Do you take good care of yourself? A glance at statistics from the Centers for Disease Control shows that many Americans do not.
In recent years, average life expectancy in the United States has decreased, while obesity, heart disease, and diabetes continue to increase. Our mental health is declining, too. According to Mental Health America, 20 percent of the adult population – over 50 million Americans – are experiencing some form of mental illness, half of them untreated, and one in ten youth are experiencing depression severe enough to impair their ability to function.
What’s happening here? I think our poor physical and mental health is due, in part, to our lack of spiritual intelligence.
What is Spiritual Intelligence?
The concept was first defined by physicist and philosopher Danah Zohar. In collaboration with psychiatrist Ian Marshall, she described an intelligence that makes us curious about existential questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How are we connected to each other and the universe? Spiritual intelligence helps us identify what is valuable and meaningful and interpret our individual lives within a much broader, richer context (SQ: Spiritual Intelligence, the Ultimate Intelligence, 2000).
Zohar and Marshall call it the “ultimate” intelligence because it can help us integrate and transform the other forms of intelligence – intellectual, emotional, inter/intrapersonal, spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic.
Spiritual intelligence is strongly connected to the belief that all of life has meaning and purpose. If that is true, then each individual life form has meaning and purpose and is therefore worthy of love and care.
Researchers have found that people with higher spiritual intelligence have more goals in life and greater psychological well-being.
Although I have seen no studies on this, I’m guessing that they are also physically healthier and live longer, too.
Stress and the Need for Spiritual Connection
Although I was vaguely aware of the concept, I haven’t thought much about spiritual intelligence until just recently.
As a volunteer for an organization that assists people in crisis, I am repeatedly reminded to practice “self-care” so that I won’t get overwhelmed and burnt out. Recently, our supervisor gave all the volunteers a document from the Healing Trust called the “Self-Care Planning Guide for Individuals.” It defines self-care as “the rituals and intentional activities one does to benefit one’s psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being.” The goal is to improve mindfulness and stress resiliency by identifying personal areas of need and creating a weekly self-care plan that meets them.
I have practiced many of the suggested relaxation and rejuvenation strategies throughout my life: journaling, taking a walk, hitting the gym, getting a massage, sleeping eight hours a night, cooking and eating healthy, taking a class for fun, meeting friends for coffee or lunch, having meaningful conversations, spending time alone, listening to music, reading for pleasure, turning off my phone, limiting screen time.
Yet these days I sometimes feel stressed and uncertain. I sense that something is missing. Most days pass quickly, but to what end? I question whether I’m making the most of my time.
While completing the “Self-Care Planning Guide,” I became aware that of the four areas of self-care listed – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual — my life is most lacking in the spiritual area. Although I regularly read spiritual texts, this isn’t enough to keep me feeling spiritually connected, especially during times of added stress.
So, as part of my self-care plan, I decided to do something about that.
How Spiritually Intelligent Am I?
With a little Google research, I discovered “The Spiritual Intelligence Self-Report Inventory” (2008), used by many of the researchers currently studying the connections among spirituality, health, and well-being.
It took me less than 10 minutes to take the test, which includes 24 statements in the areas of critical/existential thinking, personal meaning, transcendental awareness, and conscious state expansion. I responded to each on a scale from “not at all true of me” to “completely true of me.” Here are sample statements:
— “I am able to deeply contemplate what happens after death” (critical/existential thinking)
— “I am able to find meaning and purpose in everyday experiences” (personal meaning)
— “I am highly aware of the non-material aspects of life” (transcendental awareness)
— “I am able to enter higher states of consciousness or awareness” (conscious state expansion)
My scores show that I am strong in the areas of critical/existential thinking (explained by all that spiritual reading I have done) and personal meaning (explained by the self-help activities, writing, and journaling I have done). But I am weak in transcendental awareness and, especially, conscious state expansion.
According to the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, “conscious state expansion” occurs when “one’s mind has been opened to a new or larger kind of awareness, associated particularly with mystical experiences, meditation, or hallucinogenic drug use.” Practitioners who experience these higher states of consciousness are often able to maintain a feeling of inner peace and contribute positively to the world, without being drawn into the negativity and chaos around them.
I Used to be Smarter
I used to know how to do this, but then I forgot.
When I was a senior in high school, I went to a lecture at the public library on Transcendental Meditation (TM). It was 1972, and TM was very popular. Hindu philosopher and yoga guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had introduced the practice to the West in the 1960s to relieve stress and increase happiness by achieving higher levels of consciousness.
At that time, the Maharishi was spiritual teacher to the Beatles and many other celebrities. He toured world-wide and lectured at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, and UCLA. He appeared on the covers of Time, Life and Newsweek magazines and was interviewed on The Tonight Show and the Today television show.
Curious and interested in learning something new, I signed up to be “initiated” into the practice of TM, a silent mantra meditation that induces a state of deep relaxation.
For the next few years, I meditated twice a day for 20 minutes. I went to lectures, made friends with meditation teachers (including one who claimed to levitate while meditating), and became an “initiator” myself.
Although I was a full-time college student taking five classes, working two part-time jobs, living with roommates, riding the bus because I didn’t have a car, and still scrimping to pay the rent, I have no recollection of ever feeling stressed, anxious, or worried. In fact, it was one of the happiest times in my life.
Through practice, I occasionally experienced what the Maharishi called “transcendental consciousness”: I was able to quiet my mind, observe my thoughts without judgment, and then move beyond them to what the Maharishi called the “infinite field of pure possibility” – the place of “no mind” within all of us where unconditional love, inspiration, and creativity reside.
Beyond Thinking and Doing
It has been 50 years since I attended that lecture at the public library.
Life in the material world – more school, relationships, promotions, more work – overtook my time and attention. Focused on making a living and getting ahead in the world, I forgot about the pursuit of higher consciousness.
In short, I have spent too much time thinking and doing and not enough time being.
Now that I’m retired from the world of work, though, I have time to develop my spiritual intelligence. I can focus once again on being and becoming.
So, my intention for the year 2023 is to engage in specific practices that induce higher levels of consciousness (without drugs). In the coming months, I will share my experiences, the writing being part of the spiritual practice. This will also keep me committed and accountable.
My goal in the next few months is to go deeper within, following the wisdom of the Persian philosopher Rumi: “Remember, the entrance door to the sanctuary is inside you.”
When I was young, I lived by those words, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Now that I am older, I want to learn to live that way again.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.