There is a difference between Spirituality and Religion
“Remember you are going to be with you the longest. It is vital you get the relationship right with yourself first before seeking love from another” ~ Dr. Chris
I think it is important to start this article off with a disclaimer. There is a difference between religion and spirituality and for the purpose of this discussion, and in recognition that there are many religions in the world, I choose to honour and accept them all versus believing that one way is the only way. For me, what matters is that you are on a spiritual path but it is not my concern which road you are taking as all roads lead to the same place – that is my hope and what I choose to believe.
Discussing ‘Out There’ Right Here
I wanted to share something that might be a little “out there” with you about one of my views about depression and mental illness. One view I have discussed in this book is modeled after the “western” or “scientific” view that mental illness is a biochemical imbalance in the brain and if you give the body what it needs – neurotransmitter balancing with pharmaceuticals or naturopathic methods (diet, supplements, botanical medicine) – you will improve the patient’s mental state. In my practice, I have seen this with every patient I treat that has an imbalance in the mental realm as there is no denying the physical and causal connection of neurotransmitters and one’s mood state.
How We Perceive What We Are Looking At is Telling
On the other hand, my “out-there” view of mental illness is a way by which our spirit is trying to get our attention because some aspect of our life (be it school, our direction, job, a relationship) is not moving in concert with our spirit or divine plan. We are moving west and our spirit is trying to get us to go north. So by looking at ourselves and taking the time to be silent, talk to others, open up about what we are feeling, we can address the underlying root of depression, anxiety, addiction, bipolar disorder, eating disorders. Others believe that there is some precursor event that may have happened years ago (adoption, sexual abuse, emotional abuse) but I don’t think this is always the case. You don’t always need a reason to be depressed (hence the biochemical view).
Personally, I feel and have witnessed in my own life as well as the lives of my patients, there are four main areas that need to be addressed for healing: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Outlined below, is a discussion from the Journal of Naturopathic Medicine regarding the spiritual aspect of healing:
“in the process of healing we must first seek, then remove the cause. As the cause of illness is removed the natural tendency of the body is to improve function. The human being is not simply a physical entity. We have minds, we think. We have emotions, we feel and we translate these feelings into meaning. We are spiritual beings. Most of the early naturopathic writers, such as Lindlahr, Lust and Hahnemann, believed that illness began in the spiritual aspect of the person. I share this belief. Most of our education and therapeutic focus is on the physical aspect of the human being. It is crucial, in my opinion, that we direct more attention to the spiritual aspect. I believe we will see much more attention given to this area by our profession over the next few years. Causes of disease manifest in four groups or levels: spiritual, mental, emotional and physical. Of these four aspects, the spirit is the center; the next layer is the mental aspect of the person, then the emotions and the outermost layer is the physical. If there is a distortion on the spiritual level, it will create distortion through the system, like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond.
The knowledge of this spiritual aspect of reality is not well developed in our culture. We have no common language to discuss it. As a profession, we acknowledge the existence of a spiritual aspect of the person, but do not teach a methodology to work with it. I believe that this is a peculiar phenomenon in our North American culture, with our freedom of religion (or freedom from religion). Our profession must develop a language with which to discuss the spiritual aspect of healing without reference to religion.
For now, it is incumbent upon us as naturopathic physicians to acknowledge and to work in our own ways to recognize and pursue healing in this aspect of our patients’ lives. We can discuss with patients the presence of peace and trust in their lives, their spiritual practice or absence of it and our perceptions of their health or happiness in these regards. This requires that we pursue our own personal spiritual development.
When a person refuses, or is unable to take those steps, which can lead to healing from a crippling or terminal illness, this may be primarily a spiritual issue. The extent to which we can successfully address this, and to which the person can accept change on a spiritual level, will determine whether healing can occur. Illness is a great teacher. Death is not defeat. It is neither our responsibility nor prerogative to prevent death or heal illness. It is our privilege and responsibility to work with the vis medicatrix and assist our patients in their healing process.”
It is my personal belief that a connection to a spirit, whatever your chosen practice, is critical and vital to healing yourself and the current state of the planet. I define spirituality as believing in a power greater than yourself. Until my time is up on earth, I won’t know the answer to what happens to my soul. For many, the term “soul” or “spirit” is intangible or esoteric. I define your “soul” or “spirit” in you as your life form. When I studied anatomy, we dissected cadavers. The difference between you and a cadaver is life flow. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is referred to as “qi” (pronounced “chi”) or life energy. I hope you find resonance with the following ideas about your soul.
Personal Note on Life Energy
In 1994, I had a severe suicide attempt which left me in a coma with kidney failure. I was put on dialysis and told I would need a kidney transplant. After several weeks, lots of prayer, a moment of sincere surrender on my part, and my kidneys made a recovery. My recovery from kidney failure was viewed as a miracle by my nephrologist, given the amount of poison I consumed. I like to think it was because I had many people praying for me to make a complete physical recovery. I remember when I was recovering in the ICU, one of my friends asked me if I saw “white lights” and if I was sent back. As I was still in a state of recovery and I hadn’t had time to process what had happened, I just shook my head and the conversation moved on from there.
