Article commissioned for Times2
15th May 2000
When I like other people’s ideas, it isn’t simply because I already agree with them, it’s because they agree with me. They fit into my pre-existing mind-set. So when a Canadian professor tells me, “religion is good for your health”, I accept it as gospel. Forget the gym and the fresh vegetables, I am doing something good for myself - without actually doing anything.
That probably is not the reaction Dr Chandrakant Shah of the University of Toronto was hoping for. The whole point of the research of his Department of Public Health is to highlight the benefits of spirituality for those less interested in the subject. But, Dr Shah’s research is likely to go the way of all worthy pronouncements about what’s good or bad for us – there will be two quite distinct responses. I suspect that those of us who think that spirituality has value will welcome such robust scientific proof to vindicate our beliefs and we’ll do nothing; while others will dismiss it as the ludicrous ravings of some misguided academic mixing psycho-babble, damned lies and statistics and do nothing.
Leaving aside obvious examples of major religious figures who died young, Dr Shah has tried to show a connection between the prevalence of spirituality and the general health and longevity of a population. Despite my predilection towards the thesis, having actually studied his paper quite closely, I found it difficult to justify his or my belief. Those of a more sceptical nature, will have a field-day picking holes in the proof that is offered.
The good professor starts with a major leap of faith. In his own words: “It assumes that there is a causal relationship between spirituality and mortality; something that has never been proved.” Also, the only statistic that he is able to draw on as a measure for spirituality in society is attendance at a religious ceremony or service in the past year. There are many that would question that as a proxy measure for spirituality in the Age of Aquarius.
Dr Shah is convinced that 43,000 adult deaths in Canada every year, (about 20% of the total) are attributable to a low level of spirituality in the 41% of the population who don’t attend church. Reducing the proportion of non-attendees to 20% would decrease the number of related deaths to 23,000. I had a hard time understanding the data or placing my faith in his statistics, but the basic premise that a spiritual outlook may have useful lifestyle benefits seems reasonable, common sense even.
The professor seems on safer ground when he cites three general benefits that may be gained from a religious dimension to life. He says, “spirituality has been shown to reduce stress, promote healthy lifestyle choices and increase our feelings of belonging to a social network – all of which are associated with lower mortality.” It’s hard to argue against the value of these particular benefits, and whatever helps us achieve them must therefore be good for society.
There may be many aspects of human life that inspire us to greater well-being, but Dr Shah feels that spirituality is especially significant for a population because of its almost universal appeal and its ability for profound motivation based on core beliefs. He quickly adds, “we’re talking about spirituality, not necessarily religiosity.” This puts him in tune with the contemporary view that religion is suspect, spiritual is cool. Whereas religion entails authority figures, pre-set dogma, rules and regulations, and clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour; “Post-Modern Spirituality” emphasises intuition, subjectivity and personal realisations; a personal journey to be lived out in daily life; and is highly pluralistic with individualised and eclectic practices.
One of the many attempts to define spirituality is “the search for direction, meaning, inner wholeness and connection to others, non-human creation and to a transcendent source”. Spirituality may be the search, but the question is:- what does it deliver? There are many who have tried and failed to find anything of value. There are others who seem to be thoroughly deluded in what they think they have found. But, it is hard to dismiss the testimony of countless millions from successive generations who have sought and found an inner experience of spiritual reality that enriched their vision of existence - particularly, when those same people manifest transforming characteristics that seem less common in others.
In my years as the principal of a theological college specialising in Hindu Vedanta, I constantly met people from all backgrounds and interests who had switched on the spiritual light-bulb. Invariably, they would verbalise their feelings as peace of mind, inner contentment, and a better understanding of themselves, often demonstrated by a marked reduction in anger, resentment, or selfish attitudes.
Dr Shah reckons that these symptoms of wholeness, purpose and inner contentment provide the most potent “coping-mechanisms” available to humans to combat the feelings of frustration, anxiety and panic that characterise harmful stress. They may also help reduce a person’s reliance on artificial pacifiers such as alcohol, drugs or over-indulgence in eating and sex. As India’s ancient text, the Bhagavad-gita, says: those who experience what it calls “a higher taste” are less needy for unhealthy habits.
Balance, harmony and wholeness are the buzz-words of the new spiritual lifestyles and sound more inviting than the Puritanical “temperance”. The Gita recommends that “those who are balanced in their habits of eating, sleeping, work and recreation can mitigate all material miseries by practice of the yoga system”. The body is a temple – a gift to be cherished and cared for by moderation in all physical activities - rather than an ancient ruin to be vandalised by the extremes of over-work and wanton sensual indulgence.
Currently, I manage Buckland Hall, a conference venue in the Brecon Beacons, which caters to the burgeoning demand for retreats and courses in the field of personal growth, wellness and spirituality. Recently, we hosted a three-day conference on Spirituality and the Workplace. The catch-phrase was “Bring your Soul to Work” – the idea being that you shouldn’t have to switch off an important part of your personality during office hours. Rather, your company’s goals will be more effectively realised by allowing its employees to be consistent with their values.
Dr Shah recommends the same. On a personal level, he further suggests that developing values and practices that reflect forgiveness, sharing, kindness, honesty, respect, altruism and tolerance will open people up to being able to give as well as to receive and, therefore, to contribute more generously in the care of family, friends and community. The twin spectres of loneliness and mortality fuel our eager search for eternal belonging. The attraction of any group is that it offers an opportunity to bond with like-minded individuals and share an ideology, mission and sense of fulfilment. In the spiritual dimension, those connections can go deeper – in the fellowship of a faith community, in the service of society, in the family of humankind, and in a relationship with our creator. Within these connections, both loneliness and mortality can be defeated by the most inspiring of all realisations – that we are loved for who we are.