Religion and Spirituality
The Strength of an Ageless Soul
When the spirit whispers, we all hear different things.
Many women hear the sound of the sacred in a holy book or favorite hymn. Others find their spirits lifted in meditation. Some find their spirituality in communion with the natural world. Some, in a new theology that avoids exclusively masculine terms. The sources of our faith and belief--and ways of manifesting them--are as varied as we are. But the benefits are the same, says Mark Gerzon, author of Coming Into Our Own: Understanding the Adult Metamorphosis.
Private and public expressions of spirituality--from meditation and prayer to attending religious services--increase emotional fulfillment while helping to relieve stress and depression. They also decrease your risk of heart disease and cancer. Researchers say they may even help prevent alcoholism, drug use and suicide.
What matters most in gaining these benefits is to experience your own spirituality in your own way, Gerzon says. "The key thing about spirituality in the second half of life is that we've lived enough and seen enough people pass from this earth to feel an urgency," he says. "We begin to listen to our inner voices. And when we do, where they lead us is not predictable. They may lead us back to the church of our childhood, but they may also lead us to other places we never expected," he says.
"So we need to broaden our view of what spiritual means. For some it could be tending flowers in the garden and for others, saying Hail Marys at morning mass," says Gerzon.
Perhaps your sense of the sacred has more to do with nature walks or loving relationships than participating publicly in religious rites. Many people draw meaning and strength from such a private spirituality, says Gerzon.
One way of searching for a sense of wholeness is through meditation or prayer, which have been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure and to help you cope better with stress.
The Healing Power of Community
Most scientific conclusions about religion and health have been drawn from organized religion because religious organizations provide researchers with measurable groups of subjects involved in specific behaviors, such as attending worship services or participating together in community service. But perhaps there is something about religious community itself--aside from a shared belief system--that makes you healthier.
When you join in a religious community's social life, you become part of a caring network that will be there for you in hard times, says Dave Larson, M.D., adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Maryland, and former senior research psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine.
And women are particularly good at creating these networks of friendship and support, Dr. Larson says, because they are raised to value communication and nurturing and to work together.
Other researchers have also recognized the healing benefits of a spiritual community. "When people get sick they visit each other, bringing food; they notify relatives and take each other to the doctor," says Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "When you're a meaningful part of a community like that, it can soften the sting of getting older."
Health experts have known for years that stress contributes to many physical problems including nausea, diarrhea, constipation, high blood pressure and heart rhythm abnormalities.
Studies have shown that strong religious beliefs go a long way to relieve stress--even if you simply hold your beliefs privately. But the stress-relieving effects of faith are most powerful, experts say, when you are regularly involved with a religious community.
Researchers at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, Israel, studied how 230 members of a religious kibbutz community coped with stressful life events. People within the community found that their individual faith and coping skills were strengthened by the support the community offered. And that resulted in quicker recovery from stress--including the stresses associated with getting older.
Living a Fuller--and Longer--Life
Another study highlights the broad-ranging health benefits of attendance at religious services and active participation in a congregation's social life. Psychologists Stanislav Kasl of Yale University and Ellen Idler of Rutgers University studied 2,812 elderly women and men in New Haven, Connecticut. They found that outwardly religious Catholics, Protestants and Jews were less likely to become medically disabled than those who considered attending church or synagogue unimportant. These people also remained more physically independent as they got older, largely because of their public religious environment.
Hanukkah, Easter, Christmas and other religious holidays may mean even more to you as the years go by. The New Haven study also found that very religious people are much less likely to die during the months before and after major religious holidays. But one particular finding may inspire you to take a more active role in the important celebrations of your faith. Although death rates for both Jewish men and women dipped during Passover, the women were less protected. The researchers believe this is probably because women are excluded from any role in the most important aspects of the Passover ritual.
Religion in your life can also be potent protection against cancer. This may be because some groups of believers such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses encourage healthy lifestyle choices, like eating a vegetarian diet or avoiding smoking. Analysts from the University of Florida's Center for Health Policy Research in Gainesville reviewed data on cancer deaths across the United States and found that counties with the highest number of religious people also have the lowest rates of cancer.
Even faiths that do not recommend specific dietary or health habits still have a protective effect, the researchers believe, simply because they encourage moderation--cautioning their members against unhealthy excesses of any kind.
Meditation the Easy Way
For busy, over-stressed women, moments of tranquility and stillness are precious and rare. But there is a way to maximize the benefits of prayer and contemplation, says Herbert Benson, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, chief of the Behavioral Medicine Division at the New England Deaconess Hospital, both in Boston, and author of The Relaxation Response.
Dr. Benson conducted some of the first scientific studies into the effects of prayer and faith on stress reduction. To help patients learn how to relax, he taught the simplest meditation method: Sit quietly in a comfortable position and silently repeat a word or phrase while passively disregarding other thoughts.
When patients were offered the choice of a word, sound or phrase to repeat, 80 percent of them chose a word or prayer from their faith. And that led to a discovery, Dr. Benson says. People who used words from their own religion rather than neutral words (like "one" or "be calm") stuck with the program better. And their health improved as a result of the "relaxation response," which is characterized by decreased heart rate and blood pressure and feelings of tranquillity.
The words may vary, Dr. Benson says, but the benefits don't. "In all the different religious contexts, there seems to be a similar potential for health-enhancing effects," he says. Here's how to bring those benefits into your life every day.
