Stress and Human Spirituality

By Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D.

Stress and Human Spirituality

Stress, it is said, is the “equal opportunity destroyer. Regardless of income, education, gender, race, or how dysfunctional your parents were when they raised you, stress knows no demographic boundaries. Stress can be defined in a great many ways, but from a spiritual perspective it is best described as “the absence of inner peace.” Renowned psychologist Carl Jung once said, “Every crisis over the age of 30 is a spiritual crisis.’ While his contemporaries, including Freud, described stress as an emotional (anxiety-based) issue, Jung was of the opinion that stress, as exhibited through unresolved issues of anger or fear, was first and foremost a spiritual issue to be resolved. If Jung were alive today, he might drop the age limit down to 15 years of age, or perhaps remove it all together. Simply stated, every crisis, big or small, is a spiritual crisis.

Ageless Wisdom for Modern Times

If you were to eavesdrop on the conversations of the world’s great luminaries; the shamans, healers, mystics and wisdom keepers of all ages, cultures and languages as they discuss the topic of human spirituality, you would hear them address three aspects; relationships, values and a meaningful purpose in one’s life. These three facets are the hallmark of human spirituality. Perhaps by no coincidence, they comprise the greatest number of stressors known to humanity. Try this quick exercise; make a list of your top 10 stressors, issues, concerns, and dilemmas. Describe each stressor in no more than a few words. Then put a check mark next to every stressor that involves a relationship (including the relationship with yourself), a value (e.g., time, money, health, honesty, privacy, etc.) or value conflict and finally, a meaningful purpose in life (e.g., career, family, etc.). If you are like most people (and you are honest with yourself) you will find everything on your list checked off, sometime more than once. Jung was right; every crisis is a spiritual crisis.

Seasons of the Soul

Best selling author, M. Scott Peck began his acclaimed book, The Road Less Traveled, with these words: “Life is difficult.” Indeed, it can be. Yet life can also be gloriously exuberant as well. Balance is the key. In discovering the works and philosophies of the world’s great spiritual luminaries, it becomes clear that there is a specific progression of the soul growth process, very much like the seasons of our planet that promotes this balance. A closer look reveals that the first season is the Centering Process (autumn) when we take time to go inside and take inventory of the internal landscape (this is also known as soul searching). To center means to enter the heart. Wisdom keepers remind us to “be still” in this season. The Emptying process (winter) follows autumn, where we release, cleanse and detach from thoughts, attitudes, perceptions and beliefs that no longer serve us. This is a real test for the ego as some of these are really hard to let go of. The Emptying process is followed by the Grounding Process (springtime) where the void of the winter gives way to new growth, new insights and wisdom (also known as the “vision” of the vision quest). The last season is known as the Connecting process (summer) a time of celebration, (think family reunions, picnics, weddings etc.), or as Joseph Campbell called it, the last leg of the Hero’s Journey; the return home. Yet one never stays home long before the rotation begins again. And like planet Earth that has many seasons at once, we can be in one season of our life, such as one’s career and another involving a significant relationship.

Throughout the world, the words “spirit,” “wind” and “breath” are synonymous. The implied message is that spirit needs to keep moving. It cannot stop or even stagnate. When we get stuck in any one of these seasons of the soul, we become spiritually constipated. Many people get stuck in the emptying process, which for some goes by the name, “The dark night of the soul” (Shakespeare called it “The winter of discontent.”) Rather than honoring the emptying process by letting go, some people try to fill up this spiritual void with material possessions, drugs or alcohol, yet this never works. It only prolongs the dark night. One must remember that the emptying process is not the black pit of despair. It is the womb of creation, and the dark night is only supposed to be a night, not an eternity. Remember, nature abhors a vacuum. What you empty will be filled with something of equal or greater value; this is the promise of the universe. The sage advice from the wisdom keepers about the emptying process is this: “be in this world, but not of it.”

Triumph of the Human Spirit: Muscles of the Soul

When Jung stated that every crisis over the age of 30 was a spiritual crisis he added this thought: “Spiritual crises require spiritual cures.” In stress management circles “spiritual cures” are referred to as effective coping techniques. I refer to them as muscles of the soul. These are the inner resources we use to dismantle, circumnavigate, or transcend our stress. When employed they act as a divine force to bring us back home (inner peace). If you were to talk to any person who has come through a stressful situation gracefully (as a victor, not a victim), and ask them how they got through it, most likely they would say one or more of the following: a sense of patience, humor, forgiveness, creativity, optimism, integrity, faith and compassion. These are not gifts for a chosen few. Rather, they are birthrights for everyone. When we engage these muscles in times of personal stress, we rise above the fray and begin to meet our highest potential. This is the triumph of the human spirit, one which we are all called to serve.

