Stumbling on Creativity
CHAD MORRIS, Ph.D., Director
I differentiate between vacation and travel. A vacation to me is down time, preferably reading a book somewhere comfortable with little noise or distraction. While a vacation is a balm to mind and body, travel, on the other hand, involves the unfamiliar. Both invigorating and uncomfortable, travel is intertwined with spirituality. Untethered from daily routine, travel challenges assumptions of self and one’s place in the world. Very often it is transformative.
I approached our recent family trip to China with equal parts excitement and trepidation. While enthusiastic about potential new experiences, I was also aware I was about to thoroughly shake up my life, albeit for a short amount of time. Add the effect on circadian rhythms and traveling over 14 hours halfway around the world with two children, I expected things to get downright strange. These expectations were thoroughly realized. For a visitor, China puts the senses on high alert. Whether it’s the language, constant use of bright red and gold colors mixed with more neon signs than I thought possible or the novel cooking smells emanating from an open-air vendor, I am thrust into another world. In response, my sense of self becomes a bit more permeable. I begin to experience the daily rituals—organized or otherwise—of others, including how people approach their environment and each other. While I do not find that the Chinese or other cultures are necessarily more spiritual, the surrounding novelty shifts my internal perspective. Seeing a woman pray with incense before a Buddhist shrine pulls me into the present. At moments like these, I celebrate life.
Each trip abroad has stayed with me. I choose not to take many photos when traveling, as I almost never return to review them after the fact. But I do know that my greater frame for life has changed, often in ineffable ways. While I can’t always verbalize the change, I do have an expanding appreciation for the diversity of ways people live. I have a renewed realization that halfway around the world really isn’t that far. We are all interconnected, caught up in our own unfolding stories, and trying to get by. This is both energizing and somewhat unnerving. At one point a news story about students demonstrating for democracy in Hong Kong may have seemed distant, but having seen barricades down a city street a few weeks ago, I know that world events are but a plane ride away and do have ripple effects in our lives. This trip, like others, has been a physical as well as internal journey. It has offered me alternative ways to meaningfully connect to something greater. And while I continue to integrate the latest experiences into my life, it is wonderful to be home.
CINDY WANG MORRIS, Psy.D., Clinical Director
My practice of mindfulness supports a heightened awareness of my experience in the moment. It helps me to be present enough to witness and connect with my emotions, physical sensations and environment. Through this heightened awareness, I am guided along this path I call my life, winding my way through experiences I can judge as positive or negative but all of which contribute mightily to the “best self” I continually strive towards.
There is much value and commitment that I place in being mindful. I know it is a practice that serves to ground my physical experience. Admittedly, I need a little (or a lot) of grounding. It’s easy to float off into the ether of my mind and spiritual realms, escaping the tangible, concrete, practical activities of daily life. But mindfulness is a process through which I can connect body, mind and spirit.
Although I have never thought of myself as a spiritual person, I have discovered that I am deeply spiritual. My spiritual life isn’t just a welcome escape when I need it; it provides a broader context for my physical experience. At times of imbalance, it helps to remind me who I really am, and that no matter how disconnected I may feel at times—I am not alone. It supports my knowledge that my life has purpose, meaning and inherent value, contributing to something greater. While I may not understand the vastness of all that is from my limited physical perspective, my life is enhanced by my belief that there is something more—whatever form it may take.
CHRISTINE GARVER-APGAR, Ph.D., Research Associate
I don’t often think of myself as a particularly spiritual person. I don’t do yoga (I feel socially awkward when those around me start chanting or breathing heavily.). I don’t meditate (I have kids. Also, I fall asleep.). I don’t belong to any community organizations with a spiritual purpose (my Catholic upbringing didn’t stick.).
For me, “spiritual wellness” involves occasionally asking myself the question, “At the end of my life, will I be proud of the life I’ve lived?” It is a difficult question because answering it requires me to assess whether I am striking the right balance between work, family and other personal endeavors I might seek to accomplish. It also requires me to embrace my laziness. It is tempting to wonder if, for instance, I should feel slightly guilty for reading a magazine over the weekend when that time could have been put to better use. Just imagine what I could accomplish if I used my free time for something more meaningful! I could research something and write a book about it. I could seek out funding organizations and write a grant for a social cause I care about. I could play a game with my kids. I could exercise! How should I evaluate whether I am living a meaningful life, while also allowing for leisure (or sheer laziness)? Perhaps a better question is, If I could have a conversation with my older, wiser self toward the end of my life, what would I (she) think about the choices I am currently making? Am I striking the right balance?
