Monday, October 31, 2011

Health and Productivity Finale: Spiritual Health

A bit delayed, perhaps, but I've been busy, and this is worth a special level of attention.

The main problem with discussing spiritual health is that you first have to define what is meant by spiritual. Many of us (a growing number, actually), hold increasingly secular beliefs, and quite a few put the soul up on the same shelf as Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, and that's fine.

I've written fairly heavily on belief in the past, so it may come as some surprise to the readership that I'm not much for standing on soapboxes when it comes to religion. I'm not an Apologist or a Theologen and I'm not properly equipped to discuss either in a proper debate setting; anything else would simply be arguing. I've had enough about belief, in one form or another, shoved down my throat to know that it generally has the opposite effect the "pusher" intends. That's not productive. However, when discussing Spiritual Health, we can actually break the subject down into the emotional states connected to that spiritual health.

There is, however, a unifying factor in all of this: Truth. A loaded word, I realize. Getting two people to agree on the Truth of spirituality can be difficult, if not impossible, even when all the same source materials are used; look at the schism that exists within modern Christianity. Compare a prototypical Carthusian Monk (perhaps the height of spiritual enlightenment in the Christian Tradition) to a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. You could not find two people more different, but both have what they call Truth. I am not wiriting to define Truth, at least not today, and this paragraph and the three above serve more as a disclaimer to that reality than anything else. The truth may be deeply personal, but the overall path to spiritual health is more universal.

With the legalese out of the way, it's time to play our game. So, in the absence of a religious definition of the soul, what can we mean by it? How do we gauge its health? The first part is easy. We often use the soul to describe the je ne sais quoi of the human experience. Food that is excellent on no other merit than the way it makes us feel is another way of talking about soul food. An artist who throws everything about themselves into a work is called soulful. Sociopathic behavior is often called soulless.

Collectively and secularly, we mean the soul to be the part of the human machine that carries the identity. In a computer science context, it's the random-number generator that keeps us from behaving perfectly predictably. The soul is a package of our likes and dislikes, our loves and losses, our emotions and our memories. It is, quite simply, who you are.

Armed with that, how can we neglect its health? We do it all the time, when we hold a grudge, nurse guilt, or indulge in any one aspect too heavily (or too lightly). Spiritual health is all about the balance.

On Grudges
We've all been there. Someone spat in the proverbial cheerios and we held onto it for days, weeks, months, or years. Sometimes, on the face of it, it's as justified as any universal right. The thing is, though, we just don't have that kind of time. Fixating on the things that make us angry is just one more thing to make us angry. It takes away from the ability of the brain to focus on the here-and-now. It doesn't have to be a person, either. As a person with an over-developed anger mechanism, I've held grudges against everything from the New York Stock Exchange to the weather.

The only thing to do about grudges is to let them go, and forgive that which you begrudge. For things like markets and the weather, that's fairly easy to do. They're non-intelligent forces driven by varying degrees of randomness that can't be held accountable for their actions. For people, that's considerably harder.

How do we forgive? Well, that's a difficult question. Often times, we wait to forgive until whatever grievance the grudge concerns "doesn't matter any more". That in itself is easy. More often than not, though, we're going to have things in our lives that could take weeks, months, or years to sort themselves out, if left alone. Even if you do not communicate the forgiveness to the person who the grudge concerns (though I recommend you do), it is still important to mentally recognize the act of forgiving that person. If nothing else, try to empathize. Why did Timmy steal my oreos? Because he didn't have any oreos of his own, and he thought it was unfair that I should have oreos when all he had was, I don't know, a bag of trail mix. The example is a bit absurd, perhaps, and if you're my age and still nursing grudges about people taking your oreos, I might recommend a professional councillor, because there is definitely a deeper issue there than some chocolate-and-cream cookies.

On Guilt
Guilt is the inverse of a grudge: we have taken some behaviour we ourselves have done, internalized it, and will forever hold it against ourselves. In a normal person, guilt brings a cloudy tinge to the most sunny of days and leads to a miserable mood. In a person with anxiety issues, grip can be as crippling as a blow to the shins, causing absolutely dreadful feelings that only self-reinforce.

I've spent a lot of time in the last few days and weeks thinking about guilt. It's a human response, perhaps a uniquely human response, to our own behavior. The reason we have the feeling of guilt is a conscious or sub-conscious recognition that we have broken a rule. What that rule is can vary from person to person and occurrence to occurrence.

We all deal with guilt a little differently, but the elements are all the same. First, we must identify what we feel guilty about. Suppose I feel guilty because I missed an engagement. Second, we must identify why that makes us feel guilty. Missing that engagement makes me feel guilty because, whether explicitly stated or not, I feel as though I should have been there. Next, we identify who we wronged... and that is allowed to be ourselves. Missing this engagement did no harm to anyone involved in the engagement, but it was a disservice to myself as I stood to learn or experience something which was important. Finally, we must, in our own way, seek the forgiveness of that person... often in the form of an apology.

After grudges and guilt, all the rest is Theory. The human soul is a complex little thing and the emotions themselves could each fill their own book, and likely have. If you're taking the time to keep your mental desk clear of grudges and guilty feelings, chances are that you're starting to identify trends in your emotional makeup that contribute to the "spiritual imbalance" that causes so much of either. Armed with that, take it to the people you trust and love. I know I'm an angry person, and conversations with the significant people in my life often revolve around that topic, when it's my turn.

This concludes the Health and Productivity series. For those of you annoyed by it, the ordeal is over. For those of you who found it useful, I hope it has been as useful as I have intended it to be.

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