by Alan Shelton
Spirituality lies beyond the material world of proof, beyond what can be measured or counted. It is made up of the inner life, the realm of belief, mystery, and faith. And yet for all the mystery that surrounds it, spirituality is vital to our well-being. It is the foundation of our most closely held values, the seat of our trust and hope. Spirituality brings purpose and meaning to life, and as we develop it we grow in wisdom and love. We begin to experience a sense of awe, a sense of connection to all of life, and a deep reverence for the Divine. We find ourselves moved to prayers of gratitude and moments of spontaneous worship. Spirituality calls a human being to a life of trust and service.
When our spirituality is nurtured and vibrant, we’re “connected.” This connection is both a sense of relationship to the Creator, Great Spirit, or God (Divine Force), as well as a relationship to all people and to Mother Earth (our life-giving environment). Spirituality takes us beyond our ego-centered lives by expanding our hearts with compassion toward all.
As a doctor working within the Native American community, I have observed that spirituality forms the framework of many of my patients’ orientation to life; it does not dwell in a realm apart. It is not an extracurricular activity. Spirituality involves a reverent attitude toward all things because it awakens us to a divine presence in all things. In this way of seeing and being, all things and persons are interconnected and interdependent. In the Sioux native language, the word for the Great Spirit is Wakan, which means “the great mystery.” Yet this spirit, full of mystery, is every bit as real as the visible, tangible world.
It is important to differentiate spirituality from religion. Some people have rejected religion in order to escape what they consider to be oppressive rules and regulations. In the process, however, many lose the great gifts of joy and compassion that spirituality brings. Religion and spirituality are related and intertwined, but they are not the same. A person may experience spirituality without being a member of any specific religious affiliation, and even the most “religious” person may feel spiritually bereft.
The true purpose of religion is to enhance spirituality through ritual and practice. This is accomplished when a person approaches his or her religion as a way to enter the great mystery, to become aware of the sacredness of all life. Religion can become a barrier to spirituality when it insists on narrow, judgmental dogma, and estranges its followers from a sense of connection with the Divine. Religion serves us best as a vehicle to nourish and develop our spirituality. It is possible, however, to get too caught up in the vehicle, the religious practice, while losing sight of the destination, spirituality, which is communion with the Divine and compassion for all.
For modern, academically oriented professionals, like physicians and health care workers, spirituality is often a difficult subject. Our training is framed by science. In Western culture especially, we depend on logical, analytical, and rational approaches, and for good reason. These approaches have successfully ushered in a host of life-changing improvements in health care and technology. While honoring science and the mind, our cultural tendency urges us to devalue belief and mystery, but the result is costly: We’re left spiritually starved and out of balance.
Some of life’s most difficult questions are the spiritual ones. What is the purpose of life? Where does real meaning come from? What is of real value in our lives? If there truly is a God who loves us, how could there be so much suffering and unfairness in the world? Part of our addiction to the busyness of life is an attempt to prevent ourselves from thinking about our mortality, the inevitable fact of our own death. But when we keep ourselves too busy to consider the purpose of our existence, our lives cease to have meaning. Strangely, it is only when we fully accept the reality of our mortality that we truly begin to live. This is the point at which we begin to enter into and learn about the spiritual dimension of our humanity.
As French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin remarked, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a physical experience.” Our spirituality is our true essence. It is that part of our life which relates to our soul, which from a spiritual perspective is connected to the Divine and is infinite. This lifetime is but the physical experience of our deeper reality, our spirit, which is our fundamental nature.
At this point, you might ask yourself several questions to help assess your own spirituality. Do I have a sense of connection with the Divine? Do I feel compassion for others? Do I feel awe and reverence, and at the same time a feeling of oneness with the Great Spirit, or God? Do I live a life of trust? Am I called to service? Is prayer or meditation an important part of my life?
You may want to write down your answers and think about them over the next few days (or years).
Alan Shelton, MD is the medical director at the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority where he has worked as a family practitioner for 22 years. He also serves as faculty at Tacoma Family Medicine residency program at Multicare Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. In addition to his MD degree, Dr. Shelton earned a Master’s in Public Health at University of Washington Medical School. He recently completed training in acupuncture. http://www.transformingburnout.com/
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