Spirit Matters

Spirit Matters

“No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.”

Max Weber, 1904.

I’m sure no one expects a crisis of faith, but I was particularly thrown when I had mine. Until that moment, I wasn’t aware I had any faith to shake.

I’ve been comfortably godless my whole life, admiring the poetry of the world’s spiritual traditions without fear or resentment, but doing so from an enforced distance. It always felt to me as though I had a missing bone. I didn’t understand the human search for meaning, and I felt fine without the certainty of a faith tradition. 

It didn’t occur to me until recently that meaning and explanation are not equivalent. I had been searching for certainties all along too, just in a different place. 

In 2019 I left a whole life in Italy – partner, friends, family – to come to the U.S. and build a new career. It felt worth it to pursue the secular idea of fulfillment: the vocation. 

And then the pandemic arrived just as I felt like I might finally be hitting my stride. 

By October of 2020 I was among the over 40 percent of the U.S. population experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The fragile meaning structures that held my life together before the pandemic had dissolved, and it was only after they were gone that I saw them for what they were: a hodgepodge of arbitrary beliefs about relentless self-improvement somehow leading to the end of the rainbow. 

Articles of faith to give life meaning. Poorly chosen, apparently. 

I was fixing my hair in the bathroom one day when it all sank in. I met my own eyes in the mirror and accidentally made room for a terrifying thought. I found myself wishing I didn’t exist.

A mirror above a bathroom sink where a reflection of a person tying their hair appears and then disappears
By Gemma Green-Hope for The Sunday Long Read

For the first time in my life, I found myself wondering whether I’d be coping better if I believed in, or belonged to, something larger than myself. 

The question had never been on my radar, but suddenly it felt important to ask, because other people – lots of other people – were probably sharing some version of my disorienting experience as a result of the COVID pandemic. Wonyoung Cho, a therapist and assistant professor at Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, described it as realizing that “what we thought was objective is actually conditional.” 

Those of us who only learned how to evaluate our lives using external markers were bound to feel unmoored when those parts of our lives were thrown into chaos. In the first six months of the pandemic, I lost career momentum, income, community, mental focus, even independence (I moved back in with my mom after over a decade). But the way I experienced those losses, as a growing sense of meaninglessness, was hardly objective or inevitable.

“The curtain has been lifted, and we’re feeling betrayed. But there’s nobody to blame, because we kind of did it to each other and to ourselves, right?” said Cho. In her view as a therapist, “meaning” isn’t a concrete structure to be lost, found, or understood. It’s what we create, constantly, out of the stories we tell ourselves about what we see in the world. 

And the story our culture currently tells is a very literal-minded one. Many of us value science and logical thought above all other forms of understanding, even if we don’t consistently apply them to our own lives. So it’s unsurprising that our conversations about the mind and mental health generally remain limited to what we can easily see and measure.

By summer of 2020, I could predict every recommendation likely to be in those regularly published COVID wellness articles. I was exercising regularly, eating well, practicing “sleep hygiene,” using meditation apps, and all the rest. My body thanked me. My mood was better than it would otherwise have been. 

None of it stopped the hole that grew in my gut.

And so I got tired of thinking the way I always thought, and wondered how folks who thought differently might be faring while I floundered.

Which is how I stumbled on an entire body of academic literature I had never heard of before, “literally thousands” of studies, according to Neal Krause, suggesting that people who choose to lead spiritual or religious lifestyles tend to experience better mental (and physical) health. 

There are plenty of caveats, of course. Intentionality, types of belief, and frequency of practice can all affect how this relationship plays out. Trauma and a variety of socioeconomic stressors also have an effect. And some people of faith have negative religious coping habits that can actually worsen health outcomes.

But on the whole, it’s a well-established sociological finding, according to Krause, who is Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and the author of too many studies to count on this topic.

And it may be that this relationship becomes especially relevant in times of adversity. In the first few months of the pandemic, one study of mental health among Muslims found that they were faring better on average than the U.S. population as a whole. Another study of American Orthodox Jews hinted at a relationship between faith and resilience during the pandemic.

