As time goes by, the distinctions between mind, body and spirit blur for me. I can see how interlinked these aspects of ourselves are, how one affects the other. Looking at current trends in psychology, such as mindfulness, growth mindset and positive psychology, as practices, they are very similar to those people might use for spiritual connection. Couldn’t we equate mindfulness with spiritual meditation, for example?
So I have found myself asking, is spirituality just good psychology?
FIRSTLY, SPIRITUALITY IS GOOD PSYCHOLOGY
We can turn to research on the brain to see the impact of psychological and spiritual practices on its development. Both mindfulness and spiritual meditation change the brain in similar ways. To give an example, they both increase the cortical thickness of the hippocampus, thereby reducing the incidence and severity of depression. This is just one small example but it illustrates my point.
Whether we approach our practices from a spiritual or purely psychological perspective, this science appears to reduce them to simply exercises we do to convince our brains to be happier. Our emotions are, essentially, our brain’s response to our thinking, after all. Is there more to them than that?
SPIRITUALITY MAKES IT MORE BENEFICIAL
In the midst of my wonderings, I watched a YouTube video. In it, an educational and spiritual researcher said that bringing a spiritual aspect to many of the psychological practices used today magnifies their benefit for people. Her comment was made in passing and I would have been interested to hear her elaborate but it got me thinking about why it might make a difference.
Here’s my conclusion – spirituality brings meaning to the practices. Thinking to myself, “I am going to watch my breath mindfully” feels different to “I am going to quiet my mind to sense my connection with Life”. One limits our experience to a specific task and the other opens us up to the limitless. One feels functional. The other feels meaningful.
Some who are skeptical of spirituality may argue that people are just creating meaning that doesn’t really exist when they bring spirituality to their practices. But, once a person has experienced their own spirituality, its truth is undeniable. I have experienced greater peace, faith, oneness and intuition when my intentions are spiritual rather than just to perform mental exercises for stress relief. It brings an extra dimension to my practice and provides the real reason for doing it.
BRINGING SPIRITUAL PRACTICES TO OUR CHILDREN
We are doing a great service to our children if we teach them mental practices from a psychological point-of-view. If we do it from a spiritual point of view, we are offering them even more.
I would argue that, even when going in without spiritual intention, there is the possibility of experiencing something spiritual because our spirituality is a part of us whether we acknowledge it or not.
Let’s look at some current psychological practices, how a spiritual intention can be enhance them and some simple ways we could share them with our children.
Mindfulness & Spiritual Mindfulness
The term “mindfulness” is used both as a psychological and a spiritual term. For the purposes of this post, I am using “mindfulness” as a purely psychological practice and “spiritual mindfulness” to speak of it as a spiritual practice. Mindfulness is bringing our attention fully to the present moment and noticing & accepting what is, including our own thoughts & feelings. This is exactly what spiritual mindfulness is too. But to do it as a spiritual practice is to do it knowing that our thoughts, feelings and experiences are not who we are. When we are mindful with this intention, we may sense our oneness with Life. We may even hear something that Life has to say to us now that we have turned down the volume of our mind’s chatter. After a mindfulness meditation, we may feel relaxed and calm. After a spiritual mediation, we may also feel connected and able to separate ourselves (our identity, our worth, our happiness…) from our thoughts, feelings and experiences.
What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that. – Eckhart Tolle
Practising Spiritual Mindfulness with Our Children: Both psychological and spiritual mindfulness can be practiced as a formal meditation or as we go through our day. A very simple introduction for our children is to have them lie down with their hand/s on their heart or tummy. As their chest/tummy rises and falls with their breath, they can imagine ocean waves going up and down. This is mindfulness. Once they are settled into this, ask them to watch themselves doing this. They could do this by imagining that they are looking down on themselves from above, like a seagull flying over the ocean. This adds the spiritual component of awareness – being aware of themselves as separate from their body and thoughts.
Growth Mindset & Faith
Essentially, a growth mindset is based on the belief that our abilities and attributes can be developed through hard work (rather than the belief that they are fixed and we can’t do much about them). A growth mindset is one that, among other things, is resilient in the face of failure because it understands that there is learning to be found in failure – learning that can be used to inform the next creative move. A growth mindset can be applied to many situations, many environments and to life in general. The way I see it, faith enables us to develop a growth mindset further than we might otherwise. When we have faith, we trust that we are supported by the Universe. Therefore, we are more willing to take a risk when it feels like the right thing to do but not necessarily the most logical thing to do. I see my own mindset shifting from a more fixed mindset to a growth mindset as I develop more faith.
