The spiritual dimension can be extremely useful for the growth and development of emotionally intense people, who are often also gifted, highly empathic, spiritually sensitive and attuned. They are susceptible to physical problems that are not easily explained by traditional medical science. Their symptoms often reflect a psycho-spiritual conflict between their deep spiritual yearnings and the limitations of this physical world. On the other hand, because they process information deeply, and notice subtleties in their environment so much more, they are easily overwhelmed. It is therefore essential for them to strengthen their resilience, in order to deal with the demands of their everyday lives, without resorting to unhelpful strategies such as compulsive and addictive self-soothing behaviours, or cutting off from their vitality altogether.
Spiritual practice does not necessarily mean being religious or worshipping a deity, but the act of harnessing a kind of soul strength that is deeper than what meets the eyes. It allows us to tap into the transpersonal and symbolic realm; By having the ability to see, hear and know the mysteries that lie beyond science and logic, we can draw power from something much greater than ourselves.
Here are four spiritual lessons that are especially relevant and useful to emotionally intense and spiritually sensitive individuals. They are organised in a way that each practice is associated with a ‘gift’ that describes the fruit of developing the virtue.
1. The Trust Practice
Trusting is the foundation of many pathways to spiritual development. Trust is not a mere concept, but a continuous practice. In order to do this, you must dig deep within yourselves, to find a Source that you can depend on to guide you in this messy, unpredictable world. When you consistently choose to trust, you get to experience ’‘being caught’ enough times that you can eventually internalise a sense of alignment with life. Some common ways used by various spiritual and religious traditions to describe the trust practice are surrendering, letting go, accepting, accepting what is, believing that ‘everything happens for a reason’, yielding to God’s plan, karma, trusting the Divine order. It is important that you find the words that resonate with you.
When bad things happen, trust is often the hardest, yet the most needed lesson. Many of us have a hard time relinquishing control, because of a deep-rooted belief that we must work hard to earn what we need and to fight in a world of scarcity. In many ways, we are programmed to believe that life cannot be easy. Therefore, it takes conscious and consistent practice to rewire our minds. Spiritual growth involves seeing beyond the literal, into the symbolic. We all have the experience of negative events turning out to be a life-changing gift that is revealed only in hindsight. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you can remind yourself to release your need to know how things will work out, and to trust that the perfect solution is already chosen, only if you can allow yourself to be guided. Even when you cannot yet perceive it, even when the situation makes it hard to do so, you can try your best to affirm the belief that everything is in the perfect order. If you allow yourself to be connected to your spiritual source at all times, you can rest in the knowledge that this source will always provide exactly what you need, when you need it.
Sometimes a situation cannot resolve or heal itself until you fully release it. It is only by you surrendering your tight grasp could light comes in. If you are struggling with addictive behaviours, aspects of life that you do not like about yourself, and you have exhausted all possible ways to change it but are getting nowhere, it may be time to exercise this principle: Trusting that things will happen in the way it needs to, when the time is ripe. Like everything in nature, human life also goes through seasons and cycles. Perhaps it is not time for the harvest yet. You would not ask a tree to be taller than it should be, a flower to be of a different colour, so why demand that of yourselves?
Sometimes, the trust practice involves healing from the life pattern of being a ‘parentified child’. Many emotionally sensitive and gifted individuals have automatically taken on the role of ‘the little adult’ in their family- sometimes concretely and practically, but most of the time covertly and on a psychological level. Parentification occurs when a child is put in a position where she has to grow up ‘too early too soon, is burdened with a huge amount of responsibility, or is made to be a parent to their parents. Gifted children automatically take on this role because of their natural competence; Many are also old souls who are by nature more attuned and mature than their chronological ages. For many highly empathic children, because they have the warmth, compassion and depth that is beyond normal, their family members have come to—usually unintentionally and unconsciously— lean on them. Parentification can also happen if one or both parents are physically or mentally ill, unavailable, or for any reason not able to fulfil parenting duties. Children who are parentified often grow up feeling hyper-vigilant and hyper-responsible. They are used to being the ones who make sure that everything is in order, and to be responsible for meeting not just their own needs but also others’. They are programmed into feeling that if they let go of the control wheel for just a minute, things will go wrong.
This practice is also difficult if you have a propensity towards perfectionism, and believe that you must be continually striving in order to meet some unrelenting standards. Because these standards are internalised, there is constant pressure to do more and be more, which often results in chronic stress and anxiety. For these individuals, the practice is about trusting what is happening is enough. Ultimately, it is about internalising deep self-love that says ‘I am enough’. That you do not have to justify your existence by being useful or productive, that simply being is enough. Your old, small, critical self may confuse your new behaviour with laziness, but your gut will be able to sense the difference: Letting go comes from a place of love, whilst indolence comes from a place of fear.
The most important aspects of spirituality are releasing and trusting. When you practise trust, you will receive the gift of peace.