The other day, I did the opposite of bringing work home. I brought home to work. It arrived at my desk in the form of green yarn and two dowel rods with which I am making (by hand) 100-pompom “florets” to transform my 8-year-old into a stalk of broccoli for Halloween (her idea, not mine). This is a task I had hoped to accomplish during my breaks from test construction and updating my curriculum vitae. Would my older, wiser self approve of this decision? Let’s assume for the moment that she sounds nothing at all like my mother, whose sage advice to me upon hearing about my pompom project was, “Christine, you have lost your mind.” Indeed. But, I prefer to think that my older, wiser self would be proud of this absurd commitment to my daughter’s Halloween experience.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter what I will someday think about the choices I made. Perhaps I should concern myself only with whether I am at peace with my choices in the moment. If so, my spiritual wellness must check out A-Okay, because spinning those green fluff balls at my desk during breaks yesterday felt like the most appropriate thing I could be doing.
Dare I say, it felt….meditative.
Made to Move
JAMIE PFAHL, B.A., Community Liaison
To me, spiritual wellness consists of two things: 1) finding deeper meaning and purpose in life, and 2) fostering a sense of connection and interaction between myself and the environment and people around me. Historically, people have cultivated spiritual well-being through a variety of practices. Some focus on stillness, such as the contemplative practices of prayer, writing, meditation or art. Others tap into spirituality through movement, such as in music, yoga, running or dance.
While everyone’s path to spiritual well-being is unique, a large part of mine comes from how I take care of my physical health. Many of us have questions such as “What do I believe? What do I value? What do I want to accomplish from my time here.” My thoughts on the matter are neatly summarized by a piece of art in my office that reads: “Health is the greatest wealth.” Taking care of my mind and body is fundamental to me achieving my other goals in life. Our beliefs and values are the root of our motivations and behaviors. Knowing that health and well-being is a central value in my life allows me to align my day-to-day actions with what I believe and motivates me to take care of myself.
Discovering our deepest beliefs and values is just one challenge, but cultivating a sense of spiritual wellness requires practice in one way or another. Interestingly, the word “spirit” comes from the Latin “spiritus,” which means breath. Rhythmic sound, motion, and breath are common in spiritual practices around the world, and I find this particularly true about running. The rhythmic pattern of footfalls, heartbeats and breath is meditative, calming and centering. As someone who has difficulty concentrating when plagued by thousands of thoughts and anxieties, running is a healthy outlet and a time to bring my focus away from distractions and back toward my body and mental state. Running, walking, hiking and dance can all help me feel more connected internally and externally. But what I enjoy best of all is doing these activities outdoors, where I can experience natural beauty, marvel at starry skies and peaceful wilderness and witness the power, grace, order and chaos of the world around me. Although I won’t always find answers to all my deep questions while running, what I do always find is peace. And that, to me, is spiritual wellness.
SARA MUMBY, B.A., Program Administrator
It’s difficult to relate spiritual wellness to food without sounding disingenuous. Sure, I can comically discuss how chocolate and peanut butter ice cream is a requirement in my daily spiritual practice. I can write about how a perfectly prepared grilled cheese sandwich makes me feel complete in mind, body and soul. But that’s not why food is something I consider important to my spiritual wellness. Although I sincerely enjoy food, the reason it’s something that I value above many other components of my life is that, for me, it truly is a deeper practice, a ritual that offers me a means of expression, intense labor, devotion and reward.
I believe a meal carefully crafted from its inception has more nourishing capacity than that which we purchase premade. The thought put into its design, the time spent meal-planning, asking myself what it is that I crave, but also what is my body asking me for? The activity of picking out the food, choosing the exact onion or the perfect stinky cheese so that every single ingredient in the meal serves a purpose and compliments the others. The consideration that goes into pairing the meal with wine or beer or cocktail, asking what avenue of beverage can support the food as well as enhance it. The hours of actual labor, carefully chopping, spicing, blending, kneading and tasting, tending to the numerous pots with attentive dedication. The care taken to set the table, to plate the meal, and to create a space of comfort, full of strategically placed candles and the aromas of cooking food. And finally, the most important part, sitting down and allowing myself to savor the finished product, reaping all the benefits of this labor of love.