Health of the Human Spirit

As a college professor who teaches a holistic (mind-body-spirit- emotions) approach to stress management, not all students are comfortable with the term “spirituality.” They often mistake this concept for religion. While there certainly is some overlap (both religion and spirituality offer a means to turn toward the divine), spirituality is inclusive; religions are exclusive (e.g., you cannot be Jewish and Baptist at the same time.) As the expression goes, “religion is for those who fear hell, and spirituality is for those who have already been there.” When teaching about stress and human spirituality I often use two metaphors,
mountains and water, two metaphors known the world over to depict the spiritual journey. Mountains are a symbol of strength during the winds of change; water is a reminder to go with the flow with things we cannot control. A Chinese proverb succinctly states: Stand like mountain, flow like water. Reinhold Neibuhr expounded upon this theme and called it
The Serenity Prayer.

The timeless message of the wisdom keepers reminds us that stress and human spirituality are partners in the dance of life. With practice, we are poetry in motion. The following is a letter from one of my college students who is well on his way to becoming poetry in motion.

Dear Professor Seaward,
Ahoy from the peaceful shores of Seattle! This is a long overdue letter from one of your American University students, class of ‘93, your last semester I believe. I should have written much sooner, there’s been something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Remember when you told us that the things you were teaching might take on greater significance as we aged and matured (or failed to mature)? That was a major understatement! In fact, you may have saved my life. This is my story:

I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been one since I was in my teens, and I was headed for more advanced stages when we crossed paths. I had a DWI and was charged with another misdemeanor before I reached twenty. And that’s when they caught me. But my legal difficulties were the least of my problems. I was becoming a vicious, animalistic monster, the very antithesis of who I really was. I was alienating everyone I loved and lost all self-respect. But try to tell me that back then and you would’ve been treated to the work of a master manipulator with true genius toward rationalization and self-deceit.

And then, I had the beginnings of what I now see to be a spiritual awakening. It was suggested that I go to Alcoholics Anonymous. I went and my first instinct was to run out the door. They used words like God and spirituality. What the hell did God and spirituality have to do with my problems? I am sure you know the answer to this question better than I. But of course my ego told me that these people were freaks thinking that spirituality was the answer for them.

When was the last time I heard of talk like this? It was from you. And you certainly weren’t a freak. You possessed a sincere inner calm. You helped people and I believed you were behind the concepts you taught. I remembered how impressive some of your presentations were. How you could get a group of students to open their minds and try meditation. I remember when you had a Native American shaman visit the class and how impressed I was with what he shared. I remembered when you told us that drugs and alcohol did not enhance spiritual development, they put up walls. I did feel a spiritual link back then for all my faults and I saw some of the things you covered in the Twelve Steps. So maybe there was something to this spiritual angle they talked about in AA, I thought. And I stayed.

I celebrated four years of sobriety on December 10th, 1999, and I am still sober as I write this letter. I have gained a deep and very personal appreciation for the concepts you introduced me to and promised would become important further down the road. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Steven M.

Stand Like Mountain, Flow like Water

To walk the human path is hard,
To stay put is not an option.
At times my head is filled with doubt,
Then I hear these words aloud,
Stand Like Mountain, Flow like Water.
I walk each step in search of truth,
My quest brings both joy and sorrow.
Light and dark dance unified,
Yes! Balance is the key to life.
Again I hear these words aloud,
Stand like Mountain, Flow like Water.
We come to earth to learn to love,
A lesson we must all master.
To know and serve the will of God
Is not a task for a chosen few.
We must each answer the call to love,
Stand like mountain, flow like water.

— Brian Luke Seaward

References Provided Upon Request

Brian Luke Seaward is a Health Psychologist and the author of many best selling books including, Stand Like Mountain, Flow like Water, Stressed is Desserts Spelled Backward, Quiet Mind, Fearless Heart and The Art of Calm. He is the executive Director of the Paramount Wellness Institute in Boulder Colorado. He can be reached at www.brianlukeseaward.net