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.