Spirituality & Mental Health: A New Perspective on Healing and Recovery

Link to the Episode

Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to another episode of Wellness Curated. As you know, the aim of this podcast is to help you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life. And this season, we’re focusing on spiritual well being. Today’s episode is something which is very, very special. We’re going to be talking about spirituality and mental health. Today we have the honour of having with us Dr Lisa Miller. She’s a New York Times bestselling author of ‘The Spiritual Child’ and ‘The Awakened Brain.’ She’s a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, and the founder and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. And I think it’s the first institute of its kind at an Ivy League. With over a decade of joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School, she’s recognised for her innovative research. Welcome to the chat, Dr Miller, and I’m so delighted to have you here with us.

Dr Lisa Miller: Anshu, I really want to applaud and honour what you’re doing—by putting right in the centre of the public square a very deep look into what wellness and well-being really is. And that naturally includes the spiritual core of the whole person. So I really think what you’re adding here to the public discussion is tremendously important. And you have a very special gift at translating science into how we should live our lives.

AB: Thank you. And that’s what you do. You translate science into how we should live our lives as well, which is why I am so excited about this chat. So, Dr Miller, there’s something that really interests me, and that is studying the role of spirituality in psychology with its impact on mental health. So talk to me about your journey, because this is what you do. And if I was to ever go back to school, this is what I want to know.

Dr LM: As you suggested Anshu, there are now hundreds of scientific peer-reviewed articles on the impact of human lived spirituality onto the rest of our lives. And when we look over meta analysis, which are studies of studies, when we look at studies conducted through the lens of MRI, genotyping, epidemiology, no matter which scientific method is chosen, there is a very strong, powerful, life changing effect of lived spirituality. Lived spirituality makes us healthier, helps us thrive, and even contributes to relational bonding and ethics. But perhaps the greatest impact of lived spiritual life is on mental health diagnoses. We have published in top peer reviewed journals, and as you know, for an article to be published in a scientific journal, two or three top scientists review that article two or three times, without knowing who the authors are. It’s a very fair, impartial way of evaluating the strength of science. And in top peer-reviewed scientific journals, our lab and fellow labs have shown that a strong personal spirituality is 80% protective against addiction: to drugs, to alcohol, to gaming, to Internet use. Behavioural addictions, substance addictions are forfeits less likely to plague us and our children. More importantly, because they are the ones immersed in this Internet culture. If there’s a strong virtual life, there’s nothing in the clinical social sciences as profoundly protective against the diseases of despair, addiction, depression and even suicide. The rate of death by suicide in post- industrial countries rivals the rate of death by auto accident as the number one killer of youth. I mean, before, in some sort of terrible horror movie, I could have never fathomed this 20 years ago. And yet this is what our greatest public health concern is for 18 through 25 year olds.

AB: So you talk about lived spirituality. Can you quickly explain that to us? 

Dr LM: So scientists, of course, do not define spirituality. We are not theologians. We don’t talk about how the universe is constructed in an ultimate sense. But we are excellent at using the lens of science to look onto lived human spiritual life. As a clinical scientist, we have the tools to look at lived spirituality and what that, in its daily lived essence, looks like. And what we found is that—there is in every single human being on Earth, a spiritual brain. There’s one spiritual brain, and we all have it. It does not matter if we are Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Jain, whatever our faith or tradition may be; there is one spiritual brain, and every human being on Earth has it. Now, of course, there’s natural variability, as there is with music or language. And of course, when we engage our spiritual life, we can strengthen our innate capacity, strengthen the brain. But the most powerful, perhaps moving finding is that every single being is born a naturally spiritual being. What do we mean by that? It’s a very big claim. And more precisely, what do we mean by spiritual? Well, a twin study is a study that can be applied to any human capacity. Our height and weight, our IQ, our temperament can all be looked at through a twin study to engage to what extent is this capacity innate from the day we’re born? And to what extent is this capacity cultivated by our environment, our parents, our community? Well, it turns out by way of comparison that our intelligence IQ is 60% innate. Anshu, you were born a very intelligent baby. Environmentally, 40%, so you cultivated your mind and read widely. Well, the capacity through which we experience spiritual life is one third innate; it is indeed hardwired in every one of us. And yet two thirds environmentally formed means that our parents and grandparents, our community, those who teach us about spiritual practice and religion, all weigh in to shape the spiritual core. Now, religion, on the other hand, is a gift. It’s a gift of our parents, our grandparents, our culture, our community. We might choose a religion and immerse ourselves in it. Religion is 100% environmentally transmitted. It is a gift, absolutely. But spirituality is innate. They are two different things. Although they go hand in hand… Spirituality and religion do go hand in hand for about 70% of people. But every single one of us is a spiritual being. One third innate, two thirds environmentally formed, means that our choices in the environment we give our children, and as adults our choices to precipitate a specific environment, right action, inner environment through meditation or prayer, spiritual mind, body integration—all of our choices of inner and outer environment are the two thirds embraced that mould the spiritual core. 

