“Not every day is a good day. Sometimes you’re the statue and sometimes you’re the pigeon.”
~ Anonymous quote on the wall of a Jimmy John’s sub shop.
Spiritual health does not mean feeling happy all the time. Human beings aren’t designed to reside in a place of constant happiness—to grow, we need the crucible of experiencing tough emotions on a core level.
Spiritual health means that we strive to operate from a place of kindness and empathy—including toward ourselves, even when it seems impossible to do so. By cultivating such an attitude—and we can cultivate it through consistent practice—we will find happiness and joy become an increasingly common factor in our daily lives.
How do I know this? I’ve been both spiritually healthy and spiritually unhealthy.
In my 20s my life degraded to the point where—exhausted by my own insecurity, sense of purposelessness, fear, and anger, I did everything I could to hang my emotions up in the back of an imaginary closet and triple lock the door.
I created problems for myself to distract me from me: I did drugs, lived on the streets, married a cruel man, betrayed friends and family, and toyed with death as if it were a game of Tic Tac Toe that I couldn’t care less whether I won or lost.
When I woke from my self imposed nightmare, it was with one timid movement after the next. Now, in my 40s I see what was obscured to me all those years ago—if we walk through our fires with as much grace as we can muster, we will emerge on the other side, not as ash, but as light.
1) Observe the breath.
Observing the breath isn’t just about observing the breath, it is a starting point for observing everything.
As soon as we slow down enough to feel our lungs expand and contract, to note the quality of our breath, and to feel the air entering and leaving our nostrils, everything else pops into focus as well. It is simple, immediate and effective 100 percent of the time.
Once we become still enough to listen to the breath, we can also bear witness to our thoughts and emotions. If we stay with the breath, we can go beyond just witnessing them to experiencing their ebb and flow.
By doing so we learn that everything is temporary, even the most overwhelming feelings like grief, and that we can ride out the bad stuff until we get to the rest.
Observing the breath won’t fix what’s broken, but it gives us a chance to see our broken-ness clearly, and to see the parts of us which are still whole.
2) Be in nature.
We do not exist alone in the universe. We are a vital part of all that was, all that is, and all that will ever be.
When we understand that, we begin to behave differently. The universe becomes our friend, filled with limitless resources, and as we lavish ourselves with it’s abundance, we seek to lavish it back.
When I lived in New York, I would often stand on my rooftop (before I got evicted) and stare out into the night. I imagined that all the people inside their cement and dry wall boxes, some fancy, some plain, felt just as lonely as me. Perhaps they, did, perhaps they didn’t.
If they did, they were missing the same universal truth that I was—we are all connected.
Once we discover that, what should we do? Invite everyone in our neighborhood over for some kind of hippie love fest? Not necessarily—though that could be fun.
We can foster our sense of one-ness with the world simply by being in nature. And by “being in nature” I don’t mean driving to a remote location and taking a day long hike—though that would definitely be fun, I mean doing something as simple as placing your hand on a tree and noticing how it feels. Or wrapping your arms around your dog and laying your head against his heart. Or watching the passage of a cloud as it travels across the arc of the horizon.
If we notice and appreciate some piece of the natural world every day, we will feel noticed and appreciated in return. Our hearts will begin to open. Our minds will learn how to be still. Our words will become more thoughtful.
Our silences will become an oasis of peace rather than a statement of punishment or anger.
3) Eat mostly plants.
It’s inevitable…the more spiritually healthy we become, the less sense it makes to add to the suffering of animals and the planet. It is impossible to understand the interrelatedness of all things and not wonder how our actions impact everything around us.
If we are brave enough to answer the questions that our stillness has raised, and willing to take on the sometimes inconvenient and oft controversial (though, I must add delicious and endlessly creative) task of eating mostly plant based foods, we will find that our health, both spiritual and physical, exponentially expands.
Despite common beliefs, there is absolutely no reason, other than a desire to experience a certain taste, to eat non-plant based foods. And if that desire occasionally trumps all other concerns, well, we are imperfect beings, are we not?
But aligning our diet—which is the source of life, and the most visceral way we exchange energy with the earth—with our values as best we can, allows us to be authentic creatures right down to the literal marrow of our bones.
4) Feel gratitude.
Perhaps the most important key to spiritual health is the willingness to feel gratitude.
When I was in my dark place, gratitude was hard to come by. Waking up in a roach infested youth hostel with blood streaming out of my nose that was so toxic it was burning a hole in the pillow, knowing I was going to get kicked out and that I had no more money and absolutely no place left to go, didn’t get me in a super grateful state of mind.
But the funny thing was, that began to change just as things were at their worst. I learned how to be truly grateful for the kindness of a stranger—a fellow homeless person in Penn Station—who shared food with me she obviously needed for herself. I was grateful for a coupon ripped out of a phone book for a free tanning session, so I could lay down for 20 minutes and feel warm. I was even grateful when I was arrested and sent to jail for two weeks, because I knew at least that I would have a place to sleep and three meals a day.
In time, I began to learn the power of gratitude. It made me a nicer person. It made me want to do better, to be better.
I realized that to be in a state of grace really just means to be in a state of gratitude, and that there is always something to be grateful for, so we can always find that state.
Being spiritually healthy means welcoming truth, assessing it with kindness, and knowing that our true power lies in within our own hearts if we keep them soft and open. Just like a any kind of worthy task, spiritual health requires patience, discipline and a willingness to stumble and stand right back up. But unlike any other pursuit, the dividends are both immediate and infinite.
As we heal, we can help others heal as well, and see the light that surrounds us growing wider all the time.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman