Category Archives: Spiritual Growth

5 Books That Changed My Life


“Books let us into [men’s] souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own. They are the first and last, the most home-felt, the most heart-felt of our enjoyments.”

-William Hazlitt (1778-1830) 

This quote from English philosopher and essayist William Hazlitt  was written near the end of his life when he was bedridden with a painful illness. In his essay “The Sick Chamber,” where he chronicled his own illness and decline, he wrote, “This is the time for reading,” describing the enrichment he received from the books he was able to read during this pivotal time in his life.

As I look back at my own life it is apparent to me that books and my love of reading have played a profound role in my growth as a person and as a spiritual being. Each time life has presented me with a new challenge or an impetus for spiritual growth, I have found a book (or several) to be my perfect companion on the journey, offering me wisdom and enlightenment along the way.

Now at this moment in history, as we are facing numerous difficulties across the planet, seems to be the perfect “time for reading.” So I’ve compiled a list of five of the books that have especially shaped my own course of development and brought me through some of my own difficult times. If you are looking for life-changing reading material, you may want to start here:

Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw

I initially started reading this book because I thought it would be helpful to recommend to my patients, many of whom were dealing with childhood traumas. I had not recognized my own childhood wounds or the depth of shame I was carrying until I immersed myself in its pages and began exploring old memories. From that moment on my healing began.

Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko

This book introduced me to the concept of mind-body medicine and gave me a new vocabulary of terms like “relaxation response.” I understood for the first time how the mind influences physical health, which changed the way I practiced medicine. As a result of this new knowledge I started using yoga and meditation in my own life, which produced powerful changes for me over time by reducing my anxiety, helping me focus, improving my balance and quieting my thoughts. These practices were important as I struggled to heal my grief over my father’s suicide death.

Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss

In this groundbreaking book, Caroline Myss depicts the connection between the spirit and the body-mind and the role of spiritual energy in health and illness. Her linking together of the Chakra system, the tree of life and the 7 sacraments was totally awe-inspiring to me and, once again, I changed not only my medical practice but my own spiritual practice, as well. My view of my patients became fully “wholistic” as I began to see the presence of spirit in each and every life and to understand the role that illness and loss play in our transformation as spiritual beings. This had a profound impact on how I viewed my own losses and difficulties in life.

A Theory of Everything by Ken Wilber

Wilber’s Integral Theory and the Beck-Cowan model of Spiral Dynamics provided me with a framework through which to view the evolution of society and of individual consciousness. With these tools available to me I became more attuned to the levels of development of the people in my life, but also gained a new grasp of how systems function and how to make them better. My thinking and problem-solving activities became more creative as I adopted a much deeper and broader perspective of everything.

Prayers of the Cosmos by Neil Douglas-Klotz

This tiny book of “Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus” helped me come full-circle and reconnect with the Christian roots of my childhood by providing me with a mystical view of Jesus and his teachings. I rediscovered the beauty of Jesus’ words that I had once cherished and was finally able to fill the spiritual gap that occurred when I grew away from the church of my youth.

These 5 books, arranged in the order in which I discovered them, provide a chronological biography of my development as a spiritual person. For each and every reader of this article, my wish is that you, too, will have the secrets of your soul laid open to you by delving into the rich and profound depths of a really good book. Open one up today and see where it takes you!

Has your life been profoundly impacted by a book? Leave a comment below and tell us what you have read!

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @spiritualmd.


How Religion Can Help or Harm Spiritual Growth


Ever since I wrote a piece that asked the question “Is it possible to be religious but not spiritual?” I have been contemplating the difference between religion and spirituality and the impact that each of them has had on our society.

I know some people personally for whom religion was the springboard to their spiritual growth, who may not practice the religion now, but who credit a specific religion with getting them started on the path toward enlightenment.

Yet I know others for whom religion was a springboard, yes, but in a negative way, catapulting them toward agnosticism and an aversion toward everything that is even remotely spiritual.

So how is it that religion can have such contrasting effects on different individuals?

Is religion helpful to mankind as we struggle to grow and evolve or is it a relic of more primitive times that is actually holding us back?

Here are some of the ways I can see that religion, at its best, can be helpful to those who practice it. Religion can:

  • provide a stable moral foundation, teaching the basics of “right and wrong” behavior.
  • offer structure to those who live in chaos.
  • hold believers accountable for their behavior.
  • create a supportive community of like-minded individuals.
  • preserve ancient wisdom teachings.
  • provide mentors for seekers who are new to the spiritual path.

All of these are positive benefits when carried out in an ideal manner. But religion is brought to life by flawed human beings who have a way of ruining everything by getting their egos and Shadow-selves in the middle of situations. When religion is managed badly by the humans in charge it can be deadly and destructive; think: the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the terror attacks of 9/11, just for starters.