Choose a word or short phrase that's easy to pronounce and short enough to say silently as you exhale. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably will, gently return to the focus word. Practice this kind of meditation for 20 minutes twice a day.
Healing the Heart
Spirituality offers particularly strong protection against a major killer: heart disease, says Dr. Larson.
A study of 85 women and 454 men in Jerusalem found that people who define themselves as "secular" (nonreligious) have a greater risk of heart disease than those who follow the path of Orthodox Judaism. Even after the researchers accounted for smoking habits and cholesterol and blood pressure levels, a strong association between lowered heart disease risk and religious practice remained for both sexes.
Although the researchers are unsure which aspects of belief are responsible, they speculate that the strong social support system of traditional Orthodox communities, like those present in many other types of congregations, plays a heart-protecting role, probably by reducing isolation and stress.
In another study of religion and the heart, Dr. Larson and his colleagues studied data on blood pressure in more than 400 men in Evans County, Georgia. They found that either a personal belief in God or attendance at religious services (even without belief) tended to lower blood pressure, but people who both believed and attended had the lowest readings.
Like a Bridge over Troubled Water
Not only does an active spiritual or religious life keep many forms of stress and disease at bay, but it also helps shield you from mental and emotional illness.
Dr. Larson and his research team reviewed more than 200 studies on religious commitment and mental health. They found that people who are religious have lower rates of depression, alcoholism, suicide and drug use than less religious people do. Young people who are religious do better in school and are less likely to be delinquent and sexually active. Married people who attend church regularly report greater marital happiness, are more satisfied with their sexual lives and experience lower rates of divorce.
The studies also showed that religious faith is directly connected to a higher sense of satisfaction with life in general and a greater ability to cope with life's stresses and problems, Dr. Larson says. The researchers examined specific "real life" behaviors, such as attending services, rather than attempting to measure attitudes or beliefs.
Embrace the Spirit
You may feel a growing yearning for a deeper sense of meaning in your life. Here's how to re-connect with your spiritual side.
Begin at the beginning. Before you re-commit to your childhood religion or embrace another faith, examine it, says Alan Berger, Ph.D., director of Jewish studies in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University in New York. "Ask yourself 'What is it that my tradition teaches?' " he says. "Don't feel you have to accept it, but do know it."
Go beyond the don'ts. If religion seems only like a series of rules or thou-shalt-nots, Dr. Berger says, "You need to un-skew your view. Go find yourself a better teacher, a new community. Read the texts yourself or with a partner and uncover the various levels of meaning. Understand that life is a fluid and dynamic experience that people need help with. Religion is the attempt to search for meaning in an otherwise chaotic universe."
Accept yourself. "It's fine to say 'I don't really know what I am, spiritually,' " says Brother Guerric Plante, a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in New Haven, Kentucky. "Honesty has everything to do with spiritual growth." Once you're open with yourself about any confusion you feel, the way will become more clear.
Search with others. Read the religion and support group announcements in your newspaper to find a group or organization that may offer help for your spiritual search, Brother Plante says. "Faith can come through others--their example, their talk, their interest in others. Group therapy, religious services or even a 12-step group for addiction can rekindle a spiritual life if you're sincerely searching."
Meditate or pray. Clear time from your schedule to sit in quiet contemplation and listen to the stillness within you, says Gerzon. "If we derive meaning and purpose in life only from doing, we're in trouble," he says. "We need to find it from being, and meditation is a good way to start learning about how to simply be."
Broaden your view. Sometimes just encouraging your sense of curiosity and wondering about life will lead you to spiritual truths. When you ponder some of the age-old questions such as "Why am I here?" or "What is the meaning of life?" you encourage your spiritual insight to unfold, says Gerzon. "It's possible to find the spiritual dimension in answers, but we're more likely to find it in the questions themselves," he says. "When we're really moved by the spirit of life, it's because we're touching what we don't know, not what we know."
Go against your grain. You're more likely to grow spiritually if you seek out activities that are different from what you usually do all day, says John Buehrens, a minister for over 20 years and president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. If you spend your day locked away from others in a corporate office, then serving a meal to the needy might be just what you need. But if you're a lawyer at a free clinic or a social worker, you may benefit more from a religious discussion group, he says.
Buehrens's own spiritual discipline? "I'm a pointy-headed, pear-shaped intellectual," he says. "So one of my spiritual disciplines is getting some regular exercise. It really is a time of meditation and prayer for me."
Care about others. You need to get out of yourself to feel spiritually healthy, Buehrens says. "That's why community is so important to real spiritual growth, because we're drawn out of ourselves. We'll never find peace along religious, racial and ethnic lines unless we do this." His advice for isolated seekers? "Go help in a soup kitchen, go visit a nursing home and get your nose out of your navel," he says.
Keep a spiritual journal. Writing in a daily journal about your spiritual questions, doubts, beliefs and experiences can illuminate the meaning and value in your life, says Buehrens. "You may find that your unconscious is trying to get through to you with more life-enhancing and creatively responsible methods."
Don't be afraid to question. "All spiritual traditions try to teach an enhanced awareness of being, greater spiritual vitality and deeper compassion for other people," Buehrens says. But any spiritual community that doesn't respect questioning or the importance of your individual conscience may be an unhealthy one, he says. His advice? Follow your own conscience to the spiritual path that's right for you.