In recent years, mental health clinicians and scholars are beginning to validate the power of faith when it comes to our well-being. Empirical studies have found that having some form of spiritual practice helps people deal with life stressors such as natural disasters, illnesses, bereavement, and separation from loved ones. The power of spirituality is evident in many modern healing rituals, from Alcoholics Anonymous to mindfulness.
Spirituality has been an inseparable part of human life for more than 70,000 years, and its definition is rapidly changing as we enter the postmodern era. The idea of ‘truth’ is no longer objective and absolute, but fluid and pluralistic. As we drop the fundamentalist dogma and embrace diversity, the pursuit of faith is no longer limited to the religious.
Having a sense of trust in something bigger than ourselves, and living a life in connection with that idea, is the essence of all spiritual practices. When defined in this way, the practice is not about worshipping a deity, but about harnessing a sense of trust that your life is unfolding in the perfect order. As Steve Jobs reminds us, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Some call this something God, others call it the universe, the divine spirit, or simply ‘the higher power’. Even when your mind cannot yet perceive it, you choose to believe that someone, or something, is taking care of it all.
Having faith in something bigger than ourselves can relieve us of existential angst, and provides the wisdom and equanimity we need to deal with life’s fundamental uncertainties. But true liberation from fears and worries comes not from the belief that the world will give you what you want – that kind of pleasure-driven relief is only short-lived. Real freedom comes from the conviction that the ‘something bigger than us’ will do what is just right. Instead of being attached to a specific outcome (e.g. I want that very job, that very partner), a mature spiritual practice is about seeking your own growth. The Serenity Prayer is a perfect example of how this attitude is manifested:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Thus, the goal here is not to make the world as you would have it (good luck with that!), but to develop the ability to take it as it is. This requires humility and patience and is achieved through a consistent practice of letting go, of surrendering. This is often easier to do in ‘good times’. As evolved as we are, part of our brain – the limbic system – still operates very much on a primitive level. It is easily startled, constantly worried, and has a propensity towards negativity. This mammalian, survival-based part of our brain will kick, scream and panic as it confuses spiritual surrendering with threats from harm. Ironically, letting go and yielding to what is often is the only thing that works when you have exhausted all other options of pushing, wanting, worrying.
Here is a simple exercise that you can start today, to practise letting go and having faith. It is inspired by the author Tosha Silver, who puts all her anxiety-inducing problems, unresolved questions and worries into what she calls the ‘God box’. In her practice, she writes her concerns on a piece of paper, slips them into the box and simply thank God for the perfect solution that is coming.
This exercise is different to the standard cognitive behavioural technique ‘the worry box’ (which is useful in its own right). This takes it one step further in terms of spiritual development and opens the door to a deeper state of equanimity that is beyond temporary relief. In essence, every piece of paper you put into the box becomes a vote of faith in what is bigger and mysterious. When done repeatedly, it helps to train and re-wire your brain’s existing neuropathways. You are using a ritual to teach your mammalian brain to calm down and to gradually relinquish your need to know, to control, and to push for the outcomes you want. Another added benefit of this practice is that over the course of time you will have collected ample evidence of how most of the time things do get taken care of (this is often the case when you are given the benefit of an alternative time perspective). After a few weeks or months, when you review the box, even your rational, ‘I will believe it when I see it’ left brain will get a chance to catch up.
Developing trust in what is bigger than us, or cultivating spirituality as it is defined here, may bring long-lasting benefits. Ultimately, the goal is to align yourself with the belief that things are being done ‘through you’, rather than ‘by you’. When you are freed from the constant fears, worries, and survival-based impulses, your brain will have the room to deal with what actually matters – your journey of self-actualisation. Perhaps it is about being the best lover, parent, friend, person you can be, perhaps it is about being creative again, perhaps it is about reconnecting with your natural gifts and manifesting your full potential.
With this journey comes not short-lived happiness or hedonistic pleasures, but deep and lasting joy.
What can you leave in the box today?