In trying times, engaging in spirituality can be a balm, a support, and an inspiration.
There are so many ways to define spirituality. For the sake of this post, I’ll just describe it as a “self-transcending connection with something greater.”
What is “engaging in spirituality”?
In the context of this post, spirituality and religion are two related but not identical concepts. One way to think about it is that religion is one vehicle for spiritual expression and exploration, but not the only one.
The ways to experience spirituality are about as varied as there are individuals experiencing it. On a broad level, spirituality might entail connecting with:
Something greater than you on the metaphysical level (e.g., God/Spirit/Source).
Something greater than you on the physical level (e.g., Nature, the interconnectedness of all, service to others).
Something deep and internal, beyond the slippery slope of your ego’s obsessions with I/me/mine.
Any or all of the above
Benefits of engaging in spirituality
There have been a wide variety of studies on the mental and physical health impact of spirituality and religion. Some of the benefits researchers have seen include:
Greater psychological well-being
There are many studies that reinforce this. I’ll point to just a few here.
One study looked at people who practiced five different faith traditions (Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and Protestants). Across the board, they found that “better mental health is significantly related to increased spirituality” and that spirituality has an inverse relationship with negative traits such as neuroticism (characterized by anxiety, fear, moodiness worry, etc.).
Another study looking at 92,500 postmenopausal women found that those who attended religious services were “56 percent more likely to view life positively and 27 percent less likely to have symptoms of depression than women who didn’t attend services.”
And finally, in a study of cancer patents, researchers found that “Spiritual well- being was, unsurprisingly, associated with less anxiety, depression, or distress.”
The benefits of spirituality & the benefits of religion
As I was researching studies on the benefits of religion and spirituality, I came across some findings that help put the benefits of both spirituality and religion in perspective.
“Religion and spirituality have distinct but complementary influences on health, new research indicates…
“Religion helps regulate behavior and health habits, while spirituality regulates your emotions, how you feel,”
There are multiple dimensions to how engaging in spirituality can play a role in reducing the stress of these crazy times.
Being part of something greater / Being part of a whole
There seems to be an innate pull we humans experience to be a part of something greater than just ourselves. It brings a sense of meaning, and connection, and a stability that doesn’t exist when we’re just traveling through the world in our own little isolated bubble.
Ego transcendence / Reduced self-focus
So much of the stress and suffering we experience is because we’re constantly asking the question, “What about me?” How does this impact me? Why didn’t things go the way I wanted them to? Why isn’t my current situation the way I want it to be? Why don’t I have more (of whatever)? How can I get more?
This obsession with I/me/mine is the constant backdrop for evaluating what’s going on in the world. Not only does the world inevitably come up short at some point (the odds of the world cooperating with what you want all the time are effectively 0%), this self-focus also blocks you from a feeling of connection with others.
Community and connection
Spirituality, especially in the form of religion, often brings with it a community of like-minded people. This can both serve our instinctive need for connection (we evolved as social critters) and create a source of support as we go through challenging times.
Surrender / Letting go / Relying on something greater
Let’s face it. Trying to control everything is exhausting – not to mention impossible.
In my post on letting go, I illustrated the feeling of letting go with an exercise of tensing all your muscles, holding it, and then just letting go. Just like that exercise, letting go of the idea that you’re in control can be a relief.
On top of that, the feeling of being able to turn it all over to something greater than yourself offers a sense of support.
Greater sense of meaning
Finally – and related to all of the above – engaging in your spirituality creates a greater sense of meaning in your life. When you feel a greater sense of meaning, it creates a buffer to life’s inevitable challenges.
Whole books are written on how to engage spirituality on a day-to-day level. I’ll just touch on a few ideas.
I would sum this one up by saying, if it’s one of the tools in your toolbox, use it! There’s a lot of evidence pointing to prayer’s positive effect on both mental and physical health.”
One analysis of more than 1500 medical studies indicated that “people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health.”
As I mentioned in my post on meditation, research continues to point to a wide array of benefits from meditation.
Variety is the spice of life, they say, and that’s certainly true in meditation. There is no shortage of ways to meditate for you to sample. Here’s a superb post with 26 types of meditation.
Live your faith/spirituality/values
It’s all well and good to go to religious services, pray, read spiritual books, etc. But what does your path mean in your day-to-day life?
Ask yourself, “how do I live my faith (or my spirituality, or my values)?” What does faith in action look like? Where are the opportunities to actually live it on a day-to-day basis?
When you make that your focus, it inherently builds a greater sense of meaning and purpose into your days. It takes your focus beyond your own challenges and worries, and places it on being an everyday embodiment of your spirituality.
Not that you’re going to walk around enlightened, of course (though you might – who am I to say?). But the more you make living your spirituality a focus, the more it grows as part of the way you see the world, how you act, and the choices you make.
Speaking of living your spirituality, service is one of the most common and readily available ways people do that. That might be something formally organized, like volunteering, but it could also involve looking for ways to help and serve throughout your day.
While we’re on the topic of practices with a lot of everyday opportunities, gratitude has that in spades. Whether writing a gratitude journal, making it a practice to watch for things you can be grateful for throughout the day, or recognizing opportunities to express your appreciation to someone, you can make gratitude a practice that calls you back again and again to giving thanks (to God, Spirit, the Universe, Life, etc.) for the good things in your life.
Reach out and connect (services)
One of the things that research has pointed to for the mental and physical health benefits religious people experience is the community that goes with it (at churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.). That community can be a source of social support.
Even if your particular spirituality isn’t religious, you can still get some of those benefits in spiritual community.
Heart-based practices like loving-kindness meditation have been shown to have a positive effect in multiple ways, including: https://www.verywell.com/benefits-of-loving-kindness-meditation-3144769