I have avoided writing or talking about spirituality for most of my career. I mean I talk about it with my patients all the time, but I have yet to talk openly about it outside of an office session or a classroom. Maybe I have felt already defined as fringe or alternative based on my profession … why add fuel to the fire? I’ve reached a point where I don’t wish to keep quiet anymore. It’s too important. It’s too integral to our health. If we dismiss spirituality in our medicine, there’s too much guidance and insight we miss along the way.
This past spring I found myself talking about spirituality quite a bit in the Mind-Body Medicine class I teach at University of Bridgeport. The weekend before my first class of the semester, I had attended a lecture by Caroline Myss, and it had inspired me to let go of my fears and inhibitions and proudly emerge as a physician curious about and motivated by how spirituality plays a role in how we live our lives and how we heal.
I came to spirituality in a very secular way, which I believe has allowed me to both explore and embrace spirituality in a very curious, tolerant and respectful way. I have always defined spirituality as our understanding of and our connection to something greater than ourselves. I understand that for some this may mean religion or God, and for others this can mean a connection to nature, the universe, or our life force energy. For some, it can be an inner experience of reflection or insight. For another, it can be a mystical communication with an internal or external force. Mediation, self-reflection, or prayer can be a spiritual experience, not to mention dance, hiking, yoga and more. Spirituality can be the embodiment of certain concepts and ideas – concepts and ideas like gratitude, forgiveness, positive regard, compassion, and love.
One might ask, why is an understanding of or a connection to something greater than ourselves important to our health? Why does it matter? Why would a physician touch that topic with a ten-foot pole? I will try to answer these valid questions with clarity and conviction … because finding meaning, purpose, insight, and guidance through our illnesses and challenges is AS important to our recovery and health as medications, procedures, supplements, and behavioral changes. If we ignore the lessons that are inherent in our struggles and the guidance screaming at us from our challenges, we lose a ripe opportunity to make changes in our lives, to reassess what is important to us and to find meaning in our difficult times.
Connecting to, experiencing or understanding that there may be a larger plan for us or a greater universal force at play, we feel less alone in the world, less alone in our struggle and on our journey. We trust more that everything is as it should be, and we can let go of taking everything that happens to us so personally.
I often think about the woman I worked with who realized that the anger and resentment she lived with everyday were toxic to her body; I marvel at her commitment to change her perspective and live a life filled with forgiveness and compassion. I use as an example in my teaching the man I had the privilege of knowing that used the simultaneous, sudden loss of a job and a marriage to create the life he had always dreamed of, but feared. I appreciate my student who has found the time to make meditation a daily practice. I admire my friend who has committed to a life of service, kindness and compassion. I am in awe of my patients when they have the courage to see their illnesses and challenges as lessons and guidance … and as an opportunity to make real change in their lives and to create real meaning in their relationships, their work and their existence.
I refuse to keep quiet on the subject of spirituality any longer. I want to talk with my patients about what their struggles have shown them and where their illnesses have guided them. I want to talk about what this particular moment in time means to them and whether they feel alone or supported in their life. I want to talk about what excites, inspires and motivates them, and what their hopes and beliefs are. I want to explore what insight they have gained from their darkest times. I want to understand how our successes, our missteps, our heartbreaks, our coincidences, our connections, and our rock bottoms are all signposts along our journey.
If we can embrace, with respect and positive regard, others’ experiences of spirituality, we more fully accept and embrace ourselves at the same time. We could all benefit from making a commitment to putting a tad more kindness, forgiveness and compassion out into the world … and perhaps some acceptance, tolerance, and love too.