The first thing Janice did when she got home after being told that she had breast cancer was to pray. She hadn’t prayed since she’d gone through a crisis of faith three years earlier, but her physician, seeing how anxious Janice was and remembering that she had once been active in their church, urged her to do so. Shunting aside her doubts, she began praying vigorously several times a day. The next time her doctor saw her, he was shocked: Janice’s blood pressure had soared.
The physician was bewildered. Scientific data indicate that exactly the opposite should have happened. The research on spirituality and health is still in its infancy, but dozens of experiments have linked religious participation with various measures of well-being. Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center, for instance, studied 4,000 men and woman over 65 and found that those who prayed, read scriptures and attended services regularly were 40% less likely to have a stroke or heart attack than subjects who were not religious. Another Duke study found that non-religious seniors were twice as likely as their churchgoing counterparts to have elevated levels of interleukin-6, a protein that impairs the function of the immune system. Other data specifically link spiritual involvement with lower blood pressure and reduced rates of anxiety and depression. And several well-regarded studies have found that those who attend services regularly live longer than the no-shows.
So, what was going on with Janice? What her doctor subsequently learned was that going through the motions of religious activity is not enough, especially if you are burdened by unresolved anxiety, doubt or fear associated with religion. In a study of 595 hospital patients, psychologist Kenneth Pargament and his colleagues found that those with “negative religious coping” had a higher mortality rate than those with “positive religious coping.” After controlling for variables such as age, sex, medical diagnosis and severity of symptoms, the researchers found that those with high rates of “religious struggle” (for example, believing that their illness was a form of divine punishment) were 19% to 28% more likely to die in the two years following their discharge.
The description of religious struggle fit Janice to a T. Her crisis had been triggered by a double-barreled trauma: first, her son was struck by a drunk driver and her prayers for his recovery went unanswered; then her minister was fired for having adulterous affairs. The incidents cast doubt on some of Janice’s most cherished beliefs, leading her to bitterly reject all things religious. Her prayers were in the spirit of someone who was taking no chances. “They say there are no atheists in a foxhole,” said Janice. “Well, I was fighting for my life too. But I was also fighting my own inner demons.”
Because she had never resolved her fury at God for “taking away” her son, or her disillusionment with the flawed human beings who represent God on earth, her prayers were riddled with ambivalent feelings. She wanted to fall to her knees in humble supplication, but she also wanted to lash out at the Almighty in rage. At times she felt she couldn’t trust God-that is, if God existed in the first place. At other times she would feel so guilty about her anger that she was sure she didn’t deserve divine assistance. She even wondered if her cancer was a form of punishment. Because of that inner turmoil, her religious practices, rather than provide comfort, increased her stress level. Eventually, she worked through her conflicted feelings and redefined her relationship to the divine in a way that made sense to her. Only then could she gain the sense of peace and safety that a flourishing spiritual life can bestow.
As the research suggests, religious involvement is generally good for your health-when your spiritual life itself is healthy. How can we develop a healthy spirituality? That is the basic question we’ll be exploring in these columns. We’ll examine the various issues encountered by anyone who takes spirituality seriously, regardless of their faith, beliefs or tradition. We’ll identify ways to avoid the typical pitfalls on the path and move ahead with clarity and confidence. To begin, let’s look at some of the basic elements of spiritual wellness, using recognized components of physical wellness as a reference point.
Take Responsibility. As with physical health, it’s important to take charge of your spiritual well-being. Of course, we all need the guidance of religious authorities and spiritual teachers, just as we need the expertise of health educators and well-trained practitioners. But we know better than to leave the care of our bodies totally in the hands of others, regardless of their qualifications. Rather, we try to be well informed and to take charge of our own health-care decisions, always seeking that which works best for us. Similarly, the spiritual buck stops with each of us. Only you can define your relationship to the sacred. Only you can decide which sources of wisdom to turn to, which precepts to believe in, which practices to engage in, and which authorities to trust. In other words, spiritual wellness requires the same kind of commitment to the health of your soul that you’ve made to the care of your body.
