The Power on YOU
So far we have explored a variety of different types of mindfulness practices, what they are all about, how they have an effect on us, and more specifically how they have an effect on the human brain. In this section, we are going to be talking a little bit more specifically about the relationship between spirituality and spiritual practices in the context of mental health.
Of course, we can start with the question of how does spirituality relate to mental health in the first place? And it turns out that there is a fair amount of research that has been done over the years that has explored this relationship. Both good and bad, it tells us something about how our religious and spiritual self has a relationship with our overall mental health.
Now, to begin with, one of the things that I have often thought about is how do we actually begin to get at this issue of what the spiritual or religious aspect of the person is to see how it may relate to their mental health? For example, one of the things that I come across a lot with patients is to try to understand how the person actually defines themself spiritually or religiously.
Now, of course, many people might say, “Well, I’m Catholic,” or “I’m Protestant,” but what does that mean?
When one person says it, does that mean the same thing as somebody else who says it? And, therefore, the idea of a spiritual preference or an affiliation doesn’t just mean what you are, but how you understand that.
What does that mean for you as a person?
This in and of itself is very important, and I’ve come across this so often in my own practices to find out that just because the person said that they were Christian doesn’t necessarily mean that they are Christian the way I think Christian means. And therefore as I begin to engage with them about the relationship between spirituality and their health, I really need to understand what it is that they mean by their spirituality.
Another interesting question in the context of mental health is not just whether the person is religious or spiritual but how they got to where they are today.
If you are Catholic, for example, and you were raised Catholic and went to church on a regular basis and did all the things that a Catholic person would do and here you are in your forties or fifties or whatever and you still Catholic,
That’s a very different kind of Catholic than someone who may have been brought up Protestant and then dabbled in Buddhism and Judaism for a little while and then wound up marrying somebody who is Catholic and decided to convert back to Catholicism because they wanted to be the same religion as their spouse.
These are both people who if you just asked them what they are, you are going to get the same answer. They are both going to say, “I’m Catholic.” But clearly there is a vast difference between these two types of Catholic in terms of how they got there, and this has a substantial implication in terms of what they actually believe and how important it may be to them.
So these are the kinds of questions that we have to start thinking about in the context of the spiritual or religious person and how that relates to their mental health.
Several other important questions come about when we start to think about mental health.
And that’s how the person actually engages in their religious or spiritual tradition.
Are they somebody who actually just does the prayers and the practices at home?
Is this somebody who is actively engaged in their religious or spiritual community– going to church every week, going to all the holidays– or do they just show up for the big holidays?
This is a very important element in terms of trying to understand the relationship between spirituality and mental health because we need to understand how engaged the person is in their spiritual tradition and how they may ultimately use that in the context of their mental or physical well-being.
It’s also important again to understand the difference between those people who are more heavily engaged in private practices. Maybe they don’t really enjoy going to church or synagogue very often, but they love to do the practices at home and they at home are very religious. On the other hand, people may do very little at home and do a lot in the context of their church or their synagogue environment.
Other questions to be asking people is how do they turn to their religion or spiritual beliefs as part of a support network for themselves? How do they use it to cope with various issues? Most research studies have shown that patients most frequently cite religious and spiritual beliefs as the primary way in which they cope or deal with different issues and problems that they face in life.
So it’s very important for us to understand how and why people turn to their religious or spiritual beliefs as a point of coping and dealing with the stresses in their life, and that can be kind of the normal everyday stresses in their life, unusual stresses that may be going on with regard to a death or a divorce, or how they may be facing a particular disease or disorder like cancer or heart disease which clearly has an impact on the body as well as on the mind and the brain.
It’s also very important to understand a person’s beliefs and the values that come out of their particular religious tradition.
Lets take for example an incident a Doctor told me had. Where He had a woman who was a Jehovah’s Witness, at least that was what it said on her Intake Form, who had come in with bleeding from her intestines. And her blood levels were getting very, very low, and everybody was getting very nervous about this. And for those of you who don’t know, a Jehovah’s Witness is someone who generally is not willing to accept any kind of blood products as part of their treatment.
And often this creates a fair amount of issues for the medical practitioners who are taking care of them where they may feel that they need to give them blood, even though the person won’t accept it.
And therefore we have to find other ways of trying to manage them and take care of them. So in this particular case, it was a woman who was in her forties, and she was having a lot of bleeding going on. So he went in to talk to her. And said, “Boy, your blood levels are getting very, very low; and we may have to give you some blood. But it says you are a Jehovah’s Witness, and I just wanted to make sure I understood what your beliefs and your ideas were about that.” And she looked at him and she said, “No way. Hey, my mom is a Jehovah’s Witness, and that’s what I call myself. But I’m not an active practitioner of being a Jehovah’s Witness. So if I need blood, give me the blood.”
And, this of course, was just one of the first examples that just hit him so strongly that you can’t just assume what people are thinking or feeling simply because they identify themselves one way or another. And therefore when you are starting to think of in the context of mental health, if somebody says that they are a Catholic or a Jew or a Jehovah’s Witness, you may think that they hold certain beliefs. This is why we need to meet people where they are! Not where we think they should be!