Anshu, you asked a very important question when you say what exactly do we mean by innate spirituality? Yes, we all have it, but what is it? Well, when we looked very closely at twin studies, we saw there were two dimensions of human lived spirituality that are in every one of us. The first is a capacity for a transcendent connection to feel perhaps a oneness with the spirit in and through life or the universe. For some people, it is a dialogue with God, the Higher Power, HaShem, Allah, Jesus, whoever their understanding of the Higher Power is. But however we might conceptualise that is downstream from the universal transcendent connection. We have a neuro docking station to be in a transcendent relationship with the deep, true force source in and through life.

The second dimension of innate lived spirituality is also a form of relational spirituality. It is the presence of this sacred force in our love for one another, as sisters, as brothers, the person on the street, my boss—who might be frustrating to me… The capacity for transcendence and imminence, both are forms of transcendent awareness. This is our birthright.

AB: Wonderful. So, Dr Miller, I want to ask you, how do you find that spiritual practices play a role in your work as a transformational expert? 

Dr LM: So I have found that when people come to treatment or when people are doing personal development work, or when people are forming communities or organisations, the spiritual dimension is not just one amongst a number of dimensions. It is actually the core of the whole person. The spiritual dimension is the higher order organising principle from which follows moral, ethical, and social understandings of who we are. It’s implicit in every single exchange. So it is my view that when we awaken, when we choose to awaken our natural spiritual awareness, the whole day unfolds differently, whether it is through meditation or prayer or a nature based practice. When we awaken our natural spiritual capacity, the next person who comes around the corner is engaged entirely differently. We are deeply aware of the highest organising principle of our perception that we are souls on Earth. We are beings of infinite dignity and worth. That’s human beings and fellow living beings. Every animal is an emanation of source as well. All life, every bit of life. 

AB: My dog Hector is sitting here next to me, listening to that. I totally agree.

Dr LM: I so wish that Hector could meet Penny. Maybe she’ll show up and we can introduce them. That would be lovely.

AB: You talked about your role in helping with depression and addiction. So talk to me about some of the key findings, and how you found that spirituality has helped people in these areas.

Dr LM: Anshu I think one of the most important findings is that many times, in fact, over two thirds of the time… so the majority over two thirds of the time when we face depression, it is not simply a form of a medical disorder. There is a different type of despair, a different type of struggle, which has a deep existential tangle. ‘What is the nature of reality?’ ‘Who am I and what is my purpose on Earth?’ ‘What is the ultimate construction of our universe?’ These deep existential questions that go hand-in-hand with coming of age. We, of course, have a terrible nickname that’s very shallow called ‘sophomore slump’ in the United States. It’s not. It is a deep spiritual awakening which we know through the lens of science. It’s marked by a surge, a biological clock. ‘What is my purpose, my meaning?’ ‘What is nature?’ ‘Do we live in a moral universe?’ And this comes back again at midlife. ‘How have I spent my life?’ ‘Have I lived in keeping with my spiritual values?’ ‘What is my footprint, my spiritual footprint?’ And the third bridge is after coming into adulthood. Midlife is, of course, the bridge to being an elder. ‘What is my mark on this Earth?’ ‘How will I repair any damage I’ve done?’ ‘What love or wisdom might be opened?’

These are hardwired chapters. Any innate capacity has built in it an inherent arc, a teleology of development. So just as our face or hair or body changes with each decade of life, so too our interior spiritual capacity evolves. When we are evolving spiritually, very often the beckoning is a pain in the heart as a hunger, as an existential yearning. There is a developmental depression that is not a pathology, that is not a burden, a waste of time, time away from our career. Sidelining a developmental depression is a knock at the door to a spiritual awakening. And it is the most important work we do in every decade of life. Through the lens of our MRI studies, we have seen that people who recover from depression through a deepening of spiritual life and awakening, literally have a strengthening of the brain marked by a thickening of the cortex, processing power across our regions of perception, orientation, and deep reflection. 

AB: So are you telling me that in every decade of our life, we will have a developmental depression? And the reason it was less prevalent earlier than now, in the earlier generations than now, is because there was more spirituality? 

