A few years ago, while in Boulder, Colorado I went for a long walk in the snowy mountains with my friend Mike, and had some deep conversations which prompted me to start writing this blog on how the pursuit of health and spirituality can be deeply intertwined…and three years later I’ve finally finished it!
First of all, what is Spirituality?
It is the awareness of the non-material, the metaphysical, of interconnectedness, and of something bigger than ourselves. This journal article on spirituality and health defines it as “all attempts to find meaning, purpose, and hope in relation to the sacred or significant (which may have a secular, religious, philosophical, humanist, or personal dimension”. So Spirituality is not the same as religion, and doesn’t require a God, however it fills a hole of “meaning” which all humans are wired to need. This is why religion has been a part of humanity for time immemorial, and while structural religious systems can have many drawbacks, the fundamental search for meaning and connection is necessary for surviving and thriving.
Where does one’s spirituality intersect with health?
Firstly, having meaning and purpose in life are vital to being healthy – studies show that people who have a sense of purpose to their lives live longer, have higher quality of life, and are happier than those who don’t, and this could be mediated via a variety of factors such as community, finding meaning in negative events, practices such as prayer or meditation, or specific beliefs. A “non spiritual” world view is that your life is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, or there is no higher purpose, but it turns out this way of thinking has detrimental effects. We are in the midst of a “meaning crisis” at the moment; I first heard this phrase from Rebel Wisdom who shared John Vervaeke’s series of videos called “Awakening from the meaning crisis”. While organized religion’s hold has been chipped away, nothing has quite filled in the gap of meaning requirement. Viktor Frankl (author of “Man’s search for meaning”) used the term “existential vacuum” to describe this empty sense of meaninglessness, and in fact his book details how a source of meaning is vital to surviving some of the most brutal human experiences. There is no outside source that will fill this gap, so we must make a conscious effort to fill it ourselves.
Another aspect where the health and spirituality realms intersect is with self love and self awareness. Meditative and self compassion practices are often a part of a “spiritual practice” and they can result in myriad benefits. A strong sense of self awareness can help guide you to make healthy decisions. For example, you notice when healthy food makes you feel good, and if, say you eat a less healthy food, instead of feeling guilty or bad, just notice how it makes you feel. If you feel okay, you notice that, and you might even revel in the pleasure, while at the same time knowing you won’t keep eating that food as it doesn’t fit into a long term desire to be healthy. And if you notice that actually, eating that donut caused a shift in your energy or wellbeing, then you might think “that didn’t make me feel good. I’ll avoid that next time”, rather than berating or punishing yourself. I think it’s a much healthier and self loving way of navigating the mission of trying to eat well in a world of junk, processed and fake “food”. It requires a mindfulness practice to be able to tune in to your body’s needs and respond from a place of love.
It’s not just a sense of meaning/spirituality that improves health, but it works the other way too. The mind (which is the source of all sense of meaning and spirituality) exists in the brain, which is an organ which like the rest of the body, depends on fuel, oxygen and healthy environmental inputs in order to function optimally. An obvious example I’ve noticed is the difference in my ability to be mindful/calm when I have slept well vs had a night of tossing and turning. Furthermore, many brain diseases that affect how one thinks (such as depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s etc) have been shown to be linked to inflammation in the brain, which often is caused by lifestyle and environmental factors. To use a computer analogy, for your software to function optimally (your mind), you need your hardware to work (your physical brain). Imagine how much better you’d be able to make healthy decisions, or control your emotions, or think and focus more clearly, if your brain was functioning how it should, receiving all the nutrients it should, dealing with a minimum amount of toxins, and having enough sleep so the glymphatic system can work properly. I truly believe that you can’t optimise your personal and spiritual growth, unless your brain works correctly, and this is where a healthy lifestyle comes in.
A final note is something I’ve realised within myself – that being healthy and making healthy choices is important to me because I love life so much, and a significant reason for this is a sense of spiritualty, meaning, connection and pursuit of goals. Feeling great (in terms of looking after my physical as well as mental health), allows me to really enjoy each moment to the full. Being mindful of future me (empathy towards your future self is associated with better decisions in the now), allows me to make healthy choices, because I know that when I’m 80 or 90 I want to enjoy a high quality of life, and that is entirely possible. Heck, with where we’re going now with anti-aging research and breakthroughs, I might live to 130, and I certainly want to be independent, mobile, happy, and free of pain then!
What are your sources of meaning or higher purpose? If you can’t think of any, make an effort to create or find them; you may just notice an improvement in your health.