So the potential for religion to be harmful is enormous, just like the capacity any one human being has to do harm.

But here are some specific aspects of religion and religious behavior that can stifle and discourage spiritual growth. Religion, at its worst, can:

  • presume there is only one “true” perspective on issues of life and spirituality.
  • exclude, denounce and even destroy those who see a different perspective.
  • discourage questioning and freedom of thought.
  • disallow spiritual practices that differ from the established “code” of conduct.
  • abuse the power of its societal position to further a political agenda.
  • misinterpret ancient teachings for corrupt gain.

No surprise then that today about one third of all Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” They have undoubtedly experienced the dark side of religion and decided they want no part of it. But unfortunately they lose out on the positive aspects of religion by rejecting it totally, like being part of a like-minded community and finding a spiritual mentor.

In my opinion religion should function as a catalyst for spiritual inquiry and churches should function as incubators of sorts for those newly inspired to the spiritual path. Religion should strive to “graduate” its students when they are ready to pursue “secondary studies.”

Religion should foster growth, exploration and even doubt, for doubt is a crucial stage on the path to higher spiritual development.

Religion should not stifle and suffocate its own children, but should launch them on their journeys to enlightenment. If that were only a reality, religion could possibly help save the world, but for now, most of us will have to remain “spiritual but not religious.”


Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @spiritualmd.


Is It Possible To Be Religious But Not Spiritual?


You’ve probably heard people lately claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” About one third of Americans now label themselves this way, having rejected membership in a traditional religious institution in favor of pursuing their own personal spiritual relationship with God or the Divine or the Creator (or whatever term they prefer.)

Some religious leaders are critical of the proponents of this philosophy, like James Martin, a Jesuit priest who states “Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.” But many spiritual people view themselves as part of a much larger community – the community of all life – and derive their wisdom from the interconnectedness they feel with all of creation rather than from a smaller community of those who have similar beliefs.

According to various theories of development, including Integral Theory, your degree of comfort with or without religion is determined by your level of spiritual growth.

Those who have achieved higher levels of spiritual awareness have less need for organized religion to help provide stability and a structural framework from which to view the world. But, ideally religion provides many seekers with the tools and foundation from which to grow and develop in spiritual awareness, much like primary education provides a foundation for intellectual growth.

So if religion is intended to be one of the paths to spiritual growth, is it possible to be religious – that is to adhere to all the beliefs and dogma of a religion – but not be spiritual? Indeed some of the problems facing the world at this time such as terrorism, bigotry and hate crimes may be arising from exactly this situation: religiosity that is devoid of spirituality.

For the purpose of this discussion, spiritual refers to one who has direct and personal awareness of the Divine and whose life is influenced by that awareness, while religious refers to one who identifies with a particular organized religion and whose life is directed by the rules and dogma of that religion, rather than by an inner knowing of God. Of course it is quite possible to be both religious and spiritual, but here are some ways to tell if someone might be religious but not spiritual:

1. If he believes that the holy scripture of his religion is the only true word of God and that all other religious texts are false, then he is probably religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people recognize that all of the sacred writings of the great wisdom traditions have value and teach similar universal truths.

2. If she believes that the scripture of her religion must be interpreted literally, word-for-word, then she might be religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people are more likely to believe that the holy texts of all religions should be interpreted with an awareness of the cultural and historical context within which they were written.

3. If he believes that the members of his faith have been chosen for salvation above all others and that everyone else is condemned to hell then he is most likely religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people believe that there is one Divine force that gave rise to all of creation with no favorites or chosen ones, and that all of life is connected by this common bond of creation.

4. If she believes in a judgmental and vengeful God who punishes His followers for wrongdoing then she is probably religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people view the Divine as Love that infuses everything and also allows everything to unfold in its own way without judgment.

5. If he rejects new information that arises, such as scientific studies or observations, because it conflicts with his beliefs then he is most likely religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people have awareness of a God that is far beyond the limits of our understanding and a concept of the Divine that is so vast that it could never be threatened or diminished by scientific exploration or human knowledge.

As mentioned before, religion can and should be the foundation of spiritual development and provide the support and inspiration for believers to grow in their individual faith.

But the problem arises when people with no personal experience or awareness of the Divine adhere tightly to the external constructs and rigid rules of religion, because they are unable to interpret those rules through the lens of higher consciousness.

Religious dogma itself is devoid of love, compassion and deeper meaning, which must be derived from spiritual experience. Therefore it should be the desire of religious institutions to inspire members toward higher consciousness and greater spiritual awareness. But is it possible that religion could actually stifle spiritual growth for some followers? That question will be explored in a future post.

