Is it possible to see yourself and the world anew, from a broader perspective, honoring a deep “inner knowing” that we all possess? Lisa Miller makes a powerful case for it in The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.
The title sounds New-Agey. The book is anything but.
The author, Lisa Miller, holds joint appointments in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School. She is the founder and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program in spirituality and psychology. Her research has been published in more than a hundred peer-reviewed medical journals.
The Awakened Brain begins with a friendly tour through her research, and that of others in the field, showing a distinct and quantifiable relationship between depression and spirituality. Here’s the short version: people with the same risk factors for depression, in terms of genes and environment, but with different spirituality profiles, experience very different (and scientifically predictable) outcomes. You’re less likely to be depressed if spirituality is a big part of your life. This seems like an obvious proposition to me, but it is new in the field of scientific/medical research on depression and possible treatments for depression.
Spirituality in these studies is not limited to regular church-going. It is characterized, instead, as “a deeply felt and perceived connection with a higher power or a sacred world – a sense of engagement and relationship, such as asking God or Source for guidance in times of struggle”. This deep sense of connection to a higher power often goes hand in hand with altruism and care for others.
The science-y part of the book is great, but what gives this book richness and depth (for me) are the stories Miller shares from her clinical practice and her own life. There’s Iliana, a teenager whose beloved father has died and who has now barricaded the door against her mother and grandmother. Jerry is a city engineer in his early sixties who attempted suicide in response to his leukemia diagnosis. For Kathleen, a stay-at-home mom with two children at home, her worst fear has come to pass: her husband has left her (and their family) for another woman. Miller herself despairs as she struggles with infertility.
Miller sees Iliana, Jerry, and Kathleen emerge from depression as they grow spiritually, not simply in response to traditional treatments for depression such as medication and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Miller’s most beautiful conclusions about “an inspired life” go beyond her own research and tap deep into her personal life experiences. What she wants for all of is an “awakened brain”:
When we engage our awakened awareness, we make use of different parts of our brain, and we literally see more, integrating information from multiple sources of perception. Instead of seeing ourselves as independent makers of our path, we perceive ourselves as seekers of our path. We look across a vast landscape and ask, What is life showing me now? This awakened awareness allows us to perceive more choices and opportunities available to us, feel more connected with others, understand the relationships between events in our lives, be more open to creative leaps and insights, and feel more in tune with our life’s purpose and meaning.
In awakened awareness, we don’t lose or forsake our goals. But we take off the blinders. We surrender our tight grip on a goal. We understand that life is a dynamic force that we can attune to and interact with. It’s no longer me against the world, or me treading upon the world, but me hearing what life has to say, aware that life is meeting me where I am. I still have wishes and desires and goals, I still experience disappointment and hurt – but I lean into the flow of life, paying attention to where doors open and close.
As a result of this awakened awareness, our eyes move to meaningful events. In achieving awareness, the stranger who starts talking to us on the bus might be annoying or intrusive, or just invisible. In awakened awareness, we might hear what he says – and even see how it’s relevant to our own lives. Life is no longer inert, a platform on which we try to have our needs and desires met. It’s a living, conscious dialogue that includes some interesting surprises. When we engage our awakened awareness, the hard things in our lives don’t go away. But we have the capacity to perceive our sorrow and struggle in a new way.
As I was reading this book, I began to hear the whispers of the universe all around me.