There is a general consensus that spirituality is good for you. This may be the only point of agreement about spirituality these days. Traditionally associated with religion or the occult, spiritual belief and practice in the 21st century are variously and often personally defined. There is much disagreement, even conflict, between one perspective and another. Yet, from feeling refreshed after a yoga class—to a sense of being reborn through a personal relationship with God—the benefits of spiritual expression and growth, however conceptualized, are certainly affirmed by the practicing individual.
Why? There has been scientific research to explore this link between spiritual practice and a reported sense of well-being, although the explanations given are entirely rational and scientific. For example, it is noted that the brain patterns of individuals in prayer or meditation are similar to those seen in deep relaxation, which is considered a healthful state. It thus makes sense that people who incorporate regular periods of these activities into their lives would show an overall positive effect. In fact, it is pointed out that individuals who turn to prayer or meditation during times of crisis may actually be using coping strategies that are similar to the relaxation techniques taught in a therapist’s office.
From a purely psychological perspective, it is also acknowledged that there may be healthy byproducts to a spiritual lifestyle. People who are spiritually oriented tend to get involved in groups of like-minded individuals, either as an avenue for worship or to work on projects that exemplify their values. There may be a network of social support and constructive interactions in the service of a common goal. There may also be more time spent in reflection, with an emphasis on self-examination, weighing moral choices, and finding meaning in life.
Still, beyond the vague healthful effects described above, spirituality may be the most powerful psychological resource we have. As a clinical psychologist of over twenty years, I have consistently observed that—in dealing with emotional crises and difficult life events—those individuals with true spiritual investment (no matter what the religion or spiritual orientation) react similarly to each other, but differently from those for whom spirituality is unimportant. The potential impact of spirituality on a person's psychology is immense and can be transforming. Genuine commitment to spiritual belief and practice seems to result in paradigmatic shifts in the individual’s experience. This translates into the discovery of new, positive feelings beyond purely psychological emotions, a more meaningful worldview, unique coping strategies, and a more rewarding and authentic sense of personal identity.
Spiritual exploration and practice can be transformational on several levels psychologically. A kind of generic understanding of spirituality today is that it is how an individual finds a unique, nurturing, and deeply emotional connection with something greater than one’s self. When we go within—certainly during prayer, meditation, or contemplation—there is a sense of going beyond ego and becoming transcendentally connected to others or God. Whether or not such perceptions are ultimately explainable by science (or should be) will not be addressed here. From a subjective and uniquely personal perspective, it is this sense of inner connection to something greater than one’s self, and particularly to God, that is the hub and dynamic of spiritual experience.
It is this internal spiritual connection to something greater that becomes a haven, retreat, and existential lifeline. Over time, it may become a source of guidance, soothing, and even unconditional love in an individual’s life. In addition to this awareness of God or “presence” or greater connection, the individual may seem to access other spiritual feelings beyond the more common, reactive psychological emotions. There may be reports of a soft joy, sense of peace, clarity, even certainty (which is perceived as a mental but not intellectual “knowing”). With increased spiritual practice, such feelings begin to generalize beyond the meditative setting or activity.
Spirituality may also produce actual changes in learned, automatic thought patterns and behavior. Traditionally, spirituality has meant “living” philosophy or applying universal principles of faith and service in thought and action. This opens up an entirely different way to view one's self, one’s life, and the surrounding world. Often spiritual individuals see themselves as living on two levels at once. They experience negative emotions and react to obstacles like everyone else in their daily lives, but their beliefs offer a “bigger picture” dimension or perspective of wisdom (which then competes with the immediate and reactive negative feelings). No matter how dark and long the tunnel, this perspective of wisdom can be an anchor and lifeline in the midst of emotional storm.
The spiritual person also commits to seeing his or her own life as a meaningful journey, involving learning and purpose. Within this context, there is the opportunity to reframe and transcend long-term psychological issues, trauma, and even biological challenges. These things no longer have to be “damage,” but challenges on one’s path and ultimately a source of learning. There is also the directive to focus on and maximize the positive in one’s life. As a result of all these factors, the sense of personal identity is often transformed. Over time, spiritually committed individuals get in touch with and begin to live from an awareness of themselves as an evolving “soul”—as opposed to the programmed psychological sense of “self” that develops out of childhood and cultural learning.
Self-esteem is also no longer solely measured by materialistic or narcissistic criteria, but occurs in relation to ideal spiritual values. These are not only authentic and positive, but paradoxically “ground” and guide the individual as to how to deal with most situations in everyday “earthly” living. Spiritual individuals also begin to recognize, respond to, and honor the “soul” in others. This leads to new and unexpected avenues of meaningful connection and relationship—and a willingness to take risks and try uncharacteristic positive behaviors that are then reinforced as part of the individual's overall identity.
In contrast to the psychological focus on fixing damage and problem areas, true spirituality is a commitment, even discipline, but also an opportunity. Active spirituality opens up an ongoing cycle of personal transformation that tends to build on itself, often subtly. Over time this carries the potential for not only enhancing, but also reconfiguring an individual’s life.
Dr. Judy Marshall received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.
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