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David Pace 0:03

Hi. My name’s David Pace.


Alex Barilec 0:03

And I’m Alex Barilec, and this is Pace Yourself, a University of Utah College of Science podcast on wellness. 


David Pace 0:12

Good morning, Alex. 


Alex Barilec 0:13

Good morning, David. 


David Pace 0:14

How you doing? 


Alex Barilec 0:15

I’m doing well this morning. 


David Pace 0:16

You’re the picture of wellness sitting across from me. 


Alex Barilec 0:18

Feeling great. The sun is shining in this beautiful room. And today we’re going to be talking about spiritual wellness. 


David Pace 0:23

Yes, we are. And there’s a definition from the National Institute of Health that will get us going here. Spiritual wellness is one of eight dimensions, as you know. And their definition is that spiritual wellness is about finding purpose, value and meaning in your life, with or without organized religion, and also participating in activities consistent with your beliefs and values. So we could go in a lot of different directions here. That’s pretty broad, as are all of these dimensions, which is good for us because then we get to talk about whatever we want to talk about, right? So what’s your experience with spiritual wellness? I mean, there’s a historical element to this that maybe we should talk about briefly. 


Alex Barilec 1:16

Yeah, And I think that historical element comes from our religious traditions. And, you know, we want to just say upfront that this is not a topic or an area of wellness that is going to be focused around religion. You know, no matter what your beliefs or religious traditions are, but historically spiritual practices and ways of approaching and making sense of the world that we live in were predominantly in religious traditions. And over the past 50 years or so, particularly in the United States, there seems to kind of be this collapse of religious traditions for right or for wrong. But what’s happened is there’s a spiritual void that a lot of people are kind of feeling, they maybe don’t know how to articulate. And what’s interesting is there’s been some research on people identifying in certain religious traditions and the ‘nones’, no pun intended or pun intended. The  n-o-n-e-s are actually the largest group today of people who don’t prescribe to a religious tradition. But I think that when I think about spirituality, t he word that comes to mind, because I do believe this is a fundamental capacity built in all of us is connection. So that’s the word that comes to mind for me. What comes to mind for you when you think about spirituality? 


David Pace 2:36

Well, I think of spirituality as being keyed in to a sense of wonder and awe at the ineffable, if you will. What we do not understand something greater than ourselves. It can be you know, some people call that God, some people call it a higher power. Some people call it life on life’s terms. That’s the big engine out there, the big disembodied mind, if you will. So, yeah, I think of my necessity, the necessity that I have or I’m not saying that well I believe- that’s a dangerous thing to say anywhere in a spirituality thing- I believe I’ll be very generic because that’s where it starts. For me, it’s feeling connected to the universe, feeling connected to the broader sense and ebb and flow and cadence, if you will, of life on life’s terms. I prefer that phrase myself. And I think it dovetails really nicely with science, quite frankly. And since we’re in the College of Science, that’s what scientists do. They study life on life’s terms. They don’t try to speculate or hypothesize too wildly. They want to describe not prescribe what is happening in the universe. So that’s what I look for and quite frankly, I yearn for. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that yearning and devotional sense of ritual perhaps that some people find necessary in their lives. 


Alex Barilec 4:23

Yeah, when I think about that, you know, to bring into your points and combine that with this idea of connection, you know, I say connection and I mean that like with ourselves. But I also mean that with the people around us, the natural world, the universe. You know, you talked about a higher power and a place that, as you were saying, that I went was just standing out in the city of rocks, which is a natural national preserve in southern Idaho last fall. And it was dark. It was early October, and it was the most indescribable and palpable display of the Milky Way I’d ever experienced in my entire life. And I can’t help but look up at the Milky Way and spend time in our national parks and see dark sky parks without just asking myself like, what the heck?


David Pace 5:21

Okay, language, language.


Alex Barilec 5:24

And it makes me feel grateful for this experience. But it also really humbles me. And you know, spirituality can be this term and it can be a little bit unapproachable for people. And when I think back to how this continues to grow and develop through my life, I’m really grateful for my experience in Ignatian and Jesuit education. That was really like my foundation of spirituality. 


David Pace 6:01

Tell us more about that. 