Heal religious wounds. Many of us have acquired the spiritual equivalent of a chronic illness. Whether it’s a trauma caused by an egregious violation of trust, such as sexual exploitation by the clergy, or the psychic scars of guilt, shame and fear inflicted by overzealous preachers or parents, or simply the confusion caused by misleading dogma, the long-term effect is either to turn people away from religion or to make them feel unworthy of spiritual rewards. Either way, the old injuries fester, depriving us of the joy and peace that spiritual nourishment at its best can provide. Healing emotionally from deep religious wounds can take on any number of forms. It might, for example, entail reframing certain beliefs or forgiving those who harmed or confused you in the past. Depending on the circumstances, it might also require the help of a spiritually savvy counselor. However you choose to do it, mending the damage can free you to move forward toward a more mature and vibrant spirituality.
Go beyond belief. When it comes to promoting physical health, we don’t just study medical texts and read self-help books. We have to put healthy precepts into practice. Similarly, the peace and inner strength that comes from spiritual wellness depends not only on what we believe but on what we do. Spiritual time management-making room in your day for prayer, meditation, rituals, sacred music and other ways to commune with the sacred as you understand it-can strengthen your spiritual immune system. Voluminous data on meditative disciplines support the importance of regular spiritual practice regardless of one’s faith tradition (or lack of one). Taking the time for practices that enhance inner peace can be one of the healthiest lifestyle choices you can make.
Broaden your base. In building a healthy lifestyle, the wise consumer draws from a range of information and methods. Similarly, a resourceful spiritual seeker might want to take advantage of today’s unprecedented smorgasbord of wisdom, either by digging into the hidden corners of one’s own faith or exploring the richness of other traditions-or both. It’s vital to choose your sources carefully, however, lest you come down with metaphysical indigestion or gorge yourself on sweet-tasting goodies without getting adequately nourished. It’s also important not to just graze at the buffet table, sampling a little of this and a little of that. Take the time to delve deeply into teachings that appeal to you. The key is to be open to new knowledge and practices without becoming gullible, and to be discerning without becoming cynical or closed-minded.
Gather together. Research shows that support groups can be a powerful aid in the management of chronic illness. Similarly, while each of us is the captain of our own spiritual ship, we all need a little help from our friends. So, just as you might seek friendly support to stay on a diet or a partner with whom to exercise, you stand to benefit spiritually by hooking up with likeminded seekers, whether you get involved in your local congregation, participate in interfaith gatherings, join an informal study group or just hang out. Look for a group that allows you to be authentically yourself, one that encourages honest exploration and does not seek to impose a dogmatic belief system or excessive conformity. If you can’t find one, consider forming a group of your own. A healthy community can open the doors to fresh perspectives, help you distinguish useful information from hogwash and provide a forum for working out spiritual tension and confusion.
Monitor your progress. One of the keys to physical health is to recognize signs of dysfunction early, through screening tests, checkups and alertness to pain and abnormality. Similarly, spiritual wellness entails recognizing religious conflict, spiritual frustration and other indications of soul discomfort. Attending to these “symptoms” not only helps prevent long-term dysfunction but it can lift you to the next level of spiritual growth. Like virtually every revered spiritual leader in history, most of us grapple with religious precepts at one time or another. It is not the struggle per se that matters, it’s whether we can resolve it in a healthy way. “Spiritual struggles are a double-edged sword,” writes Dr. Pargament. “They have a destructive, even deadly potential. At the same time, they may have the potential to bring people closer to wisdom, maturity, and a sense of connectedness with the transcendent.”
It may seem strange to think of focusing on your spiritual life as an adjunct to physical health. After all, tending to your soul is of immense value for its own sake. But if we need the added motivation of vibrant wellness, resistance to disease and a potentially longer life, why not use it? One of the key insights of medical research over the past three decades has been that each aspect of life affects every other. We’ve learned that thoughts and emotions influence our bodies, and vice versa, so it was just a matter of time before spirituality was added to the equation. Perhaps where our well-being is concerned, religion is like a marriage: there is nothing as healthy as a good one and nothing as unhealthy as a dysfunctional one.