Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is the New York Times bestselling author of The Spiritual Child (Amazon, Bookshop) and a professor in the clinical psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the founder and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program in spirituality and psychology, and has held over a decade of joint appointments in the department of psychiatry at Columbia medical school.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Lisa about happiness, health, and spirituality.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Lisa: Each morning I start by igniting my Awakened Brain, which I consider to be a kind of neural docking station of spirituality. This can be achieved in all kinds of ways—meditation, yoga, a deep breathing exercise, jotting a few sentences down in a gratitude journal—but the method that resonates most for me is one in which I take a moment of quiet and bring my awareness to the perception that I am one with the universe, loved, held and guided by our higher power, and thus, never alone.
Then I begin sending love to all living beings around our home; I visualize the ducks and geese, and trees, and even the otter out there on the river behind my house.
In this way, I am prepared to offer G-d an opening prayer and give thanks for the sun and air, earth and water, the forces of growth and renewal of which we are all a part. And only then do I make my requests: I ask for all the usuals—health, wholeness, love and guidance for our family and friends, and for the animals and other living organisms which I consider myself privileged to share this earth with.
Everything throughout the day, the difficult colleague at work, the dog not going inside, my teenage children spending too much money, and all the larger life decisions that we make in a day are shaped by this Awakened Awareness.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I wish that someone had warned me, whether a doctor, psychologist, parent or teacher, that just like clockwork you are going to face a tough depression around sophomore year of college. The “sophomore slump,” we call it. I wish someone could have explained that this depression would likely not be psychopathology, nor would it reflect a medical illness, but rather it would be situational, and most importantly, temporary. Like roughly two-thirds of young adults, depression will be part of a life-changing existential struggle to figure out the nature of life itself. The developmental depression coming your way is part of laying the foundation for the rest of your life, and it can be anticipated, mitigated, and leveraged into a more fulfilling engagement with life.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
The answer here is twofold. Together with my colleagues at Columbia medical school, we were studying the neuroanatomical correlates of spirituality. Meaning, we wanted to know if there were physically identifiable differences in the brains of spiritually engaged versus non-spiritually engaged people.
Now, before we ran the study, I already had a strong hunch that there would be a meaningful association between sustained personal spirituality and cortical thickness in the brain (i.e. strength), but as you might suspect, scientists are not allowed to submit their “hunches” for peer review—and for good reason. Such lines of inquiry can lead to confirmation bias that spoils the data.
But often over the course of my career, I’ve found that these intuitive suspicions have often turned out to be true, and have, with time, become welcome, pleasant surprises, even if I then have to back them up with hard science.
In this case, the science bore out to be true: two years after my initial hunch, our research found that there are broad and pervasive regions of cortical thickness that go hand in hand with a sustained spiritual awareness. That spiritual engagement and awareness produced a visibly stronger brain—better insulated from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression—was a jaw dropping discovery, and a sacred moment all the same.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
The quiz identifies me as an Upholder, which feels right. Some might think that, because of the nature of my research that I might be a Rebel or a Questioner, but in reality, the work that I do in fact “upholds” what I already, intuitively have felt to be true, in my life, and in the world at large. The science is merely my way of confirming that.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
While not an interference, I find, like many people might, that traveling sharpens my Awakened Awareness. Traveling is an excellent way to tap into this spiritual perception of life. When you travel, there are always surprises, detours, or changes of course. Trail Angels appear in the form of a stranger to change your flat tire, or a fascinating seat mate on an airplane who gives you an idea for something you had already been thinking about. This kind of thing happens to me often. Unexpected obstacles and tricky situations show that “adversity” is often mis-recognized as synchronicity, which can bump us into better alignment with life, if only we are open to and anticipating it.
On the road, it is clear that we do not control life, we do not really know what is coming next. The Achieving Awareness driven by strategy and tactics can break down. We make on a voyage when we are in a two-way dance with life, we can embrace a vital dialogue with life. This is the stance of what I call Quest: a way of living, a discovery that we bring home to regular life at the office or carpool pick up. Quest is a way of living in a dynamic relationship with life.
I recall as a child living in Europe for the my third grade year. I could not speak a word to the other children in Belgium and France, but we definitely connected and played for hours in the park. I could feel the hue of their spirit, knew who they reminded me of back home.
Humans definitely do not control life, we are in a dialogue with the G-d, or the living force in and through the world. How can we engage our Awakened Brain to start dialoguing? Simply ask the question, “What is life showing me now? What does my deep inner wisdom say about that?
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
It is a prayer that I say before any important moment, “G-d please work through me here and now to serve you in love.” I pray before I do anything important. I pray it out loud on behalf of my family before meals, and before I give a talk or write a difficult paper.
Then its not just the Achieving Awareness in me, shoulder to the wheel, pushing hard, working alone. Instead through Awakened Awareness I start to perspective, there is a force of life, spirit, working through use. I am grateful for the novel insights or type of words that come.
Invite in spirit to direct the moment, and I am delighted by the right loving, guiding or healing, message appears as needed for the people in the room.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
His spirit and deep knowing were held in the stories of his book, conveyed through his language of immediacy. Suddenly I realized that my entire life I had been in a type of epistemological exile—and that I just discovered my intellectual homeland.
Foremost I was delighted by acknowledgement of the greatest sacred force in life, Dass was clear about his view that being cut off from spiritual awareness is a form of mental illness. He held out the possibility that cultivating transcendent awareness could be healing, perhaps the antidote to mental suffering.
After all the books that I had read in high school comporting a latent secular materialism, I felt like someone finally made sense. Dass set my spirit free.
He lived authentically. His presence on the page was pure and enlivening.
Dass and I did have one difference in our paths, that I fully honor on both sides. He left academia to discover deep truth. My path is different, I am a woman, career academic, and a mother. I find my truth in the witness of spirit through my children, the portrait of numbers in science, and the thrilling experience of sharing the science of spirituality to see it awaken people! Were the problem sited by Doss real, yes. And our times are so different, he opened the door amidst radical secular materialism. I have chosen to make my home in the middle of society, to see the sacred in my children, the animals in our backyard, and all of every day life.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Yes! Depression is a gateway to Awakening. For the majority of people, depression can be engaged as a “knock at the door” for growth and expanded awareness. Depression signals that we are out of alignment with the deep spiritual nature of life. Yesterday that may have been ok. Today however, given your inherent trajectory of growth, it is not a choice, you must deepen further to connect with spirit or G-d for the next phase of service.
Honoring the call of depression can start with asking the simple question: “What is life telling me now?” and, “What does my inner wisdom say about it?” Reflect and imagine, offer a prayer or meditation, serve another living being, guide yourself, a colleague or a friend in a spiritual visualizations (as in The Awakened Brain), pay attention to synchronicities including sudden encounters with people or an animal. Depression grab this moment to grow your spiritual awareness. Depression is the chance of your lifetime.