Nourish your spirit
Do you ever fantasise about streamlining your life to make it simpler, calmer and more meaningful? Do you live at the edge of overwhelm, caught in a whirlpool of too little time and too many responsibilities? In our modern world, there is an unspoken conviction and confidence that our daily lives have evolved to become superior to how people lived in the past. What is the mindset behind this notion? That technological developments, material possessions and information access all supposedly make our lives easier and more fulfilled. What does this completely overlook? Our spiritual needs and how acutely many of us are suffering from spirits that feel completely undernourished.
This sense of spiritual impoverishment is thought to be a major contributor to the growing epidemic of depression and anxiety, which is rising at alarming rates in Australia and throughout the world. This feeling is leaving us increasingly dissatisfied, disconnected and distressed.
Your spirit arises from your emotional essence — the belief system that underpins and influences the things you cherish, honour, value and prioritise in life. In different cultures throughout history and throughout the world, spirituality has been linked to nature, animals or belief systems outlined in organised religions. Though there are still large numbers of people following different faiths, including Judaism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam, there has been a growing trend away from organised religion, with the number of followers declining each decade and the number of Australians reporting “no religion” also on the increase.
If you’re like many people in the noughties, you feel that organised religion is too prescriptive or intolerant or “olde worlde”, with texts and rules that don’t address modern dilemmas and challenges. However, this does not mean our need for spiritual sustenance is diminishing. More than ever, we crave rituals and words and insights that uplift our spirits. And to find that much-needed soul food we are turning to a wide variety of experiences and practices.
In almost every culture, music has long been a devotional practice that is about channelling and expressing the beauty of life and connecting the mind, body and spirit. So it has become central to the spiritual life of many people in the modern world who use music to celebrate and enrich their spirits through involvement with groups who meet to share music. Popular ways to share in the Beauty of music include:
Singing allows us to convey and experience exalted and deep emotions that immediately become more profound when expressed with soaring notes, harmony, melody and lyrics that inspire or unite. In the past few decades, more and more people have been joining choirs to become energised and elevated through song. Sharing song with others is incredibly intimate and celebratory, as individuals join sounds from within many bodies to create one very powerful voice. Singing lifts your spirits in every sense, both emotionally and physically, causing your brain to release endorphins and oxytocin, which elevate your mood and alleviate anxiety and stress.
You don’t need to be the next Adele or Jeff Buckley to reap that spiritual high or the health benefits. One VicHealth study found that group singing increases feelings of self-confidence, empowerment, wellbeing and interpersonal skills and lowers feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. Singing is also good for lung capacity and breath control, which can help people with conditions such as asthma or stress to reduce the severity and impact of their conditions.
Whether the drumming is African, Brazilian or Japanese koto, drumming is a vibrant way to celebrate the primal, invigorating aspects of life that give your spirit liberation and flight. Groups usually involve several experienced drummers who teach other participants common beats, pulses and rhythms, which are played as a collective, leading to an immediate and exhilarating sense of belonging and community.
The cultural significance and folklore around the drum calls and responses also enrich the experience, which is intensely joyful. Many drumming classes provide the drumming as a soundtrack for dancers, who also raise their spirits through movement. Interestingly, research has shown that people engaging in drumming enjoy an increase in their number of macrophage cells, which helps their immune systems work more effectively.
The written word
Do you increasingly find yourself asking, “What is the true meaning of life?”, “Is this all there is?”, “Why do I feel so empty and unfulfilled?”, “What is it that brings true happiness?” and “What is it that I am longing for?” The yearning for nurture of the spirit and, along with it, the nurture of your heart, soul, mind (and body) is at the centre of all these questions. These concerns are repeatedly addressed in written form throughout novels, biographies and anthologies of poetry. For this reason, people who might not connect with the contents of a book like the Bible or Kabala are finding spiritual succour in other bookworm ways.
Books help challenge your world view, open you to different perspectives and force you to reflect on your own responses and, via them, your values and morals. In the noughties, morality tales, dystopia stories, survival narratives about the power of the human spirit and autobiographies offer a new, dynamic place for the written word. Through reading and discussing books you embark on wonderful journeys of the imagination, mind and spirit that enrich your own life experience and encourage you to grow.
Online diaries have become a new medium for connecting with people through dialogue that is honest and authentic and often explores the profound in the small details of life. They may celebrate the significance of a child’s first steps or share the heartbreak of dealing with depression or grief. Personal blogs are spiritual in the sense that they often focus on a confessional style of discussion and candour that ultimately is about finding and nurturing connection and authenticity through fostering online communities.
You cannot connect with your spiritual self if you are running and rushing 24/7. This may be why forms of movement that have originated in the East and incorporate a meditative state are becoming increasingly popular and proving extremely beneficial for spiritual health. Such practices include:
The word “yoga” means “unity of mind, body and breath”, with movements and postures designed to unblock energy channels and bring your mind and body back into balance. Practices such as deep breathing exercises, visualisation and meditation heighten this awareness and add to the spiritual nature of the experience.
