2007-12-21 / Columnists

Health & Harmony

Spiritual Healing
By Dr. Nancy Gahles

DR. NANCY GAHLES DR. NANCY GAHLES Health and harmony, and healing in general, have much to do with spirituality. That is to say, the connection that each of us has to the spirit which animates us and the one that connects us to each other. Often, we tend to associate spirituality with religion. This can evoke a negative connotation in some who have been affected by the conservatism, restrictions, injuries or dogma of their faith of origin.

In eschewing the trappings of religion, some people interpret that to mean that they are not spiritual.

In fact, we have no choice in that matter, as humankind is a blend of the marvelous mystery of body, mind, emotion and spirit. That ineffable quality we call spirit is that which attracts us to other people in a genuine, heartfelt way. It can be characterized as energy, enthusiasm, and attitude. It is the very life force of a person and it is detectable, indeed, felt, by another person.

Spirit is the energy that connects us to one another. Spirit allows us to recognize the energy that another person is emitting or withholding. All of us are sensitive to the high spirits of motivational or inspirational teachers, leaders and speakers who elevate our "good feelings." Likewise, we are sensitive to the low spirits of angry or depressed individuals who can tend to "bring us down."

It has long been recognized in the health care industry that positive attitude is a boon to healing. Positive people generally have good relationships. They associate with likeminded individuals and create connections, bonds, if you will, that sustain them in times of need. Positive people have faith in the relationships they have formed and are confident that these bonds will tide them over the rough times. This is a type of spirituality that is born of interconnectedness. Interconnectedness with the rest of humanity and the consciousness that informs humanity is the spirituality that heals. It is the union of spirit that drives compassionate interaction. It is the communion of spirit that is known as Love. When we have loving relationships in our life we have meaning, purpose and fulfillment in our life's goals. When we have this experience on an ongoing basis, we trust that the future holds more of the same. Through loving relationships we learn that we can fail, change, advance, retreat and still have a safe place to fall.

The spirituality that comes into play in creating and sustaining health and in overcoming disease is this spirit of knowing. Studies show that a greater quality of life is associated with patients with advanced disease if they have meaning and purpose in their lives. To live is to love. To love is to be in the presence of Oneness. In this way, we learn that we are all part of something greater than ourselves. This sense of connectedness seems to promote healing. It fosters a spirit of peace. A spirit of well being.

How do we get there from here?

Herbert Benson, MD, a pioneer researcher at Harvard Medical School, has studied this phenomenon through mind/body research for over 40 years. The research showed that when a person engages in a repetitive prayer, word, sound, or phrase and when intrusive thoughts are passively disregarded, a specific set of physiologic changes ensue. This is called the relaxation response. This is achieved through deep breathing accompanied by the particular mantra, prayer, sound, or word that you choose.

Yoga, mediation, prayer and chanting are techniques to use to facilitate this state of relaxation. Dr. Benson found that many people who elicit the relaxation response also note an increased spirituality. His findings spurred him on to create a course in mind/body medicine at Harvard Medical School, a bastion of conservative thinking. I have had the pleasure of attending these conferences over the last 20 years. At the most recent Harvard conference on this subject, Dr. Benson said in his keynote address, "Spirituality is expressed as experiencing the presence of a power, a force, an energy or what was perceived of as God, and this presence is close to the person. This finding opened the door to questions about the healing effects of spirituality and to the creation of this course… Spiritual practices offer millennia of experience deeply rooted in the use of prayer and belief…emergent theory suggests that the totality is greater than the sum of its individual, measurable components."

Spirituality is now being studied in medical schools and has become a focus of consideration in the phenomenon of healing a whole person. I applaud the effort to incorporate spirituality into the healthcare system; indeed, I feel that it is a moral imperative to do so.

It is also incumbent upon us to begin the process of self-care by incorporating those practices that facilitate deep healing on an everyday basis. Begin by practicing deep breathing and progressive relaxation using a word, prayer or sound on each exhalation. You can also count on each breath. Go through the body and relax each area with your breath in a progressive fashion. Do this for more than 10 minutes and less than 20 minutes each day. Keep notes on your experience. Note any changes in your lifestyle choices and relationship. Do mini-relaxations while waiting on lines or in traffic, and especially, in stressful circumstances.

My favorite "mini" is a line from the Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh:

When I breathe in, I calm myself.

When I breathe out, I smile.

A smile a day keeps the doctor away…and it attracts the nicest energetic spirit! A peaceful holiday spirit to all!

May The Blessings Be!

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