Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit.
— B.K.S. Iyengar
Mind. Body. Spirit.
We’ve all heard this grouping of concepts before. It neatly divides the human experience into three largely independent but mutually supporting spheres. We have our bodies: flesh, blood, tissue, sinew: a sublime organic machine animated by chemical and electrical signals originating in the central nervous system, particularly the brain. We have our minds, our interior worlds of thought, interpreting the world around us. Unlike our bodies, our minds are seemingly unchained to the physical world. They can reach backwards across time through the faculty of memory and forward into the future using our powers of prediction. They can picture far away places. They can conceive of the physical world from the smallest quantum realms to the grandest superstructures of the universe itself. They can be used to intuit the thoughts and feelings of other humans, other physical bodies, and through collaboration with the lungs, larynx, tongue, and mouth, to generate complex sounds to communicate with these other bodies. The complexity and capabilities of our minds and bodies are nothing short of miraculous. Only through long acquaintance do we tend to take them for granted.
And then we have our spirit, our… well… just what is spirit anyway? Is it the vital spark that animates us as beings? The ineffable qualities of our character that make us ourselves? Does it refer to some deeper aspect of our being which resists definition?
Our word spirit comes from the Latin word for breath, spiritus (spirare — to breath). Spiritus itself derives from the Indo-European (s)peis, “to blow.” In fact, all five posited Indo-European words for breath and breathing have formed the basis for terms with spiritual connotations: Pneu into pneuma, one of the Greek words for soul; An(ə) into anima, the latin word for soul and the root of our word animate; Bhes into the Greek psyche (soul / mind) and thus into our words psychedelic and psychology; Ēt-mén into the Sanskrit (and Hindi) term atman, which describes a person’s innermost essence, their true self.
In some sense, we are our breath. When it leaves us, only our bodies remain — inert, mere matter. It is easy to imagine our ancient ancestors thousands, even millions of years ago, witnessing the last breath of a dying loved one drift up into the sky and seeing in it the essence of that person departing this plane forever. So what exactly is that essence? Can it even be defined?
Let’s start by dividing the body up into its physical and non-physical aspects. The matter of the body itself comprises the physical aspect. The non-physical aspects relate to our subjectivity, all our interior experiences: our thoughts, our emotions, and also in some sense our interpersonal relationships (as Aristotle says, what is a friend but a single soul dwelling in two bodies?).
Now let’s break it down a little further by dividing this interior universe, into mind and spirit. The mind is our intellect, our capacity for reasoning. It is a tool for analyzing and interpreting the world around us. The spirit is everything else. It is our emotions, our fears, our aspirations, our quirks, our neuroses, our generosities, our personality itself. This is pretty close to the dictionary definition of spirit: “the nonphysical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character.” The spirit is everything that makes us unique from the eight billion other people on this planet. But it isn’t just our personality. Spirit is also the origin of our capacity for wonder and awe. It is what compels us to ask questions about the fundamental meaning of the cosmos. It is where we derive our innate sense of purpose, our intuition that all of this means something. It is the very thing which makes us alive.
Yet, in spite of the primacy of spirit in our interior lives, western culture is hyper focused on physical and mental achievements. We go to the gym, eat healthy, do sudoku puzzles, read boring non-fiction books that we pretend to like, but often neglect to work on ourselves as spiritual and emotional beings. This is a mistake. Spiritual wellness is critical to holistic wellness.
My colleagues thought I was an embarrassment because I was talking about mind, body, spirit. So I was called a quack. I was called a fraud, which I initially resented, but then I got used to it.
— Deepak Chopra
You might be in perfect physical condition, with a mind capable of extraordinary insights, but if your emotional life is in disarray, you are not really well. Just look at Patrick Bateman. That’s why the best wellness practices combine techniques which develop mind, body, and spirit. You can’t jog your way to emotional equilibrium any more than a tarot reading can make you lose weight.
Just as spirit is ineffable and personal to each of us, so our work with it can take many different forms. You can start anywhere. Try a therapist with a more Jungian approach. Do some readings with a psychic. Get some energy work done by a reiki practitioner. There are as many ways to develop your spiritual self as there are ways to develop your physical or mental capacities — more, in fact. Whichever practices you follow, remember that a balanced approach to self-improvement is the surest path to health and wellbeing.
— By Jake Winchester, Word Alchemist at Gentle Guide