Spirituality and Health

In the quiet deliberation after a serious diagnosis, in the summoning of fortitude to face difficult treatments, in the watershed moment that induces genuine life change, health takes on a deeper association. Throughout the course of daily wellness choices, we look to information, logic and routine. But when we find ourselves in ominous physical territory, we’re often moved to look up from the books and probe beyond their reason. It’s a motivation deeper than fear, more complex than desolation. Whatever our spiritual leanings, illness – like all crisis – leads us to inhabit more profound dimensions of ourselves. We become seekers journeying toward a new or reaffirmed center of meaning and connectedness.

What we mean here, of course, isn’t necessarily religious doctrine but the broad sphere experts characterize as spiritual wellness. In part practice (perhaps), in part principle, it’s mostly a self-concept, an outlook from which we view and feel connected to the world – our own and others’ existence. For some of us, spirituality means belief in a sacred tradition and adherence to its tenets. For others, it’s a distinct but indefinable perception of larger meaning and design to what exists. For still others, it’s a sense of the sublime but without the metaphysical framework; a transcendent, albeit natural, state of human consciousness.

However we individually define it in our lives, spirituality appears to hold sway over our physiological well-being, aiding both physical and mental health.

From enhanced immune status for cancer patients to lower risk for depression (PDF), to slower progression of Alzheimer’s, spiritual actualization yields protective health benefits. Nonetheless, skepticism exists about the design of many previous studies, and critics suggest that true causation or correlations between spirituality and health outcomes are still suspect. Researchers, in reviewing and designing studies, are still trying to pinpoint the exact mechanisms that confer actual benefit. Is it about participation in religious communities (which adds the variables of social support and lifestyle behaviors)? Is it intrinsic spiritual perspective? The picture is still convoluted. Both factors show benefit among different studies, but personal spirituality appears to have the most consistent, independent impact in some health-related measurements. On an obvious physical level, meditative practices like prayer induce the relaxation response that can help counter stress and enhance immune function as well as promote overall hormonal balance. The power of faith, also, has been likened to the placebo effect, a psychological and/or physiological response to inactive treatment that is highly influenced by patient expectations and attitude.

Spirituality is commonly and less controversially credited with a mental “centering” influence. Faith of whatever nature is often believed to ground us in the midst of unsettling change like serious illness. Beyond the graceful acceptance of circumstances, however, spirituality can shape our perception of a diagnosis or life with a chronic disease. It can help us achieve peace in the midst of pain and arouse a stamina that surpasses what we believe to be our own. Although physicians note the potential resignation or resistance to treatment some people embrace as a result of religious views, most care providers believe spirituality can play a positive and empowering role for their patients. If patients feel stability and tranquility in their psychological experience of a disease, they can direct their full energy toward healing and maximizing treatment efforts.

Increasingly, the interaction of spirituality and medical care is playing out beyond its traditional realm of palliative care and hospice services. Doctors and health administrators are exploring the benefits of engaging patients’ personal spirituality in active disease treatment. What used to be fringe novelty is now seen as means for pragmatic, holistic care. No longer the rare exception, integrative medicine models, centers for spirituality and healing, and workshops on faith and patient treatment are becoming mainstays at major health facilities and universities across the country. Among the developments, research has reviewed and confirmed the benefits of spiritual support in rehabilitation settings to assist those who are disabled. Another study highlights the “spiritual self-concept” as a “prime determinant of health” for those recovering from critical injury.

Spirituality, however a patient defines it, isn’t a magic elixir of course. It’s not a guarantee for a given outcome or an emotional panacea for the fatigue, work and heartache that come with serious health challenges. People of deep faith as well as those with no spiritual associations die of disease and must still traverse the disorienting landscape of grief. Nonetheless, personal spirituality or a regard for the sublime in this life offers us a glimpse of significance, order and continuity beyond ourselves. In this regard, spirituality serves the same purposes as it has for all of human history. Spiritual tradition offers a context for ongoing meaning and a communal narrative for hope. In times of difficulty, it fosters and engages the power within, however we individually view its source.

Share your thoughts in the comment board, and thanks for reading.

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  1. Deep. From the beginning of time, Grok looked up at the heavens and knew instinctively that a Creator was at work, and sought to Worship that Creator. Even in the most primitive of tribes, spirituality plays a big part in life. Sometimes I think that because we think we’re so smart, it does not play a big enough part in ours.

    1. Actually, we don’t really know if ‘Grok’ (all Groks) had religion/spirituality. In fact there are some HG tribes that until modern times had no way to even talk about things they could not see. It simply didn’t exist in their language structure. But I’m assuming here that this means they did not think about a god since they had no words to describe it.

