Your publisher is frequently asked whether religious or spiritual practice can improve our mental health – or mitigate specific symptoms of a mental illness.
The answer to this is difficult for three primary reasons, mainly centered on generalization.
First, there are myriad religions and spiritual traditions, and to lump them all into one category is misleading and mistaken.
Second, mental health is a deep, highly personal, and multi-faceted phenomenon.
Third, and above all, we are all individuals; the way we react to our inner and outer landscapes is as varied as Nature herself.
That being said, we can certainly make some useful distinctions.
Today, let’s look at religion versus spirituality.
As I see it, religion is a structure of beliefs usually centered on a singular conception of divine identity as well as a body of text – like the Bible – which provides a structured bedrock. Many folks feeling adrift as the result of a mental illness will find solace and security in a religion. While “belief” may be a profoundly personal journey, the external referent is commonly a necessary foundation – its inherent proscriptions and (often) inflexibilities a comfort.
Spirituality, in its more basic colloquial definition, is more ephemeral, perhaps more personal – though it is an absolute precondition for religious belief.
Folks who your publisher interviewed for this article have described their personal spirituality as ineffable, fluid, and deeply individual. (I will say, too, that many of my religious friends describe their faith experience in the same way.)
But here on the Coast, especially, there is sacredness about the forest and ocean – a sense and experience bordering on mysticism – that can soothe the troubled mind of its difficult moods and give deeper meaning to existence.
Decades of studying, experiencing, sharing, and writing about mood and mental health have revealed to me that most folks living with emotional distress follow a pattern a bit like the stages of grief.
The first stage is: Why? Why me? What did I ever do to deserve a mind so uneasy and exhibit behavior so unlike me? So out of control? This is the stage most often accompanied by a sense of guilt and anger.
It is at this point that religion may provide necessary port in the storm, for religion (as I have briefly defined it) is steady, proscriptive. A degree of inflexibility, orthodoxy, is an anchor. But that is sometimes not enough, or is just the first step.
For some folks, the “why” question yields to acceptance, where the quest for understanding and deeper existential significance moves to a state of surrender, where the separation between self and ego melts into a sense of unity with Nature.
We on the Coast are blessed. We have incredible, quiet forests to walk, full of colour and birdsong (and the odd bear). We have beautiful beaches with their tides and smells. And we have churches, for those who find solace there.
When we come to understand ourselves as being in harmony with Nature – or of whatever divine presence we recognize – we find peace in the knowledge that we are a part of creation, no matter what our ego tells us. And that is where self-judgment ends, and the path to peace begins.
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