Based on an ancient Chinese martial art, this moving meditation combines deep diaphragmatic breathing and slow, graceful movements. As these dissolve one into another to achieve a continuous, almost balletic flow, you feel greater connection with your true self, nature and the universe. Each sequence of positions is called a “form” and has an evocative name, like “Wave Hands Like Clouds” or “Grasping Bird’s Tail”, which add a further sense of sacredness to the movements and contemplation.
Touch & connection
Our desire for spiritual wellbeing is also a desire for an existence filled with substance and connection and experiences that are sacred, profound, life-affirming and enlightening. In a world where so much is known and very little is left to the imagination, we ache for experiences that appear somehow mystical and marvellous and bring with them feelings of rapture and connection and virtue and radiance. Enter spiritually uplifting practices such as:
This practice is based on the idea there is a universal life force flowing through all living things and, if it is interrupted, we feel unwell both psychically and physically. Reiki is all about spirit — passing on the soothing and regenerating spirit of the attuned healer to the person seeking assistance via a “laying on of hands”, as gentle hand postures are applied palms down, on or above specific parts of the body. This transference of spiritual energy leaves you feeling more centred, secure, peaceful, healthy and able to cope.
The touch of massage is powerfully intimate. It can make you feel supported and visible and connected to your higher self. Aromatherapy massage encourages you to be still and mindful, focusing on the now. The spiritual nurturing that occurs originates from the empowering energy but also from the intimacy of the connection between masseuse/healer and recipient, and the sense of being nurtured and deeply cared for by another.
Each different style of massage, whether shiatsu or Swedish, involves pleasant and repeated, almost ritual-like, hand movements. The different properties of the essential oils nourish different aspects of your spirit, addressing its need for calm, balance, strength, wisdom, purification or protection. Massage is moving and meaningful and also utilises elements of ceremony within the experience, including the use of tuning forks, bamboo sticks, crystals and heated stones.
Stillness & self-reflection
Looking inward and projecting this knowledge outward is a well-traversed pathway to spirituality. In light of this, the following practices enrich the spirit because they involve stillness and contemplation. They deepen our understanding of the self and others and encourage us to tap into essential truths and enact ceremonies within daily life that are profound and symbolic, authentic and moving.
The word vipassana means “to see things as they really are”, and the practice engages the individual on a spiritual quest for greater insight and clarity of understanding about the self. The 10-day vipassana retreats offer far more than a break from the stress and strains of life: they incorporate spiritual teachings that promote “the art of living”, encouraging you to develop greater mindfulness, which leads to greater peace and harmony.
The skills that vipassana teaches help you to reboot your emotions and priorities. En route, you develop greater understanding of what causes suffering and how to free yourself from emotional pain and upset by recognising how the triggers for distress and unhappiness take root in the mind.
Writing a journal
In the same way that some people work through their problems by talking about life issues with a priest or rabbi, writing in a journal provides you the opportunity to debrief about and clarify feelings, better problem-solve, work through negative emotions, destress, move on and let go. Some people use their journals to reflect on their day and the meaning of life through diarised entries, poetry or prose. Other people keep daily gratitude journals, where they note and celebrate the joys of the day that have uplifted their spirits, and they offer a personal thanks for those.
Nurturing your spirit and emotional health in this way also nurtures your body. Studies show that writing in a journal daily can give your immunity a big boost, particularly by strengthening your T cells, which are in the frontline for your body’s defence against illness.
New rituals & ceremonies
With fewer and fewer rituals to mark the significance of life events and transitions, we crave new ways to transcend the mundane and connect us to a deeper meaning in life and deeper connections within our relationships to others, yourself, nature and life in general. The following ceremonies have evolved to fulfil that need for rituals and ceremonies that engage and elevate the spirit.
These are most often devised by women to celebrate a transition such as maiden to mother or girl to woman. They restore the sense of sacred ritual to these important life transformations so that we still celebrate their significance with activities that speak to the spirit. For example, on arriving at a blessing way for a pregnant woman, the other women will show their reverence by entering the space in silence. They symbolically wash hands and feet in a bowl of rose petals before taking their places in the circle. Then, in turn, they each offer the mother-to-be a blessing, such as a poem, a song or a special wish for the child or mother or birth.
Altars of found objects
These may be used for significant occasions like birthdays or weddings or summer and winter solstices to mark the changing of the seasons. Some people also construct “nature” altars to bring more meaning to mainstream celebrations.
For example, at Easter people might sit in a semicircle around an altar and add something to it that represents the significance of this time of year. This might be anything from beautiful flowers that are in bloom to decorated eggs or seed pods collected nearby to represent rebirth and regeneration. These objects might be placed on a decorative piece of cloth or on a wooden crate covered in hessian. After each offering, the participants light a candle and wish the others in the circle a happy Easter.
Simply taking the time to be still and share in this way can stimulate lovely discussions of past memories and future hopes. It can give a much deeper meaning to the celebration and bring people together with a sense of strong community and spiritual connection to each other, the seasons and Mother Earth.
Connecting with nature
Many people find that celebrating and connecting with nature create intense feelings and thoughts that nurture the spirit. Practices that encourage this sense of communion include sitting still or walking mindfully:
Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning health journalist published in Australia and overseas. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and health issues relating to women and children. You can follow her health blog, Savvy by Stephanie Osfield, at stephanieosfield.com or contact her on Twitter: @stephosfield