I wanted to know more about why this might be, so during the late months of 2020, when our national mood seemed to have reached its nadir, I began interviewing practitioners and community leaders from a variety of backgrounds, including the “big three” monotheistic faiths, but also Bahá’í, Hindu, Sikh, Wicca, and Zen. They varied widely in age, income, class, culture, politics, and profession. At least half were either the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Some had suffered financial strain or lost loved ones to COVID-19, or both. Others carried trauma that was unrelated to the pandemic. And one had graduated from college at the heart of it all, in May of 2020. 

It would be hard to pinpoint a single characteristic they all had in common, except perhaps that they were all intentional about their practice. Many were excellent at creating and sustaining a sense of meaning and purpose, whether or not they believed in a divine entity. Most were regular about their practice, whether or not they were affiliated with institutional religion, and this gave structure to their lives even after normalcy flew out the window. 

The folks who seemed most content had a kind of superpower: they were great at knowing the difference between problems they could tackle and matters beyond their control. 

The more I heard, the more I was forced to review my assumptions about the nature of mental health and happiness. Slowly, quietly, something shifted inside me too.

The value of rhythm

Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb . . . the most active and dynamic of all?” 

-Mary Daly, theologian

Joanna Lewandowski was stuck in a claustrophobic fever dream, figuring out how to teach art to grade school children from the bedroom of her Culver City apartment, supervising her son’s digital experience of second grade, and trying not to mind the sounds coming from the living room, where her musician husband had set up a makeshift studio. Quiet and alone time were things of the past in November 2020. 

“I wish I just had my own little bubble,” she laughed, tautly. “I feel like I never have alone time… I may scrape together five minutes while I’m in the bathroom.”  

But no matter how tense things got, she could count on a regular source of relief, once a week. 

“We can be grumpy and we can be not speaking to each other. But after the Mass it’s like a weight has been lifted.” After in-person services were canceled, Joanna and her family had taken to attending Catholic Mass online, from their living room. It lacked the atmosphere and comforting candle smell of church, but Joanna treasured these moments. 

“I am able to refocus and recenter and see what is actually important versus like, you know, someone left their socks on the couch.”

Illustration of three figures, two older people holding hands over the couch with a smaller person in between, all looking at a screen with a white light emanating in contrast to surrounding darkness; a single sock lies on the couch and a violin sits behind the couch
By Gemma Green-Hope for The Sunday Long Read

When she thought back to how Mass made her feel, her voice slowed down and lowered in pitch, losing its characteristic overcaffeinated timbre. It was kind of intoxicating to witness. Moments of insight and calm came only rarely to me, and they usually felt random and unplanned. Joanna had them built into her Sundays.  

She wasn’t the only one, either. Research from the Harvard Human Flourishing program has shown that people who regularly attend religious services are, on average, less likely to become depressed and more likely to feel a sense of purpose in life, among other things. 

According to the most recent Pew Research Religious Landscape Study, only about a third of US adults reported attending religious services once a week or more in 2014. Within this group, however, 80 percent of people said they experienced spiritual peace and wellbeing at least once a week, twice as many as in the group who only rarely or never attended services. These regular service attendees were also likelier to pray daily (84%), and to meditate and participate in religious study or prayer groups weekly (58%).

These statistics largely mirror the impression I got from the religious folks I talked to. With only a few exceptions, religious or spiritual activities were embedded in their days, weeks, and months, and this regularity and structure was intimately connected to their sense of wellbeing.

Nowhere was this connection more obvious than in the practice of Islam.

“Prayer isn’t just occasional, it’s not even, you know, weekly, or even daily, it’s five times a day. You know what I mean? It’s very, very central,” said Rania Awaad, a psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the lead author of that study on Muslim mental health conducted during the spring of 2020. Among other things, the study found that respondents who were praying five times a day and reading the Qur’an during the early months of lockdown also tended to report better mental health. This remained true in 2021, when Awaad and her colleagues continued collecting data.

Clinicians at the Khalil Center in Los Angeles, which provides hybrid mental and spiritual health services to a mostly Muslim clientele, often see this phenomenon play out in real time.

