Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why is Spirituality Important to Medicine?

That's a good question. Why is it? Well, to try and formulate what I hope will be an equally good answer, we should begin by defining our terms, though I'll tell you right off, precise definitions are elusive. "Spirituality" can suggest devotion to a particular religious tradition, but often as not, it refers to something that has little or nothing to do with organized religion. It may signify a feeling of relatedness to something and/or someone greater than ourselves or express the way a person conceives of their life unfolding. It may describe a personal sense of meaning and purpose or the conviction there is no purpose, that life is a series of random events possessing no more significance or predictability than the numbers drawn in the lottery. "Spirituality" literally can mean almost anything; it all depends on how we use the word.

Sigmund Freud called religion and by extension, spirituality, a "universal obsessive neurosis," inferring it was associated with psychological ill-health. His most famous student, C.G. Jung, disagreed and considered spirituality essential to a patient's well-being. Individuation -- the process of achieving fully conscious self-realization -- could be nurtured by a spiritual orientation as well as psychotherapy. But instead of relying on the doctor and patient relationship, spirituality activates archetypal images residing in the unconscious that enable us to feel grounded and genuinely connected with the deepest aspects of ourselves, a process some call "soul work." Unlike Freud, it wasn't the practice of spirituality that troubled Jung; it was its neglect that created problems requiring psychiatric help.
Jung gave considerable attention to Christian images and theology in the development of Depth Psychology, but he also drew on other forms of spiritual expression, including Hinduism, Islam, and the study of alchemy. In the I Ching, for instance, Jung discovered a useful instrument for revealing his own unconscious motivations. He regarded the symbols that recur throughout the I Ching, religion and mysticism as comprehensible images of a mature and fully integrated self.

If we think of spirituality, therefore, as the expression of a powerful desire or need that, when adequately addressed, leads to a feeling of wholeness, we can begin to let go the notion that spirituality must be opposed to science and reason. True, spirituality is irrational in the sense that it's an intuitive process, but irrational doesn't equate with anti-rational. It simply means spirituality "knows" in a way that sidesteps reason or logic. We call this relying on "flashes of insight."

You could say, intuition operates like saltatory conduction in the brain and spinal cord. Some nerves, particularly the longest ones, are wound about with a substance called myelin, making them look like a string of hotdogs placed end to end. An electrical signal travels along a nerve by leaping between the spaces between one "bun" and the next until it reaches its target. This type of signaling is much faster than the stepwise transmission employed by nerves that don't require "rapid transit" for communication. Similar cognitive leaps characterize intuition, though we may have to retrace our steps in order to explain to others how we "arrived at the station," so to speak.

Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood described post-WW II America as "the cut flower generation," and identified its critical existential problem as disconnection from its psycho-spiritual roots. Cut flowers look very nice in a vase, but they don't survive very long that way. Spirituality can be understood as an intuitive effort to find one's place in the universe, to put down roots and establish a sense of belonging.  

Although most people probably think about seeing a doctor or psychiatrist when they feel ill or they've got a problem, medicine is moving toward a model that promotes health and wellness. You take your car to the mechanic for regular maintenance, why wait until you're sick to see your physician about health maintenance? If your doctor is an osteopathic physician or psychiatrist, attending to the mind-body-spirit triad lies at the heart of their medical philosophy. "Spirit," like "spirituality," can mean many things, but as physicians, recognizing and cooperating with its presence means we wish to promote wholeness, a type of wellness that touches a patient through and through, that improves their quality of life and the lives of those around them. 

(Creative Commons image by NA dir via Flickr)

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