“Remember food is precious.” It’s a quote from one of my favorite cookbooks, and it’s something I remind myself every day. Power exists in the eating of food, from the seed growing in the ground to the effort taken to put it on your plate. For me, time spent cultivating the practice of eating is time spent nourishing the soul.
SUSAN YOUNG, Ph.D., Director of Research
After dropping off my dog, Sugar, at “doggie day care,” I witnessed something so touching on my way back to my car. An elderly man, looking frail and moving slowly, got out of his car and hobbled around to the passenger side. I looked at him and wondered – Is he alone in the world? Does he have someone to care for him in his old age? But then, unexpectedly, he opened his car door and transformed into to a smiling, gushing, baby-talking parent of an adorable brown and white cocker spaniel. I overheard him giggling and doting, “Come here sweetie,” “You are such a little monkey,” “OK, that’s enough kisses.” I realized that indeed he wasn’t alone in the world and did have someone caring for him. Witnessing their joy made the rest of my day a little brighter.
On my way home from work, I went back to pick up Sugar. As usual, she ran in circles, jumped up on my (now dirty) pants and piddled just a bit on the floor of the lobby (her usual routine). I signed her out, apologized for her little accident (my usual routine) and headed home. These seemingly ordinary events came to mind as I began thinking about the state of my spiritual wellness. An important part of my spirituality centers on feeling connected to the natural world. Spending time in nature, whether it’s camping, gardening or sipping wine at an outdoor café, makes me feel peaceful and nourished. But beyond my human connections, nothing bolsters my spiritual health more than the unconditional love I give to and receive from my mutt. No matter how miserable my day has been, when I’m greeted at the door by my wagging, licking, adoring Sugar, my tension goes down and my mood goes up. So while I realize that not everyone has room in their lives for the demands of a dog, I do wonder how the world might be different if everyone had the opportunity to experience the health benefits of puppy love.
JIM PAVLIK, B.A., Program and Policy Analyst
I think a lot about Thomas Merton. I flatter myself sometimes thinking of our superficial similarities: BAs in Literature, a fascination with Zen Buddhism, the importance of interfaith understanding and acceptance and a connection (however trivial for me) to Kentucky. Merton was a Trappist monk and a prolific author of poetry, Biblical exegesis, reflections on monastic life and explorations of Eastern and Western religious similarities and differences. He was also an advocate for peace and social justice.
I am not a Catholic—although my paternal grandmother very much is. My own religious journey has been fragmented. I suspect my fascination with Merton is somewhat due to the arrangement of these commonalities…and our differences. He was born 60 years before I was. He felt a persistent pull toward the priesthood and monastic life. He would eventually commit to monkhood for 27 years. At the time I discovered Merton I had more addresses under my belt than I had years since I was born.
I bring him up at the risk of blurring the distinction between the “religious” and the “spiritual.” When we discuss Spiritual Wellness in presentations and ask them to define it, there is always a long pause before the first person responds. Our audiences always provide excellent answers to this question, but that pause is interesting. There are no pauses when we ask them to define emotional or financial wellness.
Spiritual Wellness is the fullest extension of our ability to imbue the world and its seeming randomness with meaning; to make connections between ourselves and a larger understanding of how the universe is put together; and to locate our smallest acts within a larger system of intermingling beliefs and values. For many people, this includes religion: its cosmology, ethics, rites and customs can be critical. For others, such meaning is achieved through deliberate mindfulness, observation, and a personal commitment to something larger than ourselves.
I learned to find meaning by, among other things, reading Merton—a monk, but also a person. Someone deeply religious—religious to a point beyond the capacity for most of us to truly appreciate—but also someone profoundly conflicted about how to balance his relationship with his God and his obligation to the people he shared a temporal and earthly space with. He made his metaphysical and theological foundations relevant to the practical problems of his age—and to my mid-20s. By allowing his faith to share the stage with competing faiths, he made it clear to me I didn’t have to tether my character to someone else’s agenda. Some truths are universal; we just have to look closely enough to find them.
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