    2. I can’t remember the exact title, but there’s some book written by ex-mormons who became atheists after their mission to an Amazonion tribe who, to their surprise, were the happiest community they met despite being completely nonreligious.

  2. I don’t think the studies actually measures spiritual actualization – I think they are measuring self actualization. Although, many people would argue that to become self actualized you must first be ‘ok with the spirits’. Sort of an extra layer in Maslow’s hierarchy. Spirits do not exist but the self does. The better you feel about self the longer and better you will live.

  3. In my humble opinion, Grok would have been to busy surviving to worry about who he was, how he got here, and what he was supposed to do.

    Humans are the only animals that worry about spiritualality as far as I know. I don’t see my dog contemplating the meaning of life. He just wants his dinner and a daily walk. I envy him sometimes.

    Being an aetheist, I feel most at peace when I have my workout for the day finished and nothing on the agenda but chilling in front of my computer or TV while my body recovers. I definitely have a type B personality.

    1. While modern HGs certainly have their differences from Grok, they’ve been shown to have consistently shorter working hours than us modern Western types. I’ve seen 17 hours cited as the average workweek for modern HGs, compared to 35-40 hours in the Western world – not to mention that so many of us work overtime, too.

      So it’s not out of the question to say that Grok was probably a ponderous fellow – or at least had the time for it beyond mere survival.

  4. Psychoneuroimmunology – interesting stuff. It’s the study of how mindset, spirituality can effect neurotransmitters which of course effect every cell in your body. Canace Pert is a very interesting refernce on this “Molecules of Emotion” and “Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d.”

  5. To me, spirituality represents our connection to the greater whole and the realization that all things are related. Good post, Mark.

  6. Nice post Mark. As you implied in your post, spirituality can be fully experienced without the need to include superstition, myth and other irrational ideas of reality.

    Who we are, why are we here, what do we want to get out of our life, what do we want our legacy to be, what is our role as part of a bigger thing. all of these are spiritual thoughts that can lead to enhanced levels of consciousness and a better perspective on life.

    All of the above can be accomplished without worshiping fairies, leprechauns, the Sun, Odin, Zeus, Vishnu, or the lately so popular bronze-age gods of the desert who demand compulsory and unconditional love, genital mutilation, complete intellectual submission, welcome slavery and promotes women to be treated as belongings, and who threaten with eternal suffering if disobeyed.

    Oh and meditation can also be 100% secular.

  7. I recently saw photos of paleolithic art drawn upon the walls of caves in what we today call France. After first being struck by their beauty and (in some of them) sophistication, my second thought was that Paleolithic Man most definitely had a sense of “something greater than themselves out there.”

  8. SerialSinner, it sounds like you may have some other issues. You may need to talk about with someone.

    1. I don’t think SerialSinner is the one with issues. He is spot on, especially wrt to bronze-age sky faeries. It is interesting to me that people who don’t believe in Zeus, Jupiter, Woden, et. al., still can’t really understand *why* they don’t believe in Zeus, Jupiter, Woden, et. al. Because if they did, they would understand why rational people don’t believe in *their* god(s).

      All that aside, it is worth noting that the placebo effect is one of the most powerful medical effects ever observed. It is nearly as effective as narcotics.

  9. I tried Lucy, but priests get all defensive, and the Scientology guys charge too much. What is one to do?

    1. From my own perspective, this has a great deal to do with the stress associated with not having a personal philosophy on life, the universe and everything. (Anybody get that reference? 🙂

      My most depressed point was not having philosophy of life, and my best (that is, this past summer for the most part) having defined it.

      Or, rather, a personal philosophy on your place in the universe and a concept of where it all comes from and life and death and all that.

      These things can range from “God created the universe in 6 days 6000 years ago” to “I don’t know, and accept that I can’t know, where it all came from and where it might all go”.

      If my short flirtation with Buddhism, after growing up in a conservative Christian church and now being an atheist/secular humanist, taught me anything, it’s that it doesn’t always have to be A or B. It can sometimes be both… or neither.

      Personally now, my philosophy of life is one born from my respect of Carl Sagan. That is, a combination of the joy of exploring the wonders of our universe found through scientific discovery, to an appreciation of the human experience OF this universe, and the unity of these things.

      “We are a way of the universe to know itself”, as Sagan said.


      That said, I agree with SerialSinner 100%. Meditation is just a quieting of the mind and can be totally secular.

      1. Somehow the website thought this was to be a reply to you, serialsinner, but it was supposed to be completely original.

        Oh well!

  10. Nice post. Christian here, peaceful, strong, connection to history, promise of the future no matter what my life on this earth holds, feeling truth, having experienced miracles and therefore connection with the Creator himself. I appreciate your site, Mark.

  11. I agree with your succinct post, serialsinner.

    Ancient peoples – and no-so-ancient native americans, for example – did not have what we would call ‘religion’ there was no need when the so-called ‘spiritual’ was simply life itself. Mystics throughout our recorded history, despite religion, have tried to communicate that simple truth – life is sacred.

    I would like to know which tribe it was that these mormons wanted to make ‘civilized’ – thanks to them that they saw their ignorance & hubris & had the guts to acknowledge it. However – I’d be surprised that these folks had no rituals & zero beliefs – as in ‘life is holy’, that’s a belief, but it’s a belief that happens to be true no matter who you are, where you live, when you were born, what race you are, etc. etc. To me that is not ‘religion’ but it is a spiritual perspective…I assume these Amazonians weren’t athiest…?

    Thanks for sharing!

  12. Interesting subject Mark.
    For many people, including myself, spirituality gives us a reason to think beyound the ‘me’, to find the good and do the right thing
    … BUT, I also admit that I might be wrong or I might just not understand, and that’s okay. Us humans seem to be drawn to philosophy and greater understandings of how things work and finding reasons (even the hunter gatherer Khoisan tribe in Africa had shamans whom they believed provided the link between man and the spiritual), it’s inevitable and important that we don’t all think and believe alike. Using spirituality for self comfort and even to better health is not harmful, extremism and narrowmindedness however is.

  13. Very apt for me, as I’m potentially facing an operation for my herniated disc. It doesn’t mean I am becoming more ‘spiritual’ for want of a better word, but it is making me think about me and my relationship to the world in general. How easy it is to take health and well-being fro granted, and how quickly you realise that this is the case once your vitality is stopped in its tracks.

    The last time this happened to me, I was diagnosed with epilepsy several years ago. Then I refused to deal with it and became very angry with the world. This time, I am in a different place in my life and am coping much better.

    But it still makes me wonder the whys and wherefores, that’s for sure.

  14. “The spirit of a man can endure his sickness, but as for a broken spirit who can bear it?” – Proverbs 18:14

  15. I’m pleasantly surprised to see a post like this here.

    In regard to TXCHLInstructor’s comment about spirituality being an other term for placebo effect, this is true, but the key here is that the placebo effect is powerful and can be thought of as a therapy in it’s own right.

    Anyone who thinks this is a crazy statement should check out either of the books written by Robert Becker MD.

  16. Awesome post! And def spot on. There is a dramatic and profound correlation between spirituality and health, it’s just that our limited scientific knowledge (science as we know it today stems from the 17-18th century) can’t quantify what it can’t see.

    check out “what the bleep do we know” for a great take on all this.


  17. Extremism and narrow-mindedness? Spiritual perspective?
    Happiest despite non-religious?

    None of it addresses the reality of this. Health and wellness is important within a broader context (eg. why/how). And you’re struggling for that context because you don’t want to confront an idea of an absolute truth my friends. And in your attempts to create an all-encompassing humanist truth that avoids any specific understanding you are creating your own absolute truth which excludes all else.

    the attitude that humanists/spiritualists are somehow on a higher plane than those who believe in an absolute creator and truth is just plain hypocritical.

    How can life be sacred if there is no context to define sacred?

    1. Replace “Absolute Creator” with “Santa Claus” and you’ll understand where we hypocritical seculars are coming from.

      1. Your tone, your reply as well as your original post demonstrate a great misunderstanding of theology and philosophy.

        Your name ‘SerialSinner’ and your icon also show that you carry emotional wounds that you try to bury with cynicism and slander.

        Its understandable that you don’t prefer to engage the specifics of my concerns regarding the self-defeating nature of humanism.

        1. Naturalism, rationalism and the scientific method are more than enough to offer optimistic and inspiring explanations about the purpose of life.

          Your show lack of imagination regarding the use of my nickname (referring to our innate compulsion for sin), and your use of ad-hominems to address secularism and my posts do not speak very well of your proficiency in philosophy. It is expectable from a theologian though.

          If you want me to engage in your specific concerns, feel free to start a thread in the forum. It should be fun.

