Dr. Lisa Miller and the Neuroscience of Spirituality

Last updated October 18, 2022

Whether it’s meditation or a walk, reading a religious text or saying a prayer, there are many ways to tap into the power within and lead an inspired life. New York Times best-selling author and psychologist Dr. Lisa Miller shows us how. 

“We all have the neural wiring for awakened awareness,” writes clinical psychology professor Dr. Lisa Miller in her latest book The Awakened Brain

Dr. Miller is founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University and this timely journey through the science of spirituality shows us how we all  have the inbuilt capacity to enhance mental and emotional well-being and live a life filled with greater meaning and contribution. 

Drawing on decades of research and her own deeply personal journey, her words are a hopeful and refreshing conversation that will resonate with even the most sceptical among us.

Many of us remain quite fearful of the future as the scaffolding of the old world has come tumbling down and everything we thought we knew has crumbled around us. As parents and providers we need a whole new deck of cards to guide us and our children back to a more gentle and better way of living.

Potential of the Mind

woman in doorframe contemplating life

Recent data has highlighted what many of us predicted since the onset of the pandemic. Gen Z (young people aged 9-24) are suffering deeply with, what Dr. Lisa Miller terms, “diseases of despair” which are anxiety, depression, addiction and suicidality—all at epidemic levels now. So much so that in 2021 the mental health status of youth in the U.S. was escalated to a national crisis by the U.S. surgeon general.

What’s more, national polls in the U.S. have shown that this same generation are the least religious of all.  

“But what I am describing here is not a faith-based connection—but a spiritual one,” Dr. Miller qualifies. In The Awakened Brain, she outlines how twenty-five years of hard research data is showing that having a spiritual core (or believing in some form of higher power) is the single most powerful factor for preventing these diseases of despair. 

While the scientific findings are new, these inner spiritual paths have carried our ancestors through extremely challenging times in their own lives. But they have been lost to our generation. 

Cultivating Your Own Awakened Brain

This is awakened awareness. And it is an ethical imperative of teachers, parents and communities to nurture each child’s innate spirituality.  

“When I was younger I was taught how to get what I wanted and how to set goals and achieve them. Yes, this is important, but it is just one thin slice of what we need,” says Dr. Miller.

Life is not an inert stage in which we set up our personal drama. It’s a highly intelligent dynamic and now in this post-industrial culture our eyes are shut to this grand symphony. We have to learn to talk in a new way.

Our collective discourse must become full of spiritual questions such as, what inspires you to believe in something bigger than yourself?

What is the greatest hope you have lingering and surging from your heart? These are the questions we need to ask our children, she ponders.

The many benefits of cultivating a spiritual practice are obvious to those with experience. But Dr. Miller believes it’s a pursuit too long dismissed by sceptics and scientists. 

Hard Science and Spirituality

man with arms out wide during sunset-Marcio Binow Da Silva-iStock

“Science cannot prove spirituality. The Western world’s deep commitment to science remains an archaic notion from the 20th century,” says Dr. Lisa Miller.

In medicine we often know that something works before we have a clue about how it works. Take aspirin, penicillin and general anaesthetics for instance—all found to be effective treatments for inflammation, pain, infection, etc.—before science could explain the mechanism through which they were effective.

Science is a lens. When we aim this tried and true lens at the impact of lived spirituality on flourishing and well-being, the outcomes are awe inspiring as we see how life starts to unfold from narrow achieving awareness to an inspired guided life that is perceived through awakened awareness.

Life isn’t a mail-order catalogue. We don’t send our attention out and then get the goods or the answers we ordered. Spiritual awareness is a stance, not a transaction. There is no guarantee that we’re going to get what we want. Yet despite the uncertainty, we become aligned with the force of life and we know we are in the right place. 

This transformation is not just for the greatest meditators. It is available to every one of us if we can just tune into it. We need to cultivate our natural spiritual capacity. Once we do, we begin to perceive the deeper truer nature of life. 

Across humanity we find magnificently vivid and diverse expressions of spiritual life, told in varied languages, stories and symbols and experienced in ceremony, ritual, transcendent practice and other sacred ways of coming together. 

Real World Benefits

Dr. Miller’s scientific career began as a journey toward understanding the protective benefits of spirituality. Her early research had shown that spirituality is deep in our nature, in our brains and inside us. 

But now, there is a more descriptive way of defining what it means to be spiritual. And with this comes an incredible opportunity to be the “trail angels” guiding others on their journey. 

“This deep relational spirituality lives in all of us and it’s free. The very same way of being that creates a healthy, interconnected brain generates the most interconnected state of humanity and all life,” says Dr. Miller. 

“The awakened brain enables us to see our connections to others and to earth. And it guides us, even requires us, to live in a way that supports that connection.”

In essence, each and every moment we have a choice of how we wish to see ourselves in the world. 

“We can live chasing goals and rewards, lost in worries and regrets. Or we can awaken to the true fabric of the world, an evolving tapestry that we both behold and help create, in which every thread matters and no strand stands alone,” notes Dr. Miller.

We can live in isolation. Or we can awaken to the common knowing and communication among all living beings, and to a deep, felt alignment with the source of consciousness.

Related: The Importance of Wellness and Spirituality Retreats

Related: 7 Ways to Improve Your Spiritual Wellness

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