Dr LM: That walked us through these passages of spiritual emergence, so that we could inherit the next station of our contribution as parents, then at midlife, then as elders. There was a spiritual map of who we could be and evolve so as to care and love for those around us. That is completely absent in the public square in a post-industrial, radical materialist society. And I don’t just mean materialistic. I mean in the air and water of most of the post-industrial globe… In the air and water of post-industrial global culture—is a very depressogenic, harmful, painful, radical materialism. There is radical materialism in the air and water, and it is so present, we don’t even know it’s there. 

AB: And tell me a little bit about the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. It sounds fascinating.

Dr LM: Well, I hope that you will visit us, Anshu, when you next come to the States. 

AB: I will. I 100% will. Like I said, if I was ever to go back to college, that’s what I’m going to do.

Dr LM: Well, we would welcome you, and I would say that your show is exactly what many of our students hope to contribute. At the Spirituality and Mind Body Institute, we look at inner spiritual growth for outer change to our global culture. And students come from all over our beautiful globe. We have students from India, China, Europe, Latin America, and states everywhere. And what they share in common… They’re magnificently, exquisitely diverse in all ways. And what we share in common is a deep spiritual quest. 

AB: And why did you find it important to integrate spirituality into mainstream psychology and well being?

Dr LM: In my experience as a clinical psychologist and in my training through excellent top programs in clinical psychology, there was never a word about spiritual life. And yet when I went into hospitals and in-patient units, I could hear clear as day that patients were asking for spiritual connection, knowing that it was somehow tacit, never spoken, but forbidden. So the patients would pull me aside: “Dr Miller, will you come here?” And come here meant— ‘leave your office, walk down the hall, go into the kitchen, go into the back corner of the pantry, and stand in the pantry by the food and the pots and pans— “Dr Miller, will you pray with me?” 

I listened to the patients, and it was clear to me that when patients engaged spiritually, there was a brightness, there was a renewal, that the light was so strong that it overcame the prison house of the distortions of their ego. So whatever pain or pattern in life or trauma or injury had happened to their psyche, the power of spirit was far brighter, and they immediately would awaken. And truthfully, what was most moving was that patients would show equal and opposite behaviour to their diagnosis. There was a renewal which was directly diametrically opposed to their diagnosis. And I thought spirituality should be the hub of renewal and recovery. Now, of course, our ancient deep traditions have known this, but the Ice Age in 20th century science, the radical materialist Ice Age took away, it eviscerated the wisdom that has been in humanity through our faith traditions for thousands of years. And finally, now we’re saying, please, please come back. Our science is finally showing us that the spiritual heart, the spiritual core, renews. 

AB: How does spirituality, from the research that you’ve done, affect the overall mental health? 

Dr LM: We have seen through epidemiology that there is a profound protective benefit of spirituality against the diseases of despair, addiction, depression, suicide. In a published American Journal of Psychiatry article, we found that a strong spirituality is 75% protective. 75! There’s nothing else like that. No pill, no chemical has been found, that is 75% protective against recurrence. And that goes up to 90% when we are otherwise at high risk due to genetics, due to the family environment, where we learn depressogenic thinking; we are the worst, we always get the short end of the stick. Spiritual awareness, a strengthening of our natural awakened brain, is 90% protective against recurrence of depression when we are at high risk, at stress, in poverty, in conflict with our family. So when we look at a protective factor that is three, four times the magnitude of anything else we’ve seen in the clinical sciences, it is our ethical, healing responsibility to understand that profound protective benefit. So together. The Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia, in deep collaboration with our colleagues at Yale Medical School spent a full year developing a breakthrough methodology that took the dimension of human lived spiritual life, shown over a decade of research to protect against addiction, depression, suicide, and operationalised that, through a highly well documented process, a highly well precedented methodology. As an MRI study, we watched people live action, through the fMRI, the functional MRI that tracks blood flow while they engaged in a spiritual experience of the sort that is available to every human being, that is a transcendent relationship. And what we found was whether they were Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, spiritual, but not religious, they said, “Nature is my sacred temple.” The same neural correlates ran. And what those neural correlates showed us alongside their statement of their experience sounded like this. Here were the narratives of our participants inside the MRI, sharing their spiritual experience.

