Saturday, 10 January 2015

Spiritual Well-Being

Often at the beginning of a new year people resolve to live more healthily. Gym membership sores at this time of the year in an attempt to improve our physical lives. I know I would certainly benefit from getting physically healthier.

Physical well-being is of course on many of our minds this winter for other reasons too, there does seem to have been more than the average number of nasty viruses about that have ruined the Christmas and New Year festivities of many.

Yes physical well-being is on our minds at this time of the year.

Now while there is a great deal of talk of improving our physical well-being, which is of course important, there seems to be less talk of taking care of our spiritual well-being, which actually may well be more vital. If I have learnt anything in life I know that my emotional, mental and physical well-being rests on my spiritual health.

I remember that wise man from Oldham saying to me ten or more years ago, “If you are spiritually well, the rest will be taken care of.” How true this is. I learnt many years ago not to put the horse before the cart, a lesson I have never forgotten.

Spiritual well-being is vital. How do I know this? Well for many years it was something I lacked and as a result my life was devoid of all meaning and connection. I was just an empty vessel blown about in the storms of life. I was lonely, I was lost and I was ruled by fear of pretty much everything. This is no longer the case and the reason for this is that I found both an anchor and rudder as well as the ability to set my sails accordingly when the winds really blow. The key to this is spiritual well-being.

Medical practioners are increasingly recognising the potential benefits that spiritual well-being can bring. A spiritually healthy person tends to be at ease with themselves and comfortable in their own skin and surroundings. They have a developing awareness of themselves and those around them; they tend to act with patience, honesty, kindness, hope, wisdom, joy and creativity; they have a healthy relationships with the people they share their lives with as well as a hope filled view of life and a sense of inner peace and acceptance of problems we all face in life. While their recovery from both illness and bereavement tend to be less problematic.

Spiritual well-being is vital to a life of meaning and purpose and yet so many people in our increasing secularised age neglect this. Yes many folks may have a near perfect buffed body and a sharp mind and yet they can still feel empty, lonely and utterly disconnected.

Why is this? Well I suspect it is because increasingly we neglect our souls.

So how do we take better care of our spiritual well-being? Well it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that Forrest Church offered some thoughts on this. In his book “Freedom from Fear” he offers a simple 10 step regime that was designed initially to overcome self-created fear but as he has suggested in subsequent articles can work just as easily on developing our general spiritual well-being and help get our souls in shape.

I will share and reflect on these ideas with you.

The first thing that he suggest is to breathe, that by simply taking deep cleansing breaths we will quickly discover that the “breath of life communicates the secret to relaxation (that blessed state in which all other spiritual exercises suddenly become possible).”

Experience has shown to me how vital this is. I used to suffer terribly from anxiety and connecting through breath was one way that I overcame that a decade ago. All meditation begins by simply connecting to the breath.

His second suggestion is to “lighten up” Stating that “"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly," wrote the English author G. K. Chesterton. By the same token, surely the devil fell on account of his gravity. What works for angels can’t help but be good for us. Levity addresses worry’s tendency to obsess; scoffs at the demon of perfectionism; and exposes (as our enemy, not our friend) the self-absorption that lies at the root of insecurity and unhappiness. When we laugh—especially at ourselves—we fill the present with instant joy.”

I learnt a long time ago that “life is far too serious a business to be taken too seriously. I remember at school an old biology teacher telling me that a man who cannot laugh at himself will always struggle. It is something I have never forgotten. I hated him for it at the time, because I knew I took myself far too seriously and just couldn’t free myself from this blight. I just took everything so personally. Thankfully I learnt a long time ago that if ever I want a good laugh I just have to listen to myself.

His third suggestion is “Pray for someone you hate” claiming that we should choose our enemies with care as it is likely we could easily become like them. Hatred is a real burden to carry although according to Church it is surprisingly simple to be set free from. He suggests that all we have to do is close our eyes imagine the face of our enemies and simply pray, "May so and so find peace within his or her soul."

My word does this work. I have experienced the reality that it is impossible to both hate and pray for a person at the same time. The key is in seeing our shared humanity. This begins with real empathy. Once I recognised my own imperfections it became easier for me to accept those in others and to therefore wish for them what I would wish for myself and those I love the most. I have been set free from so much of the hatred and anger that used to weigh me down, like Marley’s ghost.

His next suggestion is to “Pray for the right miracle. If healthy, pray for health. Anyone who is ailing will remind you what a blessing health is. Then pray for sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste—whichever of these senses you are blessed with; millions of people aren’t, you know. Finally, pray for the sympathy of those who are concerned about your plight, whatever it may be. The love of those who love you is a gift. Say "Thank you." Miracles happen.”

Thank you truly is the perfect prayer. I remember many years ago hearing a man share that when he went swimming he would say “thank you” with every breath. This really touched me and helped me to truly understand the meaning of gratitude.

His fifth suggestion is “Pool your tears”. Suggesting that our tears whether of joy or sorrows are precious and that we should follow the example of the ancient Hebrews and collect them and share them communally.

I learnt a long time ago that spirituality at its core is about increasing our sensitivity to life. I have shed more tears this last twelve months than any other year of my life. Materially speaking it has been a tough one, I have lost so many people I have loved deeply, and yet in many ways spiritually speaking I have never felt more liberated. I suspect that the reason for this is that I have honoured rather than been ashamed of my tears. I have not hid them away I have shared them communally and thus I have never felt more alive.

