You know what you have to do to tighten your abs (whether or not you actually do it), but do you know how to awaken your brain?
Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia University, explains how we humans are hard-wired for spirituality, but we’ve lost the connection.
Faith-based traditions once connected most of us to something larger than ourselves, and without that, we’ve entered a self-centered age of widespread depression, addiction, and suicide. Dr. Miller has insight into how to awaken our brains and reconnect to the deeper force in life, even if you don’t believe in a god.
Phil Stieg: Hello, I’d like to welcome Dr. Lisa Miller, professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, as well as founder and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller, “The Spiritual Child,” and her 2021 book, “The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.” Let’s learn how a spiritual life – that is a walk in nature, reading a sacred text, saying a prayer, or a traditional religious basis for life – can have a positive impact on your health. Lisa, thank you so much for being with us today.
Lisa Miller: I’m absolutely delighted to be joining you, Dr. Stieg.
Phil Stieg: I want to ask you, what was your goal? What did you want to achieve in writing “The Awakened Brain”?
Lisa Miller: I wrote “The Awakened Brain” so that everyone could see that suffering is not lost time or downtime. But very often, depression is a knock at the door to an awakening of a deeper, more meaningful, more loving life. I think midlife crisis is a developmental gift and it’s no way out of it. It’s a developmental imperative. The type of pain and despair that we feel at midlife. That is a growth process that helps us. We are better in the end. We are being prepared to inherit the mantle of our next decade.
Phil Stieg: So that’s what you wanted to achieve with “The Awakened Brain,” is how to go through those episodes of depression, how to approach them in a more constructive manner? What do you mean by quote, “the awakened brain”?
Lisa Miller: If we are religious, whether we’re Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or Christian, we all have the same neuro docking station, if you will, for our awakened brain to see “what is life showing me now? Where is my compass pointing me?” And even more importantly, “How do I engage and find deeper, more true direction in my life?” And we are hardwired to be able to do that. We can engage our awakened brain, our capacity to see into a deeper presence in life. And this is true whether we’re religious or not religious.
Phil Stieg: In the introduction to your book, you give some compelling statistics as to why the awakened brain is so important. It was overwhelming to me the problem that we’re having in America right now.
Lisa Miller: So it is now the case in every decade of life, that depression, addiction, and even suicide are at an all-time high. That weighs on every decade of life, but it is most burdensome upon the emerging adult and late adolescent.
The rate of death by suicide in a young adult now rivals the rate of death by auto accident. That has never been the case. Never.
And if you were to think of a dystopic horror film, it would be one in which people come of age and right when they’re about to launch, they feel empty, despair, there’s no hope, and they kill themselves. That is a dystopic horror film and we’re living it.
So why? It is not because of outward events. It is because of the atrophy of our awakened awareness. The shift in our ability to engage our awakened awareness. To not look narrowly at ourselves as being knocked around by a random cruel world, but to realize that there’s a deeper connection into life that we are hardwired to see, feel, and perceive and to use that.
So, you know, 40 years ago people used their awakened brain. It was at that point generally cultivated through the broad range of faith traditions. There’s other ways it can be cultivated, but 40 years ago is the predominant way through which our awakened awareness was cultivated. And in the good attempt to be inclusive, we threw all religion out of the public square, which turned out not to be so inclusive but actually radically exclusive – to the point where we have a completely spiritually, non-conversant society people don’t really know how to talk about this.
Phil Stieg: So let’s talk about awakening our awareness. Please define spirituality and how that differs and is similar to a formal religion.
Lisa Miller: Awakened awareness is our natural birthright. It is a capacity of perception through which we are an open system. Instead of thinking that we control all of life. And sometimes we don’t even know this till we don’t get what we want. Like we lose our business or my lover leaves me when we don’t get what we want, we realize, wait a minute, can I really control everything?
Awakened awareness starts with the principle that we actually do not control everything. We are an open system in dialogue with a living universe, with a living world. And so we can stop asking the question, “Did I get what I want? What else do I want? Why didn’t I get what I wanted?” And instead, look more deeply with our eyes and open our hearts and say, what is life showing me now? What is being asked of me now? And that can be through the flow of life itself.
For many of us, I use the word God. It is through adult relationship with a higher power. For some people, it’s a unit of sense, a sense of being one with all of nature or all life. But whatever we conceptualize as the ultimate source of the universe, we are in a relationship, a felt, dynamic relationship with the deeper force of life. And that relationship is not just anything. We’ve asked people across all traditions. And what we hear, no matter where they are from on the face of the globe, is that this deep transcendent relationship is loving and holding, it is guiding and we are never alone.
Phil Stieg: Do you have any words of advice? Given the fact that people are spending more time on social media then for me the next conclusion is that they’re spending less time sitting by the ocean, sitting on a mountaintop, meditating and doing things like that. When should a person look in the mirror and say, oh, I’m not leading a life that will lead me to being awakened?
Lisa Miller: When I go to bed at night and I think, wow, I really wasted today. I did about 47, errands, two-thirds of them online. You know, I booked my ticket and I organized the hotel and those things need to be done. But what I’ve treated today purely functionally and not deeply engaged in the miracle and the presence of the moving river, the sun sparkling on the ice.
People say, what’s the opposite of being spiritual it’s not being atheist. The opposite of being spiritual is being radically human-centered, that somehow my appetites and desires are the most important part of the whole world.
Phil Stieg: If I am becoming so radically self-centered, I would say, Whoa, I need to take a step back. What are those metrics? I spend all my time thinking about myself. I spend all my time on social media. I’m trying to help people realize that they should say, “time to step back” and cultivate whatever form of spiritual life is for them.
Lisa Miller: Beautiful, Phil. And I want to highlight something in that statement, which is it’s not the case that there’s spiritual people who are good and self-centered people who are bad, but that rather both appetites are in both of us. And the goal is actually to bring our capacity to achieve into service for our more profound capacity to walk a spiritual path. That the head is really only there to implement and serve the deep truth, the guidance of the heart.
Every single human being is born a spiritual being. We know that in science, through twin studies, through MRI studies. Just as much as we’re physical and emotional and cognitive, we are spiritual. It’s our birthright. But then how do we build it? That’s by choice. That’s by practice. That’s by the way we treat other people and how we pray and meditate and the values we keep.
Phil Stieg: So, let’s look at the science that underlies your work. How did you determine that there was a therapeutic benefit to spirituality?
Lisa Miller: Yes. So, Phil, for easily a decade, we used every form of observational study that you could find in a medical school. We used long-term clinical course studies, high-risk studies, population-based. And no matter what form of epidemiology we used, we could see a profound protective benefit of spirituality against depression. And we could also see that through the struggle of depression, a deeper spirituality could be formed that then forthcoming was protective against the next bout. So that there was a deep relationship between spirituality and depression, one in which your suffering spirituality is awakened and strengthened, and one strengthened spirituality protects against the next downward spiral because it opens up our deeper understanding of life.
We saw that loud and clear. And yet somehow, despite dozens of peer-review articles on this deep protective benefit of spirituality against depression, we didn’t see the field shifting. We didn’t see a proliferation of new therapies. We didn’t see training programs that somehow things weren’t moving.
It seemed to me that in order to make treatment change, in order to really help to see spirituality as central to mental health and wellness, that we actually needed brain studies. because the bottom line was an assumption that if you can show it in the brain, it therefore is real. If the human has an MRI conducted that shows look at the change in the brain around depression, then depression is real and we treat it. Well, that study hadn’t been run yet on spirituality. So it seemed that the way to go was to help us as researchers, but ultimately, in time in the field, understand spirituality as part of the brain.
Phil Stieg: So what specifically were the MRI findings that you got?
Lisa Miller: We looked through the MRI at people with a sustained spiritual life over eight years, and what we found were broad regions of cortical thickness. The cortex, you know, is processing power. Broad regions of cortical thickness across the parietal, precuneus and occipital – regions of perception and reflection and orientation. And in particular, we saw a thick cortex across the regions of the awakened brain. But what was most remarkable is that those regions were not thick, but thin, in people with recurrent major depression.
So finally, we had seen the neuroanatomical correlates of spirituality as protective against depression. And when we sent that off to JAMA, they said, great study, but they wrote back with a follow up. They said, what about, you know, nice thick cortex today across the regions of the awakened brain? What does that say about how we’re doing a year from now? Can you make prospective claims? And indeed, it turned out that cortical thickening across the regions of the awakened brain was protective against depressive symptoms a year out, which offered some of the first evidence that sustained spiritual life may be neuroprotective against depression.
Phil Stieg: So I have to ask then, thinking about the agnostic or the atheist, if you did a functional MRI on their brain, is it different than the spiritual brain?
