Research on the relationship between religious or spiritual practice and health has grown dramatically in the last few years…I think in particular of the growing field of psychoneuroimmunology. There is much evidence that people engaged in some kind of spiritual practice have lower stress levels and tend to be healthier both in mind and in body. The million dollar question is whether spiritual/religious practice is the factor affecting health, or whether such practices are simply a marker for some other factor that is the affective agent. Certainly we can say that what people believe, think and feel seems to have a direct effect on their health, the question that needs to be explored further is: How?
It is my own observation that one of the most important indicators of physical-emotional-spiritual health is cultivating the practice of mindfulness. By mindfulness, I simply mean our capacity for awareness or self-consciousness. That simple, yet difficult practice of paying attention, of “being present in the present,” of coming to a deeper appreciation of our existence through our senses. Whether a person is disciplined about a particular religious or spiritual practice is obviously not necessarily an automatic indicator of health. However, when such disciplines assist a person in being more mindful of their everyday life, these practices seem to yield the outcome of a more balanced, healthy mind-body-spirit relationship.
In his book Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that our ability to pay attention and be present to our own existence is so important that when we fail to do so, the consequence of our dis-attention, or dis-connection manifests, of course, as dis-ease. Our habit of not paying attention or “putting out of our mind” various tensions or stressors can, over time, allow symptoms to worsen, and make us prone to disease in other areas of our life. This habit of intentionally ignoring our body’s signs permeates our everyday existence. At this very moment, I am the perfect example of this because it has suddenly come to my attention that it is now 1:45pm and in my desire to finish this blog today, it slipped my mind that perhaps, I should eat lunch! Intentionally, or perhaps it would be better to say unconsciously, I have been ignoring all my body’s signals pointing to the fact that I am hungry. But what has it gained me other than an increased ability to ignore or “put out of my mind” my own self-awareness and walk through life un-conscious?
These small, mindlesshabits we adopt are important to notice because of the reality that “practice makes perfect.” Every single behavior or task we perform in a day is one that we get better at with each repetitive act. Every time we become tense, anxious, angry, or any other emotion, we get better at being: tense, anxious, angry etc. Our conditioned behaviors and mindless habits are a direct result of our “way of being” in the world. Without an awareness of that “way of being” every moment of our lives will be one in which we walk through our lives un-conscious. If I’m at the beach on my cell phone am I really there? If I’m on Facebook and watching Cars for the 24thtime with my daughter am I really watching Cars? Indeed, have I ever really seen the movie, even once? The common job interview question: “how are you at multi-tasking?” is rather paradoxical to me, instead they should ask: “how good are you at working mindlessly?” Multi-tasking is not a skill! It is yet another collective way in which we have come to value the “ability” to lessen our experience of the present moment.
The reality of my own unawareness struck me, much to my chagrin, when my dishwasher broke. Second to laundry, there is no household task I dislike quite as much as washing dishes. The coping mechanism I developed to help myself deal with this tragic fate was to reward myself with a glass of wine every night after I had finished the dishes. One evening, while enjoying my well earned glass of Riesling (it was a pot-roast night and I forgot to turn the crock pot off), I picked up Thich Naht Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. As I cracked open the book the very first example of practicing mindfulness presented was, alas, washing dishes! You see, there are two ways to wash the dishes. One can wash the dishes to have clean dishes, or one can wash the dishes, to wash the dishes. If we choose the former, then truly it could be said, we are not even washing the dishes because our mind is not there with us in that moment, it is already on to the next thing: drying the dishes, putting them away etc. But when we choose to wash the dishes, simply to wash the dishes, we encounter the present moment, our very self, and the miracle of life all over our finger tips in our very own warm, soapy sink!
Indeed, when I really thought about it, even after I had moved on to my glass of wine, I wasn’t actually drinking my glass of wine; I was giving my daughter a bath. And while I was giving her a bath, I was folding laundry, and while I was folding laundry I was….
So with small, gradual baby steps, I have begun the simple yet complex journey of washing the dishes…to wash the dishes.
I really liked washing the dishes to have a glass of wine though
…Maybe I’ll start with just washing my wine glass.
After all, a healthy dose of self-compassion goes a long way in this journey we call life! (-: