When I was just turning 40, I went through some painful changes in my life, and I felt those developments in my body. I went regularly to the doctor, complaining of stomach upset and sores on my mouth.
Today, that emotional distress is behind me, and those sores have never appeared again. But through this experience, I discovered that I had a body that was not just physical but one that manifested emotional pain and symptoms associated with meaning. Now when I see ancient paintings that depict the yogic “subtle body”—maps of human physiology that represent different planes of spiritual and emotional existence—I know what I’m looking at. I know from experience that I can get sick in my soul and in my spirit.
But we don’t have hospitals where you can check in with distress of the soul, loss of meaning, and spiritual confusion. In the spirit of our times, confusing self-care with auto repair, we think of illness as some body part not working properly. I wonder if there will ever be a time when medical centers will cater to sicknesses of an entire, living, feeling, thinking, and relating person.
We all know what it’s like to have a sick soul. We might be stuck in a discouraging job or marriage. We may be living in a part of the world that feels foreign and suffer from deep homesickness. When I lived in Texas, a place of great charm and beauty, I would grow tired of the warm temperatures and sometimes would fly to New England just to see snow for the health of my soul.
Illnesses of spirit are widespread and terrible, but the spirit often seems so bright and positive that it can be difficult to spot its sickness. Given your spiritual intensity, you may believe that it is virtuous to suffer, and so you seek out experiences that cause you pain. Some spiritual text may have convinced you that you are worthless, and so you cultivate feelings of guilt and enjoy them as signs of your depravity. You are sick in the spirit when you get swept away by the charisma of a teacher or a teaching and forget to subject them to your intelligence. Gullibility is a spiritual disease.
You have a spiritual illness when you feel compelled to convert everyone to your way of thinking. And you are sick when you think that you alone possess the truth and feel disturbed when people don’t agree with you. You are very sick spiritually when your convictions move you to do something hurtful to your children or spouse or some other member of the family. Of course, someone who consciously or unconsciously uses their spiritual values to justify violence and warfare is sick in spirit to the extreme.
You are spiritually ill when you think it’s better to repress your emotions and desires than to enjoy life fully. You may be harming your overall health when you seek out the pleasures of self-denial rather than the more open joys of allowing yourself some wholesome—or, sometimes, illicit—pleasures.
Let’s be positive now.
You’re spiritually healthy when you have your own vision of how life works, what you’re here on earth to do, and you can appreciate and support others who have their own, very different visions. You’re spiritually healthy when you can give your life to the ideals of the Gospels—and also be grateful for the teachings of Laotzu and the Buddha. You’re spiritually healthy when you can live simply and decline any compulsive need to possess wealth. You’re spiritually healthy when you can enjoy the things of nature and human-made things as well, when you can be both a spiritual seeker and a sensualist.
You’re spiritually healthy when you have elaborate thoughts about the afterlife but know that you know nothing directly about it. You’re spiritually healthy when you can prize everything you’ve learned—and profess your profound ignorance about it all. You’re spiritually healthy when you can probe the deepest mysteries with absolute seriousness but also can laugh at human foibles and your own habit of doing the wrong thing.
It takes as much effort to be spiritually healthy as it does to keep your body in shape. Just as you may have to lose some weight to feel better, so you may have to abandon many truths you’ve held sacred for years. Above all, to be spiritually healthy you need to live on a diet of good ideas and excellent ideals. You shouldn’t eat junk food, and you shouldn’t think junk thoughts.
The author of the best-selling Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore’s latest book is A Religion of One’s Own.