is spiritual health”? I have done a bit of research on spiritual health and am convinced of its fundamental importance to optimal human health. My own research has led to the publication of an article in the Journal of Health Education (Nov./Dec.,1993) entitled, Foundations for Spirituality: Establishing the Viability of Spirituality Within the Health Disciplines. Subsequently, I was asked to write two more articles for Mosby’s Health Connection newsletter. While not much is written in current health textbooks on the topic of spiritual health, health educators still firmly believe in the importance of this topic for their students. This module is an attempt to expand the knowledge of students and others who are interested in the relationship between spirituality and optimal health. The photo is of the “Garden of the Gods” in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Dimensions of Health
There are many models of health. Some are very simple: body, mind and spirit, for example. The model of health above is a five dimensional model of health. I have seen many models of health, and everyone has listed spiritual health as one of the fundamental dimensions. The key to good health is “exercising” each of the dimensions of health and maintaining a balance between them.
There are many definitions of spirituality. This is likely to continue until our overall knowledge about this area increases substantially. My definition contends that spirituality, like other aspects of health, needs to be developed or, “exercised”. Most people understand the idea that to develop one’s physical health they may need to exercise. Lifting weight and jogging are not uncommon practices in order to develop physical capacities. The same is true of one’s spiritual health. There are certain exercises that one can practice that provide optimal conditions for the development of one’s spiritual capacities.
Capacities of the Human Spirit
The three categories in the diagram above comprise the “capacities” of the human spirit. The first capacity has to do with meaningful purpose in life. Most of us want a life that has meaning and purpose. We want to look back on our lives and be able to say we “made a difference.” We look forward to a fulfilling family life and career. Those people who have a sense of direction and purpose, seem to be happier and healthier. In like manner, those people who have clearly defined values, and live consistently with them are happier and healthier. Those who have not defined their values and/or don’t live in accordance with their values, tend to suffer poor self esteem. A third capacity, internal and external relationships, refers to your relationship with yourself and with those around you. The development of healthy relationships, both with yourself and those around you, leads to enhanced spirituality and a healthier life. Spiritual health is all about developing or exercising these intangible yet vital capacities of the human spirit.
The purpose of this slide is to simply note that in order to understand more about the spirit and spiritual health, one must use different methods than if one were to pursue an understanding of material objects, or mental objects. If one is interested in studying bones and muscles, cells, rock formations or planets, they would most appropriately use the senses: sight, smell, touch, etc. In order to study mind or symbols, one uses the intellect not the senses. And, in order to study or apprehend spirit, one uses reflection, contemplation and introspection. One cannot subject every area of study to the same methods of inquiry. As we study spirituality and attempt to enhance this area of our health and wellbeing, we will need to become acquainted with, and practice, introspection, contemplation and reflection.
How Does One Become Spiritually Healthy?: Submenu
Now that we have seen the basics of spiritual health, we can turn to the “how to’s”. Becoming spiritually healthy involves “exercising” the spirit. These exercises in turn enhance spiritual capacities, leading to spiritual growth. Spiritual growth, in the presence of a balance with the other dimensions of health, leads to optimal health and a happier, more fulfilled individual.
Pre-conditions for Spiritual Growth
Some people approach the spiritual dimension of human health with a great deal of skepticism. However, if you are ever going to find out if developing spiritual capacities has any value to your life, you need to approach the concept with an open mind. Further, if you are going to exercise the spirit, it will be important to find an environment that is conducive. A quiet place or, “sacred spot”, free from distractions and interruptions provides an optimal environment for spiritual awareness.
Activities of Quietude
There are certain activities that, when practiced in solitude and quiet, can provide optimal conditions for spiritual awareness and growth. While spiritual awareness and growth may not be coaxed or coerced at will, they still may be actively pursued. The activities listed in the multimedia slide may foster spiritual growth because certain aspects of these processes (e.g., focused mind and quiet time for decision-making) promote ideal environmental factors for enhancing spiritual capacities. These activities include, but are not limited to:
Active versus Passive Spiritual Growth
Some people practice spiritual activities, like those listed on the previous slide, and actively pursue spiritual growth. They obviously believe that the practice of these activities will have some value to their lives. Others don’t actively pursue spiritual awareness, however all people experience spiritual moments in their day, perhaps many times a day. Spiritual activity is as common as brushing your teeth, and therefore, whether or not you seek it, you will experience spiritual moments even if by coincidence or accident. Some people ask me, “How will I know when I’ve had a spiritual moment”. My answer is simple: If you have made an important discovery that leads to positive decision-making with respect to the three capacities of the spirit (meaningful purpose, personal values or internal and external relationships), then you have had a spiritual moment.
I frequently use this example of a passive spiritual moment: You are reading a book. However, after awhile, you find yourself daydreaming. Your mind is wandering from thought to thought (this is not spiritual awareness, it is daydreaming). Finally your mind rests on a particular thought, say a relationship that has been going sour. Your mind is focused on this relationship and possible courses of action (this is actually meditation, not yet spiritual awareness). After some reflection on your life goals and your own desires, the light bulb finally turns on (we call this the “Aha” experience), you know what direction you will take. You have made a decision in the area of external relationships. This “light bulb” experience, or awareness of direction and purpose, and the decision that it produces, is spiritual experience.
While some people continue to experience spiritual awareness passively, it makes more sense to actively pursue spiritual growth.
Characteristics of Spiritual Growth
What are the benefits of spiritual growth? As you begin to develop the capacities of the spirit, you will begin to see a clearer purpose and direction in your life, have clearly defined values and live more consistently with them, and will see improvements in your internal, external and even global relationships. The table below shows the qualities that one might expect in a life that is spiritually healthy or one that exhibits spiritual atrophy. Though most people seem to move back and forth between these two extreme states, one who is spiritually healthy will experience those qualities on the left most often.
Qualities of Spiritual Health/Atrophy
acceptance of death
meaning and purpose
loss of meaning
looking for “magic”
needing to prove one’s self
hurried and harried
Questions to Consider
Take some time to answer the following questions.
- Which of the dimensions of health do you “exercise” the most?
- Do you have a “sacred spot”?
- Do you practice activities of spiritual awareness?
- If you wanted to learn more about the spiritual dimension of health, where would you look?
- Give your own personal definition of spiritual health.
Perhaps answering these questions will provide an opportunity to find a “sacred spot”, that is, a spot where you can be alone and undistracted. You might initially talk these questions over with a friend as a way of stimulating your thoughts on these issues. Reflect for a period of time on each of the questions and type out your answers on a piece of paper.
In summary, spirituality is an integral part of your overall health and well-being. Spiritual moments are commonplace. They may occur when you are taking out the trash, brushing your teeth or driving to work. You can provide more optimal conditions for spiritual awareness by practicing certain activities of quietude. You don’t have to be a “spiritual master” in order to improve your health through spiritual growth activities.