Having a Spiritual Practice Can Help You Deal with Coronavirus-Related Stress
How turning to spiritual practices can become an ally in this trying time.
When I ask people what first words or phrases come to mind when someone mentions the word “spirituality,” most of them would answer God, Jesus, pray, and religion. This is not surprising from people coming from the only Christian nation in Asia — a whopping 90% of the Philippine population is Christian.
Spirituality has been making waves in subcultures in the recent years, and the rise in popularity of the ancient Hindu practice of yoga and meditation has contributed to this. Yoga is the 4th fastest growing industry in the US, and an average of 40 million Americans practice it and about 400 million people worldwide. You can see this tangibly in the yoga and meditation communities. If a stranger wearing Japa Mala beads sees another sporting something of similar symbolism, chances are, they would smile at each other, maybe put their hands together in prayer to the chest, and give a slight bow. I’ve seen this happen countless times regardless of race, culture, gender, and religion.
But what does spirituality or being spiritual really mean?
Spirituality can be so many different things to people. Commonly, people would say that it is something experienced when participating in organized religion or ritual, or being in a place of power such as a church, temple, or meditation room. Praying or chanting as a group can bring about a spiritual, almost mystic, experience that closely connects to “being one with the world” and “having tremendous faith and trust.” This can be a means of solace, support, and peace especially in difficult times.
Many would share, too, that it can be felt through non-religious events such as getting in touch with the core of their being or the Divine Self through practices such as private prayer, yoga, meditation, art, or a walk in nature (Psychology Today, n.d.).
Discussions on spirituality date back in time, from philosophical and existential questions thousands of years ago. We all have big questions that science tries to answer, but for some reason, the answers aren’t enough: Where did we come from? Is there life after death? Who is the Observer? (You’ll get that last one if you are a fan of quantum physics.) Most people believe that there is something or someone far greater than us humans that is incomprehensible, but somehow, we are able to experience it.
Hungarian-American psychologist and author of the bestseller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t worry, I also cannot pronounce his last name) became famous for his definition of flow, i.e. “a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity, where every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” In essence, being in a state of flow is meditative, effortless, and could even be spiritual. This is common for people who experience inner peace and a sense of calm during or after doing something creative or engaging in an immersive activity without distractions.
Psychologists such as Carl Jung, Rollo May, and Viktor Frankl recognized spirituality as an essential part of psychological well-being. Exeperiencing an aha moment, for example, can be classified as a spiritual event in itself, when things suddenly click and fit together, like pieces of a puzzle. Finding clarity in the meaning and purpose of one’s life is also considered a spiritual experience. Another example is feeling a deep sense of love, connection, and compassion toward people, animals, and all living beings. These are all said to heighten our awareness of being and existence — an enlightenment, an awakening.
Dr. Stephen Diamond, writer on Psychology Today says, “In psychology, spirituality is best characterized by psychological growth, creativity, consciousness, and emotional maturation, and entails the capacity to see life as it is — the good, the bad, and everything in between — and to still love life nonetheless.” Facing one’s shadow, embracing reality fully and without judgment, and/or learning to forgive are great examples of spiritual experiences.
So what role does spirituality play in supporting our mental health during the time of COVID-19?
It doesn’t matter what your vehicle might be in arriving to your spiritual destination — what’s important to note is that turning to one’s faith has been empirically proven to help people deal with illnesses and tragedies such as losing a loved one, going through unexpected major life changes, surviving natural disasters, and, yes, in this case, having to deal with a global pandemic.
When something that is not within our control (or anyone’s for that matter) enters our lives, we turn to faith.
Whether that means meditating for hours, praying the rosary, hitting your Tibetan singing bowls, doing yoga first thing in the morning, saging your entire house, turning to your art or music, laying down all of your crystals under the full moon, or just listening to your breath, know that these are all valid spiritual resources and coping mechanisms. You are connecting to a source of power that is relevant and meaningful to you, and no one else.
Having a spiritual practice helps us adjust to what is uncontrollable and paves way to these things:
What we are going through globally is not normal. Our days are hazy, the news has nothing much to keep us going. Most of us are in limbo. We learn to accept this reality more quickly with spiritual grounding, letting us find our new normal. Then we sit, pause, and reflect.
Some good journal prompts or conversation starters during this time can revolve around admitting your current state. Someone asked me last week, “What about your life right now makes you feel miserable?” I had much to say, but as I was saying them, I also found myself practicing gratitude. This helped me process my emotions and let go of them almost immediately after.
Communicating your feelings honestly, whether written or otherwise, can help you face your truth with a clearer perspective. It can be messy at first, but after you sort out the noise, you’ll have 20/20 vision and it will be easier to shift your mindset.
“Relax, nothing is under control.”
I love this quote, commonly used in Zen cartoons. To most of us who are control-freaks, this can be alarming, but a dash of spiritual practice can make this philosophy delectible.
My meditation teacher, Eileen Tupaz, puts it nicely, “Bow down to the circumstances we cannot control and let them pass.”
Our brain is wired to look for patterns that may or may not exist. In this case, since we are all experiencing COVID-19 for the first time, we are only about creating these new medical and situational patterns. Forcing a concrete definition of things based on non-empirical data (also known as ungrounded and uneducated speculation) can cause major stress.
When we let go of our control over the things we truly cannot have a hand in, we also release struggle, tension, anger, and disappointment, among many others. This is where faith comes in. Faith is the complete trust and confidence in someone or something much larger than us.
However, having faith does not mean we should also let go of things we can control, which leads me to the third one:
Once the distinction between things you can and cannot control becomes clear, the next thing is to set your focus on the things you can control.
While I understand the objective of articles going around that talk about letting go of productivity goals, I also believe that listing and acting on things to do is a great coping mechanism. Awareness and acceptance of what we are experiencing can bring us on a downward spiral and can be counterintuitive, and so finding the motivation to act and rise above depression, grief, and anxiety can help our mental health tremendously.
You can find a sense of calm when you turn to spirituality, whatever that may look like for you. There is no one-size-fits-all, and it may take a while to really find what suits you.
There is self-compassion to be found in letting go, having faith, and just being a witness to all of this.
We will ease into it, one day at a time.
Use your spiritual anchor.
One day, we will find ourselves at the end of this dark journey.