Whether you are a patient with cancer, survivor, caregiver, or a healthcare provider—spirituality can help you to deal successfully with cancer and with life. Being spiritually healthy has many benefits. It has been linked to improved quality of life, coping, and mental health.1
So, what can you do to build spiritual health? Just as we can train our bodies for physical health, we can also work out our spirits.
This article provides a plan for a week of spiritual muscle builders. Each day contains a reflection and an activity, which are designed to help you pause, flex your spiritual muscles, and find meaning in your journey. Each reflection or activity may come from a tradition that is different from your own tradition or culture. However, each exercise can be used with your own spirituality, religion, or worldview.
Try out different spiritual muscle builder practices. You may find that one of these practices (or even many of them) could feed your soul. If you find one practice that you love—turn it into a regular practice.
Reflection. From The Forgotten Way Meditations
“Everything we say, do, and think, aligns us with darkness or light, love or grievance. Thus, everything is a spiritual practice, whether we are aware of it or not. We are constantly, in every moment, aligning with one way of being or another. The choice is ours to make each moment of the day.”2
Activity: Set an Intention
Intentions help guide us in our day-to-day living. Intentions can help you live purposefully. They strengthen your spirit, by connecting you with your true values. Mondays are a great time to set intentions. Intentions can help you to decide, with a purpose, how you want to live this week. Create an intention using the following steps:
- Think of a value that you want to live. What is something you want to build, create, foster, or nourish in your life? It may be vulnerability, strength, kindness, or peace. Your intention should be positive and affirming, not negative or reprimanding. For example, rather than saying “not cowardly,” use the word “courageous.” A few values may come to your mind. Choose the one that you need most right now.
- Next, turn your value into a phrase, by adding an action word, such as:
- Show compassion
- Practice self-acceptance
- Lean into opportunity
Reflection. From “Thanksgiving”
“We walk on starry fields of white
And do not see the daisies;
For blessings common in our sight
We rarely offer praises.”3
Activity: Gratitude Journal
Gratitude is a central spiritual principle. Being grateful reframes the way we think, so celebrate what is good in your life. At the end of the day, write down 3 things that you were thankful for today. Note why you were grateful for each of these things. You may choose to say a prayer of thanksgiving, or meditate on these good things.
Reflection. From Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”4
Activity: Mindful Breathing
In many spiritual and religious traditions, the breath and the spirit are connected. Mindful breathing can help calm us and connect us to spiritual peace. Practice mindful breathing using the following steps:
- Begin by getting into a comfortable position. You can sit in a chair with your feet firmly on the ground, or you can lie down on the floor or a hard surface.
- Breathe in through your nose. Inhale slowly and gently. Feel the air passing over through your nostrils as it enters your body. Notice the temperature of the air. Feel it filling up your chest, then expanding in your stomach.
- Pause once you have fully inhaled.
- Gently exhale through your nose. Feel the warm air as you breathe out. Feel your stomach and chest emptying.
- Pause once you have fully exhaled.
- Take 5 more breaths like this. Each time, deepen the breath. Each time, extend the duration of your inhale and exhale. You may want to close your eyes and more fully experience the breath.
- Notice any changes in your body or your spirit as you practice.
Reflection. From The Dance: Moving to the Rhythms of Your True Self
“Sometimes I think there are only two instructions we need to follow to develop and deepen our spiritual life: slow down and let go.”5
Activity: Lectio Divina
Lectio Divina is Latin for “divine reading.” It is a way of reading holy, sacred, or deeply meaningful texts slowly, so that we could listen to them carefully. In the Christian tradition, from which this practice comes, the Bible is the text used. You can use any reading material that has deep meaning for you. Go through the following steps:
- Choose an excerpt from a text that is holy or meaningful to you. It should be 1 paragraph or less.
- Go to a quiet space, where you can be alone with the text.
- Read. Slowly read the text the first time. Listen for what the words are saying. What did the author mean by these words?
- Reflect. Slowly read the text a second time. This time pay attention to what the text may mean in your own life. Take note of any words or phrases that jump out to you. How may these words be relevant to your life?
