Last weekend, I found myself at a spiritual retreat in the Berkshire Mountains with a group of a hundred or so mystics from around the world.
Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and others all gathered in an old Shaker village with the intention of coming into unity with their highest selves and one another by way of shared meditation and prayer.
Saturday at lunch, I sat down next to an elderly man named Robert. He had Parkinson’s disease. His hands trembled when he lifted his fork to his mouth and he spoke slowly and deliberately. Each word was like a five pound weight.
We made small talk in that socially awkward way one does when wanting to know a person.
Robert’s demeanor reminded me of my grandfather, a devout Catholic who died of the same disease. Even though my spiritual path has detoured from my grandfather’s brand of Catholicism, or any brand of it for that matter, I’ve always lamented that I never got to ask him questions about life and spirituality.
Robert was in for more than he bargained for.
Robert spent his career as a chaplain at an Ivy League university. He spoke about counseling young men and women in the sixties and seventies, and how one of the biggest concerns they held was how to live a life that balanced their inner and outer worlds.
These people had chosen the academy, the tangible world, and didn’t want to spend their lives cloistered away in service to their faith. But at the same time, they felt a deep desire to integrate their spiritual sensibilities into their daily lives in a tangible way.
Just going to church on Sunday wasn’t enough. They wanted to make a difference in the world.
A handful of decades later, spiritual seekers of all traditions are still wrestling with the same conundrum: How do we balance work and spirituality?
Do we just take jobs on Wall Street and ignore the clear disconnect?
Robert says no. He encourages people to find careers that allow spirituality and day-to-day success to coexist. Being of benefit to people, he says, is the key.
For most of us, the question of work comes down to two things: Money and purpose. The work of commingling money and purpose with the two broad aspects of spirituality—inner development and social community—is where the fun begins.
Here are a few examples of how to merge these ideals:
Spiritually Supportive Therapy.
As more of my deeply spiritual friends grow into themselves and their careers, a surprising majority are going into the field of counseling.
They are Buddhist counselors, Jewish counselors, and Sufi counselors—all the bases are covered! They do it because working on the ground with everyday people allows them the opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life and inner development.
Counseling requires a high level of self-reflection and acceptance, and a desire to support our fellow humans on their path to spiritual health and growth.
While someone who is not interested in the interconnectedness of humanity can walk by a homeless schizophrenic man on the street and not wonder about his story or his heart, a person who is tuned into the social and spiritual aspects of mental disorder will see past the stigma and feel the similarities between them.
In any discussion of the negative mental health stigma in our culture today, the topic of social history will arise. Sufferers of mental disorders, like that schizophrenic man on the street, were once thought to be possessed by demons or suffering from supernatural afflictions.
We’ve thankfully transitioned away from that simplistic way of thinking. But the fact that it persisted for so long goes to show how easy it is for people to use religion as a shallow explanation for unexplainable behavior.
All humans deserve love and compassion; God is not a puppet for social constructs.
As religious complexity and mysticism are given more space to thrive in society—namely because the decline of religion in mainstream culture gives some spiritual people room to breathe—a compassionate person with experience navigating their inner psychologies and interconnectedness can be of huge benefit to the world.
Spiritual counseling has a fascinating role in modern psychology. A recent study found that 80 percent of counselors support the idea of spirituality in therapy, but only a small percentage will utilize a patient’s religious beliefs as a healing avenue.
Counselors are so often hesitant to open the door to talking about spirituality in therapy sessions, for fear of accidentally influencing a patient with their own spiritual beliefs. It’s a healthy concern. At the same time, if a therapist builds a name for him or herself as a counselor who utilizes prayer and meditation to help their clients, then they will naturally attract people who already have their own relationship to spirituality and are open to it.
The physical body so often gets forgotten when people start thinking about spiritual growth. It’s far too easy to conceptualize the body and spirit as two separate entities. Without the body, our spirits would have no place in the cycle of death and rebirth that’s so valuable in modern Buddhist thought.
While some holy men and women are able to gain a level of mastery over their bodies, such as sustaining unfathomably long fasts, most of us are still very much tied to our physical bodies. For those of us who have not reached the highest levels of enlightenment, an unhealthy body means the spirit suffers.
While spiritual health is experienced somewhere beyond this physical realm, it is anchored in body awareness.
