Renewed Through Spiritual Self-Care

May 9th, 2013

Spirituality and well-being

Being spiritual is not about self-sacrifice. It’s about self-care and paying attention to your inner pilot light. If you’ve ever made a quiet time part of your daily practice, you probably know how off-kilter you feel when you miss it. When you make time for spiritual self-care you learn to listen to your own voice as well as God’s, and most often you find peace.

Lissa Rankin is a medical doctor who burned out trying to address what helped and what hindered her patients. She would treat one symptom in her patients only to have another pop up. After several catastrophic events happened to Dr. Rankin herself in a very short time, she poured herself into researching what really helped people stay healthy. You can listen to what she says in this TED talk.

She concluded that the body doesn’t shape how we live our lives but is instead a mirror of how we live our lives. Yes, eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising contribute to a person’s physical health. But Dr. Rankin was stunned by the research (not always found in medical journals) that made the biggest difference. She discovered physical health is most affected by the following factors:

  • A person’s relationships
  • Quality of one’s professional life
  • Ability to express one’s self creatively
  • Having a healthy sex life
  • Having a secure financial state
  • Being in a healthy environment
  • Being mentally healthy
  • Being spiritually connected

Spirituality signifies the inner attitude of living life in search of the sacred, a search for meaning in life through something more powerful and bigger than ourselves. It is the way we invite God into our daily lives. One philosopher and writer calls it “the wild joy we humans fall into.” Another writer, Elizabeth Harper Neeld, says, “The spiritual life is the core of who we are. It is Life with a capital L. It is that part of us that knows infinity. That loves. That longs for connection. That is unsatisfied without purpose and meaning. That is moved by ritual. That is timeless” (A Sacred Primer, 20)

The sacred—the spiritual—comes in many forms. Growing evidence confirms the link between well-being and spirituality. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist best known for creating the hierarchy of needs, called these “peak experiences.” Others call it ecstasy, serendipity, compassion, hope, gratitude, love, and awe. But ultimately what we are talking about are those moments of highest happiness—a state of well-being where one is calm and aware of being satisfied with life. People who experience these peaks have greater feelings of self-confidence and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. Health researchers are even including spirituality as an important component in programs for reversing heart disease.

Spirituality can help people develop happiness and satisfaction with life, as well as prevent the stresses and lifestyle that lead to physical and mental disorders. In fact, religious people report being happier and more satisfied with life than nonreligious people. For instance, 47 percent of people who report attending religious services several times a week describe themselves as “very happy,” versus 28 percent who attend less than once a month. Spirituality may have positive effects on people because it is connected with marital status, healthy behaviors and activities, social support, optimism, hope, purpose, sense of identity, and internal locus of control.

A study that examined people who have suffered traumatic life events found that those who had a strong religious faith fared better psychologically than those who did not have a strong faith, perhaps because they trusted that everything has a purpose. In fact, spirituality is so powerful that during hard times it is the single most frequently used form of coping by older people.

Spirituality is not always joyful

Yet, having a deep spirituality is not always joyful. Many people have experienced a close connection with God during their darkest days. I think back to several of my own experiences. When I suffered a severe dog bite and subsequent phobia, I quit the one hobby I loved above all others: running. Unaware that phobias, including agoraphobia, become self-perpetuating, the number of places where I felt safe dwindled. I began seeing a counselor who specialized in phobias, because I was anxious and depressed. During the long drive across town, listening to Rich Mullins’s songs comforted me in a way that was indescribable. Never had I felt closer to God.

Then one day, the most random thing happened. A police officer in Waterloo, Iowa, e-mailed me because he saw my comments on a website about Rich Mullins. It turns out that he and Rich were close friends before Rich’s fatal Jeep accident. He sent several snapshots of himself and Rich, and made cassette tapes of some of Rich’s favorite Irish music. He even offered to mail them to my church if I didn’t feel safe giving him my address. I remember where I was and the sensation I had watching sunshine on the snow when I realized God loved me so much to encourage me in this specific way. Elizabeth Harper Neeld says, “Sacred experience comes in many forms. It can be as quiet as a walk in a garden or as comforting as a cup of tea at the kitchen table.” Eventually our families became friends, and we visited them in Iowa. Exposure to their German shepherd Champ eradicated my phobia of dogs.

Maybe God really does go out of the way to comfort us with the Holy Spirit, or maybe our vulnerability increases our sensitivity and receptivity to a God who is always speaking to us. I live in the community where the Columbine High School tragedy occurred in 1999. Forty-nine of the students belonged to our church, including one who was killed. For months, the local churches overflowed with people. I remember typically sedate worshipers spontaneously coming to their feet, thrusting hands upward, and belting out the lyrics to songs as we all tried to heal. Everyone seemed to sense the power of the Holy Spirit. The same things happened after the 9/11 attacks. My husband and I were stranded in a fancy hotel in Miami where we witnessed the bar lounge turn into a church. The televisions in the lounge showed our country’s leaders gathered for a prayer service. A crowd began to form around me. Grown men were weeping, joining in the worship service and singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

What spiritual experiences look like

Spiritual experiences show up as a coincidence, conversion, near-death experience, awakening, mystery, energy, emotion, beauty, awe, wonder, and silence. These experiences show up in ways that cannot be put into words, and they don’t have to be earth-shattering. Sometimes the best moments are when we hear the still, small voice of God.

Mother Teresa said, “We need to find God, and [God] cannot be found in noise and restlessness. . . . The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to touch souls” (A Gift for God, 68–69). In order to do that, we must carve a time, space, and frame of mind, free of distraction, to nurture our spirituality.

Creating space and place for spirituality

You can cultivate a spiritual time for yourself in various ways: meditation, reading, listening to music, making a meal, creating art, and pursuing quiet. Years ago, I believed that a prayer time had to be done with certain requirements, such as a thirty-minute Bible study. Now, I’m not so rigid. I have a basket in my living room filled with an assortment of items: lavender lotion, candles, four or five books (some are devotionals and some are not), iPod and headphones, a notepad where I jot down things I’m thankful for, and colorful pencils. Some days, I read one verse and meditate on it as I watch the snow hang from the tree in my front yard. Other days I read from all five books and my Bible as well. I don’t beat myself up if I miss a day of reading my Bible. Sometimes I don’t even make it to my “quiet spot.” Instead, I lie in bed for twenty to thirty minutes in a half-awake, half-asleep state and pray for everyone I can think of. And every day, I talk to God all day long. Teresa of Avila said, “The life of prayer is just the love of God and liking to be with him."

excerpt from: Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World by Lucille Zimmerman. Copyright ©2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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