As we begin a new year, many are focused on their spiritual health and well-being. In fact, the National Wellness Institute names spiritual wellness as one of the seven dimensions of overall wellness. It’s essential in life, say experts.
Lisa Jackson-Cherry, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Counseling at Marymount University in Arlington, who specializes in pastoral counseling and pastoral integration, believes spiritual well-being doesn’t always have to do with religion. It’s about being connected to something greater than one’s self. "It doesn’t have to be a higher power," she said. "It can be your community or nature, but the key piece is that there is a connection to something other than yourself."
Elizabeth Rees, the associate rector at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, said, "I would say at its heart, spiritual well-being is knowing ourselves to be loved and cherished by God and then living into that truth."
Kathy Judd, Alexandria-based meditation teacher and director of No Place Like Om, said, "Spiritual health and well-being is when you … feel just as, if not more, connected to what you can’t see as to what you can. It’s about knowing that there is an animating force that drives the show and seeing all the ups and downs of our human experience as just like that — a show."
Some say that expectation management is a factor in spiritual wellbeing. "If there is a gap between expectation and reality, there can be a ... lack of contentment," said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. "When we set our expectations lower in terms of what we expect from others, we are less likely to be disappointed. It is appropriate to set our goals high, but our expectations lower. Goals motivate us, but when we have expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointment."
WHILE SPIRITUAL WELLNESS can mean different things to different people, experts said there are common factors that can help one achieve it, such as engaging with others. "When we think about spiritual health or well-being, we think about people being at peace with themselves and others," said Jackson-Cherry.
"In my opinion," she said, "once people become connected with other people and not so consumed with themselves or their own tragedies or pain and they give of themselves to others, share their gifts, often they experience contentment."
"Community is a big one, and also what you pay attention to and consume," Judd said. "If you’re constantly tuned in to the news cycle and people who are negative and arguing, you’re going to see the world from a certain viewpoint. … If you take time to be in nature, read uplifting things, eat [the right] foods, and surround yourself with a community of people who are loving, supportive and want to bring out the best in you, you’ll have a very different experience of the world."
Rees believes self-love is also a component of spiritual well-being. "In adult education here at St. Aidan’s, we’ve been listening to the talks of [scholar, author and public speaker] Brené Brown and talking about what she has to say about vulnerability. I have definitely found in my own life that when I dare to share the truth about my struggles with the people around me, it creates a new space for growth and depth.
"Until we learn to love and forgive ourselves, it’s almost impossible to love and forgive others," she said. "For me, the Christian story in general, and the Church community in particular, is the place where that comes together and makes sense."
Prayer is an important part of many religions. "Spirituality is found both within the context of meditation and reflective time, which could be prayer, as well as being part of a larger community," said Weinblatt. "That is why people can find contentment in prayer and places of worship and as well as in other contexts."
Jackson-Cherry said, "When I’m working with clients, I find that people who have the healthiest spiritual well-being are people who have a sense of purpose in life or have a meaning in life. They might not have achieved it, but they are working toward it. Having a sense of purpose or meaning in life leads to contentment."
So how does one find a sense of purpose and meaning in life? "We’ve talked about this question a lot," said Rees. "What comes up most frequently is the idea of finding ways to live in the present, slowing down and finding God present in the moment. … Hearing where other people are finding God, and taking the time to look for God acting in my own life and share that with others makes me much more aware of God all around, and helps me to remember that God is also acting in and through the people around me."
Judd said there is work involved in achieving spiritual well-being. "It takes practice, just like anything else," she said. "Yoga and meditation are extremely valuable. Spirit is nothing more than an energy field, so if there is a lot of static in the field, it’s going to be hard to hear messages that are there. So anything you can do to calm the ‘talk radio’ in your head will make it easier to listen. When you learn to listen, you are able to be lead, to be called, to find your calling."
LIVING IN THE MOMENT is also a factor that can lead to contentment and spiritual well-being. "I think trying to … find as much love and joy in it as possible is a huge piece," Judd said. "Also, worry less about what others think and be more willing to live and love greatly. Developing gratitude, as something that runs through all of our life, not just as something that comes when life seems to be going really well, is important too."
Rees said keeping a journal is a useful tool in developing gratitude. "One spiritual exercise that helps me sometimes is to practice gratitude by prayerfully journaling about the things for which I am grateful," she said. "Sit down and write 100 things for which you are grateful. You start with the big and obvious things, but then also find yourself digging deep for the small but ever-present graces of life. … Journaling in general can be a great for spiritual well-being."