The Relationship Between Mind, Body and Soul
Rabbi Jeffery M. Silberman, DMin and Lisa Tremont, MPH, RD
Religious Traditions dating back before the Bible speak of a person's life in terms deemed extraordinary today. The patriarchs reached hundreds of years of age. Methuselah lived for 969 years according to tradition. In Judaism it is traditional to consecrate an older person upon the occasion of a birthday with the phrase ad meah v 'essrim, that they should live to one hundred and twenty, the age given Moses upon his death. The Psalms describe a person's lifetime as three score years and ten or by reason of strength four score. These traditions hint at an underlying attitude that we are rewarded with a longer life for walking in the way of the Lord.
Today, more than ever, physicians, theologians, and the community are taking a closer look at the relationship between health and spirituality. Popular books written on the subject include The Road Less Traveled, by the American psychiatrist Scott Peck, MD And Love, Medicine and Miracles, by Bernie Siegel, MD.The book, Megatrends 2000, projects an upsurge of Spirituality the end of the 1990's. Certainly the word itself is being used with greater frequency and in a wide variety of settings, though often in vague terms. But what is Spirituality? What does it have to with health? And what does it mean to live a spiritual life?
Is There A Relationship Between Health And Spirituality?
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Holistic health, a term growing in popularity, necessitates the presence of spiritual health. Holistic health encompasses health of the mind, body and soul. A recent conference addressed to religious and mental health professionals was entitled: Mending the Mind, Minding the Soul: Explorations Toward the Care of the Whole Person. The implication of this conference was that religion and mental health necessarily compliment one another in that they both ultimately focus on the total well being of an individual. Spiritual health refers to one's religious values or one's system of belief which contributes positively to the life of the individual.
And By The Way, What Is Spirituality?
Spirituality has been described as the inherent religious consciousness of the person which informs one's thoughts and actions in the world. Some have characterized it as a way of being religious or of becoming a person in the fullest sense. Whatever the form of spirituality, and there are many, it offers us a perspective on life and meaning rooted in one or another human tradition which affirms a sense of the sacred or holy.
Spirituality demands that we exist in the present, not for some future time or promise that may or may not happen. A healthy spirituality teaches us to be present where we are and to accept what we have.
What Does The Scientific Literature Say (Or Not Say)?
Unlike following a low-fat diet, there is not an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to suggest that spirituality enhances health. Unlike bodily health, spirituality cannot be measured using traditional means of assessment. There is no way, for example to analyze one's blood for its faith content: There is strong evidence, however, that faith improves mental health (happiness and overall quality of life) which, in turn, helps to reduce the risk for diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Issues of Control
Researchers have documented an inverse relationship between the incidence of chronic disease and socio-economic status. It has been postulated that the lower one's socio-economic status is, the less control over the factors that affect life and living circumstances, e.g. money, power, access to information and services, prestige, and experience. A reduced level of control may be one of the common factors which have been shown to increase risk for illness and disease: stressful life events, lack of social support, isolation, and Type A behavior.
It may be helpful, then, to recognize that control can be a negative force, as well as a positive force. Trying to control situation unnecessarily, or when they cannot be controlled, tends to increase stress (Type A Behavior).
Could it have anything to do with the fact that it is not uncommon for Mexicans to say Si Dios quiere, which means If God wills it, when making plans? In the same way Fundamental Christians say, praise God and Orthodox Jews say Baruch Ha-Shem (Blessed is God), trusting in a higher force, as opposed to oneself, to ultimately control life's circumstances may do much to alleviate the stress that comes from self-dependence. The literature shows that married persons and those with extensive social networks experience better health primarily because they have others to depend upon and support them.
We have learned from psychology that through the healthy expression of our emotions we carry less stress and negative energy. To be fully spiritual means that one has access to the entire range of human feelings. Joy and celebration coexist for all people along with anger and sadness. Religion has historically understood the role of human emotion and offered opportunities to express them within appropriate venues. The rituals and ceremonies of birth and death, of marriage and maturity aid religious people in expressing their feelings. Psychological studies confirm that the person who can release the energies of emotional expression carries less stress and therefore lives longer.
Spirituality And Community Health
Spirituality provides a sense of connectedness. When you feel connected spiritually with the world, you attend more carefully to the small things that provide meaning in life. You pay more attention to what you eat, perhaps avoiding artificial additives or choosing not to eat animal products (vegetarianism). You pay more attention to the environment, perhaps deciding not to purchase products which are harmful to the environment. A lifestyle that destroys as much as it creates is not likely to be spiritually centered. While these insights and behaviors may not directly increase an individual's longevity, they certainly have an impact upon the longevity of the human race.
The Influence Of Religion On Health
In human history, it has been the task of religion to address spiritual health by providing a framework for behavior and discipline. In some cases, it is easy to see how such frameworks could support a physically healthy life: Most conservative Protestant denominations, for example, frown upon the use of alcohol, caffeine and other drugs. Certain religious groups, such as Mormons, have broader lifestyle requirements, which include dietary habits. These frameworks are consistent with medical research which suggests that religiously active Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and members of other conservative Protestant groups benefit from reduced risks of certain health problems. In other words, some of the guidelines put forth by religious organizations have extremely well documented health benefits. Additionally, the organizational culture of some religious groups foster a stable, ongoing opportunity to engage in community which, as discussed above, positively influences health.
Reprinted by permission