Various events and life experiences teach us and help us evolve, if we accept them with an open heart and a contemplative mind. All of us have experienced how a subtle single-celled microbe can influence the entire humanity –Covid-19. The pandemic not only impacted our physical health; it tested our mental strength and well-being. We clearly noticed a significant rise in mental health problems during and after the pandemic. As an infectious diseases specialist and a seeker embarking on a spiritual journey, I witnessed this pandemic unfolding from a different vantage point. It led me to an obvious question: what can we learn from this experience? What message does this subtle microbe have for us?
Let us first explore some science! We may not like microbes, but we are home to millions of them, primarily in the gut, known as the gut microbiome. Many chronic lifestyle diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, are considered risk factors for severe infections such as Covid-19,and studies have shown a clear link between these health problems and a disturbance in homeostasis among gut microbes, defined as dysbiosis.1 It can be understood simply as a “subtle disturbance in a harmonious relationship among widely diverse colonies of microbes.” Have you ever had a nervous stomach when you were stressed or anxious? We have all experienced how our mental state impacts our gut at one time or another. In fact, psychological stress is considered to be one of the most common causes of gut dysbiosis. Research has now described a link between the gut microbiome and mental health problems in the context of the Gut-Microbiome-Brain axis.2 The millions of microbes present within us seem to react subtly to our thoughts and emotions, positively or negatively, resulting in significant physiological and immunological changes. These changes influence mental and physical health.
When we carefully observe the spectrum of Covid-19 infections, we see that the degree of immune response to the virus determines the severity of the illness to a large extent. Studies have shown that gut dysbiosis contributes to a dysregulated immune response to Covid-19.2 An optimal immune response is vital in fighting such infections with or without vaccines. Based on scientific evidence, we can deduce that pre-illness health status and stress, and the anxiety associated with the disease play a considerable role in the outcome of many illnesses.
So, how does this science help us? What is the message from the Covid-19 microbe? Unexpected events, illnesses, and difficulties, small or big, are inevitable. In his book, As a Man Thinketh, James Allen explains, “Anxiety quickly demoralizes the whole body, and lays it open to the entrance of disease.” We can certainly strive to improve our response to such challenges.
Entrepreneur and author Jack Canfield gives us a simple equation:
Event + Response= Outcome.
Psychological and emotional well-being are not only vital in maintaining good health, but also impact the outcome of an unexpected physical alignment. It is only wise to learn techniques to maintain emotional balance as a caregiver or patient. An inner state of balance and harmony is a hallmark of our psychological and emotional well-being.
The simple practice of Heartfulness Meditation has helped me maintain this inner state of balance during both challenging and good times. It allows me to access inner resources to cultivate poise, leading to calm amidst crisis and chaos. Don’t we all seek such a state of mind?
We conducted a study during the Covid-19 pandemic where we assessed the effects of an 8-week Heartfulness Meditation practice on psychological well-being, as measured by the level of stress, sleep quality, and subjective experiences.3 Interestingly, when we asked how worried the participants were about acquiring Covid themselves or in their families during the study period, no change was noted during the 8 weeks. We did observe, however, a significant stress reduction and improved sleep quality. Participants were also able to cultivate inner peace and resilience. Only a few weeks of Heartfulness practice helped to change the “R = Response” to the event or crisis.
Some of us from a purely scientific background may question contemplative practices like meditation. The word “yoga” is often misunderstood to mean physical exercises, whereas yoga truly means the union with the higher self. Heartfulness incorporates all eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, but unlike many yoga traditions, it starts with the contemplative practices first – the sixth, seventh, and eighth limbs, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.4 Science helps us understand that the practice of meditation is not merely for spiritual pursuit. It impacts all aspects of human well-being, including psychological and physical. This pursuit of inner balance and harmony is possible through simple practices that are practical in everyone’s daily routine, regardless of vocation. A virus, considered an enemy, and the millions of microbes living within us, seem to convey a subtle but profound message that humans must strive to seek inner balance and harmony. Future research may shed more light and bring an eclipse of science and spirituality. In the meantime, we have enough reasons to embrace yogic practices like Heartfulness, that bring us inner harmony and health.