“I am walking down the street. I feel so demoralised. I feel like such a loser. I’ve just been turned down at eight out of ten medical schools. I’m never going to be a doctor like my mother and father. But then suddenly I see light in the leaves, and I know that God,” whatever their word is, higher power or force. “I know that my higher power has a plan for me, and I will be a healer in the way I am intended.” The pivotal reshuffling of meaning is not at the level of radical materialism. It’s not at the level of CBT or training. The radical reshuffling of meaning is a foundationally spiritual renewal. It is our capacity to use our awakened brain as a neurotoxin station for sacred spirit or source or consciousness, which reopens and reconfigures our understanding. I’ll give one more example. A woman [came up to me and] said, “we were going to be married. We dated for three years. I thought he loved me. I had a promise ring and an engagement ring.  And then the week before I graduated, he called it off. I was heartbroken. I’ve never felt so unlovable. I felt I will never love again. I felt so unappealing. But when I went home and sat by my grandparents, I saw their great love for me. And I felt the love of the sacred spirit. And I knew, yes, of course I’ll love again.” 

When these narratives run, we watched in the fMRI tracking blood flow distinct circuits in the brain, that time and time again were the same for every single person. One: the bonding network comes up online. There is blood flow through the bonding network. The second circuit is that we shift from a narrow bowling alley form of attention, dorsal attention…’I’ve got to have it.’ ‘He’s got to marry me.’ ‘I’ve got to get that school admission.’ ‘I’ve got to get that job.’ ‘I’ve got to get that…’ That addresses a much bigger, bottom-up ventral attention network where the lights come back on. Life is reanimated, and many people say a new direction pops. And then I realised, and then I knew. So which sections of the brain are engaged during spiritual experience, is not, of course, a claim of biological reductionism. We’re not saying that very 20th century view that somehow, just like a factory, the brain makes thoughts. In an industrial model and in industrial time, neuroscientists talked about the brain as producing—like packages on an assembly line—thoughts and ideas. Increasingly, neuroscientists are starting to conduct studies that show that the brain does not simply produce thought. The brain receives thought. The brain receives consciousness and spirit. 

And I’ll give you a beautiful example. There was a scientist who had two MRI machines, one for a traditional healer and one for the patient. These two MRI machines were separated by a great distance. They were in two separate buildings. As the traditional healer in her or his MRI started to engage with, you might use the word spirit or consciousness or universal mind, sacred source, a predictable pattern time and time again was seen on the fMRI, how the brain was being used within an instant. Here’s the remarkable finding—the patient showed the same pattern on the MRI, which means one thing: consciousness in two places. And it is time for science in this time of post-material, consciousness-based science to acknowledge and embrace source, who I call God, some call spirit, or consciousness. And healing is our engagement of source. 

AB: Okay, but how would you tie in spirituality with the traditional ways of dealing with mental health?

Dr LM: It’s very interesting, Anshu, that most psychotherapies have been conducted with implicit radical materialism, but the very same training could be enlivened with a foundational spiritual approach. So whether it is CBT or psychodynamic work or mindfulness that brings us to a point where we can engage the deep spiritual source, they can go hand-in-hand if the therapist is on a spiritual path. There is nothing in our traditional therapies that precludes spiritual awareness. It has simply been a limitation in the past for us therapists. And we now have a science that, beyond a shadow of a doubt says, we must include a foundational spiritual awareness in psychotherapy if we really want to help our patients evolve to their next station in life.

AB: Okay, so tell me, what are your daily spiritual practices? And for our viewers and our listeners, can you recommend some simple daily spiritual practices that they can incorporate into their lives to help with, say, mental health issues?

Dr LM: Anshu, may I have the joy of sharing a practice with you here now? 

AB: Of course. I’d love that. Thank you.

Dr LM: I’m going to invite us into an inner practice. It’s really only about 90 seconds. It involves closing our eyes, if you’d like, and clearing out first our inner space. With four breaths, I invite you in your inner chamber to set before you a table. This is your table. And to your table, you may 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 much more than anything you may have or not have, anything 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, spirit, God, whatever word is yours, and ask the ultimate source of life if they love you. And now, with all of these people sitting here right now, what do they need to let you know? What do they need to tell you now? What do they need to share? And when you’re ready, I’ll invite you back. This is your counsel, and they are always there for you. Who shows up may change depending on where we are in our journey. And we can ask our counsel what’s on our mind. This is your natural awakened brain. This is your birthright. 

AB: Wonderful. That was absolutely lovely. 

Dr LM: I want people to realise their extraordinary spiritual essence and then live through that deep perception. Because when we do, literally, it’s like a wormhole between universes. Life unfolds entirely differently. We’ve entered a different daily spiritual landscape, a different plane.

AB: Absolutely, absolutely. And my life completely changed when I started discovering my spirituality. But I want to ask you about something that, you know, apparently you worked with the US military through the Pentagon, so obviously you worked with individuals in very high stress situations. Can you give us some insight of how spirituality can help there, and what to use in that kind of a situation where people are going through extreme high stress?