Practising Faith with Our Children: One way to help our children develop a growth mindset is in the way we talk about risk and ‘failures’. If we teach that risk is to be avoided, that failure is embarrassing or deems our efforts wasted and to give up when it doesn’t first work out, we teach them to fear their logically unsafe ideas – those that are more creative or intuitive, for example. We want to hear ourselves instead telling our children, “try it out”, “that didn’t work but now you have narrowed down the options” or “wow, I never would’ve thought of that!” We can’t make our children have faith but we can remind them that God always wants the best for them and is supporting them all the way. We may recognise moments when our children are feeling inspired and encourage them to follow those ideas, even saying, “I can see you’re inspired, you have an idea your heart really wants to follow”.
Positive Psychology & Inherent Worth
Positive psychology came about as a response to the problem-focused approach of traditional psychology. Its main idea is that psychology should be concerned just as much with building people’s strengths and thriving as it is with healing their problems. The numerous studies on happiness we hear about have sprung from the positive psychology movement. From my spiritual perspective, building a person’s strengths and maximising their thriving begins with their belief in their own worth. (My very first blog post was entitled A Child’s Worth.) If we understand that we are each inherently worthy, a deliberate expression of God, we don’t question our deserving of a fulfilling, happy life. We understand that we are intended to be fulfilled and happy. We start to feel obliged, even, to develop our God-given strengths and to live fully as the unique person that we are. It can’t be more positive than that!
Practising Worth with Our Children: As parents, it is our job to continuously reflect our children’s worth back to them. They need to see it in the way that we interact with them – our unconditional love, our appreciation of their strengths, our acceptance of their “weaknesses”, our efforts to really see them and to tailor our parenting to them. I think that honouring their joy is an aspect of this – joy is an essential element of thriving. Currently, Jake is into climbing. So we have built a simple treehouse at home, we look out for climbable trees when we’re out-and-about and we regularly go to playgrounds. By prioritising opportunities for him to climb, I am letting Jake know that I see and value who he is and that he is worthy of joy. (Not to be confused with tending to every whim.)
IN SUMMARY: SPIRITUALITY IS MORE THAN PSYCHOLOGY
From the outside, many of the practices of psychology and spirituality look the same. It is the intention behind them that makes them different. And it is the intention that can make them even more meaningful and powerful in our lives. Spirituality is good psychology but it is a whole lot more as well.
Recently, my youngest, Thomas, had a tickly cough that had worsened over the week. By nap-time on Friday, he was barely able to sleep because the cough would disturb him every few minutes. The prospect of a whole night ahead spent listening to him cough was one I dreaded – for his sake and mine – so, we made a trip to the pharmacy. I knew they would be unable to give us “the good stuff” because Thomas is only two-years-old and those cough medicines can only be taken by older children. But I came away with every product and tip the assistant suggested, determined that Thomas and I both would get a decent night’s sleep.
The night started off well. Having readily swallowed a liquid fruit salad of remedies (one was even peach-flavoured) and with the head of his bed propped up by my husband’s cricket books, Thomas drifted off to sleep quickly. It wasn’t until 3am that the coughing began. I waited a while to see if it would pass on its own but it was insistent on keeping Thomas awake. So, I forced myself into alertness and went in to see him. I offered a drink and some herbal cough liquid and snuggled into bed with him for a few minutes. His cough seemed to calm down and Thomas was still so I kissed his cheek and went back to my own bed. Easier than I thought.
I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in bed with my boys for more than 10 minutes during the night. They are give-an-inch-take-a-mile characters, likely to insist on middle-of-the night cuddles the following night and the night after that if I give in once. I’ve always been happy to climb in for a bit to give comfort and help them settle down but I never settle in.
However, within five minutes of my leaving Thomas’ room, his cough was in full swing again. I had no more tricks up my sleeve. Then I realised that what had really calmed the cough initially was not the expensive concoctions I had bought from the pharmacy but my snuggling into bed with Thomas. So, I tip-toed down the hall and climbed back in with him. He put his arm around my neck and, within a few minutes, his breathing was even and I knew he was asleep. I drifted off too and, when I woke, I had been there over an hour. I slipped out of Thomas’ bed, tip-toed back down the hall and we both slept well for the rest of the night.
OK, not the most exciting story but I wanted to write about it because it’s such a clear example of the mind-body-spirit connection. I’ve been aware of the connection for many years but have never witnessed it in such a simple, immediate way. I lay in bed with Thomas, fully present and not resistant (I’d usually be thinking, “I just want to get back to my own bed” and “I’m making a rod for my back, he’ll expect me to do this tomorrow night”). The cuddle almost instantly soothed his cough. It reinforced for me the health benefits of spiritual connection (which I also touched on in Spirituality & Depression – What’s the Relationship?) If a loving cuddle can soothe a cough, imagine the impact of all the other things we are doing for our children’s spirituality on their well-being.
“What’s the relationship between spirituality and depression?” This is a question that I have had swirling around inside for a number of years. When I look back on my own experience of depression, more than anything, I think of it as at time of spiritual crisis. I didn’t have faith in myself. I didn’t have faith in the world. Without faith, I didn’t have the strength to manage the challenges in my life or the hope of better days. Everything felt black.
