Confronted by the growing realities of social disaffection, mental/emotional health challenges, polarization, and a distrust in institutions, Dr. Lisa Miller’s groundbreaking work at the intersection of psychology and spirituality attests to the central role religiosity and spiritual transcendence play in unlocking human flourishing.
Hello. I am so grateful to be here with you.
I have very long-standing, deep, loving ties in the LDS community and in particular in the Salt Lake area. To be here feels like coming home. Thank you. Thank you. Amazing. May I invite you to raise your hand? Maybe we’ll start with the right-hand. If you consider yourself to be a spiritual person. Yes. Perhaps your left hand, if you consider yourself to be a religious person. This, in many respects, is right here in this room, what society can be. It can be a place of open discussion and deep love and connection around our spiritual life. But 40 years ago, in good attempt to be inclusive, we tragically threw religious and spiritual life out of the public square.
With that, we actually became radically exclusive. We lost the deepest way of knowing one another. Great American pluralism—were you tell me about Christmas and I tell you about Hanukkah.
My dear friend tells me of Duwali or Ramadan where we knew each other in the deepest way. The second thing we lost was we threw the spiritual baby out with the bathwater and became a spiritually non-conversant society.
Well, 40 years is long enough for someone to grow up, have a child who grows up, and in the air and water, we now have something of a tidal wave. A tidal wave we’ve never faced before. It is a tidal wave of radical materialism. It’s only real if you can touch it. It’s only real if the five senses can perceive it. That has been to the great peril, the great peril of all generations, but particularly Gen Z. I share with you a science, a science on the centrality, the impact of spiritual life in our human journey and who we really are. As one more arrow in your quiver, because, of course, science does not prove spirituality. Science can hold up a mirror. Science can be, as a religious person, I would say, a form of witness onto the impact of spirituality in our lives. For many, many years, people said, I am very scientific. I only take to be true. That, which can be shown by science, what is this spirituality stuff? Others said, I am a deeply spiritual, perhaps spiritual and religious person. I don’t care what science has addressed or not addressed, shown or not shown.
I know this in my heart to be true. Now finally, science and spirituality can go hand in hand because science is a lens. It is only a lens. Whether it is a telescope, a microscope, an MRI study, science is a lens that can point at a broad host of questions, including the impact of our lived, spiritual, and religious life onto the rest of our lives. This roadmap, I hand to you with great love, my sisters, my brothers, in your journey, in your walk and as you teach and guide and heal fellow travelers. Let’s start at the beginning. If you ask a scientist, Hey, what’s the difference between spirituality and religion? A scientist will point to a twin study. We look at twins raised together, twins raised apart, and factor out commonality as a function of genes and environment. By way of comparison, temperament, and if you’ve seen more than one newborn baby, you’re well aware—who here might say that temperament, whether we’re introverted, extroverted, laid back, tightly wound, has an inborn quality, a heritable quality? Yes, indeed. Temperament is half inborn and half environmentally formed. I’m a mother of three. And when the center child, who goes by center child, at seven, that was made clear, was a tiny baby.
She woke up four times a night for 18 months. And you know that dear little sound, I’d walk across the house and sooth the baby. So the baby is now 20. She sleeps through the night. She’s allowed me to share with open heart. She can be at times a bit anxious. Temperament is inborn, half environmentally formed. The capacity through which we experience our spiritual life is our birthright. There is an inborn, heritable, in every single human being on Earth, capacity for spiritual life. Even more specifically, as scientists do not define spirituality, but rather examine with our lens threads of lived human spiritual life, it is quite specifically, each and every one of us is endowed with a capacity to be in a deep, sacred, transcendent relationship. We are born with the ability to be in relationship with who I call God, our higher power. Spirituality is innate. And just as we are born with the capacity to feel God’s presence, to know we are loved, held, guided, and never alone. Two, that is the same capacity through which we can feel God’s presence in our love for one another as fellow human beings. Both are forms of relational spirituality.