Dr LM: Our natural spiritual awareness allows us to see and perceive that we are loved and held, guided and never alone. So when we choose to enter into our deep awakened awareness, where we know and feel we are loved, held, guided and never alone, we make a different decision. We feel guidance and know that is hard data. Because all of the logical machinations over data are only historical. Every choice that I make based on logic and empiricism, and I do love science, is based from today backwards. But if I can hold on to that while also integrating an awakened awareness, that form of perception, intuition, deep knowing, gut instinct, mystical experience, synchronicity, that is a form of prospective knowing, we need both. And very, very senior people across different fields share that they rely every bit as much, actually more so, on deep, receptive, intuition, synchronicity, mystical awareness, dreams. Every bit as much, in fact, more so than logic and empiricism, to make a big decision that, in the words of the chaplain in the Pentagon of the United States Army, is a divine appointment. When we know in our heart, when we feel deep guidance, that, no, we do not turn right today. Today we turn left. The Chief of Chaplains of the US Army talks about being stationed, he talks about a plan to get on the helicopter on the right. But his deep inner wisdom said, get in the helicopter on the left. And so he followed what he calls this guidance, this divine appointment to onboard this helicopter, taking off, as he quickly discovered, with three extremely injured soldiers. And as a chaplain, he was present to these three soldiers fighting for their life in prayer, in spiritual connection, in spiritually grounded hope and Anshu, all three soldiers lived. They may have lived because the chaplain listened to the guidance of the awakened heart. ‘Go left.’ You may have been planning to go right. You may have wanted to go right. You may have had instructions to go right. But there is no knowledge as powerful and predictive and important as the deep spiritual catch of an awakened or universal consciousness.

AB: That’s lovely. So now would you give us one takeaway which our listeners can go back with about the intersection of spirituality and mental health. 

Dr LM: Through the lens of clinical science, MRI studies, genotyping studies, long term epidemiological studies, the most profound protective factor against the diseases of despair is a personal spirituality. The most robust protective factor against depression is a strong personal spirituality. A personal spirituality is three to four times more protective against depression than anything else we have found in the clinical or social sciences. It is more important than our genes, it is more important than our parenting, it is more important than our economic situation. A strong spiritual awareness is radically protective against depression, three to four times the magnitude of anything else we have. If I told you there was a little pill that you can give to your kids so that they would be protected against the pandemic, the global pandemic for youth of depression, addiction and, sadly, suicide, wouldn’t any parent crumble this up in their breakfast? I wouldn’t even tell my kids. But this is how we’re built. This is our birthright to be spiritually awake. And when we do awaken our natural spiritual capacity, there is nothing in the clinical or social sciences as profoundly and as robustly protective against despair and depression.

AB: Wonderful. And I also discovered, by the way, that one of your books, ‘The Awakened Brain,’ is sitting… I have a pile of books by my bedside that I have to read. And that happened to be there, pure coincidence.

Dr LM: Exactly. Synchronicity! In The Awakened Brain, I share the science that shows every one of us has a naturally spiritual brain. Alongside stories of awakening and awakening in people who have gone on to be civic leaders and contributors only because they took with great seriousness the knock at the door of developmental depression that led to spiritual awakening. They found their deep, ultimate calling through a spiritual awakening that was potentiated in a time of great despair.

AB: Absolutely. So, at the end of every session, we do something called a rapid fire round. So a surprising way spirituality can affect the overall mental health of an individual.

Dr LM: Spirituality is present in every step we take. It is not only held in moments of practice or moments of service, it is in every exchange we make. It is there in the coffee shop, it is there on the bus ride, and it’s there when we deal with the person who most ruffles our feathers in life.

AB: Magnificent. One way spirituality can help curb stress and anxiety. 

Dr LM: When we use our awakened brain, we see and know that we are loved and held. There’s buoyancy. We will not fall through the abyss of a felt existential black hole. We are loved and held. And if we don’t know our next move, we can open our hearts, perceive a synchronicity, listen to a dream, notice who happened to give us a fresh bit of information and head down our spiritual path.

AB: Thank you, Dr Miller. We’ve had such a hugely informative chat. I’ve learned so much. My listeners have learned so much. Thank you so much for the chat. 

Dr LM: It is such a joy to be with you Anshu. Thank you for who you are and what you do for our global culture. It’s been a joy. Thank you.

AB: Thank you so much for being here with us today. And to my listeners, I hope you learned something new. I learned loads and I hope you enjoyed the show. Please press like if you enjoyed it and please invite your friends and family to subscribe to our channel. And also, I would love to hear from you so please send me an email at: Anshu@WellnessCurated.Life, about any questions or any topic suggestions that you might have. Thank you for being here with us today and see you next week.