Blog

Spirituality Is Living Life Fully – Connected

During the UK poppy appeal, I remember my war veterans grandma and grandpa who suffered immensely to liberate their country in World War II. I owe them a great debt. Due to their suffering, in an era without the support we have today, I saw members of my family find solace in various addictions to numb their pain. Some did not survive.

This experience led me to research the body/mind/spirit connection and various modalities available to help individuals recover. As well as the many evidence based practices I learnt in my training, I discovered the amazing works of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) fellowships and the 12 steps recovery programmes. Two central aspects in their core – spirituality & surrender – and one major influence,  psycho-analyst Carl Jung, demonstrated that often addiction can be viewed as spiritual sickness or “a spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness” (Jung).

Hippocrates (460-377BC) like Jung understood this and refers to this in his advice to Physicians.

Spirituality is often mistaken for religiosity which it is not. It is also not about living in a cave, ashram or being secluded. It is found by living life and engaging with it fully. In this latest article I provide scientific definitions of spirituality, share 5 tips and exercises to rediscover our inherent spirituality adding more meaning in our lives. They include: 1) getting to know ourselves, 2). watching our thoughts & beliefs, 3)gratitude & appreciation , 4) spending time with children, animals and nature, 5) humour and laughter.

How Spirituality entered Healing

The AA Fellowship co-founders Bill Wilson and Howard H. (investment banker, former State senator, whose alcohol addiction was so severe he was termed ‘hopeless’ by Jung) credit Carl Jung with the original AA. Jung, who survived his darkest times thanks to a daily practice of Art, was said to have advised the men that only  a ‘conversion’ or “a spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness” would cure them. Jung showed the men how their craving for their addiction was a craving for meaning and connectedness. Both men stopped drinking and today AA helps millions of people worldwide.

Hippocrates (460-377BC) considered to be one of the most influential figures in medicines echoed Jung’s belief stating that:

“The physician must be ready, not only to do his duty himself, but also to secure the co-operation of the patient, of the attendants and of externals”.

Photo: Owen Beard

By externals he referred to a person’s beliefs, thoughts and views or spirituality.

A substantial body of research exists today about the positive effect of spirituality on wellbeing.

Why Is Spirituality Frowned Upon in Medicine and Psychology?

The complex phenomenon of interactions between the body, mind and spirit dates back to antiquity encapsulated by Juvenal’s (1991, p. 241-273) saying “Mens sana in corpore sano”translated as “a healthy mind in a healthy body”.

The Association of American Colleges of Medicine (AACM, 1999) and the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2001) agree that spirituality contributes to health and form part of a WHO member states’ health strategy. 

Today evidence from the interdisciplinary field of psychoendoneuroimmunology (PNI) demonstrates that the ‘body’ is a complex communication network linking neurological, endocrine and immune systems together. Factors such as “ideas, belief systems, hopes, and desires as well as biochemistry, physiology, and anatomy” (Ray, 2006, p35) interact with each other and the individual’s biology to create health or disease. 

Prior to the emergence of this field, the spiritual/belief systems elements and their interaction within health, psychology and psychiatry had largely been overlooked. This is despite evidence highlighting the spiritual dimension of ill-health and the effectiveness of spiritual interventions on anxiety and depression for example. 

In my research I found two main reasons for this poorly understood link in Western medicine and psychology/psychiatry. Pargament who edited the American Psychological Association Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality (2013) citd religious antipathy and mistaking spirituality as religiosity. He witnessed early psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner wishing to legitimize psychology as a bona fide science and so avoided the study of religion and spirituality’s effects on wellbeing. Another reason is the lack of training in spirituality and religion from behavioural scientists and psychologists. But this is changing with more research into compassion focused therapies, mindfulness, and yoga.

What is Spirituality?

Photo: Jen Theodore

A myriad of definitions exists. A lack of a common definition is compounded by the fact that spirituality is complex and multi- faceted (Ryan & Deci, 2001) and is also treated as a “discipline” making its scientific study problematic. However, from the literature available on this subject, spirituality is often conceptualized as a belief in the transcendent or something higher than self. In twelve steps recovery programme which are agnostic and open to all faiths and belief systems, it is referred to as “higher power”.

