What is Spirituality, Mindfulness and Mental Health?
A self interview
Recently I was part of a panel discussion on Spirituality and Mental Health on the occasion of World Mental Health Day. It was a good discussion. Before the discussion, I was given a list of questions that were likely to be asked. However since we were five panelists and had limited time, I could respond to only a few questions during the discussion. So I decided to interview myself and answer all the questions in this blog post.
Q: What is Spirituality?
A: Spirituality is the realization of our true self. It is the cognitive shift from seeing ourself as a conceptual identity made of past memories and future imagination to seeing ourself as Consciousness in the present moment.
Q: What is the connection between Spirituality and Religion?
A: The essence of all religion is spiritual, which is to realize our Self. The founders of all religions had this self-realization. This led to practices and rituals around the teachings of the founder. Over time the religious practices and rituals gained predominance and the essence of Self-realization got lost. Like throwing away the banana and holding on to the peel. Interestingly Christ was never a Christian and Buddha never a Buddhist.
Q: What is Mindfulness and Meditation? How is it related to Spirituality?
A: If the essence of spirituality is Self-realization, then the essence of Self-realization is Mindfulness. Mindfulness is known by different names. Being Conscious. Being Aware. Being Present. They all refer to bringing our attention to where life is happening. In the Now. When we are Mindful, we are one with life. When we are lost in our thoughts we are separate from life.
Meditation is the conscious practice of being mindful, by sitting still with the intent of being Conscious. However Mindfulness can, and must be practiced during all our waking moments, while eating, bathing, walking, as it is integral to being aware of our aliveness.
Q: What is mental health? Does Spirituality contribute to mental health?
A: Mental health is a subjective term. If seen from the perspective of psychology and psychiatry then mental health would mean a mind that is free of any mental disorder and is capable of functioning in the world.
From a spiritual perspective there is no such thing as mental health. Even a so-called healthy mind that is capable of functioning in the world suffers from the delusion of conceptual self-identity. This mind is made of unconscious thoughts that are constantly projecting a future, engaging in self-judgments and anxious about outcomes. Even mental health professionals and religious people have such a mind. This is the state of a ‘normal’ human mind.
Spirituality is awakening from the dream world created by thoughts, to our true Self as Consciousness. Inherent in the act of becoming conscious is freedom from identification with unconscious thoughts, and thereby the world of desire and fear that thought creates. The goal of spirituality is not mental health but spiritual awakening.
Q: Is there any research that supports Spirituality?
A: Research can be done on something that is separate from us. Since the subject of Spirituality is Consciousness which is our true self, it cannot be subject to empirical research in laboratory conditions. One cannot do research on their own self. The outcome of spiritual research is self-transformation. The validity of that research is an experience of Oneness that seeks no external validation.
Q: What is the difference between Spirituality and spiritual practices?
A: Spiritual practices such as asana, pranayama, chanting, prayers, changes in diet etc. are aids to becoming conscious. They are not the essence of spirituality. The essence of spirituality is to be conscious. And one can be conscious anytime and anywhere, by being attentive to the present moment. Spiritual practices, healthy routines and a holistic lifestyle help us to become conscious.
Unfortunately most people end up believing that being spiritual means to do spiritual practices. Often these practices are done mechanically without self-awareness. If that happens, then spiritual practices are no different from religious practices. Again we have thrown away the banana and held on to the peel.
Q: What is the difference between a mental health crisis and spiritual crisis?
A:. Every crisis is a life crisis. A crisis of lack of consciousness. A crisis due to misidentification with thoughts. Since human understanding of consciousness is rudimentary, we treat the mind as an object. There is a tendency to label dysfunctional human behavior according to a manual of mental disorders. The line of treatment is generally medication and therapy. While this may be useful as a short term measure, just like allopathic treatment it does not go to the root of the problem, which is the misidentification of the mind with itself. The ultimate medicine for the disease of misidentification is self-observation.
Q: How does one know what spiritual path to follow? Does one need a spiritual guide, teacher or Guru? How does one find the right spiritual teacher?
A: Every spiritual teacher and organization has their own philosophy and practices. We can associate ourself with the person or organization that appeals to us the most. We may resonate with different philosophies, people and organizations at different phases in our lives. Being part of a spiritual community greatly aids our growth by constantly reminding us to be conscious.
Ultimately our true guide is our Consciousness. It is our inner compass that is designed to guide us. Whatever life situation we are grappling with is our true Guru. It is there to enable our growth.
Q: Can being Spiritual sometimes make us distant from the world and our own reality?
A: Yes, it all depends how we interpret Spirituality. Some believe spirituality means escaping our challenging life situation and living in a commune and ashram peacefully. This is a fantasy, and even staying in an ashram or commune will be as challenging if we have not dealt with our inner conflicts.
People also believe that to be Spiritual means not be angry, lustful, greedy or resentful. This makes it very difficult to accept our emotions. A lot of suppression of emotions and denial happens in trying to be spiritual. The essence of spirituality is to be aware of whatever is happening without any judgments.
Q: The pandemic has resulted in immense personal loss and upheaval in people’s lives. How can Spirituality help them?
A: Every crisis is an opportunity for becoming more Conscious. A crisis challenges our beliefs about ourself, the world and God. And when these beliefs get demolished in the face of the harsh reality of life we either become cynical or surrender to whatever is happening. Surrendering is the first and the last step towards becoming Conscious. I believe the pandemic has collectively challenged human beliefs and made us more self-aware.
Q: Can Spirituality be introduced to children?
A: Most of our education at the moment is filling our minds with information. Spirituality is the act of observing the mind. If we can cultivate simple mindfulness practices in schools and colleges they can help to balance the culture of information with a culture of awareness.
Q: How do you deal with difficult times?
A: Through various things. Talking to friends or a counsellor is helpful. Being with nature is extremely therapeutic. Prayers and faith in a Higher Reality keep me anchored. And finally being kind to myself. One must realize that when we are in the midst of emotional turmoil we must be the first beneficiary of our kindness. Avoid self-judgments and be empathetic to ourself.
Q: What are some of the daily spiritual practices you follow?
A: Asana, pranayama, prayers, meditation, journaling, mindfulness walks, being with nature are some of my spiritual practices. I constantly remind myself to bring my attention into the present moment. Being conscious of Consciousness is my primary spiritual practice.