Ten years ago, my mom gave me what would be her last birthday present to me.
Written by psychiatrist, Dr. Roger Walsh, the book, "Essential Spirituality" brings together the shared wisdom of the world's religions.
Dr. Walsh's work could serve as a guidebook for every human being with practical advice for dealing with our most challenging emotions, our relationships and the inevitable difficulties of life.
He talks about the perennial philosophy - the essential core of wisdom that is at the heart of all our great religions. It provides deep insights into life, human nature, health, happiness, suffering and peace.
His ideas resonated with my personal approach to life. In an undergraduate religious studies course, I learned that all the world's great religions spoke the same language - at a deeper, esoteric level. Christian, Jewish and Muslim mystics could walk peacefully with Zen Buddhist monks as they share a common wisdom and vision of our world.
This is in contrast to how most people interpret their respective religions and those of others. There is plenty of fodder for argument when their essential texts are read in a literal way.
Many others have turned away from religion altogether when they no longer see its relevance to what matters most to them. They seem to get along quite nicely - going to school, working, shopping, managing their homes and raising their families.
What is the relevance of spirituality to our lives and to our health?
Eventually we must contend with misfortune, illness and death - first the loss of loved ones but ultimately our own. Each of us must manage difficult emotions - anxiety, depression or anger. We all face challenges in our relationships. We may seek meaning and purpose in our lives.
Dr. Walsh distinguishes between the terms, religion and spirituality. Most of us think of religion with respect to our identification with a particular set of beliefs. Spirituality, however, refers to the direct experience of the sacred. You can be deeply spiritual without going to church. Spiritual practices, in Dr. Walsh's words, help us experience "that which is most central and essential to our lives - for ourselves."
One exercise from the book is to reflect on the four "mind-changers" fundamental to Tibetan Buddhism: (1) Life is inconceivably precious, (2) Life is short and death is certain, (3) Life contains inevitable difficulties, and (4) Our ethical choices mould our lives.
These four truths inform my approach to medicine and the living of each day. With each baby I deliver, I have not lost a profound sense of wonder and gratitude. We can get so caught up in materialism and petty self-concerns that we forget that our days are numbered - as are those of our loved ones. If you had but one week with the people you love, what would you say and do?
No one is promised a carefree life. Suffering and misfortune are inevitable. The suffering in life is not doled out evenly; there is no fairness.
What we can control and what we do choose is how we take the gift of this life to meet the challenges of health, fate and our relationships.