Getting Serious about Spirituality and Health

Anything less than a contemplative perspective on life
is an almost certain program for unhappiness.
                                          – Father Thomas Keating

Recently a group from Las Vegas enjoyed a gracious tour of the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Leading the tour was by Dr. Richard Wainerdi, the Center’s guiding light for the last 28 years, overseeing 52 medical institutions dedicated to the well-being of individuals everywhere. These institutions include the renowned MD Anderson Center for Cancer, Texas Children’s Hospital, as well as the Institute for Spirituality and Health.

The Institute for Spirituality and Health was founded in 1955 and known at first as the Institute for Religion. The Institute‚Äôs mission is ‚Äúto create and disseminate knowledge as to the role spirituality plays in health and healing.‚Äù From its inception, the Institute has been dedicated to the concept that we humans are spiritual beings and, therefore, spirituality plays a vital role in healing and in maintaining optimal health. Spirituality is important in the process of coping with a chronic illness or disability and equally important at the end of life.

The Institute interfaces with the local medical university, Baylor College of Medicine, working with students during their third year of medical school. Students reportedly are delighted, eager to learn of the connection between spirituality and health. 

The Texas Institute is an interfaith endeavor, bringing together faith leaders of the community with faithful stewards of the medical profession to promote a growing appreciation of the importance of spirituality in the process of healing both mind and body.

Bringing the Vision Back Home

Recognizing the vital importance of this work  faith leaders and medical professionals in Nevada are joining to create a similar institution.  Our Nevada Institute for Spirituality and Health has become an affiliate of the Texas Institute. Dr. John Graham, director of the Institute in Texas, has opened his doors wide to help facilitate the emergence of NISH, the Nevada Institute for Spirituality and Health.  The Texas Institute has a vast resource base to assist us.

The goal is to enable members of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions to appreciate the connections between body, mind and spirit. In the last twenty years substantial progress in neuroscience has been made in understanding how emotional states create physiological states. For starters, read works Andrew Newberg‚Äôs How God Changes Your Brain or  Rick Hanson‚Äôs Buddha‚Äôs Brain.

It has become clear that the emotional states of fear, anger, and anxiety generate hormonal releases that facilitate basic chronic diseases such as hypertension, cancer, and diabetes. It is worth recalling that in the Christian tradition most of these emotional states carry the description of “deadly sins.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top ten causes of death in the United States are in order of significance during 2009 were:

  • Heart disease: 599,413
  • Cancer: 567,628
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 137,353
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,842
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 118,021
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 79,003
  • Diabetes: 68,705
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,692
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,935
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 36,909

Imagine how an appreciation of contemplative spirituality’s role in our well-being might influence the numbers of these leading causes of death. In his quote above, Fr. Thomas intimates the role that contemplative practice might play in bringing a fresh understanding to the relationship of spirit and body through the mind.

When the mind is perfectly poised, housed in a body of clean habits, stabilized neural energies, and balanced chemical function, when our physical, mental, and spiritual circuits are in harmony, spiritual growth is enormously enhanced. We can see a mutually beneficial effect when spiritual impulses are allowed to influence physiological function, as well as when healthy physiological function influences the capacity for spiritual growth and development. 

Like the Institute in Texas, the new Nevada Institute will encourage our local health care community to promote values such as such as compassion, wisdom, noble purpose, awe, mystery, wholeness, harmony, connectedness, tolerance, and awareness of the spiritual needs of people of all faiths. We will promote the notion that a deep appreciation of contemplative spirituality has a vital role to play in the future of medicine and health care. It is in humble acknowledgement of that role that the Nevada Institute of Spirituality and Health begins its first chapter.  To date we have done several programs on Forgiveness and Health, The Antidote to Anger, Spirituality and Healthcare.