Shaykh Suhail Mulla, director of the Center, told me about a client who was dealing with a stressful IT job and an increasingly-likely prospect of divorce in 2020. As each day in front of the computer wore on, this man struggled to make time for his prayers at the prescribed times. Instead, he let them pile up and prayed them all together at the end of the day.

“So we talked about it,” Shaykh Suhail said. “Well? What is the structure of the prayer, right? How is it laid out? And it is spaced out throughout the day. And so he started doing that, and he says that’s brought him a lot of comfort and stability.”

According to Awaad, structure and regularity are key elements of mental wellbeing: “Even if we took religion and spirituality out of the equation, the idea of a good strong sleep schedule, and exercise schedule, and even eating schedule, all of these things […] really help a person give a frame to the rest of their day and their work.”

I wondered whether the rigorous structure of Muslim practice might account for the higher levels of wellbeing Awaad and her colleagues had found among their survey respondents. When commutes and gym trips and meals with loved ones were wiped out by stay-at-home orders, time started to lose meaning, and for many of us that blurring of days and weeks quickly turned into languishing. Maybe praying at regularly-spaced intervals throughout the day was compensating for some of that loss.

And then there’s also the matter of how a good exercise session or moment of prayer makes a person feel

“The big buzzword there is the relaxation response,” according to Neal Krause. 

That’s what it sounds like: The relaxation response is the counterpart to our most abused survival mechanism, the stress response, and it can be elicited through a number of techniques, including breathing, meditating, even online chanting, apparently. There’s been plenty of research showing that regularly producing the relaxation response improves mental and physical health; so much, in fact, that it now just sounds like common sense. Relax more often and you’ll feel better, silly.

But some studies go one step further and suggest that what the relaxation response is actually doing is improving spiritual wellbeing, and that in turn leads to better health. 

“The prayer that we pray is a very important thing for me,” said Marwa Abdalla, a Muslim community educator, parent, and master’s student in Southern California. “It’s a very conscious and intentional break in the day, where I’m saying… I’m going to reconnect with my Creator, and I’m going to be in conversation with God, and show gratitude, and ask for help. So it’s a very humbling sort of moment. I’ve heard some people compare it to oxygen, like: you don’t just breathe once a week, you know?” 

When I talked to people across faiths about what it was like to pray, chant, or meditate, the experience went beyond relaxation. For many, these moments were also opportunities to recenter and gain clarity, to experience connectedness and acceptance, among other things.

All of which tracks with what’s going on in the brain when people engage in these types of activities, according to Tal Dotan Ben-Soussan, director of the Research Institute for Neuroscience, Education and Didactics at the Patrizio Paoletti Foundation in Italy.

Here’s a simplified version of what she told me: 

On any given day, there is a war going on inside most of our heads. 

Many floating lines, or
By Gemma Green-Hope for The Sunday Long Read

The areas of the brain are like many different “I”s, fighting for control and not necessarily communicating with one another. We may feel fragmented because, in a sense, we are: each one of our many selves is running on its own wavelength, with its own priorities and ways of processing information. The whole situation is chaotic and not great for decision-making. 

Luckily for us, the brain is not a skull-encased Wizard of Oz, constantly pulling levers to manipulate the flesh puppet that houses it. As Ben-Soussan was fond of emphasizing, we are “embodied beings.” The path of influence is more like a constant exchange than a one-way street.

So when we engage in a rhythmic activity like chanting (but also dancing, swimming, or singing), we actually increase synchronization in our brain too. Those many different “I”s fall into step and begin “singing together,” creating order in the brain.

“So we have a fuller picture of reality in a way. We don’t have fragments,” said Ben-Soussan. “When our brain is more integrated within itself, we communicate better, first of all, within us. We are more aware of the different parts, right? And so we can communicate better also with our surroundings.”

In an article she wrote for Psyche earlier this year, Ben-Soussan listed several of the benefits of the “global perspective” we adopt when our brain cells synchronize. 

We became more self-aware in this state, she explained, which helps us communicate and build relationships more effectively. Our empathy and creativity increase. We get better at solving problems and making moral decisions. We learn to distinguish our fears from our values, which can make it easier to prioritize what actually matters to us.

I wanted to know if Ben-Soussan thought that people’s baseline level of brain “fragmentation” had changed throughout history or across cultures. She laughed, but wasn’t interested in indulging my nostalgia. The point, for her, is that no matter who we are, we can all train our neurons to sing together more often.

“The word spirituality is a funny word for me,” she said. “I think many people conceptualize it as something completely abstract.” Whereas in her view, it’s rather concrete, more of a verb than a noun.

Tahil Sharma is on the same page. He identifies as both Hindu and Sikh, but it’s impossible to understand his spirituality without also including the word “activist.” At 30, he’s dedicated most of his adult life to interfaith and social justice causes. The need to be part of healing the world is so deeply embedded in his sense of purpose and meaning, 2020 was bound to throw him for a loop.

That spring, half a dozen of his relatives got COVID-19, and an uncle passed away from a heart attack. Tahil started a new job while still burned out from his previous one, and while his parents, a manicurist and a Lyft driver, both became unemployed. He shared a one-bedroom apartment with them, which meant he slept on a twin mattress on the living room floor. 

Not that he was managing to get much sleep.

Then George Floyd was murdered, and Tahil’s faith was called into question too. “Wow, we haven’t made a dent,” he remembered thinking. “Nothing has changed. How has nothing changed?” 

Overwhelmed, feeling his certainties slip away, Tahil found himself drawn to a set of prayer beads he hadn’t touched in years. 

“Why do I need this right now?” the activist wondered. “Wanting to fix everything is leading me to focus on my meditation beads, which is literally the most passive thing I can do right now.”

But he picked up the beads anyway and started chanting. By the time he was done, “it was like someone had decided to just finally get off my back.” 

As I recall it, the summer months of 2020 were when a creeping sense of despair began to sneak up on a lot of people. That’s certainly when I started to feel the beginnings of the nameless dread that would later jump out of the bathroom mirror at me. But unlike Tahil, all I could think to do was to try harder to practice the healthy behaviors listed in all those self-care articles. It was a Sisyphean task and it only helped a little, sometimes. Mostly, life was still a slog through molasses.

Meanwhile, Tahil’s renewed relationship with the beads transformed his crisis into a full-fledged spiritual reawakening.

“I took the beads and I wrapped them around my hand. I marched all week. I fundraised all week. I did so many different things that got me more and more involved in the work that I wanted to do. And I remember after that week of doing all of those things I was like, ‘This is where I’m at. This is my element. This is my prayer.’” 

The issue of control 

“The research literature has identified three factors that universally lead to stress: uncertainty, the lack of information and the loss of control.” 

-Gabor Maté, M.D., “When the Body Says No”

Not long after I came across Rania Awaad’s study on mental health among Muslims during the pandemic, I found myself fixating on one of its findings, because it resonated with my own experience and led me to an uncomfortable question.

I’ve mentioned the umbrella finding already: study participants who turned to religion to cope tended to have better mental health outcomes. Specifically, though, they tended to be better at tolerating uncertainty, and this tolerance in turn helped protect them against developing major depressive disorder, according to Awaad. 

Here was information that made sense of why I had experienced such a steep mental decline despite all my efforts to maintain healthy habits. 

After unconsciously believing that I was on some sort of hero’s journey for most of my life, I was suddenly broke, with no apparent prospects at 34, and worse, mooching off a parent. When I looked in the bathroom mirror that day, it occurred to me that this might not just be a bump on the road to somewhere better; I might not be headed anywhere at all. And I didn’t have the tools to tolerate that possibility.

Over at Word of Encouragement Community Church, Saundra Charleston was having an entirely different experience. After moving to Los Angeles to pursue her passion for acting, she ended up working in hospital HR for over 20 years in order to ensure benefits for her asthmatic son. Ironically, she was now unable to get care for her own painful condition, a torn rotator cuff that was no longer a priority in the city’s overwhelmed hospital system. To top things off, her 90-year-old mother had moved in with her in December 2019, so now Saundra was sleeping in the living room and figuring out how to care for her mother without getting too close and putting her at risk of catching COVID-19. They had already lost family to the virus.

And yet Saundra laughed easily and often when we talked. She found solace in online acting classes and Sunday drives along the coast. More importantly, though, being raised in a family full of Baptist preachers had embedded in her the knowledge required to face difficult situations: “I know Who to go to […] when I’m having a tough time.”

Saundra described her way of praying as more of a never ending conversation than a scheduled activity. It permeated her days, and ensured she never felt alone. So if things ever became overwhelming, it wasn’t difficult to know where to look. “Always turn it over to God. Easy,” she explained, “You’re never in control.” 

For many believers, trust in an all-powerful, benevolent deity was essential to coping with the psychic pain of the pandemic—which in many ways is just the psychic pain of being alive, concentrated.

It’s easy to imagine how trust in a divine plan might be comforting in the face of seemingly senseless suffering. This is where secular commentary on the benefits of faith usually begins and ends.

But the people I spoke to had a lot more to say on the subject. Faith in something larger than themselves helped them acknowledge and accept their own fallibility. It also helped them become less self-centered when times got tough: they might not get everything they wanted, but that was okay, because not everything was about them.

What Saundra and other believers described to me was a kind of automatic knowledge or built-in reminder that they weren’t in control of everything, and weren’t supposed to be. And it was this feature of their spirituality that brought my uncomfortable question into focus.

For years I’d been struggling to internalize the notion that I wasn’t in control of everything, usually unsuccessfully. Was my lack of faith the reason?

Predictably, the answer is complex, and it requires revisiting the relationship between our sense of control and our mental health.

Generally speaking, having a sense of agency and control is considered a good thing. People who have a greater sense of personal control over their lives are less likely to experience depression and anxiety than those who feel powerless.

It turns out, though, that this holds true up to a certain point.

A graph of the sense of personal control (x axis) in relation to mental wellbeing (y axis) that shows an exponential increase until roughly 85% of the x axis, at which point the line drops off steeply; an animated figure pushes a boulder to the top and then falls down with it
By Gemma Green-Hope for The Sunday Long Read

“Typically, we find that up to the 85th percentile on the distribution of sense of personal control, there are benefits to mental health,” said Laura Upenieks, an assistant professor of Sociology at Baylor University, “But after that, people kind of get this complex of ‘I’m in control of everything.’”

According to Upenieks, people who are very high on the scale of “sense of personal control” tend to agree strongly with the following statements:

I am responsible for my own successes.

I can do just about anything I really set my mind to.

My misfortunes are the results of mistakes I have made.

I am responsible for my failures. 

I identify with the statements above on such a deep level that I’m not even aware I believe in them anymore. I know that many of the bad things that have happened to me are in no way related to my choices. And yet that hasn’t stopped me from feeling like I should have been able to do something about them, that I’ve failed for not managing to make things better. 

The idea that something larger than myself could be affecting my work life, living situation, or relationships simply can’t compete with the ethos of individual striving and personal responsibility on steroids that I’ve internalized.

This imbalance is especially prevalent in the wealthy, industrialized nations of the Western world, according to Wonyoung Cho, who specializes in training culturally competent mental health practitioners.

“We’ve gone through several generations where we have decided that humans can control everything,” she said. “[But] before secularism took hold, that would not be such a novel idea that we’re not in control.”

And current research does seem to confirm that some forms of religious belief can serve as an antidote to an overblown sense of control. 

In a 2018 study, Upenieks and her colleagues found that believing in “divine control” made perceptions of personal control less relevant to mental health. For people who had a strong sense of divine control, the negative effects of feeling too little or too much personal control simply disappeared

Does this mean that belief is all it takes to be happier? Of course not.

Firstly, what you believe matters. People who believe in (a) more punitive god(s), or who don’t feel “securely attached” to their deity, are less likely to benefit from feelings of divine control, according to Upenieks.

Secondly, “god-mediated control” is not a one-way street, it’s a collaborative relationship, according to Neal Krause. In qualitative interviews, he asked people what they meant when they used phrases like “let go and let God.” The answers were usually some version of “[It means] I try as hard as I can. And I get to a point where I’ve done all that I can, and then I give it over to God.”

