Finally . . . my take on spiritual health

Sunrise from Bald Top Mountain on my 40th birthday.

It didn’t come easily, but I’ve finally made good on the spirituality post I promised back in August and again in October.  

Spirituality vs. Religion

The first thing I want to point out is that when I talk about spirituality I’m not referring to religion.  There’s a huge difference between the two. People way more articulate than I have explained it in books, periodicals and online, so you may already have your own thoughts on the difference. In my opinion spiritually is what you get when you take religion and remove ego and dogma.  Spirituality provides grounding and connection while religion adds structure and answers. Spirituality rests in the intuitive sense that there is something beyond ourselves; something big and good and powerful.  Meanwhile, religion seeks to define and categorize the good (and evil) and wield the power. Spirituality can exist within or outside an organized religion because it is the foundation upon which religions are built.  You can be spiritual without being religious. 

Some people would look at this photo and think of heaven. My six-year-old calls it “cotton candy sky”.

Why are we talking about this?

I guess this topic is relevant to me because I’m in the business of taking care of people, but most of us are still trying to figure out exactly what kind of care we need. Physical health seems the most straight-forward; something on your body hurts or doesn’t work so you see someone with some kind of training in medicine or healing modalities for help. Mental health falls way behind in that you can feel pretty out of sorts with all kinds of emotional AND physical symptoms, but because of the frustrating stigma around mental health treatment, you can ignore your symptoms and avoid seeking help. Furthermore, access to quality mental health services is woefully inadequate, particularly when it comes to treating trauma (in my opinion trauma is the biggest root of most mental health challenges). When it comes to spiritual health, not only is this sometimes the third leg of the wellness tripod, it’s often the least understood or valued. I’d like to help change that!

Sometimes words written by people much wiser than me will find and hit me like a ton of bricks. These did that not so long ago.

I guess another reason I’m interested in talking about spiritual health is because of the stage of life I’m in.  When I look around at folks my age it seems like a lot of us are coming up for air as our children are a bit older and it’s no longer all-hands-on-deck to keep the home/family running.  Things are starting to pay off career-wise and that car or that vacation we always wanted is finally within reach. We are starting to think about what self-care means for us; going to the gym or yoga class more regularly and giving a bit more attention to our diet, sleep and hopefully our mental health.  But a lot of us are also feeling a little flat. I’m not going to go into how it manifests because we all know how “flat” feels, or maybe how it looks when we see that friend who, in spite of “having it all” (on paper at least), just doesn’t seem to be thriving. That flatness, I think, means something is missing, and lately I’ve come to think maybe someone’s spiritual health needs a check up.

But what does “spiritual health” even mean?  

When I think of my own spiritual health, I guess what I mean is: how is my life aligning with my personal values?  Do I even know what my values are? Do I feel grounded or am I scattered? Do I feel connected or do I feel alone, even within my social circle?  Do I have a place, a practice or a group within which I can find guidance and refuge when things get hard?  Do I have a sense of purpose and place in this world? Our answers to these questions can reveal a lot about our spiritual health.

By talking about the importance of maintaining physical, mental and spiritual health, I mean to encourage folks to check in to see where they may feel flat. If it feels like there’s something deeper within them that needs attention, maybe it’s time to explore and attend to that.  As a massage therapist, I respect a person’s spiritual health because I understand that if someone is grappling with hard life stuff such as sickness, death, birth, money matters, career woes, changes in living arrangements, relationship challenges, this is the hard shit that defines being human.  I honor it, and I respect however you’re processing it, and, finally, I encourage you to tap into a spirituality practice to help you through it.  

So, what’s your spiritual practice, Abby?

*Gulp* I know you want to ask, so here’s my big, scary, vulnerable revelation. . .

The pillars of my own spirituality practice are gratitude and generosity. When I can access gratitude (I notice positive things around me and feel grateful for them) and when I am able to give to others (a smile, a prayer, a ride, a meal, a hug, a flower), I feel spiritually healthy.  When I get away from these foundations, because I get caught up in self-pity, overwork, too much socializing or other distractions, I start to feel ungrounded; I feel adrift.  (As an aside and absolutely zero judgment if you’re into it, but social media like SnapChat, Facebook and Instagram were a terrible suck hole for me, and getting off them has been so gratifying.  For me, SM is antithetical to spiritual health.)  

