This article is an excerpt from Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water: Reflections on Stress and Human Spirituality Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D., M.S.(Health Communications, Inc.)

A crimson sunset. A hot bath. A monarch butterfly. The reassuring voice of a good friend. These are gifts which nurture the soul. We yearn for and cherish these special moments to give balance to that which so often and easily becomes off-balance through the hectic demands and increasing pressures of our jobs, families and uncalculated events in everyday life. These gifts, a type of divine energy so to speak, filter through our senses to invigorate the human spirit.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This nugget of wisdom speaks to our understanding of well-being, for health is not solely the optimal functioning of the body’s physiological systems. Optimal health is the integration and harmony of mind, body, spirit and emotions. Yet for many professionals in the industry, from physicians to fitness instructors, virtually all attention is placed on the physical well-being because it is the most tangible aspect of health.

For centuries, Western science and philosophy have placed a wedge between the mind and body. Today, as paradigms shift, leaders in various fields of science are learning that, indeed, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts that, in fact, there is no separation between the mind, the body and the spirit.

Physicians and physicists alike are turning their attention to an area long neglected – the health of the human spirit and soul. With the understanding that there is a definitive link between stress and disease, and a greater appreciation for the healing power of the human spirit (e.g., spontaneous remission of cancer), practitioners in all areas of health and fitness are beginning to acknowledge what the sages and wisdom keepers of all ages and cultures have been saying for millennia – to be healthy, one must acknowledge and nurture the human spirit.

People who have endured nothing less than catastrophic life experiences have most often come out victors rather than victims. When asked, “What was it that got you through your crisis?” each person gives a similar answer. What they describe is what I have coined “muscles of the soul,” those inner resources which help us dismantle and transcend the roadblocks on life’s journey. These roadblocks include everything from the ex-spouse from hell and cancerous tumors, to alcoholic parents or a flat tire during rush hour.

The muscles of the soul include, but are not limited to courage, faith, humor, patience, compassion, imagination, humbleness, forgiveness, intuition, creativity, optimism, honesty and love. These are the resources people draw upon in times of crisis and catastrophe. They are not gifts for a chosen few. They are birthrights for each and every one of us. But, like our physical muscles, they will atrophy if not used. And while they will never disappear, in a weakened or inactive state, they will be as ineffective as the muscles of a sedentary person attempting a marathon.

We each have the potential to be spiritually healthy. Perhaps spiritual health can best be described as using our potential – to engage the spiritual muscles on a regular and frequent basis. In times of change which often produces stress, we are called upon quite regularly to use our inner resources and come through each situation the victor, not the victim. Our spiritual muscles are there for the asking. Spiritual health is flexing these muscles and feeling the strength they provide when needed.

The health of the human spirit

Recognizing the unique alchemy of humanity and divinity is what allows us to best cope with life’s problems. Moreover, this mystical alchemy which sustains the health of the human spirit is a sound strategy for stress management because it acknowledges and honors, rather than ignores, the critical importance of the spiritual dimension.

Just as nervous tension can tighten muscle fibers to restrict the flow of oxygenated blood and nutrients to muscle tissues, so too can repeated perceptions of fear and anger restrict the flow of life force. In fact, these emotions may deny an adequate source of nourishment to that which is essential for physical health and spiritual growth. Divine spirit seeks to breathe life into every aspect of our lives if we are open to it.

The word health comes to us from the Anglican word Hal, meaning whole or holy. One cannot speak of health without an implicit understanding of human spirituality, for it is inextricably linked to our mental, emotional and physical health. Ensuring health to the human spirit is ensuring all aspects of well-being.

As the daily responsibilities of life pile up to an overwhelming clutter, the need for effective coping skills and relaxation techniques become essential to maintain a sense of mind-body-spirit equilibrium. Productive coping skills and relaxation techniques do more than calm the body, and provide stillness to the mind and clarity of thought. If regularly practiced, they clear and maintain a pathway to allow the flow of divine energy down into our deepest body tissue, ensuring and nurturing the human spirit.

Nurturing the health of the human spirit is entirely an individual undertaking. There are no special guidelines, strategies or formulas to follow, only recommendations. These recommendations, like brand new clothes, must be tried on for the best fit.

Seven suggestions to enhance the health of the human spirit:

  1. The Art of Self-renewal

Self-renewal is a continual process, and we must constantly strive to replenish spiritual energy. It is as important as breathing. To be present and attentive to those around us and strong for others in times of need, we must first attend to our own capacity of strength and endurance–or run the risk of pulling everyone down with us when the weight and worry of our responsibilities causes us to fall.

Self-renewal typically begins with some aspect of the centering process. It’s a time to go within, and it continues in whatever way feels most appropriate to replenish one’s source of personal energy. Conceptually speaking, the most essential aspect of self-renewal is preparing a quiet space to be alone to calm the waters of the soul. There is no one way to do this, only a way that is best for you.

