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Spirituality and Mental Health


This was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

“Humans plan, and God laughs.”

This Yiddish proverb is not as impious as it might seem at first glance. It declares succinctly an undeniable truth of the human condition: We are not in control. No matter how meticulously we plan, there are innumerable variables for which we can't fully account.

Often enough, we plan, and things turn out the way we want. And then we are tempted to believe that we are in control after all.


Photo of Rabbi Jacob Staub
Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D.

Our behavior certainly affects outcomes. If I consistently consume fewer calories, there is an excellent chance that I will lose weight. If you treat another person with kindness and compassion, you are far more likely to make a friend than if you are cruel. If your work performance is skillful and conscientious, your job security is likely to increase.

But not necessarily.

My sister-in-law was a lifelong vegan who ran marathons and never smoked a cigarette. She died of lung cancer at age 47. You just never know. We are all mortal. We get sick. If we are fortunate, we grow old.

Spiritual practice does not alter these realities. Nevertheless, mental-health professionals - and anyone concerned with the well-being of himself or others - should keep this in mind: Spiritual practice does help us come to terms with them. It can increase our equanimity, our inner peace. It can lessen our bitterness and disappointment.

I'm defining spirituality as an awareness of the mystery that underlies all of existence and as a sense that all things are interconnected. It does not require a belief in a god who hears our prayers and intervenes supernaturally to alter the course of events. It does not require a belief in any kind of god. Buddhists are spiritual, and so are humanists.

A primary spiritual truth is that I am not in control. People in substance-abuse recovery programs know this as a cornerstone, but it is true for everyone, whether or not one is struggling with an addiction. I and any of my loved ones could die in an auto crash or a criminal assault at any moment. At first, that thought may be too frightening to hold for any length of time. But with practice, as I integrate the reality of impermanence, I take fewer things for granted. Blessings large and small are to be treasured. Saying “I place myself in God's hands” does not require that I believe that God literally pulls all the strings. It can mean that I live my life as well as I can, not knowing what tomorrow brings.

One insight that often follows this line of thinking is the sense that I don't deserve my good fortune. Why was I born in mid-20th-century America rather than in 2016 Aleppo or 1938 Warsaw? What did I do to earn my access to Novocain or penicillin or statins? Or to two loving parents?

So much of our lives consists of unearned blessings, also called grace. Our lives rarely reveal to us the answers to these questions - if there are any answers - but when we notice these blessings, we are grateful.

In a culture that prizes autonomy and independence, we shy away from acknowledging that we need help. Whether to others or even to ourselves, admitting our fears and inability to control and navigate our feelings often feels immature, even childish. Adults, we have been taught, are the captains of their own ships. And so we seek to resolve problems for which there is no resolution and punish ourselves when we fail.

Parents, for example, constantly fear for the safety and well-being of their children. I have yet to meet a parent who is not upset when her child is in trouble. Yet life's uncertainties confound us all: When our job applications are rejected, we are hurt and angered. When our hearts are broken by lovers, we are sad. All of these emotions are natural, healthy responses of the heart.

What spiritual practices cultivate is an ability to offer ourselves compassion and to recognize that we cannot do it alone. One of the most precious teachings of the Jewish Hasidic tradition is that asking for help is itself the answer to our prayer. When I acknowledge that I cannot cope alone, I am no longer alone.

I am not suggesting that spiritual practice should replace psychotherapy nor that it alone can alleviate serious mental illness or eliminate the need for medications. But too often, spiritual practice is undervalued by mental-health professionals and all of us seeking to live the most contented, meaningful lives we can.

Finally, spiritual practice includes a cultivation of trust - not a trust that I will be protected from all evil if I chant correctly or pray openheartedly. Rather, a trust that whatever comes my way, I will be able to move through it without being destroyed. I don't know how things will turn out, but I journey into the unknown with a faithful heart.


Spiritual practice does not lead to a denial of unpleasant realities. Rather, it can equip us to face the darker parts of our lives without aversion or terror.


RRC: Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality; Director, Jewish Spiritual Direction Program; Director, eVolve: Groundbreaking Conversations; Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism;

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