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @spiritualmd.


Faith Amid the Flames

(Originally posted on June 29, 2012)

This morning I sat in contemplation next to the  Blue River, where just one year ago sandbags were piled to hold off the rampaging waters that threatened nearby homes. Today smoke rises on the horizon as parts of this state burn for lack of that water we once disparaged. I grieve for the loss of lives and livelihoods, wilderness and wildlife, homes and hope that has resulted from this scourge of nature – so unpredictable and unmanageable.

A woman awaiting the call to evacuate says of her prayers for rain, “I no longer have faith it will happen.” These fires are indeed a brutal siege on our lives of relative comfort and safety. No wonder we falter and question the benevolence of the God we have believed watches after us. No wonder we fall into despair when the workings of this natural world, the creation of our Creator’s hand, are so contrary and destructive to our wellbeing.

How does faith survive amid the flames that swallow every touchstone and consume each talisman of our belief?

But fire has its own mysterious and miraculous presence, as it brings us warmth and light, heats food for our sustenance, tempers steel, melts glass for shaping, removes the chaff from a grain of wheat. We would not have the comforts of our lives without the fire we now fear and denounce. It is a paradox we can scarcely bear to acknowledge. Life requires us to see and experience both sides of fire – we cannot have the blessings without accepting the burdens.

Faith, too, is a mysterious force – arising from within, called forth by the touch of the Divine. Faith brings us comfort and sustenance, tempers and shapes our character and separates the mundane from what really matters in our lives. Faith burns inside us as we struggle and grow, fall apart and then get up again.

Truly our faith is not diminished by the disasters that befall us – only our ability to be inspired by that faith.

The flames that ravage the landscape around us distract us from the flame that burns within until we become exhausted with our struggling and resisting. Only then can we find comfort in the rising warmth of our own faith, a fire not doused by floods or tears.

Faith requires us to face both the glory and the gore of this existence with equanimity. We are asked by faith to get up after every fall and keep moving forward, to withstand both the deluge and the drought, to sort through the ashes of our despair and find the gems that lie hidden. Life requires us to see and experience both sides of faith – we cannot have the blessings without accepting the burdens.

In the midst of these devastating fires that threaten to wipe away our past, may we find faith in the present moment that promises each of us a new beginning.

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @spiritualmd.


What To Do When Things Fall Apart


Life is tough, there’s no question about that. Sooner or later nearly everyone finds a time when nothing seems to make sense any more, life is going nowhere and there’s no clear path to follow. Maybe you hate your job or the relationship you’re in or you are just tired of it all, but you don’t know what to do.

These dark times in life are actually opportunities – fertile ground for growth and change. But you need to have a game plan in order to make the most of the situation. If you spend too much time feeling hopeless and trapped you might end up getting sick or having an accident. When you refuse to change, life has its own way of forcing you to grow.

Here’s a simple little plan of attack for those times when you feel stuck and need to get moving. Focus your attention on these things to help get yourself back in a more creative mode and figure out what changes you need to make:

  1. Get a journal and start writing in it every day if possible. You need to get your thoughts organized and have a place to ventilate your emotions.
  1. Spend some time in quiet meditation and contemplation every day about what’s going on in your life so you can begin to make sense of things.
  1. Give up your anger at other people and especially at yourself. Anger is just a waste of energy and time and you can’t afford to squander either one. Recognize that anger is a state of mind that can be changed instantly. As soon as you become aware of it, choose to let it go.
  1. Accept that life doesn’t follow your plans – it has its own path and timing and is a mystery much of the time. Give up trying to control your situation to make it turn out the way you want.
  1. Be grateful for everything. Your life could be so much worse than it is right now. Look for the good things in all aspects of your life and spend a little time every day reminding yourself of them. If you can’t see anything good in your life then you need to go visit a homeless shelter or a long-term care facility and spend some time with people who have nothing – not even their health.
  1. Live all aspects of your life with integrity. Take a look at how you spend your free time and decide if your activities reflect the highest part of yourself. Be honest about it and make changes if necessary.
  1. Live within your means. If you have to give up something now remember that it is only temporary – when your situation changes you may be able to expand your lifestyle again. This is hard but it is important to demonstrate that you can be responsible for the resources you have and live with discipline.

Remember the old saying “This too shall pass,” meaning that everything, both bad and good, eventually comes to an end. Someday this difficult time will become just a memory. Hopefully you will have made the most of this opportunity and learned some valuable lessons from it that will help you in the future. That’s how we grow: one failure and one recovery at a time.

If you would like to learn more about growing spiritually through the difficult times of life, check out The 7 Lessons Wisdom Path. This workshop will show you how to navigate life’s challenges and find joy in the process. Learn more here.