Now, over twenty years later, the answer I have for why that suicide attempt didn’t work when I think it should have is based on the concept of “soul contracts”. Basically, if I succumb to suicide in this lifetime, then my soul will not evolve spiritually. I first learned about the concept of soul contracts in Colin Tipping’s book called Radical Forgiveness and it is also illustrated beautifully in a children’s book by Neale Donald Walsch called The Little Soul and the Sun. I have come to understand the concept of soul contracts to mean that before we inhabit the human form our soul makes a contract with God about what our next life will be about – what our experiences will be, what challenges we will have to overcome, what we have come here to learn, who our parents will be, siblings, partners, children, etc. When we leave the spirit world to inhabit the body, we forget about the contract we made with God until we return back to the spirit world as a soul upon our death. Basically, the lessons we come to learn in this lifetime are agreed to in a soul conversation with God.
The conversation we have with God as a soul might be along these lines:
- Soul: “God, in this lifetime I really want to learn how to forgive”
- God: “Are you certain? This means you will go through some painful experiences”
- Soul: “Yes, I am certain. I am ready!”
- God: “I don’t know. It may be hard – you may have to endure abuse, rape, death, trauma and betrayal”
- Soul: “I am okay with that as I trust in you, God. I really want to learn how to forgive on the deepest level”
- God: “So it will be”
I have mentioned one suicide attempt in this article, however, there have been other attempts and much too much energy on my part spent contemplating suicide. What shifts me from contemplation is recognizing that suicidal thoughts are the ultimate example of “stinking thinking” and being unkind to myself. By learning how to manage my mind with awareness of thoughts that no longer serve me and relaxing into the present-minded awareness with my breath, I am able to break the thought-emotion cycle that used to keep me spiraling down the slippery slope into a suicidal state. Now, I am able to get outside of my head which gives a reprieve from these negative thought patterns. However, before I learned how to do that, it was the ‘single belief’ of – if I am to succumb to suicide in this lifetime then my soul will not evolve or graduate and I will have to endure this lesson over again – that has helped me stay here on the planet with you. My soul has come here to learn how to love myself, how to love others, how to live out a full life as God intended and to not take my life. I believe that I probably did not survive suicide in a past life and if I die in this life by suicide then I may have to repeat this grade in soul school the next time around. For me, it is not about how much money I make, how successful I am as a naturopathic doctor or how decorated an athlete I was, it is about surviving mental illness and moving beyond the label into love and acceptance of myself and others. It is helpful to contemplate what the spiritual lessons might be for you in this lifetime. For me, the biggest spiritual lessons along the way have been acknowledging and accepting my shadow and core beliefs, forgiveness and letting go.
Self-Love Scale 1-10
Ultimately, it is our feelings about ourselves and how we treat ourselves that is critical to our mental health and well-being. I ask every patient how much they love themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 and it is rare for me to get a response over five. The most common response I get is “Now that is a tough question to answer”. This is the work we need to set about doing: accepting and loving ourselves. You are a gift to the world – a unique creation of God or the Universe – that is worthy of your love and acceptance. Recognize that. Feel that. Embody that. And give that love to yourself. Then give it others. Not acknowledging your strengths, gifts, accomplishments and achievements is a way of putting yourself down and keeping yourself small. The world wants to see your light.
As Marianne Williamson writes in A Return to Love: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” If we learn to move through fear, self-doubt and criticism and learn to embrace love, then our true self can shine through.
Learning to Love
The slow process of learning to love and accept myself started after that suicide attempt in 1994 when I read Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love. I have subsequently read many books on self-help and healing. Developing a spiritual practice has been the key to my recovery from mental illness and is an important element of healing that I bring into the clinical space with my patients. Spiritual practices are as a varied as people in the world. The main idea is to take a larger perspective of yourself and develop a daily practice of getting in touch with that which is greater than yourself.
- Journal of Naturopathic Medicine
- Williamson, Marianne. A Return to Love.
Christina Bjorndal, B.Comm, ND, graduated from UBC in 1990 with Bachelor of Commerce Degree with honours. She was Valedictorian of her graduating class. She completed her Doctorate in naturopathic medicine from CCNM in 2005. She is a specialist in Canada in the treatment of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, eating disorders, ADD/ADHD, OCD and schizoaffective disorders. Having overcome many challenges in the sphere of mental health, Dr. Chris is a gifted motivational speaker on mental health and shares how to overcome barriers in life and to encourage others to achieve their full potential. She is currently completing a book on mental health titled “Beyond the Label: Moving from the stigma and shame”