Spirituality can be understood in many ways. While globally acknowledged, the broad connotations of the word and difficulty in empirical research, for decades, led to the sciences underestimating its significance and practice.
Psychology has a history of being haughty if not blatant in rejecting spirituality, often equating beliefs and practices to delusions or instability.
Psychologists like Freud and Watson even referred to some of its aspects as “neuroticism” and “medievalism”.
Part of this could be because psychology itself struggled to earn a spot as a serious science and perhaps hesitated with all things religious or spiritual in an effort to prove itself as a rigorous scientific approach. Benefit of doubt may also be given that since most lab tests on stress, emotions and behaviourism were conducted on rats and dogs, one would definitely find it impossible to get them to meditate!
The word ‘spirituality’ is derived from the Latin word ‘spiritus’, which means ‘breath’ or ‘life force’. Some other accepted meanings are ‘a purpose in one’s life’, ‘a search for wholeness’, or ‘a connection with a transcendent being’. The one that most resonates with me is it is just ‘a way of being’.
Few doctors, clinicians and psychologists seem to have discovered spirituality and have started prescribing related practices not only for general health and wellness, but also to cope with some serious illnesses. Meditation, yoga, and gratitude have become common suggestions for treatments of anxiety disorders, attention and memory concerns, anger or stress management, migraines, hypertension and even cancer.
In recent years, spirituality, religion, psychology, and science integration has been legitimised and has received significant grants and both professional and public support. (Hartz,2005; Koenig, 1997; Koening et al., 2001)
Aspects of spirituality, including acceptance, forgiveness, hope, prayer, and meditation have established themselves as cornerstone practices for happiness, health and overall well-being.
Perhaps this is due to media attention and widespread discussions around it on social media. Many mental health experts, spiritual gurus, life coaches and teachers together contributed towards creating curiosity, awareness and acceptance amongst the general population.
Technological companies are researching and developing apps as products to calm and relax people, provide spiritual music for sleep and anxiety problems, and to make these commodities available to people on their gadgets.
Indians accept religious practices and rituals without questioning them most of the time. We stayed glued to religion while distanced and disconnected with spirituality which has been our gift to the rest of the world. Today, consciousness and spirituality find their way back to us via the west. Narratives around what is good and bad, right or wrong, suffering and possession, connection and choices have begun to include spiritual concepts and meanings.
All of the above assures us of one thing: whether empirically measured and proven or not, ‘cool’ or not, first-hand reports, real-life experiences, patient relief and recoveries have proven there is definite benefit in spiritual practices. The acceptance may be limited to certain types of personalities, families or communities just yet, but the numbers are fast growing.
Human beings have thoughts, emotions, needs and perspectives. Each has a different experience of the sameness. To make matters even more complicated, we connect with different purposes, and understand spirituality in different ways. It is thus that we find it so hard to convert spiritual practices into prescriptions. The wide variety of ways in which it is defined, understood, practised and savoured, indeed make it challenging for us to hit a rapport or touch the nerve to help healing.
In times of illness, stress and conflict, pain and death, a patient’s feelings, needs and levels of consciousness oscillate severely to matters even more complex. Their fragility and vulnerability need us to give them something solid to hold on to, while also being rational and honest. Despite the fluidity in description, spirituality and belief in it often provides that solid ground for several people to stand on in rough times. Awakening patient consciousness, sustaining interest in practice, recognising and addressing their spiritual curiosity and needs, has become a part of the job and “may be viewed as an essential part of the ‘patient-centred’ medicine increasingly seen as crucial to high-quality patient care”, according to The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Needless to say, much work remains to be done. An acceptance and will to accommodate the strength in something that translates as a life force or a powerful state of being, deserves recognition in the realm of wellness. Hearts and minds are turning to it, and who knows, spirituality will become the one to eventually choose science or reject it.
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)