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Opening Your Heart

separator Worshipping with fellow believers. Meditating in front of a Buddha statue. Saying the rosary quietly at home. Joining a Bible study group. Believing in a spiritual energy rather than a more formal God.

There are infinite ways to cultivate a religious or spiritual practice. What's interesting is that most of these practices share similar unifying philosophies:
  • Finding meaning in your life
  • Finding compassion and love for others
  • Not rushing to judgment
  • Connecting with something bigger than yourself
  • Focusing on what's important in the long run

A Healing Influence
You may have heard of the study of hospitalized heart patients who were divided into two groups. One group had people praying for them every day for four weeks. The patients did not know people were praying for them, and the people who were praying did not know the patients. The other group did not receive any prayer intervention.

At the end of the study, the patients who were the objects of prayer developed fewer cases of congestive heart failure, they were five times less likely to require antibiotics and they caught fewer cases of pneumonia.

There has not yet been a scientific explanation for these results.

A Focus on Love
By helping you focus on love, compassion and meaning, religion can help you manage stress. Prayer and meditation have a calming effect that extends beyond the time you're actually praying and meditating. It permeates your daily life.

Instead of becoming easily angry and hostile when things don't go your way, your response to unpleasant situations is more realistic and accepting. When you're stuck in a traffic jam caused by a bad accident, if your mind is calm and focused you won't sit in your car fuming unnecessarily. And you may even remember to feel compassion for the people involved in the accident.

Tending Your Emotional Well-being
Practicing your religion connects you with others and keeps you from feeling socially isolated. One of the main tenets of Christianity is, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." An ancient Indian scholar, the Buddhist Shantideva, proclaimed,

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.

The prophet Mohammed wrote, "Wherever you turn is God's face. Whoever knows himself knows God."

Many studies have shown that having close, meaningful relationships can provide numerous health benefits. Taking an active role in religious or spiritual practice is one way to promote that feeling of interconnectedness with others. Simply stated, it can make you feel good.

It's easy to fall into the traps of cynicism and negativity. Having a spiritual practice can be an invaluable part of your overall health.

Archives of Internal Medicine, 25 October 1999; S. Holt. The Natural Way to a Healthy Heart. M. Evans and Company, Inc., New York, New York, 10017, 1999. D. Ornish. Love and Survival. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York, 10022, 1998; Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva. Shambhala Publications, February 1997.
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