Why Spirituality Shouldn't be Taboo in Modern Medicine

Updated: Sep 5, 2018

The very first thing one must do in order to talk about spirituality is to define it. It may sound indefinable but many people have given it a shot. Several definitions conjure a goosebump-inducing wisp of the concept itself in their poetry. Beautiful but vague. A review paper in the Journal of Advanced Nursing goes into depth about the definition of spirituality in medicine, concluding-

“Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”

Even Albert Einstein himself couldn't quite put a formula to it, preferring to rhapsodize as well-

"Creation may be spiritual in origin, but that doesn’t mean that everything created is spiritual. How can I explain such things to you? Let us accept the world is a mystery. Nature is neither solely material nor entirely spiritual. Man, too, is more than flesh and blood; otherwise, no religions would have been possible. Behind each cause is still another cause; the end or the beginning of all causes has yet to be found."

Einstein had no cause to break spirituality down into easy-to-swallow pieces, and perhaps he was too smart to try, but in order to convince you that there is a place for spirituality in medicine, I need to make an attempt to do exactly that. Bear with me.

The word “spirituality” is a well-meaning umbrella word for three different concepts that often overlap:

1) Organized religion and its practices/traditions/ceremony

2) Personal, existential, self-improvement concepts (I'm including our spiritual connection to nature in this category)

3) Paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, angels, etc.

These three concepts have been shoved awkwardly and sometimes unwillingly together under this precarious umbrella word and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone without a personal history or bias toward any number of them. Misunderstandings abound in the presence of spirituality.

For a lot of scientists and doctors, people who spend their lives learning the mechanics of physics, chemistry, and biology, people who value leaving questions open until sufficient research has been done and evidence has been presented to answer those questions- the religious and paranormal aspects of spirituality in particular can represent the antithesis of their comfort zone.

Obviously, this isn’t true for everyone in the scientific and medical fields. People who work in these fields are as varied in their beliefs as anyone else. But a large study focusing on provider views about religion and spirituality in medical practice revealed that while most physicians thought that it was appropriate to engage in discussion of spiritual issues when prompted by the patient, very few thought that it was pertinent to initiate such discussions, and almost none reported actually praying with patients.

Patients, on the other hand, are craving a spiritual conversation with their doctors. A recent multi-center survey of outpatients found that if they were facing possible death, 70% of patients would welcome physician inquiry into their religious/spiritual beliefs, 55% would appreciate silent prayer, and 50% believe their physician should pray with them.

So where is this disconnect coming from? I believe the problem stems from a lack of education for providers about what aspects of spirituality are appropriate to bring up and how to bring them up. Providers aren't wrong to hesitate. Major damage can be done when spirituality is approached in the wrong way. But I asked Dr. Molly Roberts of LightHearted Medicine, Past President of the American Holistic Medical Association, how she approaches the topic. Because at LightHearted Medicine, spiritual health is considered just as important as physical, mental, and emotional health.

"When someone is sick, spiritual questions are often at the forefront of their mind," says Dr. Molly.

"Why am I here?

What is my meaning and purpose in life?

What would make me happy?

How do I feel about death?

Have I lived a life I’m satisfied with?

Have I truly connected with anyone or anything on a deep level?

Am I on my right life path?

Does the world feel like a safe place to me?"

Often, patients can feel completely overwhelmed by these questions and the stress can add to their poor health. Under the care of many doctors, these patients won’t feel free to discuss their existential anxieties. LightHearted Medicine, on the other hand, acknowledges these questions, gives them a platform, and supplies patients with tools to find their own answers.

As you can see, the questions Dr. Molly mentions are carefully worded to avoid association with any particular religion and they seem to fall under the second of the three categories of spirituality that we discussed earlier- personal, existential, self-improvement concepts. So why couldn't you just call that psychology?

"Sure, you can call it psychology if that makes you more comfortable," says Dr. Molly. "It’s an off-shoot of psychology. But spiritual questions have a different flavor. They’re so much deeper.”

“So how do you approach the spiritual questions with a patient?” I ask her.

“It depends on whether they’ve already brought it up,” she says. “They often bring it up first. But if they haven’t, I just start asking them those big-picture questions in order to open the door for a deeper conversation about their life path. Honestly, most people who come to us already know what we do so they’re already prepared to go in that direction.”

“So then what about when you first started asking these questions?”

“I was a psychotherapist for many years and then I went to med school and became a family practice doctor. So bringing the physical and the emotional together always felt very natural and was generally accepted by my patients and colleagues. But it wasn’t until I went through my own health crisis that I truly realized how important those deeper existential questions become when you’re ill. When you’re sick, you really start to ask yourself- Who am I? How do I want to walk this world? And so, when I came back, I started acknowledging these questions with my patients.

What’s interesting is that, very quickly, other doctors would pull me aside and say, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing that. I don’t know how to talk to my patients about that stuff, but it’s so important.’ And so we’d have a conversation about how to do it with integrity.”

“How do you do it with integrity?”

“You keep your own biases out of it entirely,” she says. “Some people grew up with their own faith or religion and want to be reconnected with that. Some people grew up with their own faith or religion and have pain or trauma around that. Some people have come up with their own beliefs about how their world works and some people aren’t sure what they believe. I never answer the questions for them. In fact, you need to be really careful about that because anyone imposing their own beliefs could cause harm or trauma to someone who’s trying to find their own answers. I don’t answer the questions for them and I never push an agenda. I’m able to avoid that by making sure that I’ve done my own personal work around the questions. I feel secure with my own answers and I appreciated my own process of exploration, so I know how important and beautiful it is to come to your own conclusions. I’m not there to provide answers. I’m there to create the space and to set the tone.”

Interestingly, this brings me back to the original definition of spirituality that we got from the Journal of Advanced Nursing-

“Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”

It seems that the key to being able to bring spirituality into medical practice is to be exactly as vague as this, remembering that, though you may have your own biases about any of the three aspects of spirituality (religion, existential questions, or paranormal phenomena), spirituality varies from patient to patient just as much as their medical history, genetic markers, or environment. And as long as medical professionals keep this in mind, there's an opportunity for them to tap into an aspect of healing that is often tragically ignored- an aspect that can have a profound effect on a patient's ability to continue their own healing long after they leave the care of their providers.

So what do you think? Share this post or leave a comment. I’d love to hear some thoughtful responses or personal stories about a time when spirituality came up on your own health journey or with someone that you know.

And if you're curious to start your health journey- body, mind, emotions, spirit and all -check out our website at www.LightHeartedMedicine.com

Be Well!

-Katlyn Roberts

Community Manager at LightHearted Medicine