2. The Equanimity Practise
Equanimity is a deep-seated sense of spacious stillness and openness that is undisturbed by the emotional ups and downs that go on on the surface. This is not to be confused with the suppression of feelings, apathy or detachment. Equanimity is not about disconnection, in fact, it does quite the opposite- equanimity gives us the stability and strength that deepen our presence, patience, and connection with the world around us.
One way of cultivating equanimity is through mindfulness. In the tradition of insight meditation (Vipassana tradition), the student is taught to notice the ever-changing sensations, feelings and thoughts, whilst cultivating a sense of healthy detachment with whatever is happening. Being in equanimity allows you to see the ever-changing and unfolding processes in life without getting caught up in reactivity or over-identification. Eventually, you will learn to ‘ride the waves’ of life’s ups and downs. As Jon Kabat Zin says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf!” . Or, quoting Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The goal of this practice is to find a way of living that is free of our compulsive need to hold onto the good and to push away the bad. In the Buddhist tradition, equanimity provides us with protection from the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. With equanimity, we can feel pleasure without clinging to it or worrying about its ceasing, and we can feel pain without perpetuating it.
Ultimately, you can feel freer and freer by expanding the range of life experiences you welcome into your world. Instead of expending endless energy in resisting reality, welcome whatever arises, and allow them to change you.
Equanimity offers the gift of freedom from the constant pull of emotions.
3. The Courage Practice
This may be the most important practice for emotionally intense individuals.
It is your ability to develop deep and meaningful relationships, to dive deep into sadness, to ponder death and parting, and to dance with existential angst, that makes your gift. Because passion is your core virtue, the courage to embrace impermanence is called for to preserve your natural vitality.
This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but our passion for life comes from our ability to grieve. Change is not only a fact of life; change is life. When we come to think about it, with each current moment there is the death of the last, with each today comes the passing away of yesterday. This applies to each and every single moment you spend with your loved ones; Knowing that things will end and change makes us feel such tenderness and vulnerability whenever we open our hearts to love. This points to a poignant and beautiful fragility that is embedded in the very essence of being human. Love, life and death are all happening simultaneously. This ever-changing nature of all things in this world means we have no choice but to become a spiritual warrior who hones the skill of mourning.
In her seminal work on vulnerability, Brene Brown said: ‘When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding’.If we wish to circumvent everyday grief, we will eventually pay a huge cost. In our child-like attempt to hide, we become cut-off, numb, and unable to feel joy. In our attempt to avoid pain, we may sacrifice the precious capacity for joy and beauty. To authentically engage with life means to sober up from a childish dream-like state, and acknowledge the impermanent nature of all things, see heartbreaks as inescapable, and embrace the ebbs and flow of all that is in human life.
A life well-lived is a life well grieved. It is by cultivating the courage to dance with impermanence, losses and death that you can reap a life of its fullest vitality.
4. The Integrity Practice
Finding integrity means aligning your day to day activities with the right intention, and leaning into the power of something greater than yourself. To align with the Devine means having the discipline to show up every day and give it all, whilst paradoxically surrendering your need to control, and your attachment to a particular outcome. When we live and act with integrity, we would be gifted with boundless energy, creativity, and confidence.
This practice is particularly relevant for the creative and gifted souls, as it offers an antidote to the existential angst and creativity stagnation common experienced by them. This angst may manifest itself as the fear that you have not fulfilled your potential, that you are ‘wasting your life’, or ‘seeing it goes by’, or as writers’ or artists’ blocks.
In order to allow our natural creativity to flow through, you must learn to see yourself as nothing more than a creative vessel, or a conduit that channels creativity from something larger than you, rather than being the source of your contribution. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Big Magic, has spread the idea that before the Renaissance, the idea of ‘genius’ was different to what it is now. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that people HAVE a genius that works through them, rather than them being the genius. Close to our understanding of having a ‘guardian angel’, the Romans believed that a genius was a magical divine entity that would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work. In this view, whatever abilities and achievements you have been attributed to an unseen spirit. All you can do, then, is to show up and try your best, and the outcome is not up to you. Increasingly, successful artists and achievers around the world are realising this wisdom. Julia Cameron, the author of the best-selling creativity guide ‘The Artist’s Way’ said, ‘Life is a spiritual dance and that our unseen partner has steps to teach us if we will allow ourselves to be led’. Or as Woody Allen said, for the artists, “Eighty per cent of success is showing up.”
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the right attitude is to focus on the integrity of the action without attachment to the outcome: “Perform all thy actions with mind concentrated on the Divine, renouncing attachment and looking upon success and failure with an equal eye.’ When you exercise full integrity in your action, you are blameless. By focusing not on the praise and blame, but solely on contributing, you will have the soul strength to persist in your chosen endeavour.
The Integrity Practice calls for both actions and receptivity. On a practical level, it involves actions such as finding ways to maintain your health, seeking advice from others, optimising your energy and maximising your creative output. On the more subtle and energetic level, these actions are balanced by your readiness to receive guidance. Ultimately, you know that things are being done ‘through you’, rather than ‘by you’. Not only does this practice take away stress and anxiety, it is also where your best work comes from.
“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places.”
– Parker Palmer
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.