Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Importance of Spirituality

Through out February, I will be looking at the various recommendations of the handout Care of the Whole Person, which will have its annual update in March. Let me know your ideas and suggestions for revisions.

Develop or use your spirituality and/or faith: For some this may be a renewed faith in their religion for others it is an opportunity to find beliefs that provide comfort.

I have been reluctant to write much about spirituality for several reasons, the biggest one being that for many people spirituality and religion are interchangeable terms. This is not true. While a religion can nurture spiritual beliefs, they are dictated by institutional practices, rites and specified beliefs. My biggest problem with many organized religions is that they exclude people for one reason or another. Given how living with a chronic condition can make one feel apart from others, the less we divide the better.

I would like to note that not all religious groups practice such divisions. In fact, one of the most healing places I ever held retreats in Vermont was the Weston Priory. This group of Benedictine monks opened up their facilities to our women and families living with HIV/AIDS. They never once asked about religious affiliations, invited us to participate as we wished in their services and always referred to us as their sisters and brothers. They even allowed us to use a small area of their land as a memorial to the women and children who had died of AIDS. Each time we went, they would join us on the hillside as we remembered those who had gone before us. Their prayers could be from a Native American or eastern tradition just as easily as it could be Christian. The important thing is that we all felt accepted, loved and connected. Their gift of hospitality was enormous and one I will never forget.

Howard Clinebell, who practiced pastoral psychology and counseling for three decades at the School of Theology in Claremont, California, believed that humans have seven spiritual hungers in common:
• All people need to experience regularly the healing and empowerment of love - from others, self, and an ultimate source/God.

• Every one needs to experience renewing times of transcendence - moments that expand us beyond the immediate sensory spheres.

• Every body needs vital beliefs that give some sense of meaning and hope the midst of losses, tragedies, and failures.

• Every person needs to have values, priorities, and life commitments - usually centered in issues of justice, integrity, and love - that guide us in personally and socially responsible living.

• Each human being needs to discover and develop their inner wisdom, creativity and love of their unique transpersonal/spiritual self.

• All people need a deepening awareness of oneness with other people and with the natural world, the wonderful web of all living things.

• Every human being needs spiritual resources to help heal the painful wounds of grief, guilt, resentment, unforgiveness, self-rejection, and shame. We also need spiritual resources to deepen our experiences of trust, self-esteem, hope, joy and love of life.
University of Minnesota’s “Taking Charge of Your Health”

For those with a more scientific bent For 40 years, laboratories at the Harvard Medical School have systematically studied mind body interactions. The research established that when a person engages in a repetitive prayer, word, sound or phrase and when intrusive thoughts are passively disregarded, a specific set of physiologic changes ensue. These changes — decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing — are the opposite of those induced by stress, and have been labeled the relaxation response. Surveys indicate that over 60% of visits to health care professionals are for conditions caused or exacerbated by stress and that the relaxation response is an effective therapy for stress-related conditions.

Many people who elicit the relaxation response also note increased spirituality. Spirituality is expressed as experiencing the presence of a power, a force, an energy or what was perceived of as God, and this presence is close to the person.
Spirituality and Healing in Medicine

Maybe the simplest way for me to describe why spirituality is so important is that through illness, hardship and the various ups and downs of life, we become disconnected from each other, the land on which we live and even from ourselves. Spirituality helps to restore the connections and strengthens them. We heal best when we are connected.

In order to have a sense of where you might be in terms of your spirituality, George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health has come up with the FICA Self Assessment.

F – Faith and Belief Do I have a spiritual belief that helps me cope with stress? With illness? What gives my life meaning?

I – Importance Is this belief important to me? Does it influence how I think about my health and illness? Does it influence my healthcare decisions?

C – Community Do I belong to a spiritual community (church, temple, mosque or other group)? Am I happy there? Do I need to do more with the community? Do I need to search for another community? If I don't have a community, would it help me if I found one?

A – Address in Care What should be my action plan? What changes do I need to make? Are there spiritual practices I want to develop? Would it help for me to see a chaplain, spiritual director, or pastoral counselor?

If you are looking to develop a spirituality, there are no set rules or ideas that you must conform to or a God or belief that you must adhere to. It only needs to make sense, and provide comfort, to you. So how does one go about doing this?

For starters consider the last question in the FICA Self Assessment, would it help you to see a chaplain, spiritual director or pastoral counselor? Many hospitals, medical providers and care centers understand the importance of the mind, body and spirit connection and either offer these services or can connect you to someone that can. Ask about them at a visit to your provider.

An aside note: Be aware that just like snake oil salesmen providing “sure fire cures, “the spirituality movement abounds with scam artists. If they are asking for a lot of money, a lot of your time, and/or are being unrealistic in expectations, steer clear of them.

If you grew up in a faith community, is this something that might be right for you now? Yoga, mindfulness meditation, Qigong, Tai Chi and other such practices can help to develop a sense of spirit. Some hospitals and health care centers offer such programs for low cost or for free. You can also go to the Kripalu website and take five minute yoga breaks all day long. Other sites to consider include:

Taking Care of Your Spirit from Mental Health America

Mindful Meditations from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center

University of Minnesota’s “Taking Charge of Your Health,” Links for their Life Purpose and Spirituality


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