All my life I’ve been drawn to the exploration and understanding of different religions and spiritualities. The distinction here between “religion” and “spirituality” is for a couple of reasons. First, because many non-mainstream theologies do not consider themselves religions per se, but spiritual practices. Second, I believe that organized religion and spirituality are actually two very different things. I think of religion as a set of beliefs to adhere to (or, when open-minded and supportive of intellectual debate, to question), and usually includes an organized fellowship of some kind. And I think of spirituality as that part of our inner selves that connects with, and has an ongoing, evolving relationship with one’s Creator, Teacher, Universal Presence, Divine Spirit, etc. (A friend of mine would call this “the God of your understanding.”) One takes place outside, one inside. They might co-exist, they might not. These are my distinctions, however. You may agree, or perhaps have your own definitions.
That said, I’ve always been grateful that my childhood included support for my diverse spiritual exploration. I remember being invited to a friend’s bar mitzvah when I was a kid, and my family encouraged me to enjoy learning about the ways others worship. And this was in a very Catholic town. (Little did I know this openness would, in later life, lead to my becoming an “honorary Jew” among my L.A. friends. Invite me to a sedar and I’m there. Oy vey.)
I’ve also had the pleasure of attending a Buddhist ceremony for a friend’s advancement in her studies. Having a great fondness for Buddhist teachings, I was quite moved by what I heard and saw: a handful of peaceful, attentive, humorous folks coming together in a service led by their sensei, or teacher, whom I found to be wise and very funny.
And on Christmas Eve I sometimes attend candlelight services at one church or another. I feel something quite wonderful during these song-filled, inspirational gatherings: a sense of both peace and freedom. Peace to be in the gentle presence of like-minded spiritual beings, and freedom from the stress that all too often consumes us, especially during the holidays.
The Mind/Body/Spirit Connection
There is a strong connection between spirituality and wellness. According to a study in Annals of Epidemiology, people who attend services, be they at a church, mosque or synagogue, tend to be healthier than those who don’t. The research found that prayer and meditation are associated with improved immune systems and lower rates of depression and anxiety. This was found to be true even as a solo activity: prayer and/or meditation has a powerful, positive influence on one’s overall well-being.
Food for thought: It has been found that roughly 20 percent of us worry that holiday stress will negatively affect our health and over a third of us turn to food and/or alcohol to cope. On the upside, nearly half of us attempt to use exercise and/or spiritual activities to relieve stress. Wellness and spirituality to the rescue again.
Some think of prayer and meditation as the same thing, but I find there’s a distinction here, too. When we pray—and there are many forms of prayer—we are talking to our Creator, reaching outward. When we meditate, we are listening, turning inward. Perhaps listening to the Divine within each of us. Or to our highest selves. To the wise and compassionate voice that dwells within.
Healing Spirits Everywhere
So is a house of worship a healing place? How about a meditation group? Or a healing circle, or prayer circle? Surely they all are, in their own ways. I think we know this instinctively. But we may not always give ourselves permission to see worship and healing everywhere, and anywhere: in a forest, or at the water’s edge. Overlooking a bustling boulevard, or in the quiet of your own backyard. We can pray and meditate (communicate and listen) anywhere and at any time. The opportunity exists constantly. It’s a matter of being tuned in or not. So to me, I’m in church whether I’m snuggling with Betty Lou the Wonderpup, walking in my woods, or sitting in companionable silence with a good friend. I know this to be true because I feel spiritually connected and emotionally well during such moments. If you believe that you exist in concert with all that is good, then wherever you are is church.
So this holiday season, make time. Whether you pray, meditate, or simply relax into the zone, you just may feel better about yourself, reduce your anxiety and depression, and experience a more hopeful, positive outlook on life just by finding your own way to connect.
Something to meditate on.
Until next time: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”
Dr. Rick Pimental-Habib, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, minister, and educator, in private practice in Chattanooga, and the author of “Empowering the Tribe” and “The Power of a Partner.” Visit his website at www.DrRPH.com.