A growing number of Americans continue to edge away from organized religion, “particularly in the millennial generation,” according to a Pew Research study published in 2015 and confirmed in surveys since. At the same time, “The study also suggests that in some ways Americans are becoming more spiritual. About 6-in-10 adults now say they regularly feel a deep sense of ‘spiritual peace and well-being.’”
Novant Healthy psychiatrist Dr. Vernon Barksdale said spirituality can play a vital role in mental health and an even bigger role when we become sick. We talked to him about how spirituality fits into everyday life and potential ways to explore options for yourself.
Power of ‘something greater’
One of the key factors of coping and healing when it comes to spirituality is the giving up of your worries to “something greater,” Barksdale said. His axiom is that we are all spiritual beings having a human experience, so we already have the resource within us for our benefit. The problem is accessing it in a manner that is fulfilling, comforting or beneficial. One way spirituality comes into play, he said, is by giving people a focus through which to marshal all their resources. “It’s all about strategies for connecting, coping and overcoming,” he said.
Strength in numbers
Barksdale said there can be powerful potential for healing by immersing yourself in a larger purpose than your own. “Volunteer work or even simply attending group therapy sessions can cause an opening of our hearts in compassion to help or empathize with others,” Barksdale said. The group experience can be an event that allows you to connect with other people who have similar illnesses or issues that helps them and ourselves.
“This can help you realize that you are not alone in your personal struggle, give you an opportunity to learn new coping mechanisms from others, and allow you to teach someone else by drawing from your own experience,” he added. “That human connection helps us access our spiritual resources. A good example is 12-step programs.”
These practices help reduce stress that can exacerbate chronic diseases, Barksdale said. At the same time, he said, “Spirituality is great, but not a replacement for looking at your foibles and working on them.”
Where to start?
If you are searching for stronger spiritual footing, Barksdale recommends exploration. Meditation is a good place to start, and it can be incorporated into any belief system. Some people may prefer the 20th century teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, who helped bring meditation to the Western world and whose teachings are followed by local Self-Realization Fellowships. While hardly a household name in America today, many consider him to be the father of yoga in the Western hemisphere. Others may be more comfortable meditating with the Unity School of Christianity.
If you wish to start with simple prayer practices, Barksdale suggested The Golden Key, a book by Emmet Fox. Apps for mindfulness meditation are widely available, and general information about the practice can be found online. Barksdale’s own website discusses the benefits of spiritual practice in a general way that is not tied to any particular belief system.
The search for ‘helpful’
One key aid in the healing process for many lies in the act of belief and connection with an inner spiritual awareness, Barksdale said. Religious systems of belief also benefit many people because they provide a system and community to support the spiritual work. “People need to try different strategies or philosophies until they find what is helpful to them,” he said. Sometimes, the person may connect with the spiritual practices they grew up with, but not always. People in the West often turn to traditional Eastern practices like Buddhism, while those in the East may find fulfillment in Christianity or other monotheistic religions like Islam.
The bottom line, Barksdale said, is to focus your spiritual journey on a path that provides good ethics and helps you feel stronger, more connected and builds resilience to the challenges life throws our way.