Whether or not you are religious, cultivating “spirituality” can bring richness and meaning to your life, and can improve mental health outcomes. “Spirituality” means different things depending on the a person’s culture, upbringing, or religious proclivity. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define the the term “spirituality” as:
Being connected with yourself, with others, and possessing a sense of wonder and awe.
I will address each of these aspects of spirituality, and how cultivating them can improve mental wellness.
1) Connection with self
So often we go through life acting according to cultural expectations, other people’s expectations of us, or our own sense of “should”, rather than connected to what we really need or desire.
- Cultural expectations: “I need to get more involved in my kids’ school because that’s what good parents do.”
- Expectations from friends & family: “I need to become more outgoing and social because my spouse thinks I’m too dull”
- Self-imposed expectations: “I should have a cleaner house / be more organized / get in better shape.”
Expectations from others and ourselves are helpful when they encourage us to live according to our highest sense of self. For example, when we value service AND have the time and resources to volunteer at the kids’ school, thenthose expectations can impel us to do good both for others and ourselves. Or when we value cleanliness, AND have the time, energy, and resources to keep a clean and organized space, then our expectations are goals, rather than guilt-trips.
However, when our external- or self-imposed “shoulds” don’t line up with our values, desires, or resources, we are left feeling deficient or stressed. It is then that we are being dishonest with ourselves, and disconnected from our best selves. For example, an expectation of becoming a social butterfly is only honorable when we have the energy (resources), desire, and belief that it is a good pursuit (it lines up with our values).
A spiritual practice is one that brings our desires, resources, and valuesinto alignment with our actions. Said another way, spirituality is when we become more aware of, and act in congruence with, our higher sense of self.
Mindfulness practice is a powerful way to cultivate awareness to your inner voice, your desires, resourcesand values, as well as noticing the external pressures and expectations you feel. Mindfulness can help you gain more strength to be honest with yourself and others, and can help you live according to your higher sense of self. Even taking a few moments to be mindful when you’re really upset can be helpful for validating your feelings rather than feeling bad about or confused by them.
2) Connection with others
Traditional religion offers the opportunity to be in a community with others; to get to know, love, and serve others. ‘Community’ is often the aspect of religious service people most enjoy. Connection with others helps us feel peace, helps put our lives in perspective, and helps us develop compassion. One way to improve mental health is to cultivate ‘community’. This can be done in a variety of ways: through volunteer service, hobby groups, fitness groups, church groups, neighborhood groups, friends, and family. The need for connection is vital: often a symptom that underlies depression or anxiety is loneliness, and the path to healing involves making the effort to connect with others, even in small ways.
I have two dogs that I walk each evening. The dogs need the walk, and I enjoy the fresh air. An unanticipated benefit of the daily walks is that I usually run into neighbors, and when I do I’ll have a brief chat with them. I hadn’t realized how those brief interchanges with my neighbors could impact me, but I’ve noticed that even a few minutes exchanging pleasantries helps me feel connected to something outside myself, which then helps me feel happier.
3) Cultivating wonder and awe
Today I was driving from one appointment to another, running through my daily “to-do” list in my head. I was not particularly happy or sad, but a little stressed about the things I needed to get done. I was in this frame of mind when I drove down a street lined with trees, and noticed the leaves starting to turn colors and fall from their branches. That change of routine scenery immediately snapped me out of my “to-do trance”, and as I thought about the beauty of fall, I was filled with awe. This sense of humility and gratitude, while momentary, colored my perspective, and helped replace stress with a positive attitude.
Taking a few moments to be mindful of your surroundings, the people and pets around you, listening to music, enjoying good art, or physical activity can all be spiritual practices when they invoke gratitude and wonder.
In short, these three spiritual practices: connecting to self, connecting to others, and connecting to the wider world around you, are like scaffolding that will stabilize your life enough to do the work of healing from mental illness, and building a peace-filled, happy life.