Making Sense of Medicine: The Link Between Spirituality and Health
“Hope is the physician for every misery,” an Irish proverb says. “Faith conquers all,” the Christian New Testament says. “You shall triumph if you are believers,” Islam says.
Most other religions and cultures hold same view: Hope or faith or believing in the possibility of transcending physical reality is an essential element of health.
When I was young, some decades ago, medicine was focused on being a caring service. The doctor would take time to talk about what’s going on in your life, and how that might relate to your health. Since then, doctors have become so enthralled by the wonderfully beneficial technology of medicine that their focus has shifted to cure, fixing you, rather than your overall health.
Recapturing medicine as a healing art
For the last couple of decades, however, there has been an emerging segment of the community that is trying to recapture that service-oriented, compassionate view of the patient as a whole human being.
One example of this is the emergence of functional medicine. The basic principle of functional medicine is to view the patient as a whole, and to treat the whole considering nutrition, exercise, stress management, detoxification, acupuncture, manual medicine including therapeutic and medical massage, and mind/body techniques like meditation.
At this time, while many of the practitioners of functional medicine are M.D.s, there are also many who are osteopaths, chiropractors, medical massage therapists and other complementary care professionals.
Please notice that functional medicine appears to be a new name for what we have long called holistic, treating the whole person. I call my practice holistic because, in addition to relieving physical pain, I offer options for exercise and dietary advice, psychological counseling, dream work, and spiritual direction. You are indeed more than your pain.
Research into spirituality and health
Over a long time, there have been so many reports of the health benefits of a spiritual life that scientific research on the topic became unavoidable. Alas, it’s difficult to look into spirituality in physical terms, but there have been some good efforts.
Even our National Institutes of Health persists now in spending time and money researching the relationship between health and spirituality. And here are some interesting results from this and other sources:
Spiritual people are less likely to commit suicide, smoke, abuse drugs and alcohol, and engage in other self-destructive behaviors.
They have less stress and experience greater satisfaction with life in general.
Spirituality reduces depression, lowers blood pressure and boosts the immune system.
Religious practice leads to less physical disability and depression in senior citizens.
Death rates are lower before major religious holidays.
Open-heart-surgery patients who have faith are three times more likely to survive the procedure.
The more spiritual patients are, the more quickly they recover.
Those with a religious practice have high levels of hope and optimism, critical factors in fighting depression.
And just in case you were wondering: I have no intention of trying to explain why this is or what’s happening in your mind and body.
Do I have to go to church?
Does this mean I have to believe in the God described by the three Abrahamic religions?
That God, like all gods, is a metaphor to help us deal with those parts of life that seem to defy our ability to understand. If the conventional religious metaphor doesn’t work for you, then, of course, there’s no point in putting energy into it.
Does this mean I have to go to church or synagogue or ashram?
No, you do not have to attend religious services, although there can be remarkable power in the ritual symbolism of those events, even for nonbelievers. However, research also shows that attending church just for the show of it is not likely to have much, if any, effect on your health.
What does it mean to be spiritual?
Human beings are born with a spiritual nature. How you relate to that nature as you grow determines how spiritual you are.
Most children seem to be automatically filled with the spirit as an integral part of daily life. As time passes, by the late teens, there often emerges a dualistic view of life, one that separates the spirit from the demands of survival.
If you look it up, you will find countless kind-of-definitions of spirituality, and generally, they relate to being kind, socially responsible, in search of the sacred, at peace and more. I think these are more the result of honoring your spiritual side rather than a definition of it.
We live in a world dominated by time-bound physicality. Spirituality has to do with being aware that there are multiple levels of reality beyond time and space, that there is much going on in and around you that isn’t explainable. As my wife puts it, spirituality shifts the center of the universe away from you in your time- and money-oriented physical life.
How to become spiritual
Allowing your spiritual nature to mature is a journey filled with adventure, twists and turns, up hills and down, as well as joy and disappointment. The one essential tool you need for your journey is a desire, or at least a willingness, to let go of your conscious control temporarily and open yourself to possibilities you can’t imagine.
Some begin this journey voluntarily. Others are eventually forced into it. I recommend the voluntary option.
A good example of being dragged into acknowledging the spirit is Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” This is well worth a read or a viewing; I prefer the George C. Scott version. Scrooge is a consummate money man with no time for anything of the spirit: “Christmas. Bah! Humbug!” In time, he is haunted by the outpourings of his own unconscious demanding space for his spiritual side, and he experiences a rather painful conversion.
I know of no recipe for becoming a more spiritual person. There are plenty of tools that may help along the way: meditation, associating with people you view as being spiritual, spiritual direction (guidance), remembering and writing your dreams, and more.
Whatever you do, my advice is the same as I give to all my patients: Pay attention to what’s happening to you and how you feel about it. If you feel out of control, ask yourself who or what is in control and how to relate to it.