Lisa Miller: So it could well be so that they still are deeply engaged as an open system.
Phil Stieg: So they’re hardwired, but they’re not using the wires.
Lisa Miller: They may not be fully using it, but oftentimes underneath the “no, not me, I don’t believe in anything,” is a “walk the walk” of spiritual engagement. Very often there is a deep service. Very often there’s a connection and care for fellow living beings or nature. Very often they are still an open system.
What defines awakened awareness is that we are not closed and hermetic. We are open and engaged with the force of life. So there are people out there walking the walk of awakened awareness who may not own it yet. And yes, it would be furthered and deepened if they did. But the opposite of spirituality, the opposite of being awakened is not atheist. It’s being solipsistic, anthropocentric, thinking that we humans are a closed system, controlling how everything’s going to roll out on Earth.
Phil Stieg: You also said that spirituality was protective with adolescent drug utilization.
Lisa Miller: We know that through AA and NA, two-thirds of people to recover from addiction do so through an awakening of spiritual life. Some spontaneously, and some through chipping away at it. And we know through a nationally representative sample that a teen with a strong spirituality says, my personal spiritual life is highly important to me, is at 80% decreased relative risk for addiction to drugs and alcohol. We published this in the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. This is total peer-review science. It’s not just a hope of a mom. So there is something incredibly important here that we need to support in young people before they bottom out. Why do we wait for them to bottom out, to say, oh, you know what? You can hand it over. You can have a transcendent relationship. Well, we were wired for that from the day we were born. Let’s help them soon — now!
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Phil Stieg: The problem I have is if you take a survey, 70% of Americans will say that they’re either spiritual or religious. But then what you’re noticing is that we’re not we’re into achieving awareness, but we’re not accepting it and incorporating it into our lives. So where’s the disconnect? What’s going on?
Lisa Miller: I teamed up with my colleague, Sunia Luther. Sunia Luther had looked at kids in poverty for a decade. And simply for a control group, she put together some high schools in highly resourced communities outside New York, outside San Francisco. And Dr. Luther found higher rates of depression, addiction, anxiety, in the affluent suburbs than in the inner city. So I teamed up with her and I said, let’s look at spirituality in highly resourced communities. It turned out that the rate at which a young person says, my spirituality is highly important to me is about 70%. Well, when you go into highly resourced communities, the rate at which a young person said, spirituality is highly important to me is less than a quarter of the national rate. It is 15% — 15% less than a quarter of the national rate of those kids feel connected to God’s, spirit, nature, force.
And we know through 20 years of published peer review science that that personal connection is more protective against addiction, depression, suicide than anything in the clinical sciences. There is nothing else that is 80% protective against addiction. There is nothing else that is 82% protective against completed suicide. So I would say that the greatest pain that we’re finding amongst Gen Z is particularly loaded into communities that have acculturated young people out of their awakened awareness.
Phil Stieg: So you feel like John the Baptist, you’re out in the wilderness telling people to wake up and find their inner awareness. And it seems to me you’re losing the battle. If you look at the statistics.
Lisa Miller: Phil, when I speak with parents , when I’m in the communities that are suffering from low levels of awakened awareness, communities that have not honored spirituality as important to their daily lives, I share the science. I just put it up there, and parents really pay attention. They say, this speaks to the left side of my brain long enough that I can open up other parts of my heart, and they start to cry. They start to cry. And the question that when their hand shoots up real high from parents is actually not about their child, it’s about them. And they’ll say, Am I spiritual?
Phil Stieg: What can I do as a parent to facilitate a fully actualized spiritual life, an awakening within my child’s spirit?
Lisa Miller: Phil in my book, “The Spiritual Child,” I get into this in a great deal of depth, but I’ll highlight the things that I think are immediately actionable. And the first is that as parents, we are open and transparent about our own spiritual life. So, for instance, if I can tell my child right now at a liberal arts college when I was a sophomore, I really wondered, does God exist? Is this a random universe? I questioned everything I’d ever learned, and I really took seriously that love wasn’t real, that we were nothing but passing blips. And I got so depressed that I ended up spending half my sophomore year in the basement near the water heater. So I would just sort of seek warmth away from the cruelty of that painful thought and –
Phil Stieg: – I thought that was just being a Yale. (laugh)
Lisa Miller: That speaks to my child’s own existential walk. So I can’t lift her up like when she was four, out of the tree and say, no, there’s spirit. See, you actually are connected. She has to find it. But I can walk by her side. I can hear her. And in the transparency of my coming of age, my story of adult spiritual individuation, she can see that it’s real, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Foremost, that we talk about this here, and our relationship goes to that depth. So the most important thing we can do as parents to support our child’s own spiritual growth is to be open and forthcoming about our own spiritual lives.