Alex Barilec 6:03

Yeah, so I grew up Catholic, but we were like, not quite ‘Creasters’ like some people say, like Christmas and Easter Catholics, if you’ve ever heard that term. Small little joke in the Catholic Church. Yeah. You know, you only show up on Christmas and Easter and we were like a little bit more frequently than that. And so growing up, I didn’t have a strong sense of this or good like role models or tools around making sense of the ineffable, as you say. But when I went to high school, I went to a Jesuit high school, and very quickly I was brought into this tradition of spiritual practices and also this real intense focus on education and the connection of the two. And there were three ideas that stood out to me. There was this idea of being like a contemplative in action as part of any Ignatian spirituality, which is really just taking some time to pause in our life or our day and reflect on what is going on, what does this mean and how do I move forward so we can, like, fully engage with the world? Mm hmm. The other two are more all encompassing. The other was what’s called I-


David Pace 7:22

I smell some latin here, Magis


Alex Barilec 7:24

Yes, Magis, M-a-g-i-s. And this is all about discerning a more generous way not to be best in the world. Like if you think of, like, accomplishments, but to be the best for the world. So there’s this, like, service component. There’s this idea of being altruistic and being the best you can in that. And then finally and this, I think really what relates to wellness, it has been a foundational pillar for me is this idea of Kira Personalis, which is this radical acceptance of, you know, who we are and continually developing our mind, our body and spirit. So viewing each and every one of us as whole, people. And though like that for me was brand new when I was 13 years old, Particularly the reflection piece. Mm hmm. And it’s those skills when I get lost or doubt myself, or just get really down in the world that I lean on. And when you think back to your time and experience, what’s been helpful for you to cultivate a sense of spirituality in your life. 


David Pace 8:31

So I am originally from what we call the Mormon corridor here, or the ‘jello belt’, and was raised in a very Orthodox Mormon home. So I came to spirituality. I think like many of us did, who grew up in a faith and organized religion in that there was dogma, there were rules, there were codes. Mormons like to speak in code, but that’s true of any code culture, If you think about it. And for me, I don’t know what Catholicism was for you, but for me, this was not just a religion. This was a totalizing, civilized force in my life. So everything was fused to it. So it was a little overwhelming, to be frank. And, you know, education, you were talking about how education was a part of your spiritual training, really, I think that’s what you said. And that was true for me. To the chagrin of my Orthodox parents, perhaps because for me, education took me out of that bubble and that totalizing experience. And so it was fraught with a lot of conflict. So for me, 


I found spirituality outside of organized religion fairly early on, even though I didn’t tell anybody that’s what was going on, because I wanted everyone to love me, of course. But yeah, so, it’s interesting because I was talking to my wife about this, who was also raised in the East, like you were very Episcopalian, very Anglican. And for her, the church became a refuge from very difficult, challenging experiences that she was having growing up in the sixties, not just family but the society at large. And it was it was a very conflicted time. So it’s very interesting. We have opposite experiences with organized religion, she found solace and sanctuary in the church because it was very theoretical in the sense that you were talking about the Jesuits. We’re sharing that with them. It wasn’t an embodied God. It was rooted in Judaism. Judaism originally, you know, the first several years in that tradition, you study the Old Testament. So she never saw it as being a club, an exclusivity club, like, you got to join us or you’re not going to be saved type thing. And she found refuge in it. It was just the opposite for me. So my spiritual journey kind of was parallel to my experience in organized religion, but it wasn’t largely connected. They weren’t connected. They were just parallel. 


Alex Barilec 11:44

That’s so interesting. There’s a couple of threads that you shared there that come to mind when I start to think about how to help people like, approach this, because, you know, in the way that maybe there was some timidness in approaching financial wellness, you know, we saved this one for a little bit later in the podcast because even we were a little bit intimidated by this. But there’s three tenants that you just share that I think are really like universal, that, you know, people can get outside of religion. And one is inspiration, the second is connection and the other is healing. And there’s this wonderful gentleman named Jamie Weale, who has this book titled Recapture the Rapture, and he really dives into these three components and he talks about how, you know, as organized religion has decreased. We have been left with this uncertainty about the world and nobody or no place to go to help guide us. But what he’s essentially done is looked at, okay, what have these religious traditions been doing for thousands of years? Because whether we want to think it or not, our ancestors knew some stuff, man. Like the pyramids. 


David Pace 13:02

No, are you sure? 


Alex Barilec 13:04

Like the Mayan temples. They knew some stuff. And people have been grappling with these questions of what are we doing on this planet for, you know, time immemorial. So these ideas of inspiration, healing and connection, I think we can find in a lot of different places, does one of them stand out to you that like I know what I do when I need some inspiration or I need some healing or I need some connection?


David Pace 13:30

Okay, so tell me the three again. 


Alex Barilec 13:32

Inspiration, healing and connection. 


David Pace 13:36

Okay. So I would talk about connection and actually, Carl Sagan’s daughter. I forget her first name. She talks about, you know, she grew up in a very scientific, empirically based. 