Providing care for the injured has been the work of spiritual people for centuries. During the United States Civil War, nuns who served as nurses were considered some of the most effective healers on the ground.
The Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic sisters who emigrated from Dublin to Pittsburgh in the mid-1800s, established the first Mercy Hospital in the world. When the Civil War broke out, they were some of the best-trained individuals to provide care for injured and dying soldiers.
The U.S. population has changed drastically since the Civil War. In more modern times, it’s not young soldiers who make up the brunt of the need for well-trained nurses, but the elderly. With a senior-heavy population, there are more elderly people needing proper care than ever before.
Add to that the reality that so many ailments carry with them the need for specialized care, and there’s no doubt that it’s a career in high demand. Not only do family care offices and hospitals around the country need nurses, they find themselves in the predicament of needing nurse practitioners who are focused on senior women’s healthcare in particular.
The population is aging, so of course the work will change.
Nursing is a rare kind of work that allows one to see the impact that kindness, aid-giving, and attentiveness have on the people around them. In this way, helping to heal a person’s body is holy work.
Substance Abuse Counseling.
Substance abuse counseling falls squarely between the mental/emotional realm of therapy and the physical realm of nursing. Along with the emotional upheaval of addiction treatment, there is a real physical component too. It’s time to toss the stigma; addiction is a disease.
Substance abuse so often arises in people who aren’t skilled at relating to their inner world. It makes total sense—drugs and alcohol are an easily accessible release for issues that can otherwise feel too heavy to carry.
Many addicts, especially the ones who have checked into rehabilitation facilities, realize that they need help to regain control over their lives.
Informed, sensitive substance abuse counselors play an important role in helping addicts navigate that convoluted road to recovery. They are the voice of experience, hope and encouragement.
When a person is caught in a cycle of addiction, it’s easy for an untrained bystander to associate the behavior with some sort of moral failing. But again, just like with mental disorder, when we look beyond the idea of what’s socially acceptable, the judgements fall to the wayside and all that’s left is a person seeking help.
It’s no coincidence that many 12-step programs have a spiritual aspect.
The field of addiction treatment therapy allows for spiritual freedom. It really doesn’t matter what avenue the psychological healing takes, so long as it is beneficial to the patient. They can use the word “God” or “spirit” or “intuition”—whatever might fit best, so long as the result is that the patient feels fully held and safe in their own experience of the world.
Genuine spirituality is all about ridding ourselves of the social chains around religion and staying true to the message of oneness, in whatever form it might take.
We all encounter major roadblocks in attaining this level of clarity in our daily lives. One of the best ways to integrate spiritual growth into daily life is to help people tackle their roadblocks in a holistic and lasting way.
How do we balance it all?
Most importantly, if a person takes on work in an unbalanced way, it’s certain to become burdensome to spiritual growth.
Unbalance takes many forms. Maybe the work requires too many hours to provide a livable wage, or maybe the emotional investment is too heavy. Every person must listen to their own inner guidance and define the role of work in their life.
Being clear about the reasons we work helps to maintain spiritual balance. Is the work our life’s purpose? Is it just a stepping stone? Or is it there to pay the rent and that’s it?
It’s easier to work long hours when we feel like the work is furthering our purpose for being on the earth. When the job is just about money, it’s more likely to take a spiritual toll if we over-invest ourself in it.
Not everyone finds themselves in the work they love. It’s idealistic to suppose the world operates that way. But as long as we’re not trying to tap syrup from a dead tree, even the most menial jobs can be fodder for growth. A retail worker who gets yelled at regularly by irate customers, for example, can use it as an opportunity to watch her breath, not take things personally, and reflect love even in difficult circumstances.
Of course, when this practice stops being of benefit, it might be time to seek new work.
In the endless effort to balance spiritual life with career, I think Robert from the Berkshires was onto something. While work isn’t the only way for a person to expand their spiritual practice into the daily world, it is a great starting place.
The best way to achieve spiritually-enriching work, to connect inner spirituality with its outer manifestations, is to be of benefit to the world. Plain and simple. The mode doesn’t matter.
Just be of benefit, be present, and the rest will happen on its own.
Do you, or someone you know, have spiritually-enriching work? Share in the comments to inspire more readers that it really is possible!
Author: Katie Kapro
Image: danielle tineke/Flickr
Volunteer Editor: Julie Barr; Editor: Toby Israel