Spirituality and health

As published on National Health Portal, India


More and more people around the world are moving towards spirituality. Why?

While modern medicine has proved effective in curing many diseases, it fails to provide a holistic approach to health. It is increasingly recognized that diseases and health are not only a matter of body but also of mind and spirit. World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This implies that we should look beyond biomedical sciences to attain mental and social well being including the spiritual aspects. However, what is the meaning of spirituality, how it influences our health, and what should be done to develop spirituality is a matter of current interest to both health care providers as well as the patients in particular and civil society in general.

What is spirituality?

It is difficult to define spirituality. It is the person’s inner truth or blissful experience.  Through spiritual pursuit, a person tries to connect with a supreme divine or what most people call almighty God. Such people resort to techniques like silence, prayer, meditation, and yoga mostly as an individual or collective practice, usually under the direction of a spiritual Guru. Others believe in selfless service to mankind as a major pathway for seeking god. They adore ‘goodness’ to see God. 

How spirituality and religion are related?

Spirituality and religion are interlinked but different concepts. Both of them have the same objective of connecting to divine power. However, since the spiritual pathway is an abstract concept, different religions were established by mankind. They prescribe certain codes of conduct, practices, and rituals with the aim of bringing self-realization or oneness with God. Many religious practices are supportive of good living including good health. For example observance of ‘fasting’ during Ramzan in Islam and performance of Pooja, Hawan, etc in Hindus, prayer service in Christianity,  Langar Seva found in Sikhism, non-violence, and vegetarianism amongst Jain community, etc. are examples to show how various religions propagate good living and good health. Spirituality aims to focus on the cultivation of universal values through practices such as yoga, prayer, silence, meditation, and true knowledge often combined with selfless service to mankind by surrendering one’s ego. Many religious practitioners also believe in spirituality and some spiritual practitioners also believe in religion.

Why should we go for spirituality?

  • More and more people are subjected to lifestyle diseases and mental stress. Western medicine can offer limited help either in treatment or prevention.
  • For patients who are suffering from chronic illnesses such as end-stage cancer, spiritual care works well in alleviating their suffering. It prepares them for a peaceful closure of death.
  • Modern medicine has made a significant contribution by introducing new modalities of treatment and investigative procedures. Ironically, high-end technologies like imaging and artificial ventilation have resulted in commercialization and often exploitation.

Spirituality and health:  what is the link?

  • Recent research has shown that religious practices can be helpful in curing and preventing physical and mental illnesses.
  • Religious beliefs provide inner strength and social support in coping with the illness and providing recovery or relief.
  • Spirituality and religion can play important roles in promoting a healthy lifestyle.
  • When medical care becomes unaffordable, futile, and of no use, spiritual care is absolutely feasible, and logical solution.

What role a physician can play in providing spiritual care?

Most often physicians are not trained in providing spiritual care.

  • At least, a physician should be aware of the spiritual, religious, and cultural beliefs of patients and their families.
  • He should be able to obtain a spiritual history and listen to patients’ fears, hopes, and sources of strength. This can not only comfort the patient but also alleviate his suffering to a great extent.
  • The physician should assist and support incorporating spiritual practices as appropriate and acceptable for the patient.
  • He should involve members of religious and other support groups in the treatment plan and health promotion activities in the community.

Approach to the spiritual care

Spiritual care should ideally encompass the whole lifestyle of a person. Lifestyle means the way in which we live and work. It includes the way we eat, dress, talk, think and behave in public and private lives.

  • Ahaar (Eating) - What we eat, how much we eat, and how we eat.
  • Vihaar (Relaxation) - The way in which we engage ourselves in relaxation, entertainment, and leisure time activities.
  • Vichaar (Thought) - Our mental make-up, emotional control, attitude, and outlook on life.
  • Vyavhaar (Action) - What we actually behave or practice in public and private life.

Ahaar: Food is God

Do you eat well? What do you eat? How much do you eat and how do you eat?

Reflect on your routine and decide for yourself. Ancient Indian Yoga goes to the extent of classifying people into three categories: Satvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic based on their food and lifestyle.

Traditional Indian food is found to have high nutritional value. Realizing the havoc created by many diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health problems; the world is switching over to vegetarian food which is a balanced diet in terms of much-needed nutrients. People have shifted to food rich in fiber, antioxidants, and immune suppressants which are available in plenty of common food items. 

Vihaar: Work up, Rest and Relaxation

A sedentary lifestyle is a culprit behind several problems.

While regular walking, gym, acrobatics, and a host of exercises are of great benefit in building the body, the practice of Yoga and meditation are especially helpful in keeping the body fit as well as in combating stress.

Do you exercise regularly and pursue some kind of physical activity?

In the world of stress and strain caused by hectic activities, rat’s race for meeting targets, the need for adequate rest and relaxation cannot be overemphasized. ‘’All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” is an old saying.

Do you take adequate rest? Do you sleep well?

How do you enjoy your leisure time? Take away time from TV sets. You may like to engage in a variety of hobbies.

Chanting Mantras, listening to Gurbani, devotional or classical music, especially early morning is a blissful experience. Participation in activities like Satsang, Bhajans, and discourses by religious leaders is helpful in utilizing your leisure in a meaningful manner.  Cultivation of hobbies such as music, painting, photography, gardening, and keeping pets is some good hobbies to keep you engaged, active, and happy. Taking breaks from routine work, trekking, tours, and travel are other methods to rejuvenate you from the ‘burnout’ phenomenon which is most common in modern living.

Vichaar (Thought): Sound mind in a sound body

Spirituality can help you to cultivate a sound mind in a sound body. How can you possess good mental health? How can you feel free from worry and tension? Cultivate emotional control.  

  • Are you short-tempered?
  • Are you upset when others criticize you?
  • Are you too ambitious? Unwilling to accept defeat?
  • Are you aggressive, neutral, or shy?

Use the following tips to achieve good mental health:

  1. In case you come across any comment or criticism from your opponent or even friend, do not react. Just take a deep breath.
  2. Appreciate their point of view. If you do not agree, agree to disagree.
  3. High Expectation is the root cause of disappointment. Be realistic in setting the goals – one at a time. At the same time, put your 100% in achieving the goal.
  4. Once you achieve, celebrate your success. Thank God.  Even if you do not succeed, you will not mind or feel guilty.
  5. Do not compare yourself with others – identify your unique qualities. Do not be a ‘football’ to what others ‘play’.
  6. Positive thinking holds the key:
  • See the problem as a ‘challenge’
  • Accept failure as you accept success
  • Accept criticism as a genuine tip for improvement
  • There is always learning and a meaning behind which you will realize later
  • Take one step back to move two steps ahead
  • Count on what you have, rather than what you don’t have

    7.  Conquering EGO is the biggest challenge!

  • The more you are competent, the bigger the ego
  • Be truthful, humble, and fearless!  (Mahatma Gandhi)
  • See positive role models who are remembered long

Vyavhaar – Practice makes perfect

Spiritual practice in the modern context is incomplete without one’s engagement in social service in a selfless manner. You may not always be able to reach your goal. You may even face a lot of hurdles in your pursuit of goals, but do not give up.

The essence of the Bhagavad Gita is “Do your duty sincerely without bothering about the fruits or consequences.” All those leaders who have created history are known for their selfless service to the cause of humanity.

Discover the true joy of loving, caring, and sharing.

Love is a fundamental and universal human value. ‘Love thy neighbor’. ‘Love All and Serve All’. Through love, you can cultivate other universal values like Truth (Sathya), Righteousness (Dharma), Peace (Shanti), and Non-violence (Ahimsa).

Conflicts are unavoidable. How to handle conflict really matters.  Use an appropriate method of conflict management that results in a “win-win” situation for everyone. Ultimate happiness lies in the welfare of the entire humanity. This is the core message of spirituality.

Putting it together: Four S Formula for spirituality

There are four cornerstones of developing spirituality for promoting good health:

  • Sadhana (rigorous pursuit and practice)
  • Satsang (a company of likeminded people, aided by your role model or Guru)
  • Seva (Selfless service)
  • Surrender to Almighty

Strategy for promoting good health should follow a holistic approach.  It is here that spirituality can really offer help. It holds that the highest quality of health is a feasible approach. You should consider the fitness of body, mind, and spirit as one integrated concept. Taking care of your health is extremely important because unless you address this you can’t attain higher values in life.

“Shareeram-adhyam khalu Dharma Sadhanam”

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