Phil Stieg: Considering where you’re going with all of this, I was reading the article written about the spiritual readiness initiative with the U.S. Army. Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing there.
Lisa Miller: This has been the great honor and gift of my whole career, being able to have contributed to our country in this way – sharing the science in the awakened brain on our innate capacity for spirituality and when it’s strengthening the profound capacity for renewal and recovery that comes. The Army is data driven. It is a profoundly innovative, research-based institution. The Army has offices of innovation where they go out and they find the cutting edge. Those generals care about their soldiers. It’s as if they’re at a Thanksgiving Day table at the head, and they have 300,000 soldiers down the sides of the table. There’s an avuncular deep love they have of their solders.
So when the Army took on this data, they used the science of spirituality, mental health, recovery, renewal, and fitness to integrate the spiritual core as foundational into every sector of the Army. The Army trained all leadership across from the commanding general down to the company commander, drill sergeants. Now, basic training holds that a soldier must be fit of body, mind, and spirit.
Phil Stieg: Is there any data that shows that increasing an infantryman’s spirituality reduces the incidence of, say, PTSD, depression, or drug addiction in the military? Do you have that data yet?
Lisa Miller: So there’s data when you look, for instance, at Vets, those who engage their spiritual core have a process of post traumatic spiritual growth. PTSD is not resolved cognitively alone or by medication alone. Trauma is a gateway to an awakening of the spiritual heart and post traumatic spiritual growth. There’s a beautiful study by Tsai and colleagues Tsai. They show that for 75% of Vets, at the very moment that PTSD is present, and the flashbacks and the sleeplessness and the anxiety, there is concomitant live in that same instant, meaningful growth. We are built to grow through trauma. We are built, as the chief of chaplains, General Tom Soldier, says, to be made more inside. It is the truth that in the worst moments of our lives, we are invited to grow the most.
Phil Stieg: So my last question, we haven’t offended somebody. They actually think that maybe spiritual growth would be good for themselves. How do they get started? Read your book?
Lisa Miller: Well, they’re certainly most invited to read “The Awakened Brain.” And there are practices in there, that help people to awaken their natural spirituality. You know Phil, one of my most cherished mentors was the late Dr. Gary Weaver. And he worked with court referred boys. He’d been a therapist for young people for 36 years. And he felt his call was to help those boys who third time before the judge in Salt Lake had a choice you go to adult prison now or you go out to the Moab, the deep desert with Dr. Weaver. And there he shared with them a very simple, beautiful practice in the language of life that awakened their brain. Could we try it? Would you be open to a brief practice?
Phil Stieg: Sure.
Lisa Miller: Good. This is a 90 second practice, and I honor the late Dr. Gary Weaver, who gave that to us. Now. So I’m going to invite you to just close your eyes, take five breaths, clear out the inner space. …
I invite you to set before you a table in your inner chamber. This is your table. And to your table, you can invite anyone, living or deceased, who truly has your best interest in mind. Anyone, living or deceased, who truly has your best interest in mind. And with them all sitting there, ask them if they love you. And now you may invite your higher self, the part of you that is so much more than anything that you have or don’t have, you may have done or not done your true, eternal higher self and ask you if you love you. And now, finally, you may invite your higher power however you know, whatever words are yours, your higher power, and ask them if they love you. With all of those people sitting there right now, what do they need to tell you now? What do they need to share? What do you need to know? When you’re ready, I invite you back. This is your counsel. They are always there for you.
Phil Stieg: Lisa, thank you for that. And I hope that our listeners also found that personally challenging
Well, having been raised in the actually, my parents wanted me to be a minister when I grew up, and I used so many four-letter words, and I realized that I have a different calling. But now I’ve translated my four letter words into love, and that sort of thing
Lisa Miller: “Heal” … that’s four letters … “Good”
Phil Stieg: The positive four letter words.
Phil Stieg: Dr. Lisa Miller, thank you for both sharing personal experiences and also the science of your life in guiding us through both achieving awareness, but also awakening of awareness. Thank you so much for spending time with us.
Lisa Miller: It’s an honor and a deep, deep joy, Phil. Thank you.