  1. The Practice of Sacred Rituals

All life is sacred.  There are no exceptions.

To give order and meaning to our existence, we attribute specific habits and various customs as more special – more sacred – than others. We gravitate toward these activities and make them routine so we are reminded of life’s sacredness. Metaphorically speaking, sacred rituals allow the human spirit to become electrified.

Driving to work or walking the dog can be mundane acts or mystical rituals, depending on the significance you attribute to them. In fact, they can be as spiritual and sacred as any blessed sacrament if you attribute meaning to them. I know of several friends who read Shakespeare sonnets in the bathroom every morning, write postcards to dear friends every week, make cookies for the homeless, meet in monthly men’s and women’s groups, play charades with their children every night or sit on the beach every day to watch the sunrise. These are their sacred rituals, each serving as a constant reminder we are connected to something greater. The human spirit stays healthy, not through vicarious means or sterile routines, but direct personal experience.

  1. Sweet Forgiveness

Every act of forgiveness is an act of unconditional love. If unresolved anger is a toxin to the spirit, forgiveness is the antidote. For forgiveness to be unconditional, though, you must be willing to let go of all feelings of anger, resentment and animosity. Sweet forgiveness cannot hold any taste of bitterness. When feelings of anger are released, the spirit once held captive by the encumbrance of anger is free to journey again.

Forgiveness is not condoning inappropriate behavior and excusing personal violations. It means letting go of the feelings of denial, anger or indignation and moving on with your life. It is a healing process in which the wounds of injustice are allowed to fully mend by transitioning from controlling others to empowering yourself.

Sweet forgiveness is not solely an external expression toward others. Like all aspects of love, the hand of forgiveness must be extended within as well. The expression, “I can never forgive myself” becomes a life sentence in hell if we lock ourselves up in the confines of guilt and shame. Self-forgiveness is a practice in the acknowledgment of our human limitations, and it is as essential to spiritual growth as self-love.

  1. Embracing the Shadow

The elements of shadow, which manifest as prejudice, greed, laziness or rudeness, are common to everyone because they are rooted in the human emotion of fear. Those who seem to be at peace with various aspects of their shadow are the ones who have taken the time to confront specific fears, and in doing so, they have brought light to that side of darkness and domesticated their ego. In Jung’s words, “the shadow has been embraced.”

Embracing the shadow means to acknowledge negative, judgmental thoughts, and send a message of acceptance and compassion to that part of you where these thoughts and perceptions originate. Over time you will find it becomes easier to respond to these thoughts with loving kindness. As the shadow becomes domesticated, fewer negative thoughts will surface because the source which fuels them is minimized by a greater comfort level.

  1. Keep the Faith

In the collection of inner strengths available to us, faith is unique unto itself. We think of faith as having the ability to move mountains (which it can), but the power of faith is as subtle as it is dynamic. Not all mountains are made of earth and clay, and not all problems can be pushed through. Some have to be transcended.

Does faith have limits? Not really, but we must carefully use this resource. We cannot have the dynamic force of the universe guide our lives for us, as this defeats the purpose of our earthly existence. But we should not think we can handle every problem on our own without any help, divine or otherwise.  The power of faith requires balance. There is an old adage that reminds us, “We are given no task too great that we are not able to bear.” To this we can add, “Everything we do prepares us for everything we are going to do.” Faith is there to guide us through the moments of turbulence.

  1. Live Your Joy

Living your joy is seeking and appreciating life’s beautiful side. We should not only acknowledge it, but participate in it – walking on a lawn of grass without shoes, licking an egg beater of frosting or smelling fresh cut flowers. Living our joy reminds us to live in the present moment rather than become immobilized by the guilt of the past or the worry of the future.

There is no denying that life has its stressful moments, but the human experience was never meant to be catastrophic. Living your joy means balancing moments of pleasure with pain, joy with sorrow and laughter with tears. When the focus of life becomes derailed by its demands, joy – as expressed through humor, creativity, curiosity and wonder – is the means to get back on track and start moving again.

  1. Compassion in Action

For love to be real and true, it must be put into action. There are many colours in love’s rainbow. Compassion is one of its brightest.  Compassion in action can be explained in one word – service. Service is not the same thing as helping. Helping is rooted in inequality; it’s a type of superior/inferior relationship, and those being helped can feel this inequality. Helping infers a sense of debt.

Service offers a dividend of love to all parties involved. Compassion includes empathy or the ability to feel another’s pain, but it doesn’t stop there. To engage in true compassion is to move with feelings, which is why the expression “compassion in action” has so much more meaning than the word compassion itself. Compassion in action is service.