Ayurveda is the traditional healing system from India that is literally translated as ‘the science of life.’ Through healthy daily practices and aligning with natural rhythms, one can prevent disease and create health on a daily basis. And although the outcome of Ayurvedic lifestyle and medical treatment is a healthy body and mind, the true aim of Ayurveda is to connect us to a deeper experience of who we are.
Ayurveda is true body-mind-spirit medicine that allows us to understand, appreciate, and integrate all aspects of who we are.
Ayurveda is a consciousness-based healing system. This means that the foundational principle in Ayurveda is that our true nature is one of infinite potential because consciousness is the ground state of who we are. As humans, we have a physical experience that we call the body as well as a mental experience that we call the mind. Both experiences are constantly changing, in every moment, therefore by their very nature, are impermanent.
The constant and unchanging self that is aware of the physical and mental experience is described in Ayurveda as pure consciousness, also known as spirit. It is that within which all experience is occurring. The beauty of this description is that we start to understand that each and every choice we make influences the changing system that we call body and mind. And when we understand our true nature as consciousness, or spirit, we have a greater appreciation for the importance of spiritual well-being, which is a connection to that true Self.
What is Spiritual Well-being?
Spiritual well-being is a multidimensional concept. It does not necessarily refer to any specific religious or spiritual practice but instead includes several characteristics such as a sense of meaning in life, purpose, a connection to something greater than our individual selves, and transcendence. Connection can include connection to oneself, others, nature, or a higher power. Transcendence includes the experience of existence that is beyond the physical body and/or beyond space and time. As opposed to a social construct, spirituality is a naturally occurring and personal phenomenon.
As a physician, having this complete understanding of well-being is invaluable in helping guide patients on a journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. And the importance of spiritual well-being is being increasingly appreciated and validated through science. Through validated questionnaires that measure our spiritual well-being, it has been shown that a higher level of spiritual well-being is associated with better overall health and well-being.
Multiple studies have shown that increased spiritual health can result in improved psychological well-being and physical health as well as improved coping skills. In addition, in certain populations, spiritual health can be more important for quality of life than physical health. Higher spiritual well-being can also reduce anxiety and depression in patients with cancer and lead to improved quality of life. Therefore, addressing one’s spiritual well-being needs to be recognized as part of a complete medical system as it is in Ayurveda.
The Brain and Spiritual Experience
Although the field is relatively new, there are many interesting studies looking at the brain and spiritual experiences. There are specific areas of the brain that seem to be associated with a felt-sense of connection outside of oneself, a core component of spirituality. This experience involves areas of the brain such as the parietal cortex. The parietal cortex is involved in the experience of a ‘sense of self,’ meaning an individual self, therefore during meditation or other spiritual experiences, there is a decrease in activity of the parietal cortex, thus contributing to a sense of being something greater than an individual identity.
Another area of the parietal cortex, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in spatiotemporal processes (the experience of the human body in time and space) and one study reports a blunting of activity in this area when subjects recounted a personal spiritual experience. In addition, there was a decrease in areas of the brain associated with the stress response, which supports the subjective data showing a decrease in anxiety and depression with spiritual experience. The researchers concluded that there are neural mechanisms associated with spiritual experiences and that future studies that increase our understanding of these brain changes could help facilitate the integration of spirituality into treatment and prevention in areas of mental health conditions in particular.
How to Cultivate Improved Spiritual Well-being
Spirituality does not necessarily imply any particular practice or belief therefore each individual can choose which practices work for them. Some of the practices that contribute to an increase in spiritual well-being include meditation, prayer, mindfulness, contemplation, connecting with nature, to name a few. For others these experiences can occur while listening to music, volunteering, or while engaging in focused and meaningful work. Just as we need healthy habits for physical and mental well-being, it is equally important to have regular practices to cultivate spiritual well-being.
Research has proven how important this is. In a 2017 study, it was shown that within 5 days of an immersion into an Ayurvedic lifestyle program, people can experience a sense of non-dual awareness, which is a sense of transcendence--oneness with everything, or identifying with the entire universe. This Ayurvedic immersion program involved several daily Ayurvedic lifestyle practices, an Ayurvedic diet, aligning with biological rhythms, Ayurvedic massages, as well as daily meditation and yoga. Some of the outcomes included a sustained sense of gratitude, self-compassion, and spirituality after returning home.
Ultimately, when we engage in Ayurvedic lifestyle practices, we calm the body and mind so that we can experience our true nature. A well-known verse from an ancient Ayurvedic text states “Ayurveda Amritanam,” which is translated as “Ayurveda is for immortality.” This refers to the true result of Ayurveda which is to help us connect to our Universal and ever-present self and experience more peace, harmony, and connectedness, which results in better personal and collective well-being.