His sixth suggestion is “Hang up your troubles”, suggesting that we follow the example set in the following story, “The Worry Tree”

"The Carpenter I hired to help me restore and old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.

On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When opening the door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His face wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.

"Oh, that's my trouble tree", he replied. "I know I can't help having troubles on the job, but one thing for sure, troubles don't belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again."

"Funny thing is", he smiled, "when I come out in the morning to pick 'em up, there ain't nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.""

Forrest suggests that instead of bringing our troubles home with us and infecting everything that we do and engage with at home that we hang them on our worry trees and thus give those we love the attention they both deserve and require. If we do we may just find, as in the story, that when we come to pick them up in the morning there aren’t as many as there was when you left them there the night before.

Gosh how true is this. I learnt a long time I ago that if I deal with each day and put my troubles to bed before I settle down for the evening that not only do I sleep better - I have not suffered insomnia for 10 years and yet for 20 I hardly ever slept naturally – I have also discovered that come the next day the problems are less weighty and as if by magic many of them have blown away in the night.

His seventh suggestion is to “Unwrap the present”. As he states “You may remember the magic mirror in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It reflects the fondest dreams of anyone who gazes into it. For instance, Ron sees himself being crowned the Quiddich champion. Harry imagines himself reunited with his parents, both of whom are dead. The wizard tells Harry, "It is bad for you to spend so much time in front of that mirror." He explains that only when we look into the magic mirror and see ourselves as we actually are can we be accounted truly happy. Why? Because the past is over and the future uncertain. Nostalgia dwells on loss; and expectation is often nothing more than premeditated resentment. Rejecting both—by wanting what we have, doing what we can, and being who we are—the gift of time is ours to savor and to save”

When I began to learn to love myself warts and all and beauty spots too, to learn to be who I truly I was, I was better able to live a life of good use and purpose and truly live in the present moment. That said that in order to do this I first of all had to come to peace with my past, my whole past. I think of all of Forrest’s suggestions that this one has proved and continues to prove the greatest challenge.

His eighth suggestion is to “Remember the Secret to Everything” that it’s not all about you, that as Rev Bill Coffin said "There is no smaller package in the world than someone who is all wrapped up in himself." That the over examined life is not worth living. That we must not spend too much time lost in our own underwear.

Now this may well be the secret of all secrets. The greatest danger in trying to improve our own lives as how easy it is to become wrapped up in this venture and actually decrease our spiritual well-being. I know above everything that self absorption and self obsession have been the greatest barriers to my spiritual well-being. As the song goes "You do it to yourself, you do and that's why it really hurts."

His ninth suggestion is to “Wish on a star” pointing out that by the latest reckoning there are some two trillion stars in the universe for every single human being. That we should contemplate the incredible odds that we should even exist at all and the fact that we live at all is miraculous in and of itself. While at the same time recognising that we are all connected too by a single incredible unbroken thread that goes back to the moment of creation. He states that “The universe was pregnant with you when it was born. So how about a quick and simple cosmic move. Go out this very evening. Wish on one of your two trillion stars.”

As I began to understand the reality of this that existential angst that plagued my life seemed to disappear and it helped me to understand that everything matters, every feeling, every thought, every breath matters. We are all a part of this one amazing thing that is life.

Forrest’s final suggestion is that we “Let go for dear life.” He asks “ What do you worry about most? Is it your children? Or maybe your parents, suddenly like children in their dependency on you? Is it your health—a disease or condition you have now or fear contracting? How about death—or does the pain and possible bondage associated with dying worry you more? After doing what we can to shape our destiny, the best response to life’s slings and arrows lies in ceding power that was never ours to exercise in the first place. We can do this begrudgingly or with grace, one day at a time, wanting what we have, not lamenting what we lack. The results will be almost the same in either case. Our parents will pass on; our children will leave home in pursuit of their own lives and dreams. The only difference is that fear will not preside over each departure, and love will be free to reign in its stead.”

Of all the things I have learnt in life I have learnt that by letting go of the need to control everything and accepting reality as it is I have been set free to enjoy life as it actually is. It doesn’t take away any of the pain or suffering present in all life, but it does set me free to experience the joy that accompanies that very same suffering.

So these are Forrest's 10 suggestions on how to improve our spiritual well-being. It sounds like quite a task. My suggestion to you is to try implementing perhaps one or two of them. Maybe simply begin with your breath and the sense of connection that we a part of something much greater than our singular selves, but a part that matters, really matters. Know that you are loved and recognise that love that you are formed from both within yourselves and your brothers and sisters, even those you consider to be your enemies.

As we step into the future let’s wish for something we can have, something upon which everything else hangs. Let us wish for improved spiritual well-being. This is not merely wishful thinking, but thoughtful wishing for it is something that is within our breath. And where does this begin? Well it begins with our next breath.

So let’s breathe in life and breathe out love.

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with a few words by John O'Donohue offering us a way to reclaim the sacred in your everyday moments, by suggesting some questions we might ask ourselves at the end of the day...

At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions" by John O’ Donohue

What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?
What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel most myself?
What reached me today? How deeply did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence – why was I given this day?

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