Dr. Karen Wyatt is “America’s Spiritual MD” who writes about spirituality and health and coping with life’s difficulties. Read more about her work at and contact her at [email protected].





5 Ways Positive Thinking Can Hurt More Than it Helps

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The power of positive thinking and the law of attraction have had a dramatic influence on our society in recent years as many have recognized that it is better to have a positive outlook on life and its occurrences than to dwell on the negative. And there is also evidence that the energy you put out into the world may come back to you in a similar form, making a strong case for focusing on the positive as much as possible.

 But are there times when emphasizing the positive is not helpful?

I once worked with a patient named Lucy who was experiencing multiple difficulties in her life all at the same time. She was suffering with a medical condition that caused her to be very fatigued, she became unable to work and was having financial problems as a result, and her apartment had recently been robbed of some of her original artwork. Her best friend at the time had just attended a law of attraction workshop and was fervent about preaching the gospel of positivity. When Lucy tried to tell him what was happening in her life, he refused to listen because he didn’t want to be exposed to anything negative. His attitude became a new problem for her to deal with in her life as she felt rejected and unsupported by her friend.

Over the past few years I have been close to other people who have experienced various degrees of suffering and have heard stories from them as well of painful encounters with well-meaning friends who just seemed to be too positive, too certain that everything is great and that all will be well. In fact, some people have actually been hurt by the overwhelming positive energy of their friends. Here are some of the ways that this type of positive thinking, which I call “reckless positivity” can be hurtful:

  1. Demeans genuine suffering. When some believers in this model emphasize only the positive, they fail to consider that suffering is one of the common occurrences of life that is often beyond our control. For example, their belief system has no satisfactory explanation for why natural disasters occur, other than to blame them on the negativity of the victims, because they refuse to accept that suffering, loss and death are necessary parts of life. In addition, to ignore suffering is to miss out on all the potential learning and growth opportunities it can provide.
  2. Encourages risky behavior. One person I know was convinced to participate in a strenuous activity even though she wasn’t feeling well physically because her friends encouraged her to stay positive and not give in to her “negative” symptoms. However, because she ignored her body’s wisdom and overexerted when she actually needed rest, this woman ended up becoming more seriously ill and required a longer time to regain her health.
  3. Ignores reality. In Lucy’s situation, her unpaid bills, lack of employment and physical illness were real problems that needed thoughtful attention and a careful strategy to resolve. Her friend’s criticism and rejection implied that these issues would disappear if Lucy could just smile and be positive, but this behavior on his part was not at all helpful. Lucy really needed a friend who could listen without judgment and help her think through the best next steps for her life.
  4. Leads to alienation. When Lucy was at a low point in her life she was unable to get support from her best friend because he rejected her so-called negativity. Thus she felt even more alone and isolated with her difficulties. But genuine spiritual growth leads us more and more in the direction of connectivity and collaboration rather than selfishness and isolation. A truly enlightened friend would have offered Lucy the calm and open presence she really needed to help get her life back together again.
  5. Causes guilt. Because of her friend’s judgmentalism, Lucy also began to believe that she had caused all of her own problems and was somehow a bad person since misfortune had befallen her.  While it was important for Lucy to take responsibility for her own behaviors that might have contributed to her problems, the guilt she felt actually interfered with her ability to move forward with confidence and find solutions for herself.

While these five symptoms of “reckless positivity” are distressing for those who experience them, there is an even more insidious problem that lurks behind the entire culture of positive thinking: the fact that it creates polarization. The very act of labeling thoughts and occurrences as positive or negative sets up a black-and-white dualistic view of life: that some things are “good” while others are “bad.” In the spiritual realm this type of polarity does not actually exist since everything is connected and works together as part of the whole. To focus only on what appears to be positive and reject what is thought to be negative is a fragmented approach to life that cannot result in true spiritual growth.

The truth is, from our limited human vantage point we really can’t tell what the future holds or why certain things happen as they do. And we certainly don’t have control over most of the events of our lives. The fantasy that we are in charge is comforting to us but soon falls apart when real life intervenes and things go wrong despite our positivity.

To truly evolve spiritually we must balance in equanimity between what appears to be positive or negative and surrender to the unfolding of life in all its glory. Growth occurs even in the midst of destruction; life flourishes in the face of death; love rises above the force of hatred.

These are the tenets of genuine spiritual growth that will lead us toward enlightenment – and that’s something to feel positive about! Join me in an exploration of the wisdom path toward spiritual growth and fulfillment. Learn more about this workshop here.

Dr. Karen Wyatt is “America’s Spiritual MD” who writes about spirituality and health and coping with life’s difficulties. Read more about her work at and contact her at [email protected].