- Respond. Slowly read the text a third time. As words or phrases stand out to you, lift them up in prayer or meditation. You may do this by repeating them a few times.
- Rest. Slowly read the text a fourth time, but rather than trying to analyze it, or pull out phrases, just spend time with the text. Appreciate it for what it is. Let the words flow over you. You may choose to spend some time in silence at the end, marinating in the text.
Reflection. From To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times
“Our actions are prayers too....”6
“When we struggle to repair this world, to rise above our complacency and offer compassion, charity, and love, we are praying. When we fight to eradicate poverty, injustice, and war, when we take the time to perform acts of kindness, we are praying.”6
Loving others is core to spiritual health. Today, serve another as your spiritual activity.
- Begin by thinking of 3 things you could do today to serve another person, animal, or cause. Make sure they are things you could actually do today. Perhaps it is donating to an organization; perhaps it is doing a household chore to make a family member’s life easier; or perhaps it is making sandwiches for a local shelter. Be creative and generous as you brainstorm your options.
- Do 1 of these 3 ideas today.
- Notice what it feels like to serve. Do you feel more spiritually connected?
Reflection. From Devotion: The Joy of Music When We Need Perked Up
“If we were to try and explain music to an alien from another planet we would probably fail miserably, for music is not meant to be explained, but rather experienced. It affects us in our heart and soul.”7
“There are times that music can express what we feel when words fail us....”7
“Music can be therapeutic. It can lift us when we are down, and bring catharsis to our wounded spirit.”7
Art is a form of spiritual expression. Spend a few minutes getting lost in the melody and meaning of a song.
- Choose a song to listen to that could encourage you, express what you are feeling, or inspire you.
- Spend the entire duration of the song letting yourself appreciate the music. Get lost in it. Sing or hum along if you want.
- You may choose to listen to it again once the song is over.
Reflection. From Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith
“Writing can be a true spiritual discipline. Writing can help us to concentrate, to get in touch with the deeper stirrings of our hearts, to clarify our minds, to process confusing emotions, to reflect on our experiences....”8
“Quite often a difficult, painful, or frustrating day can be ‘redeemed’ by writing about it. By writing we can claim what we have lived and thus integrate it more fully into our journeys.”8
Activity: Spiritual Writing
Writing can help us express our spirits, our calling, our fears, and our hopes. Spend 10 minutes writing about one of the prompts below.
Do not judge what you write. Let your thoughts go, and your pen go with your thoughts. This exercise is meant to express yourself, not to be submitted for publication.
- The most awe-inspiring spiritual experience I had was…
- What is filling me up right now is…
- If I were to trust my own spirit, I would…
- My life is all about…
- If I could let go of fear, I would…
Choose Your Activity
Over the course of the week, you may choose one or all of these daily activities. Strengthening your spiritual muscles can help strengthen other parts of your life and improve your overall health and well-being.
- Peteet JR, Balboni MJ. Spirituality and religion in oncology. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2013;63(4):280-289. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21187.
- Dekker T. The Forgotten Way Meditations: The Path of Yeshua for Power and Peace in This Life. Pittsburgh, PA: Outlaw Studios; 2015.
- Wilcox EW. Thanksgiving. In: Custer and Other Poems. Chicago, IL: W.B. Conkey Company; 1896:21-22. www.gutenberg.org/files/20427/20427-h/20427-h.htm.
- Hanh TN. Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press; 1990.
- Mountain Dreamer O. The Dance: Moving to the Rhythms of Your True Self. New York, NY: Harpers Collins; 2001.
- Levy N. To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times. New York: Ballantine Books; 1999 [Thorsons; 1998].
- Douglas K. Devotion: The Joy of Music When We Need Perked Up. Rest Ministries. August 31, 2011. http://restministries.com/blog/2011/08/31/devotion-the-joy-of-music-when-we-need-perked-up/.
- Nouwen HJM. Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. New York, NY: Harpers Collins; 1997.