Spirituality is wrongly equated to religiosity, which it simply isn’t. A scientific definition by Dhar et al. (2011)  is:

 “a state of being where an individual is able to deal with day-to-day life in a manner which leads to the realization of one’s full potential; meaning and purpose of life; and happiness from within”.

At Your Alchemists we adopt the above definition and that of scientists’ Worthington and Aten (2009) who equated it to feeling an affinity with:

  • Religion (a particular religion and community)
  • Humanistic values (feeling of commitment to humanity)
  • Nature (feelings of awe and connection to the beauty of nature),
  • Cosmos (connectedness with creation). So if you feel a connection with these, you can call yourself spiritual.

5 Spiritual Self-care practices to Add More Meaning in Our life

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. 

Dalai Lama

From the above definition and research available on the effectiveness of art, nature and connection on our wellbeing we can see that we are inherently spiritual beings.

# Key 1 – Get to Know Yourself & Trust Yourself

“You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.” 

The Buddha

Photo: Katrina

We are surrounded by an overwhelming number of external stimuli. By having a practice which includes some time a day where we do not focus our attention on the world around us, by reducing what we are seeing and hearing, less sensory input will reach the brain. This in turn will help us focus on our inner reality. 

The action of doing this starts a chain of significant physiological, biological and neurological changes. 

There are various ways we can do this: meditation, connecting with nature and the elements, practicing an instrument, an individual sport. When we spend time by ourselves, we give ourselves and our brain a break. It stops the brain making all these connections to so many sensory stimulations. We start to experience the world beyond our immediate environment and enter a quieter, more centered and connected place. From this deep place of connection to ourselves we start receiving intuitive impulses which are very different to the thoughts that we get from our rational mind. When we are in this centred place of inner calm, those impulses can take our life in places we never thought possible! 

You Try It: set aside 15 minutes a day, find a favourite activity or quiet spot and close off from the world for a bit. The act of not thinking about the outer environment, the familiar past or predictable future, we begin to connect to our consciousness, wider consciousness and find more of own energy becomes available to us. Start small with short connection times.

# Key 2 – Be Mindful of Your Thoughts, Beliefs and How You Abandon Yourself

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Carl Jung

In my blog article of 7 October here I described the various ways in which we ‘abandon’ ourselves or disconnect with ourselves. We do this by 1.judging ourselves, 2. staying in our heads disconnected to our body, 3. avoiding feeling and turning to coping strategies and 4. making others and external conditions responsible for ourselves.

It is vital to become mindful of the ways in which we might have resorted to the above unhelpful coping strategies which keep us disconnected from ourselves, our deepest wishes and desires. When we are unavailable to ourselves in this way we cannot connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. 

Thinking the same thoughts, performing the same actions and behaviour all the time, the brain is never working any differently. When we have a practice whereby we consciously ‘watch our thoughts’ we start changing the mind, because we’ll be thinking thoughts differently than we normally do. 

You Try It:Set aside 10min a day or a few times a week. Find a comfortable spot where you can sit down with the sole aim to watch your thoughts. You do not have to do a formal meditation. You can call it your ‘resting time’. Watch your thoughts as they come by and let them go. You acknowledge a thought and let it go. You can imagine that your thoughts are clouds passing by and you are lying down on the grass. By doing this you start to become familiar with those unconscious thoughts and unconscious behaviours, feelings and emotions and making them conscious, to start creating a new version of yourself.

Doing this we start to learn to be in the present moment by being aware of the now. 

# Key 3 – Keep A Gratitude And Appreciation Journal

“At the age of 18, I made up my mind to never have another bad day in my life. I dove into a endless sea of gratitude from which I’ve never emerged.” 


Patch Adams MD

Gratitude like developing our body muscles for physical strength requires daily practice. Why? The daily demands of life are such that we can easily become overwhelmed. In his research and book ‘Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make Your Happier’ Richard Emmons shows how a practice of regular daily reflection on moments we are grateful for can positively increase wellbeing and happiness in life. I recommend adding another: notice everything you appreciate.

