Why Spiritual Practices Are So Healing: An MD Explains

Photo: Julia Volk

The quest for fulfillment is as old as humankind. When a caterpillar undergoes its metamorphosis into a butterfly, it must release its limited earthbound form. Human transformation proceeds in similar fashion.

The catalyst for our own personal metamorphoses is often a "dark night of the soul." Whether it’s heartbreak, failure, a health crisis, loss, depression, obsessions, or anxiety, we unwittingly find ourselves in a state of great pain and suffering. At first, we may seek solace in familiar theories, people, and experiences. If these do not work, we eventually find our way inside ourselves. We reclaim our authenticity and reconnect with our own soul. After all, it is within the depths of our soul that our greatest wisdom lies.

They never taught me about souls in medical school.

I began learning about them only several years after I was already a psychiatrist. In much of medicine, there is an unfortunate split between science and the soul. Science is always searching for that which is objectively measurable, testable, and repeatable. In contrast, the soul is subjective, immaterial, transcendent, and therefore impossible to quantify.

While the mind gives us access to science, the soul gives us access to spirituality and faith. Or to put it another way, our soul awakens our sense of connection to something "more," to something beyond oneself. To some, this is a Higher Power or the Universe. To others, it’s a more general sense of the sacred, or a collective consciousness, a shared global purpose, or the interconnectedness of all life. Whatever your "more" is, it is usually concerned with matters of truth, meaning, and purpose.

From a scientific perspective, one of the most important things about spirituality is that it heals. It has been shown, time and again, that spirituality improves physical health, mental health, and subjective well-being while reducing addictions, psychological distress (like anxiety and depression), and suicidal behaviors. More than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, and 70 percent of them identify religion or spirituality as one of the most important influences in their lives. It is therefore not surprising that many patients come to me wanting to incorporate spirituality into their healing work.

My own personal life and my work with more than 1,000 in New York City has taught me something very important about the healing process: True healing and lasting fulfillment require a spiritual transformation as well as a clinical outcome.

But what steps can one take to harness the power of spirituality in the service of healing, growth, and personal transformation?

With my patients, I begin this process by helping them shift three core beliefs that can be universally limiting:

1. Go from "I am unaware of my soul" to "I am deeply connected to my soul."

To some degree, many of us learn to wear a mask in early childhood in order to please others such as our parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. In doing so, we hide our precious, but vulnerable, true selves. Gradually, we find ways to use this false mask to ward off anxiety, to help the family deny its problems, or even to keep ourselves safe from harm. As time goes on, the mask brings us so much acceptance and sense of belonging that we lose track of who we once were. We’ve hidden our true self so well that even we can’t find it! In doing so, we alienate ourselves from our own souls.

By reconnecting with our soul and setting the true self free, we can leave emptiness behind and rediscover a wealth of vitality. The first step to reconnecting with your soul is beginning to connect to what you most deeply desire, which you can practice via this brief guided meditation.

2. Go from "I deny my power" to "I take my power back and create the life I want to live."

Taking responsibility for one’s life is the key to authenticity. However, rather than acknowledge our role in creating our own lives, sometimes it seems easier to blame our problems on a difficult childhood, unfair circumstances, or an unjust world. When we do this, we deny our agency over our lives and unwittingly become "victims."

There are certainly situations in life where it’s common to feel victimized, such as the loss of a job or a natural disaster destroying one’s home. But being a victim of a calamity or even suffering a tremendous hardship are very different from adopting a victim mentality.

While we frequently cannot control the life challenges and circumstances that befall us, we do have control over how we view these things and the mentality we adopt. Remaining a "victim" enables us to escape the anxiety of having to make real choices and exercise our free will. In this way, a victim mentality keeps us stuck in a state of pain and righteous indignation. Psychologically, it is one of the most disempowering roles that we can adopt.

In a similar manner to how we can become confused thinking that our false self is actually who we are, we can become equally confused believing that we are victims of our circumstances rather than creators of our destiny.

On the flip side, recognizing our agency in how we respond to our circumstances and becoming involved as an agent of change in our own lives as well as socially and globally can be incredibly empowering. An example of this is Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai. Even after being shot for going to school and then speaking out on behalf of girls’ education, she never once gave away her power. She rose above her pain and continued to advocate for girls’ education around the world.

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3. Go from "I am disconnected and alone" to "I am interconnected with everybody and everything."

As delineated in the book Living in a Mindful Universe by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, M.D., and Karen Newell, quantum physics has shown that we are all interconnected as matter and energy. Therefore, there is no arbitrary distinction from an energetic standpoint between you and me. There is only the delusion of separateness that Albert Einstein referred to as the "optical delusion of consciousness." This delusion alone is powerful enough to eradicate civilization as we know it because when we harm others, we do not realize that we are also harming ourselves.

The antidote to this is taking responsibility not just for ourselves and our own actions but for others and for the world. Spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti made this point when he said, "The heart of man is in his own keeping. To end violence, we must relentlessly keep freeing ourselves of the violence within. Inner strife projected externally becomes world chaos." To end the world’s darkness, we must consistently recognize and transform the darkness within. On a personal and global scale, fulfillment begins when we realize our collective unity.

Recognizing that the path to fulfillment is not outside of us, we must do the inner work of reconnecting to our soul, cultivating authenticity, relinquishing victim mentality, and taking responsibility for all aspects of our lives. When our exile from ourselves is over, we’ve come home at last.

We've got more guided meditations to help you deepen your dialogue with yourself. Check them out here.

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