“This is a picture of perseverance.”

My holy place is nature.  Spirituality finds me when I stand and embrace a loved one in a cemetery while 10,000 “whirligigs” (the helicopter seed-pod thingies off of maple trees) descend around us.  It finds me on a granite ridge, 4000 feet up in the White Mountains, when a lone crow lands on a nearby rock and pauses a long while before taking flight again.  It finds me when I smell my sons’ hair as I greet them off the bus. It finds me in the sunrise on my 40th birthday next to my sister and father. It finds me as my children and I collect monarch caterpillars; watching them transition into chrysalis and then again into the distinguishable orange and black butterflies. It finds me in the volunteer petunia growing and even blooming from a crack in the asphalt on Main Street.

I sat down to stretch on the grass at soccer practice in October to find this fortune just under my nose.

But spirituality also finds me in music; those songs that seem to come on at just the right time to remind me what’s true.  It finds me in the objects or people that seem to appear just when I’m beginning to despair; the piece of lichen that makes me laugh, the pen that reminds me of my old friend who always told me to go easy on myself, the twig that looks like a crow’s foot (yes, I do have a thing for crows), the acquaintance on my walk to the post office who always has a cheerful greeting in spite of their own life struggles.  It finds me in the words, numbers and animals that grab my attention just when I’m starting to drift into overthinking. It finds me in the musisings and revelations of my clients who, without knowing it, shed light onto heavy topics I’m grappling with internally. These things appear to me far too consistently to be coincidences, and while it may seem woo-woo and out there to some, I’m comforted by them. 

How to?

You know what else I’m comforted by?  Kittens, puppies, wood stoves on cold nights, friends who check in on each other, my work, rice cakes, natural cleaning products that actually work, good snow tires, hot baths, great haircuts, really long hugs (from people I know and like – strangers, step off!), solitude, cast iron cookware and ridiculously robust houseplants.  

My boys and I hatched 7 of these beauties this fall!

Why the hell did I just list all that random stuff?  Remember how I told you that the pillars of my spirituality are gratitude and generosity?  Well, one way I practice is with a daily gratitude journal in which I list anything I can think of to be grateful for.  The above happens to be an excerpt of one such journal entry. If you’re interested in exploring the role of gratitude and how it can seriously shift your outlook and your entire life experience, I encourage you to keep a gratitude journal for a bit.  Start out with a three minute write every day for a month, and notice how it changes your outlook.

Regarding generosity, I don’t mean to project my values onto you, but I do think there’s something profoundly enriching about giving to others, and I’d like to gently encourage everyone to try it out.  I’m not talking about giving money or stuff to other people (although that’s certainly one very effective way to practice generosity). I’m more talking about paying careful attention to how you can “give” to others with your interactions. Can you give patience to the cashier who’s moving slower than you want them to?  Can you give grace to the child who’s melting down about not having the right sweatshirt to wear this morning? Can you give forgiveness to your partner for not holding up their end of the bargain? Can you give your presence to a friend who’s struggling with something so big that there’s absolutely nothing else you can possibly offer them?  When all else fails, can you just give a high five to a stranger you pass on the street? And can you do these “just because”, not as part of an exchange wherein you expect something from them first, or in return? 

Usually my clients don’t know it when something they say moves me. After all, the session is about them and what they may be moved to share. Recently, however, a client shared a parable that relates to the concept of giving. I loved it so much I asked him to repeat it. Here you go:

A young man and his father were walking along a street…and as they passed a homeless person, the father put some money into their cup.

The son said to his father, “why did you give that person money? They might just buy alcohol with it” 

The Father looked at his son and said “then that would be a reflection on their character, not my mine”

A precious summer evening in VT . . . so much to be thankful for in one little photograph.

See what I mean?! I’ve been working on writing about generosity and what it means to me (not to be judgy but to me it is a character thing) and then BAM! I client delivers this parable on a silver platter. I love how the universe works like this, and for me it confirms that there’s something cool, inexplicable and important beyond us.

So, there you have it.  Hope you made it through and that it inspired some reflection or conversation on your own spiritual health.  Or, if you’re not into that sort of thing, I hope I at least inspired you to get a darn massage. ‘Cause this blogging thing don’t pay the bills. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this, so please drop me a line or post in the comments.  

Love you!