        2. terms, terms, terms.often without the same meaning to different parties. Humanism without conscience is corrupt and confused. ” A person who lives by principles has 90% of their decisions made”. However, if there principles are “selfish”, recognizing their pwn needs as paramount with no real absolutes regarding others..society is harmed. If they are humanist and believe man is capable of great good than they make decisions based and what is good for their fellow creatures. Believing in a deity can encompass both scenarios and many churches are full of evil people intent on justifying themselves by pointing fingers at others. Ethics require spiritual thought into the consequences of our actions and words and emphasis on the truth we know with forebearance for the truth others know as long as it does no harm…that decision is why we have governments and the will of the people, however uninformed it often seems.

      2. Just to be clear, Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas was a REAL person…..

  18. “Love God with all your being, and your neighbor as you love yourself”. My paraphrase but it defines the essense of spirituality in that God is not knowable without acknowledging we are all created and must take care of each other. I believe all primitive humans practiced caring for each other and the fossil records support this. The mythology came later to explain the unexplained natural events that happen. They are perversions of spirituality. Spirituality merely embraces our existence as part of something greater.

  19. Great post Mark…just wonderful. I have always considered myself a spiritual person, but not necessarily adhering to organized religion, so I am really glad that you get that…and it does enrich my life.

  20. Western man has one of the worst and most unhealthy views of death ever. In what other society would someone dying of cancer at, say 89, be considered a “tragedy”. In a land where most people claim to believe that our souls transcend to some version of paradise after the death of the body, most of us are willing to mortgage everything we, our children and our children’s children own in order to stave off the inevitable for a bit longer.

    There are few things in life more natural, more “primal” than dying and it would behoove us to embrace a more aboriginal, ancient attitude towards it.

    In the words of the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, “When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.

    Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

  21. How does no one here realize that the placebo effect is spiritual in its own right? How can the etheric nature of the mind influence so powerfully the dense nature of the body? To simply “believe” alters the physical world. What does that tell you? If life is only about survival why does love and a sense of community so good for our health and mental attitude? If there is no Intelligence in the universe where did you come from? As you are intelligent and part of the universe. Why do you humans display so many characteristics that have NOTHING to do with survival of the fittest? So many inconclusive assertions made by people. People do not realize that all outlooks can be considered belief from atheism to Islam.

    1. Having been a Christian experiencing Islam culture for many years, I can tell you that there are differences in religions, please don’t fall into the thinking that they are all the same. They are not. It is better to be a follower of God, than a religous person, if that makes sense.

      1. While all religions may not be the same, all paths lead to the same God. Though many religions perceive that God differently, our tolerance for each others differences say more about the power of our faith than does our vain efforts to diminish the beauty that others find in their own. (Terrorists are not include here, and should be dealt with a swift and violent hand)

        1. With all due respect Christopher, all paths do not lead to the same god. There is only one true, living God. And the only way to get to God is through His son. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

          Not a hater or a know it all, or a religious nut, just love God and wanted to share truth with you.

  22. Whatever spirituality means to us, it is the logical foundation for the health of the body, mind and soul. When the day is done and our bodies have been nurtured, we mustn’t neglect the inner man who needs his exercise and training as well. 🙂 Thank you for reminding us Mark!

  23. Christopher, in a sense I may agree with you about the paths all leading to the same God, but the outcome for us will be very different based on our choices. I appreciate your thoughtful comment about nourishing the inner man.

    1. Indeed Linda, some are making much better choices than others. In the end we will all have to account for our actions.

  24. If you don’t believe in the Supreme Power (God) then you are kinda blind. Don’t you see the stars, the planets.. how they are orbiting so precisely .. don’t you see the interplay of replicating DNA , transcribing RNA and translation of proteins which is in such a harmony that we haven’t been able to understand even 2% of it.
    There is a hidden message even in the chaos around us in the world !
    Problem is humans, when it comes to religion (spirituality) start using a different logic which they themselves never apply in real life. Don’t you appear for exams before you are handed over a degree? Isn’t the test for everyone different depending on their capability (field of interest)?
    Why do you then figure that you should be tested for your faith? Why can’t there be no pain and suffering and why their existence is used against the existence of the Almighty?
    Everyone will be tested ! You may never know though..How and where?

  25. I am really inspired together with your writing skills and also with the layout for your blog.
    Is this a paid subject or did you modify it yourself?

    Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one today..

  26. Spirituality plays a major role in my philosophy of nutrition and how one should treat the body and the Earth. I personally don’t claim any particular religion, but I do have a respect for the doctrines and beliefs of various religions and spiritual worldviews, many of which share astounding similarities.

    For all of you here trying so hard to debunk religion and purposely putting down others, what good are you doing, other than satisfying your own arrogance?

    You obviously are not seeing the world and universe from the same perspective as a spiritually-minded person, so why even bother to ‘prove them wrong’?