Cosmic connection: Spirituality for the 21st century

HOLD STEADY: Susannah Healy says spirituality is about seeing the meaning in the everyday tasks of our lives. Picture: Moya Nolan

Psychologist Susannah Healy turned her time in a traffic tailback into a positive experience she says we should all channel, writes Margaret Jennings.

IT’S frustrating enough that you get stuck in a huge tailback on the motorway, but when there are drivers who then cut in much further along, every single day, what is your response? This is a situation Susannah Healy faces regularly, but instead of letting annoyance towards those drivers build up, she uses it as an opportunity to check in with herself.

“Is it annoying? Of course it is, but I just try to practise compassion for those people,” she says. “Who knows what’s going on in their lives. You know, it’s not about being a doormat, but it’s about choosing how I will react. And that is empowering. Now I have a whole host of options to me in how I respond, as opposed to saying ‘well I have every right to be angry and that’s just rude to cut in!”

That snapshot of everyday life illustrates how any of us can use such an ordinary moment as an opportunity to tap into the spiritual aspect of ourselves, says Susannah, a psychologist, mindfulness meditation teacher, and management consultant.

In her book The Seven-Day Soul: Finding Meaning Beneath the Noise, she delves deeply into scientific research and the wisdom of ancient and modern-day thinkers to argue that spirituality is about how we live from moment to moment, affecting not just the values we adopt and choices we make, but, as a result, the whole of society.

While you might not associate laughter as being a spiritual act, for instance, humour is one of seven so-called pillars which she puts forward as a guiding framework for all of us to go about our daily lives in a conscious compassionate way.

“No artificial intelligence can fake laughter and humour might be one that people feel kind of surprised at, as being spiritual, but it is a connection that is deeply human and cannot be recreated by computers, as it were,” Susannah tells Feelgood.

The other pillars are gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, patience, awe, and stillness.

“What I wanted was a practical model that people could practise because we all have our favourites — the bits that we are good at. We might say ‘yes, I’m generally generous’ or ‘I’m not too bad on patience’, or something like that. But when you have a system, then that means you take one pillar each day and work specifically on that, whether it’s one you find easy or challenging to do, you do it anyway, just like going to the gym; quite literally doing repetitions.”

Those intentional daily repetitions can then change the neural landscape in our brain, allowing us to interact with the world in an unconditional loving way. That kind of value-laden spirituality brings purpose and meaning to our lives. “Most of us think of spirituality as a connection with a higher power, or with the environment, or whatever it is your spirituality might be — that’s the typical image we have of spirituality, when actually all the faith traditions say spirituality is about how we live our lives.

“It’s not some floaty kind of thing; it’s the nitty-gritty, dull, repetitive tasks of our life,” says Susannah.

“One of the things I feel strongly about is that we tend to think of spirituality as a private matter — you don’t really talk about it. It’s a bit like when, 25 years ago, I would have gone to companies and talked about mental health and they would have said ‘are you kidding me? You can’t go prying into people’s mental health’. Now look what they are doing; it’s part of their legal responsibility.

“And I think it’s the same when we think spirituality is a private matter. But while it is deeply personal, it is not a private matter, because if it is about a reflection of our wellbeing, then it must become part of how we educate our children, how we raise our families; our healthcare system; our education system; our public spaces — architecture, and how we run our businesses and government.

“That’s why I wanted to say this is not some wishy-washy, small, personal thing by any manner or means; it’s a societally important matter.”

Working on “our spiritual evolution”, the meaning and purpose we bring into our ordinary life, is good for our overall wellbeing and even healthy longevity.

The awareness and consciousness, through repetition of the pillars, allow us to tune into what presses our buttons and to transform: “So you suddenly become aware that queuing at the supermarket, traffic lights, sending an email, just an extra one-liner that says ‘thanks I really appreciate your help’, whatever it might be, suddenly imbues everything you do with power. It is the power to impact the world by the impact you have on other people’s lives, by making the world more compassionate; it’s literally like a training programme.

“Spirituality is supposed to be transformative; we are supposed to be growing and transforming, as opposed to going through life and seeing what happens; so this is a way of taking the reins of our lives and saying ‘my life matters’ How I behave and how I react in the day matters.”

How to work with the seven pillars

The pillars of the Seven-Day Soul allow us to focus our attention on ways we can be loving and compassionate throughout the mundane activities of each day.

The seven pillars are: Generosity; gratitude; forgiveness; patience; awe; humour; stillness.

In her book Susannah Healy says you can “set your spiritual soundtrack” each morning for the day ahead and the seven pillars are your “memos to yourself” to inspire you, energise you and change you, especially in challenging situations:

  • Each day select one of the seven pillars to give your attention to, letting it be the lens through which you see the day’s activities, as opportunities to be a better version of yourself.
  • Change the order in which you work through them, so that you are not applying the same pillar in the same situations each week.
  • As the days pass and you make this your way of living, you will very quickly notice that you can remember your intention for that day, more regularly.
  • At the end of each day take a few minutes to review it; if you are too tired by then, find other times, such as on your commute home, or while you exercise, or at mealtimes.
  • Use a journal or an electronic device to keep track of your practice; by giving your practice this attention you are strengthening the corresponding neural networks in the brain.
  • The act of writing is a proven way to increase the likelihood of reaching goals. Your daily journal entry should include: The date; your chosen pillar for the day; notes on opportunities taken and missed, to practice the chosen pillar; gratitude expressed for the opportunity to grow and flourish as a prayer to God, your higher power, the universe, or simply the vast potential within yourself.

In acknowledging that there were opportunities we have missed, we can always refocus on the next day by being attuned to the needs of others, and our opportunity to make an impact on the world.

- The Seven-Day Soul: Finding Meaning Beneath the Noise, By Susannah Healy, €13.99, is published by Hachette Ireland.

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