I’m so excited to tell you that this week we are treated to having another guest writer on the blog! I deeply value the ideas and perspectives of others – especially when they have expertise on a topic. So I’ll introduce my brother Rylan. He is thoughtful, insightful, all kinds of wonderful and just wrapped up his undergrad in Religious studies – so this week he will be writing about spiritual wellness; enjoy!
I might be biased, but I am a huge fan of my sister’s blog and I love her weekly uplifting message of holistic wellness. I, too, believe that true health and contentedness are achieved through balancing your body, mind, heart, and spirit. I don’t claim to be an expert in any of those categories. I have my fair share of battles achieving wellness in each of them; but I do know a thing or two about spirituality (or at least, I paid the University of Waterloo enough money to say that I do). If we are going to talk about spiritual wellness, however, we first need to figure out what the heck that even means.
If you grew up in Canada, Europe, or the United States in the late 20th or early 21st centuries, the way that you understand your soul, spirituality, or spiritual wellness is likely a product of Greek philosophy. Tracing back to Plato – the dead old white guy to end all dead old white guys – we find an image of the human person rooted in a dualistic understanding of reality, which made moral distinctions between the material (the body or flesh) which was bad and the immaterial (the mind or spirit) which was good.
Over the last 2000 years, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim and secular thinkers across Europe (and beyond) have sampled, remixed, and reframed this basic concept of body/flesh being bad and mind/spirit being good; as a result, the categories of mind, spirit, and even emotion have become profoundly interwoven. (Fun fact: the Greek word psuche, which means soul, is the root of the English word psyche, which encompasses the whole of our mental and emotional processes and identities. Psuche, psyche – there you go!)
Dollop on heaps of rationalism and individualism – the principles of the Enlightenment and the foundation for modern Western society – over the last 200 years and we arrive at the present, with a spirit that is essentially understood to be our non-physical selves – a lumpy amalgamation of our consciousness, intelligence, personality, and individuality. Our spirit is something personal, the deepest recesses of our individual self, the only thing which we truly “own” and which is truly “private.”
Sooooooul… how do we talk about it?
This emphasis on the spirit and the mind being essentially the same things makes spiritual wellness rather awkward for the Western world to talk about. We have lots of useful scientific vocabulary to talk about mental wellness – which is fortunately becoming much more acceptable to promote – but the spirit part keeps getting pushed aside, like that sad, little, deformed French fry you know you’ll eat eventually (but only when all the good ones are gone and you’ve gotten to the crumbs).
For many Western believers of the Abrahamic traditions (Jews, Christians, and Musilims), spiritual wellness almost becomes a binary state of well or unwell – you either have faith in the right God and believe the right doctrines, or you don’t. You are either “in” or you are “out.” I believe that a holistic understanding of wellness appreciates the spirit in a fuller sense than this. I understand the spirit in terms of how it connects us, rather than how it makes us individual, and I believe that practicing spiritual wellness means practicing it together; if we want to do that, we need to meet each other where we are – and we need broader categories than “in” or “out.”
I am not my body, I am not my mind
In the Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism) there exists a rather different understanding of what our spirits are. The body is understood to be a distinct physical vessel through which our spirit inhabits the world, and the mind conceptualized as the mental vessel by which our spirits to interpret the world – but the spirit is completely independent from each of these. While the body and mind grow, change, and decay, the spirit is eternal and unchanging; while the body and mind are individual and human, the spirit is common and divine – it is the shared light of God that every being carries inside of them, uniting them all – it is the universal language of existence.
In the Buddhist tradition, this concept is turned up to eleven – not only does everyone have a divine light or spirit within them, but it is in fact the same spirit that all beings carry within them. To put this in terms that Abrahamic believers might appreciate, our bodies and minds make us unique individuals, but the image of God within all of us is identical. It is that spirit, that breath of God within all of us that gives us worth, not the capabilities of our bodies or minds; it is our spirits that make us all the same and deserving of love, forgiveness, and patience. (Fun fact: there is a gorgeous Buddhist saying that you should treat everyone as though they are your mother because everyone carries that same spirit as her, and in fact they were your mother in another lifetime, just as you were once theirs.)
When we understand the spirit in this way, spiritual wellness is not just a personal state of wellbeing – it is a state of wellbeing in relation to others. We have poor spiritual wellness when we do not see ourselves and our loved ones reflected in every human on Earth.
We have poor spiritual wellness when we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt while condemning others for their accidents. We have poor spiritual wellbeing when we reduce others to labels and judge them based on their race, their gender, their sexuality, their age, their economic status, their physical or mental abilities, or their lifestyle choices. We are poor in spiritual health when we fail to recognize that you are me and I am you (I wish I could see as clearly as Stevie Wonder). We are all in the same boat. We ended up on this planet in the same way, and we are all getting off it the same way – we have spiritual wellness when we recognize these truths, and respond to our reality in the only way that makes sense: with love.