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Susan Smalley, Ph.D.

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Spirituality As A Way of Life

Posted: 02/10/10 12:41 PM ET

I never like the word 'spirituality' because it seemed New Age or tied to concepts of God in organized religion. However, having returned from my first trip to India, I find it best describes the culture I experienced there.

Let me define spirituality as 'a sense of connection to something larger than oneself' and in India this attention to spirituality is pervasive. It is evident in every aspect of the culture -- there is a constant integration of reminders that we are part of something larger than the self. It is evident in the shrines that are present on every street corner, created on sides of houses, roadside stops, hilltops, alleyways, the back of tractor trailers, and beyond. Shrines are big, small, colorful, bland, dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman, or thousands of other manifestations of our shared nature, to Hindus the manifestations of a Oneness or God or an Ultimate Reality. It is evident in the pervasive Namaste -- a greeting with hands folded in a prayer position accompanied by a bow that means something like "I see the Oneness in you." It is evident in the pervasive 'bindi,' the smudge of color between the eyebrow -- a reminder that we are part of something larger than the self -- visible by a 'third eye' if you will.

On a road in a rural region of Rashastan, we stumbled upon a shrine that had been established in honor of a young man killed on a motorcycle. The motorcycle and image of the man were centered behind a fire, kept alive by the eternal visits of thousands of strangers to this roadside shrine. Vendors had sprung up to provide gifts of donation at the shrine, bells and drums were played, and devotees prayed for safe travels. It was an example of both the magical and superstitious thinking pervasive in India and the recognition and gratitude for life and our connections to one another; a spiritual connection to something beyond the self.

To the outsider, India and its spirituality may seem a land of irrational thinking -- far from the rational mind of the West. But the integration of spiritual development into daily life may be a factor in why India ranks higher than the U.S. on national rankings of Happiness (e.g. happyplanetindex.org). Perhaps constant reminders of our interconnected and dependent nature make emotions and actions stemming from self-centeredness more difficult to come by.

In the West, we tend to compartmentalize our time for spiritual practice if present (times of day or days of week) while in India it is constant -- morning to night, birth to death. I am not suggesting an adoption of the religions of India but rather adopting an increased awareness of recognition of our interconnected nature into daily life. I am suggesting that attention to our connections beyond our 'individuality', our individual 'self,' is important for health and well-being (science shows that is true, for example, see R. Cloninger, Feeling Good: The Science of Well-being). Perhaps we can take a lead from the Indian culture and attend more overtly to our relationships beyond our self.

It can be part of daily life by acknowledging more readily the influences that shape you:

1. Home, environment, air, water, food
2. Family, parents, children, friends, strangers
3. Music, art, literature, Nature
4. Humanity, Universe, Evolution, God, Oneness, Truth

What if we attend to these elements with acknowledgment, gratitude and love every day from morning to night. It can be internal (heartfelt attention) or external (smile, handshake, eye contact, a nod, listening, and action). It is possible to integrate spirituality into our daily lives without adhering to any particular religion and without compartmentalizing it to circumscribed times of day or days per week.

Perhaps we can make spirituality a way of life, much like in India, albeit with a different external appearance.

 

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