“If you have a high sense of [personal] control in the context of high divine control,” said Upenieks, “you’re essentially saying, ‘I have agency, I can do a lot of things. But I also need help.’” 

She went on to compare the benefits of this relationship to the feeling of ease we might have after receiving support from a good friend or family member. Except friends and family don’t always come through for us. And in pandemic-induced moments of isolation, we may not even have access to them. 

From a certain perspective, the mental wellbeing that comes from believing in an infallible, ever-present, and ever-loving deity would seem to be out of reach for people like me. And with people leaving organized religion at ever-increasing rates, Upenieks and other researchers are beginning to ask, “If not God, then what?” What other protective beliefs might replace god-mediated control to sustain mental health in times of crisis? Definite answers have yet to emerge.

One thing is clear, though, according to Upenieks: “It’s really important to have both external and internal loci of control.”

Varun Soni would likely agree. As both Dean of Religious Life and Vice Provost for Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention at the University of Southern California, he witnessed a doubling of depression rates among college students in the decade leading up to the pandemic. In 2020, the crisis reached unimaginable levels. 

With more and more young adults leaving religion, Soni has made it a point to ensure that Religious Life at USC can be a spiritual home for everyone. (Among other things, USC’s Associate Dean of Religious Life is the first humanist chaplain to serve in such a position.)

While he did find that students who came from “healthy religious communities” tended to cope better during challenging times, he was also convinced that much of that advantage had to do with the learned behaviors and thought patterns fostered in those communities.

So when he spoke to distraught students who perhaps had less practice putting things into perspective, Soni tried to communicate that the things they felt they had lost control of had actually always been out of their hands. 

“But what you could control pre-COVID you can still control,” he explained, “Who you hang out with, what [your values are], how much you say I love you… We shouldn’t feel as though we can’t control anything, because the things that we can control are actually the most important things.”

Coda: Intention Matters

It’s worth remembering that while all of the participants in Rania Awaad’s study identified as Muslim, only those who focused on actively engaging with their faith and improving their relationship with Allah tended to be more uncertainty tolerant and less depressed. 

A few years ago, Neal Krause and some colleagues conducted a study in which they gave participants the choice to identify as “religious,” “spiritual,” “religious and spiritual,” or “neither religious nor spiritual,” and then measured the mental and physical health of people in each category. 

Contrary to what one might expect, it was the “religious” only group that had the worst overall health. Compared to the other three groups, the “religious” folks were praying, reading the Bible, and attending church less often. 

They also weren’t exchanging as much support with fellow church members, had fewer positive feelings about God, and were less likely to rely on their faith in times of stress.

Krause’s interpretation was that the “spiritual” label was standing in for the heartfelt part of religion. Without it, a religiosity driven by habit and bereft of conscious choice was likely to be all that remained. People who claimed no religion or spirituality at all may have fared better than the “religious” because they would at least have been forced to define their own meaningful pursuits in life. 

After decades of studying the relationship between religion and health, Krause didn’t seem too focused on whether belief in God taken on its own is a unique advantage or a replicable skill. If anything, his research suggests that a certain degree of personal agency is required to activate whatever benefits belief may bring. 

Similarly, most religious or spiritual people I spoke to didn’t spend all that much time talking about the sustaining power of belief itself, important though it may have been to many of them. The constellations of meaning they shared were built on individual expressions of devotion: acts of gratitude and service, inspired readings and music, contemplative practices and moments of community.

It was the collective richness of these experiences that taught me something about turning my gaze outward and waking up to the world again.

I haven’t become any less agnostic since going down this rabbit hole over a year ago – I’m not sure faith is something one can choose to start having from a standstill. And learning about the mentally healthy practices of religious and spiritual people certainly couldn’t match years of actually cultivating those habits. 

But sometimes a few rays of possibility are enough to shake loose a stuck mind. 

I’ve never spent a ton of time looking in the mirror, but these days I don’t have to be afraid of getting lost when I do.

By Gemma Green-Hope for The Sunday Long Read

This story was made possible by the support of the Pulitzer Center and Sunday Long Read subscribers. Artwork by Gemma Green-Hope. Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells. Designed by Anagha Srikanth. 


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