Spiritual health, while often the most overlooked aspect of healing, is actually the ultimate goal of holistic medicine, and leads to a heightened awareness of the Divine Spirit referred to by all religions. It isn’t important what name you give it. What matters is that you come to know and attune yourself to its guidance in all areas of your daily life. Doing so will reduce your feelings of fear, and provide you with a greater capacity for loving yourself and others unconditionally. It will also help you reconnect to your special talents and gifts and use them to fulfill your life’s purpose.
In addition to being consciously aware of the role Spirit plays in your life, being spiritually healthy also means being intimately connected to your spouse, partner, family, friends, and community, resulting in social health, as well. Spiritual and social health are interconnected, since it is through our committed relationships that we find the greatest opportunities for spiritual growth and for learning how to receive and impart unconditional love.
In addition to the observance of spiritual and religious traditions, working with spiritual counselors and support groups are common methods of creating spiritual and social health, as are the opportunities afforded us through our friendships, marriage, intimate relationships, and parenting. A variety of self-care approaches, including prayer, meditation, gratitude, and spending time within nature, can further deepen your awareness of yourself as a spiritual, socially-connected being, and are increasingly being recommended by conventional and holistic physicians alike.
Prayer is the most common type of spiritual practice performed by most Americans, and the majority of people who pray report a greater sense of well-being than those who don’t. Harvard researcher and mind/body medicine expert Herbert Benson, M.D., author of The Relaxation Response, has found that regular prayer or the repetition of spiritual phrases such as “Shalom,” or “Hail Mary,” triggers relaxation and reduces stress.
There are many effective ways to pray, both for yourself and for others. Many people find great benefit using the prayers from their religious upbringing. Others make prayer a time of personal conversation with God, stating their need or concern and asking for divine intervention. Others find talking a walk in a place of natural beauty to be a type of prayerful worship. Simply taking the time to acknowledge all you have to be grateful for and giving thanks can be effective as well. Choose the type of prayer that feels most comfortable for you, and then establish a regular routine of repeating your prayers daily.
Meditation has been scientifically researched and proven to have physiological benefits for decades. Besides its physical benefits, which include stress-relief, improved immune and cardiovascular function, relaxation, and decreased pain, the regular practice of meditation can lead to new insights about life issues (often resulting in the healing of past emotional trauma), heightened creativity, inspiration, greater compassion for others, and a greater connection to one’s own inner guidance.
There are a wide variety of meditative techniques to choose from and, as with prayer, choosing the one that you are most comfortable with will provide the greatest benefit. Meditation can be performed while sitting, lying down, or while walking or jogging. Some people also prefer singing or chanting a word or phrase that has spiritual significance to them. What all meditative techniques have in common is conscious breathing (see above) and a focus on what is happening in each present moment, until the mind becomes empty of thoughts, judgments, and past and future concerns.
A simple way to meditate is to sit comfortably erect with your eyes closed, while paying attention to your breathing. Observe yourself inhaling and exhaling, allowing whatever thoughts you have to pass you by. In the beginning of your practice, you will find your mind wandering. Each time this occurs, gently refocus on your breath. To improve your concentration, you can also silently repeat a word, or mantra, such as love, peace, or Jesus. Eventually, you will experience longer periods of silence between each thought, although it may take months before this occurs. Be patient and don’t force matters. Try to sit for 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day, but if you find yourself too distracted or pressed for time, end your session, instead of sitting restlessly. With commitment and consist practice, the benefits of meditation will become apparent to you, and you’ll realize your efforts are well worth it.
Gratitude Dr. Robert Anderson describes gratitude as the Great Attitude. “Gratitude produces feelings of joy and self-acceptance, and is an attitude that anyone can choose to have, just as we can choose to see the glass half full or half empty” Dr. Anderson says. “Being grateful for what you have, instead of worrying about what you lack, enables you to let go of negative thoughts and attitudes more easily. This can be difficult at times, especially if you are feeling a great deal of fear or anger, but if you make the effort to release these painful emotions and choose to be grateful, instead, positive benefits can be achieved.”
One method of cultivating feelings of gratitude is keeping a gratitude journal, which involves writing down in your journal or diary all the things that made you grateful during the day. A variation of this technique is to close your eyes before bed and mentally review your day, taking an inventory of all the things that happened for which they feel grateful, silently giving thanks for them. “By making gratitude a regular part of your daily experience, you set the stage for living more deeply connected to spirit, “Dr. Anderson says. “In the process, your life will be transformed into an increasingly joyous adventure.”
Spending time in nature. The most visible manifestation of spirit is nature, where we most fully encounter and interact with life’s primal energies in the forms of earth, water, fire, and air. Taking a walk in a park or hiking through the woods are easy and practical ways of reconnecting with nature and the earth, as are gardening, bike riding in the country, and camping and boating trips. By making it a habit to spend regular amounts of time outdoors within a natural setting, you enable yourself to better appreciate the rhythms of life, including your own. We need to recognize that cities and other industrialized areas can prevent us from living a life of balance. Spending time in nature helps restore that balance, while also deepening our connection with Spirit.
Spending time near the water can also be a spiritually healthy experience, due to water’s higher concentration of negative ions, which can contribute to feelings of well-being. Swimming in the ocean, lakes, or rivers is a great way to benefit from this life-enhancing energy. Soaking in a mineral hot spring can provide therapeutic benefits for a variety of ailments, as well.
Exposure to fire around a campground or before a fireplace can also have health benefits, according to Leonard Orr, who has found that fire cleanses the bioenergy field of negative energies, and can be a powerful aid in curing physical disease. Orr recommends spending a few hours each day before fire for people who want to experience such benefits. Fire is also an important component of the vision quests undertaken by Native Americans to connect with the Great Spirit and discover their life purpose.
Of all nature’s elements, perhaps the closest expression of Spirit is the air. Clean, fresh air is essential to health on all levels, and practicing conscious breathing as outlined above is a potent self-care method for restoring energy and making you more aware of the power of Spirit as it flows through you.
Regularly exposure to each of these four elements can help you become more conscious of how Spirit’s loving intelligence sustains the world, while more deeply recognizing your place within it.
[This article is adapted from the book The American Holistic Medical Association Guide to Holistic Health by Larry Trivieri, Jr. (John Wiley & Sons, May, 2001)] Larry Trivieri, Jr.