It was a slow, gradual journey back to health. My circumstances changed and I found myself drawn toward spiritual content (books, tv, magazines…) which altered my way of thinking and being in the world. My faith has grown and my fear has reduced. Now, I am well – thriving, actually.
I am even grateful for the contrast between the period I was depressed and my life now. It reminds me not to take my joy for granted. It highlights what works for me and what doesn’t. As I write this, I realise that I no longer even worry about getting depressed again in the future. I had presumed that would be a concern of mine for the rest of my life, but it’s not there now!
This blog post has been brewing for a while. My hypothesis that active spirituality could be a significant factor in protecting a person against depression made sense to me, based on my own experience, but I had no evidence. When writing about the darkest times of a person’s life, I didn’t want to simply be “playing with ideas”. Then, this past week, through a series of synchronistic events, I got my hands on a copy of “The Spiritual Child”, by Lisa Miller, PhD (Picador, 2015). In it, Lisa shares the research on children’s spirituality in easy-to-read, often poetic, language. On the back cover of the book it says that children who have a “positive, active relationship to spirituality are…60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers”. When I read that, I felt I was being given the go-ahead to write this post.
I love the word “thriving” – that’s exactly what I want for my boys (for everyone). Lisa seems to love the word too. I’m less than a quarter of the way through the book but she has said this many times and in various ways:
The only thing that science has shown to reliably predict fulfillment, success and thriving: a child’s spiritual development. – The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller, p24.
To give you a piece of the evidence sited in her book: brain scans of those whose lives are led by spirituality show a number of distinct features. One is the thickening of sections of the right brain where, in depressed people, it would be thinner. If spirituality and depression have opposite effects on some areas of the brain, it suggests that it’s much harder for them to co-exist.
I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of the science but I’m wondering if there are specific aspects of spiritual thinking that particularly aid the prevention of depression. I’ve often heard, for example, that the brain can’t be in a state of appreciation and fear at the same time because of the way the brain operates. A person in a depressed state can alternate between grateful and fearful thinking many times in a day but it would presumably be the proportion spent in each that determines their overall experience?
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR OUR CHILDREN
Given the genetic component of depression, I was nervous about having children burdened with a higher likelihood of experiencing it. Fortunately, I made the choice to go ahead and my beautiful boys have played a big part in the deepening of my own spirituality and sense of thriving. I don’t often worry about whether or not they will experience depression in the future. By attending to their spirituality, I am comforted that I am doing what I can to support their mental health.
I am showing them how to connect with Love and how to put it into action. From a scientific perspective, I am strengthening the loving functions of their brains, building the neural pathways of loving thought. What is spirituality if not Loving (ourselves, others, the world)? What is depression if not fear (in a multitude of forms)?
I think that building my boys’ Love begins with offering them a loving world view. After all, it is our beliefs that shape our thoughts and, therefore, our emotions & actions. To show you what I mean, I’ll contrast a fearful world view with a loving world view –
These are a few examples of the fearful beliefs I had when I was depressed:
I don’t trust the world to be kind or for things to work out well for me (so I have to work super-hard to control everything and make life work myself).
I can’t do all that is expected of me. I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy of happiness and other good things
Everyone else is better than me. Things come more easily to other people.
These are some of the loving beliefs I have now and wish to pass onto my boys:
I have faith in myself and in the universe. The universe is working for me, in my best interests. I have everything I need.
I belong here. I have value. I am worthy of happiness and other good things. (See my post – “A Child’s Worth”).
Everyone is equal and has equal access to support from God.
If we compare the fearful and loving beliefs, we can see that they encourage entirely different ways of being. Depression is a complicated condition with so many contributing factors, but I think that, through showing them a spiritually-led life, I can steer my boys’ thought, biological/neural and lifestyle patterns so that they will have a head start in a joy-filled life and an understanding they can draw on if they ever do find themselves on the downward spiral.
IN SUMMARY: SPIRITUALITY, DEPRESSION & THRIVING
Just to be clear – I am not staying that actively spiritual people cannot have depression or that a person is not “spiritual enough” if they do experience it. I know it is a very complex condition with multiple aspects to it. In both of my boys’ early days, I experienced sustained anxiety which I attribute to insufficient sleep, biological (hormonal) factors and the stress I felt from the demands of a newborn. I was worried at times that I was on my way to depression again (fortunately, not).
I’m also not saying we “should” grow our children’s spiritual strength in order to reduce the likelihood of them experiencing depression. I wanted to share my scientific findings because they have confirmed what I felt I already knew – that the spiritual life I’m building for myself and modelling for Jake & Thomas is an advantage when it comes to reducing their chances of experiencing depression and increasing their chances of thriving.