Spirituality and Health - What's the connection?

Katinka Hesselink 2006

There are all kinds of theories floating about how a spiritual person is supposedly automatically healthier. I think this is absolute nonsense. 

First of all - what does it mean to be 'spiritual'? 

I would say that a spiritual person is a person who lives not only for themselves, but also takes others into account. On the other hand, a spiritual person stands on their own two feet. They make their own decisions and are strong enough to be an example (morally) to those around them. A spiritual person is likely to stay calm in the face of adversity and disease. Spirituality is a characteristic of the mind and heart, not of the body. Spirituality expresses itself in wise words, wise thoughts and wise actions. 

Does such moral purity affect health? 

Contrary to positive thinking theories: I don't think so. Moral purity affects karma. Moral purity gives a peace of mind, which may boost our immune systems. On the other hand - moral purity obviously doesn't prevent cancer, does not in itself heal disease and if disease is karmic in origin - then moral purity should not even be able to boost our health - if disease is caused by bad karma, what needs to happen is that we clean that bad karma up, by living through the disease. 

Can positive thinking affect health? 

In esoteric circles the idea is current that positive thinking may temporarily work to suppress disease . This would explain why 'Christian Science' does sometimes work. If the mind is strong enough, it can affect the body. But the mind cannot eradicate the cause of disease. If that cause isn't dealt with, disease will return, and with a vengeance. 

Disease as bad or good karma

Misfortune in our lives is usually perceived as bad karma, by those who believe in karma. Those who are born poor, 'must have done something to deserve that'. This interpretation of the doctrine of karma is very superficial. One could as easily say that those born rich, in an environment where they aren't challenged, and therefore don't have much opportunity to learn have bad karma. 

In a similar way health can be perceived as good or as bad karma. Obviously we all want to be healthy. It is more comfortable to be healthy. But people who live with chronic disease may be morally and spiritually stronger than those that have it easy. Obviously this is not true in every case: healthy people can be very spiritual and there are also sick people who seem absolutely unable to deal with their illness.

Ultimately I think the label bad karma or good karma can only mean something if we make it refer to whether or not people are learning from their circumstances. If someone grows strong, spiritually, from disease - that means that for them it isn't so bad karmically. On the other hand, if someone only grows depressed and cannot deal with it, nor have the support system in place to help them where they need it - than perhaps it would be justified to call it bad karma. 

Health and disease as learning opportunities

For those who are healthy, they have energy and time on their hands to grow spiritually, but because life isn't too hard on them, they may instead end up just chasing money without reflecting on life and their place in it. I've often found that the times when I was ill, were the times when I could not escape my inner questioning, my inner search. It seemed at times that the illness was the way my body said: listen up, you are ignoring important issues in your life. As a generally healthy person, these episodes usually meant a few days lying in bed, drinking lots of fluids and then getting back up again and doing what I had to do. For my spiritual life these episodes have been essential. It gave me much needed time for reflection. As I've grown older, I've grown less prone to such 'illness', perhaps because I take more time to just reflect, even when not ill. Or perhaps I've just become more responsible (that's my mother's theory anyhow). 

Can the body influence spirituality?

I have good reason to think that in some cases spirituality is better expressed in a weak body. Just as it is well known that too strong a mind can hinder spirituality, in the same way a body that is too strong can hinder both the mind and spirituality. Wisdom doesn't need a strong body - but a body has a 'mind' of it's own. A strong body influences the mind and heart more than a weak body does. There have been examples of remarkably wise children with mortal illnesses. Their wisdom was capable of expressing itself, in my opinion, because the body wasn't strong enough to anesthesize it. 


The relationship between spirituality and health isn't straightforward. One cannot simply conclude that the healthy are more spiritual than those who are sick, or that illness is 'bad karma'. A spiritual person won't have less hardship to deal with than another person, but they may respond to hard times in very different ways from a less spiritual person. Or as Dumbledore says to Harry Potter at the end of 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' (1998, p. 245):

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. 

Or more in keeping with the theme of this article - it is our way of dealing with illness, that shows what we truly are, far more than illness itself.