Last summer, I was honored to be asked to help with an extensive podcast series on wellness, being developed by Shanan Spencer in our university’s Counseling Center. My topic, specifically, was to be “Spirituality and Wellness for College Students”–cool beans! It took a while to work through the list of topics, so Shanan didn’t have a chance to interview me until June of this year.
Just this week, I got word that the podcast had been released to our internal network, Sakai. While it’s not publicly available yet–eventually they’ll move the series out to their website, and then to iTunes University–I’m able to share here some of the questions and the conversation that developed. I think it was a great conversation. Well done, Shanan!
What struck me as I was listening to the recording was how pertinent the discussion was not just for college life, but for much of what we crazyplate people still wrestle with, post-college: getting life into balance, trying to juggle all of our competing responsibilities and joys, trying to connect to something real. In a sense, the conversation finds its extension in this blog–I think I even quote myself in the first posting!–and so offer here some excerpts from the transcript.
Go strong today.
SS: What is your interest in spirituality?
- It is part of what keeps me grounded, keeps me sane. It is what keeps me well. . . it is part of who we are, this element of spirituality; and so in the process of becoming who we are as full human beings, and growing and learning through the college experience, exploring this part of ourselves is not to be neglected.
SS: I’m curious as to how you see spirituality contributing to wellness?
- If you think of wellness as balance . . . NCAA Division II Athletics [has as its motto] for student-athletes, “Life in the Balance” . . . and that is for me the essence of wellness. It is often the first thing that goes out the window when you go off to college! [Whether a young student or a non-traditional student], their ability to find that balance . . . is the most difficult thing to do, and yet it is the most essential thing to do. Understanding that I am not just my job, I am not just my GPA . . . you are not just the job you may get in the future, or your major . . .you are not just your mind, you’re not just your body. You are also a creature of spirit, and recognizing those things as equal and valid parts, and nourishing those things equally, finding opportunity to express and strengthen those things equally, is all part of finding Life in the Balance.
SS: What do you see as the difference between spirituality and religion?
- For me, religion provides the context, the structure within which spirituality can have a full and meaningful expression. Spirituality without structure can be loosey-goosey, very me-centered, it’s all about me . . . on the other hand, religion for its own sake can become very rule-bound . . . and lose its connection to the larger community outside that faith tradition.
- Very often, students will come to college from within a faith tradition, and begin the process of examining that tradition, and asking uncomfortable questions. . . . faith communities struggle with this. The truth is, many of those same college students still connect to the hunger for spiritual things. They may connect to it through a different tradition, a different faith community . . . and I don’t see that as an unhealthy thing, as long as they are not neglecting that part of themselves. I believe that things of the spirit allow for this kind of exploration.
SS: What is the importance of taking care of the spirit?
- What happens when one leg of a bridge gives way? What happens when one corner of your house falls down? The rest of it will stay up for a while, but it weakens . . . we all lose as a community, the individual loses opportunity for the growth that might be there, that feeds all of the other areas. All of those things that are part of Life in the Balance, they tend to support each other; so that when I nurture and strengthen my body, my mind works better; and when my spirit is satisfied and I feel whole inside myself, my body functions better and my mind is good to go in the classroom. All of those things function together . . . We forget to our detriment that these are not separate things that we can kind of pigeonhole . . . they all work together, and we neglect them and keep them separate to our own disadvantage.
SS: What are some of the ways that students can practice and engage in spirituality?
- There is always a spectrum, a range of ways to explore and express spirituality . . . from the individual to the communal. Something as simple as getting up 15 minutes before your roommate gets up, or before your family gets up, and simply sitting in silence. Don’t turn the screens on. Don’t turn the radio on. Leave the iPod off–just sit in silence with your own counsel . . . Nan Merrill is a wonderful writer who talks about this connection to the spirit in silence as being connected to The Beloved. And it didn’t matter what faith tradition, or no tradition, you came from–when you were in silence, you were in connection with The Beloved. To be in silence and to listen–sometimes we have to shut up in order to hear what we need to hear! We have to learn to listen.
- That’s one end of the spectrum . . . [at the other end] there are local churches and organizations who want to connect and create community for our college students. . . . I see signs that say, “Are you hungry?”–and they’re talking about feeding you actual food, they want to cook for you!–but they’re talking about that other hunger, too.
- Our students are so creative, and you may not have thought that your own skills and abilities [can be] part of your spiritual expression. I sing with the Masterworks Chorus, and have done so since I came here, since 2003; and for me, being part of that great big sound, 100 voices or more, is part of my spiritual expression, winging to heaven a big I LOVE YOU that I can’t produce on my own, you know? But you might be an artist, or a musician with an instrument, or an athlete . . . do what you do, but do it for a purpose.
- Ultimately, wellness is about building you up as an individual and making you stronger, but it’s making you stronger for a purpose: to connect you to a greater world that needs your strength and service. That also is what your education is about . . . so if you are developing your spiritual side, let that connect to service as well.
SS: One of the things you do as part of our Meditation Mondays is to give people an opportunity to participate in the labyrinth. Will you tell us about that?
- It’s one of my loves. It is an ancient construction–not a maze, which is a different creature altogether, intended to confuse and confound. The labyrinth is a single path spiraling into a center, and out again, and is intended to connect us to some kind of spiritual journey. I use it in teaching a class to first-year students as a way of connecting them to some of the larger questions they’re beginning to deal with as they enter this new path, this new stage of their journey.
- This past spring [in the Meditation Mondays] we did a silent labyrinth, a traditional quiet labyrinth. We used little electric candles, in silence, to walk and commune with their own spirits. But then I changed it up a little, to allow people to have different experiences of the labyrinth: we used drums one Monday in conjunction with the labyrinth . . . I brought in my collection of hand drums, and they walked to a drum heartbeat, and then were invited to participate in that heartbeat.
- [Another Monday] I used handchimes borrowed from the Music department–we used the tones for “Simple Gifts” . . .do you know that song? When I walk the labyrinth, that song is often the soundtrack in my head because of the refrain: “When true simplicity is gained/To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed/To turn, turn will be our delight/Til by turning, turning we come round right.” For a labyrinth with its turning paths, where there’s no getting lost, you always end up home, you always end up coming round right . . . it’s an important reassurance to a college student, because there are so many times that the path takes the unexpected turn, and we have to reassure them: “Hang in there. One step in front of the other. Hang in there. It will turn round right.” We did that one just before finals, and it was just perfect. As they walked this path, there were handchimes laid along the path, and as they encountered a handchime, they’d ring it. It sounded random at first but eventually this beautiful music just rose up–it was just phenomenal.
- Even if they don’t have anything but a beautiful moment that nourishes them for an hour, and the rest of their day is crap–you know, sometimes that’s just enough to get you through–I’m satisfied. But if there’s a moment of truth that they can connect with in their spirit, that feeds them for longer–then I’ve done my job.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
- Two things: not to make the mistake of being afraid to ask questions about your spirituality or other people’s. Doubt is not the absence of faith. Doubt is part of it. Questioning is part of it. And whatever is your experience of spirituality, it is big enough and strong enough to stand up to your questions. It will not crumble, it will not fall; the world will not end if you ask the questions. So ask the questions.
- Don’t neglect [your spirit]. Don’t ignore [your spirit]. Because then we are all impoverished.