Your Try It: one simple and effective practice that I have incorporated in my own life for many years now is to keep a gratitude and appreciation list or journal. When I notice goodness, kindness or anything I appreciate in the small every day moments, I write it down as soon as I have a moment that day. You can start with 5 things but don’t limit yourself to this number if you are thankful for more. Once a week challenge yourself to go up to 30, 40 or 50 things. You’ll soon find out that much of what we used to think of as negative can be a positive in life, something to draw upon and learn from.

# Key 4 – Spend Time with children, animals and in nature

“The soul is healed by being with children.” 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher

Spending quality time, connecting and playing with children, animals and being in nature have been linked to increased wellbeing and health. Animals and children are in the moment, connected to themselves, (children to their feelings, wishes and desires) and will express their likes (or dislikes of you!) instantly. Children and animals have much to teach us. The below are some of the benefits:

  • Children and animals are free, instinctual, vivacious and curious. They let life affect them and express their true selves.
  • They love in their own unique way, in a free pure and unforced way.
  • They hold no grudges and forgive quickly.
  • They are led by an inherent need to connect and seek this out.
  • They find joy, see magic and meaning in the seemingly ordinary and unnoticeable– a fallen leaf becomes an exotic find, a broken glass a diamond, bits of cardboard a castle.
  • They believe everything is possible. Watch a child play or an animal care and protect their loved ones despite the odds.
  • They live in the moment and really consider your questions. Watch a child when you ask them what flavour ice cream or cartoon they want to watch. They connect within, think things through and answer from a connected place! These are very important topics for them!

Your Try It– if you have children or animals in your life, or if you have friends and family who do, ask to spend some time in their company to connect with them. You could ask them to teach you to play their favourite game. Notice how connected they are to themselves, their feelings and thoughts and notice how they seek to and value connecting with you. How did you feel after the connection.

# Key 5 – Humour and Laughter

“Remember laughing? Laughter enhances the blood flow to the body’s extremities and improves cardiovascular function. Laughter releases endorphins and other natural mood elevating and pain-killing chemicals, improves the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to internal organs. 
Laughter boosts the immune system and helps the body fight off disease, cancer cells as well as viral, bacterial and other infections. Being happy is the best cure of all diseases!” 

Patch Adams, MD

I wrote about the positive effect of humour for wellbeing in a past blog article here.

Many people who have suffered much or witnessed much suffering attest to the benefit of laughter and humour, including his holiness the Dalai Lama who can often be seen laughing and at his own expense. In an interview with Russell Brand he admitted that he can live with this paradox that he suffers for the seriousness of his country’s situation but is able to remain calm and happy at the same time. Humour plays a big part in this and adds meaning to his life.

“I operate on the assumption that certain laughter rebalances the body chemicals produced by fear. A different kind of laugh will rebalance the internal chemistry of anger.”

Dr Annette Goodheart, Laughter Therapist

We tend to forget that we have these capabilities, which are known so far to be uniquely human. Give it a go!

You Try It.  Try to be honest and authentic in your interactions. This is not about being “ha-ha” funny but more about “aha!” funny. Don’t be afraid to chuckle at yourself as it signals that everything is okay. Laughter is disarming. Poke fun at the stuff everyone’s worried about.

Spirituality is not about going off in the desert or a cave and bypassing life’s challenges by living in a philosophical Ivory Tower. It is about living life fully and appreciating the small moments. It is experienced in a unique manner by individuals and as a search for meaning through participation family, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, the arts or in religion and/or belief in God. Understanding patients’ suffering within the context of their thoughts, beliefs, their family and cultural values has profoundly transformed my life and how I deliver patient care. I believe it has been the missing link for our wellbeing. Give these practices a try and let me know what you find!

References

Emmons, R. (2006) Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier Paperback. Mariner Books; Reprint edition (November 6, 2008)

Dalai Lama (2001). An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company. 

Pargament, K. I. (2007). Spiritually integrated psychotherapy understanding an adressing the sacred. New York, NY: The Gullford Press. 

Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbooks in psychology. APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol. 1): Context, theory, and research. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. 

Worthington, E. L., & Aten, J. D. (2009). Psychotherapy with religious and spiritual clients: An introduction. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(2), 123–130.