Alex Barilec 13:50



David Pace 13:50

Environment. And she said she’s written a book about, you know, returning to not so much her Judaism of institutional Judaism, but the need for community connection. So, you know, she says we don’t have holidays to celebrate our papers when they drop in science and we don’t have rituals and we don’t have a lot of the things, the community that she experienced growing up. And so she’s doing what a lot of these ‘noners’ you call them are doing, and that is that they’re creating their own communities, their own rituals, their own organized, I don’t want to say, you know, ordinances or anything quite that formal, but they are formal in the sense that they are fraught with meaning or are filled with meaning. And that’s, I think, really what you get from connecting to a community of what we used to call believers. And maybe we still do if you’re religious, but a community of people that share the same values and in some sense the same filter on the world, which is that we need these this sense of awe and this sense of something greater than ourselves, whether it’s just nature or life on life’s terms, the ebb and flow of life. And we need to celebrate that. And so she’s gone back to actually the Seder dinner every year. 


Alex Barilec 15:31



David Pace 15:32

With her secular friends. And I think it’s really interesting because I don’t think, you know, we often think about Carl Sagan as being kind of the high priest of, you know, science and questioning, you know, traditional religion. But he really believed in the same thing. Some of his quotes are very much about this sense that through science, we understand greater and less at the same time. And that brings a sense of awe and why not call that a spiritual feeling or a spiritual sense of the universe? And in many ways, there’s been a lot of research just lately about the spirituality of science, which some people will really balk at. But it’s not just about, you know, the scientific method and whether science is valuable. But now they’re talking about the spirituality of science, which I find very interesting. And I’m glad that that conversation is being opened up because I think there’s been a big rift between science and religion. 


Alex Barilec 16:42

Yeah, I think, you know, you and I were talking offline the other day about this sense that maybe the two are much more related than we’ve thought and maybe there’s even, you know, continued room going forward in the future for them to actually like really support one another and you know, that’s certainly not like my area of expertise. But there are people out there and, you know, you’ve cited some of the great scientists that do have this, like, you know, not all of them, but some of them do have this deep spiritual approach to creativity and to beauty and to exploration and to awe, right. And that leads them into their exploration, something that you were sharing when you’re you were talking about, you know, your wife reconnecting with this community. Is this idea of celebrating and community. Right. So I’ve had a really cool experience learning through my family tradition and through actually through music, particularly the music of the Grateful Dead, which, you know, turns many people off in a lot of ways. But there’s been this you know, they’ve supported this sort of like spiritual revival in many ways of gathering people together, celebrating through music. And, you know, a lot of people will talk about those experiences. And I’ve had them myself, like walking away feeling healed. You know, you’re listening to music about, you know, all sorts of characters who were, you know, fools and frauds and, you know, total mess ups. But they were still, you know, humans just like you and I. And like there’s this opportunity to experience humanity in its rawest purest form and just acknowledge that in ourselves and other people. And just that experience of like being together with people celebrating and healing like that for me, you know, I really look forward to spending like, you know, at least one night a summer, at a really big music festival. I found those to be like spiritual experiences in some ways and ritualistic. 


David Pace 18:44

Yeah, there’s a lot of ritual going on there. 


Alex Barilec 18:46

Yeah. You know, like, I look forward to once a summer, and I’ve been doing this for you know, more than a few years now. 


David Pace 18:53

So I think one of the – Speaking of people who have studied this, Joseph Campbell famously compared mythology to a kangaroo pouch for the human mind and spirit or what he called a womb with a view. Sorry. And anyway, one of the best books I ever read was his myths to live by. And it’s based basically, he spent his whole life studying all these thousands and thousands of stories of origin myths that populated the world and connected people together, not only in their own community, but what he does is he brings it together and he says, guess what? All of our myths are pretty much the same. 


Alex Barilec 19:40

Isn’t that amazing. 


David Pace 19:41

In every religion there’s the origin that there’s the kind of an Adam and Eve thing going on. There’s, you know, the hero who has tasks he has to accomplish in order to, you know, very Greek mythology almost. And Greek mythology is part of the study that he did. But what I liked about Joseph Campbell is that he was very secular in the sense that he wasn’t promoting any particular faith tradition and certainly wasn’t promoting truth claims of any of those religions, which I think a lot of people get hung up on. But he was making connections between the way we make sense through narrative and through stories and through characters. And that’s probably what I would speculate is happening when you go to the Grateful Dead concert, you know, there’s a lot of narrative going on there. There are a lot of stories, characters like you said, themes that are, you know, kind of a literary analysis, if you want to think of it that way. And that’s where meaning emerges. And it’s like, Wow, the connections here are amazing. And I feel so connected to my past and to the ancient Greeks and blah, blah, blah, blah. I mean, you know, that’s a little woowoo, you know, some people would say. But in fact, it’s profound in a way that Joseph Campbell wanted us all to first recognize and and then to celebrate. 


