Should a global spiritual health emergency be declared?

Dr William Van Gordon, Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, discusses how spiritual awareness has diminished, leading to an increase in major environmental and socioeconomic issues, as well as public health issues on a global emergency scale. 

Over 1,000 years ago, some spiritual adepts living in countries such as India and China predicted that in the future, a time would come when levels of spiritual awareness would rapidly diminish, prompting major environmental, socioeconomic and psychological problems. One example is the 8th Century Indian saint Padmasambhava, who believed the time of this spiritual deterioration would coincide with iron birds flying in the sky.

People can form their own opinion regarding the reliability of Padmasambhava’s projection and whether he was referring to the present time where airplanes traverse the sky. However, based on some emerging global trends, I’m open to the possibility that some of these spiritual adepts had heightened foresight capabilities. For example, consistent with evidence indicating a rapid decline in environmental health, UK parliament recently declared a state of environmental and climate emergency. Other examples of public health issues gaining recognition for their global emergency status include obesity and mental illness, which both affect approximately one in five people worldwide. Current global levels of political unrest, economic instability, displaced populations, poverty, and armed conflict might also be regarded to have reached emergency status.

Recognising and responding to these global problems is paramount to the wellbeing of this world. However, I believe that things need to go a step further, to target one of the major underlying causes of such issues. I’m referring here to what appears to be a waning ability to cultivate a loving relationship with both ourselves and the world around us, including our ability to simply be with ourselves. Various terms might be used to describe this relationship dynamic, such as “persistent dissatisfaction disorder”, “impaired self-awareness”, or “limited self-regulatory capacity”. However, I prefer the term “spiritual undernourishment”.

To avoid ambiguity, I draw a distinction between spirituality and religion, and would argue that spirituality is something that transcends religion. By the term spiritual, I’m really referring to core human competencies such as compassion, love, generosity, patience, joyfulness, and self-awareness. These are universal qualities that anybody can choose to cultivate.

Highlighting spiritual undernourishment as a key contributor of some of the aforementioned global health issues is consistent with various psychological theories, including some of my own. For example, according to problem behaviour theory, ontological addiction theory, inverted hallucination theory, and various need-state models, issues such as obesity, mental illness and many addiction problems are invariably expressions of a more systematic unmet need. In the case of ontological addiction theory and inverted hallucination theory, this unmet need is specifically identified as a loss of connection to our innermost self. Furthermore, there exists an established body of scientific evidence demonstrating the link between spiritual awareness and, for example, increased wellbeing and life satisfaction.

Choiceless amidst choice

Today, there are so many ways we can choose to spend our time. There is an ever-growing variety of hobbies, exercise, sports, entertainment, employment and holiday types. And if we’re unsatisfied with the variety we are afforded concerning how to spend our time in the “physical world”, we can plug into the “online world”, to encounter a seemingly unending number of online activities and virtual destinations.

With all this choice, it can be difficult to understand why many of us struggle to pick out a lifestyle conducive to wellbeing and happiness. However, a problem with so much competition for our attention, is that it can lock us into a cycle of being permanently distracted. We finish one activity only to immediately start the next. A break from work corresponds to checking what’s happened on social media. Taking some down time means being glued to the television or a computer game. Before we know it, there arrives a point where amidst so much choice, we effectively become choiceless, driven by the need to be doing something. Being permanently distracted leaves limited opportunity for the heart and mind to grow. It makes it difficult for us to step back, breathe, and simply experience our existence.

The power of thoughts

Conversely, cultivating inner awareness, including of our thoughts and other mental processes, not only helps us appreciate our existence, but also to understand just how influential we are. People generally place emphasis on the creative potential of words and actions, as these reflect tangible phenomena that can be heard or observed. However, while a thought is not something that can be physically located or observed, psychological studies demonstrate that thoughts contain energy. Modern science still has much to learn about just how potent this psychology energy is, including the extent to which one person’s thoughts can directly influence another’s, as well as the extent that thoughts can influence the natural environment.

Nevertheless, even at a basic level, it’s easy to understand how thoughts give rise to, and in many respects govern, our actions and words. Indeed, whether a person knows it or not, and whether they like it or not, the mental activity of every living being asserts a major creative influence on the future of this world. On this basis, I would argue that we each have a responsibility to cultivate compassionate, wholesome and wise thoughts, and foster awareness of what is happening inside our minds.

Approaching a tipping point

We can continue to identify and react to each individual global emergency. But if we fail to probe deeper and acknowledge all of the underlying causes, including those that are more subtle, then we risk wasting precious time and resources. It takes courage for politicians to declare an environmental emergency, or to heighten awareness of, for example, mental health issues. But my own scientific perspective is that an even more courageous and truthful approach is required, in order to acknowledge and respond to a spiritual health emergency that if left unchecked, could raise the number of global crises beyond a tipping point.

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