Alex Barilec 21:04

Yeah. I don’t think that there’s anything woowoo about that. Like, that’s practices that human beings have been doing forever. And it’s those moments that you feel really connected to what what’s going on here. Right? Because it buffers against this nihilism, it buffers against this uncertainty and the questioning of what are we doing here? And it helps ground us in the experience we’re having in this moment, like the deep now it really brings us into that. 


David Pace 21:38

So what are your, what are your tools? What’s your toolkit over there, cowboy. 


Alex Barilec 21:44

Yeah. So there is, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about, like the combination of intersection of spirituality and science and there’s this wonderful researcher named Lisa Miller. I think she’s at Columbia and she has this book called The Awakened Brain. And she’s like looked at the science of spirituality and particularly through brain networks. And one of the really, really powerful findings that she had that relates to our broader theme of wellness is that cultivating and strengthening the spiritual capacity inside of us as an area of wellness is actually neuroprotective. So if we think back to what we are talking about in our social and our emotional wellness podcast, where we’re talking about the challenges of anxiety, depression and loneliness, they’ve shown tangible scientific evidence to support that strengthening this part of ourselves actually can reduce the negative effects of those which I found like really, really mind blowing and some of the simple practices we’ve already talked about. But I just want to point them out and shine a light on them and the most simple is altruism, like reciprocal altruism. If there’s ever a time where you find yourself like, I’m totally stuck or I’m not really sure what to do, help somebody out in the smallest way possible, hold the door, give them a compliment. You know, bring your neighbor some cookies, you know, hopefully finding a way that is meaningful and purposeful to you. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this. This is really small. But last winter, my neighbor, we had a crazy winter last year that we did. And their daughter is she just graduated from high school. And I was up very early in the morning and we had gotten this mist overnight and her car was like all of our cars were like caked in ice. And I was like, you know what? I really don’t like waking up in the morning having to scrape ice off my car. What if somebody did it for me? And so I went over and I scraped ice off of her car. And it’s even a little bit hard for me to share that right now. I don’t want to feel like I’m boasting, but I’m sharing that because I felt really good the rest of the day. I felt this sense of meaning and purpose, even by simply doing something that seems meaningful, meaningless or menial. It gave me a lot of meaning and it really like threaded its way into the rest of my day. What do you think? 


David Pace 24:19

Well, I think that was what I call a self-defining act. We do things like that, not because it’s necessarily going to help or even be acknowledged. It’s not necessarily going to help the situation. I mean, I can think about global warming in this light. I pick up an aluminum can on the street, not because that’s going to save the Earth from warming, but because it tells me who I am to myself. And so that’s why I do it. That’s what we’re always trying to do, I think is trying to figure out who we are in the broader scheme of things. And if it inspires somebody else to pick up a can, great. But is it going to solve global warming? No, not really. Not that single act. But it’s created an ethic in me. That I’m going to do this because it tells me who I am. So I think that might have some connections to this. The quest for spiritual life and a spiritual meaning. And I think we need it really, really badly right now. I mean, we’ll talk about this in environmental wellness, but this guy that just visited us, David Wallace-Wells, at the Tanner Humanities Lecture, he’s a science journalist for The New York Times. He basically said that global warming is a spiritual crisis more than anything else. We’re going to have to figure this out, how to live and tell the stories to ourselves and to our children and to our grandchildren about what this means, this existential threat. This is an experiment that we’re doing that we only have one chance to do. Yeah, and that’s pretty dire. That’s pretty daunting to think about. And it can make you feel nihilistic in a way to use your term. So, you know. Yeah, isn’t that interesting? The science writer saying the biggest crisis of our time, which is scientifically based and needs to be approached scientifically and policy driven and getting the world on board is actually a spiritual crisis in the end. 


Alex Barilec 26:29

I think that’s beautiful. And I think what it points to is something that we all know. But, you know, sometimes we’d rather not acknowledge is like life is a game where we’re all in, we’re all in, man. We don’t have a choice. And so finding a way to guide our actions with that ethic that you’re talking about, knowing that, you know, picking up the candy wrapper or the can isn’t going to solve global warming, but it might just be a step on that pathway, right? Because you’re all in, what other choice do you have then to commit to continually reflect and search and grow and act in a way that can create a more beautiful world than our hearts know as possible? So this is an area that is I mean, it’s just like all encompassing, right? It really combines all of the other ones, but it also sometimes feels like it’s out there somewhere. And so hopefully just that idea of like, you know, acting like the person you want to become in the world and doing that through a spirit of like altruism can be at least a small jumping off point for people. And I think that will, you know, continue to do that in all of our own ways. And model that and share with people our gifts as best we can. 


David Pace 27:48

Yeah, all of that’s true. Yeah, nicely put, do you want a hug?


Alex Barilec 27:54

I think so. Thanks, David. 


David Pace 27:56

Nice talking to you, Alex. We’ll talk later.