Religion, whether I am LDS, Jewish, Hindu, Catholic, is a great treasure, a gift. The sacred text, the ceremonies, the community is the gift of my parents and grandparents, my community. It is environmentally transmitted. For 70% of people in our country, religion is part of the rich embrace, the two-thirds embrace that shapes the one-third innate spiritual core. One-third in the spiritual core, it is all of ours, but a two-thirds embrace. Our pastor, priest, amon, Rabbi, our 10,000 exchanges by the school locker, those with whom we walk and share our lives all way into shape, the spiritual core. And so what you do here today that engages both forms of our birthright, strengthens moment by moment, our spiritual core. Now, any human profound experience, which is innate, has a neurodocking station. This is your spiritual brain. There is one spiritual brain on Earth and everyone has it. Of course, we can strengthen it in various components, and there’s human variability as in capacity for music or song. This is indeed our birthright. As we strengthen and practice our spiritual life, whether through prayer or meditation, right action, service, deep connection in nature, fellow living beings, we strengthen, literally thicken like a tree, the cortex and these broad and pervasive regions in red, the parietal, precunious, occipital, which means we see into life through our red brain in a deeper, more profound way.
Again, whether through prayer or meditation, this is your birthright. And as we grow older, we choose the two-thirds embrace to devote ourselves to deep reflection, to feeling the presence of God, our higher power. In the the Awakened Brain, I share all of these science articles, which I’ll share with you here today. I’ll share with them in our brief time in aggregate. You can go on Google Scholar or Medline and pull up in The Awakened Brain all of these studies. Because not only is science a form of witness, science is a very powerful form of institutional transformation. When we silenced spiritual life in the public square, when we disintegrated the spiritual core from life, we left ourselves without a voice, whether in our boardrooms or our community rooms or our classrooms, where each and every person in their own voice was free, pluralistically, to speak from the spiritual core. The science in the awakened brain, given the crisis we now face, is an invitation to put the spiritual core back into our communal places in a way that is inclusive, constitutional. Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion nor prohibiting the free expression thereof.
Yes. Yes. This is our right. This is our right. And with the silencing of the disintegration of the spiritual core, there has been an ascension of the diseases of despair. The decrease and fall-off in family-faith observants’ personal, spiritual life is statistically concomitant. They go hand in hand with the escalation in the diseases of despair. It is to the peril of our lives and our children’s lives that we allow the tidal wave to subsume them. The rate of death by suicide rivals the rate of death by auto accident as the number one killer in high school. That now presses down into middle school. We’ve never seen as elevated rates of addiction and depression. Normally, up until the past 5, 10 years, we’d say, Okay, we can locate at the level of each person a diagnosis. He’s depressed. She struggles with addiction. But when half of Gen Z in our country is struggling with a disease of despair, I think we need to return to the ecology in the air and water, and bring back our spiritual core. Yes. Here is my empirically grounded hope. It is not an aspiration. It is seen as is written into our very being why we have reason for hope.
Any in a capacity has an arc of development. If perhaps anyone can join me. One day I turned about 42, I’m now 57. One day I turned 42, and within two weeks I couldn’t read. I had to get glasses. There was an arc. I might suddenly have gray hair. Remember going home for summer vacation after freshman year of high school, coming back as a sophomore, and half the class had grown four inches? With any capacity as an arc will so too our inborn capacity for spiritual life surges in adolescence. And you know this through the beauty of your faith traditions. Every faith tradition on earth marks coming of age, physically, puberty, with an augmented capacity for spiritual life, confirmation, bar and bar mitzvah, the inipi, the sweat lodge. It has been known to us for millennium that as we grow and come of age, there is a surge. It is marked by science in longitudinal twin studies through which we see a 50% increase in the heritable contribution, which means a biological clock, a surge. Bring suddenly, I want to know, what is my purpose? I don’t mean, will I be a teacher or a doctor?
I mean ultimate purpose and the hunger of the heart to connect and the exquisite capacity of the adolescent to be doggedly chasing truth. As so many of our contributors today have highlighted, we are built to quest an adolescence. In this time of great discovery, seeking the me and not me with the resonance of my heart of spiritual truth. Everything you ever told me, mom and dad and grandma and grandpa, I want to own that authentically in my heart. I want to take this as my compass. When this process is supported, when we walk by the side of adolescents, emerging adults, and spiritual, individuals, emergence, the spiritual core is formed. It is formed for the rest of our lives. Of course, we can step back and forward. We can have times of great struggle and doubt. The pathway has been paved. The neurons have been myelinated. We can always get back. And when the spiritual core is strong, we now know there is nothing in the clinical or social sciences as profoundly protective against the diseases of despair, as a strong spiritual core. A high school student who says, I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty.
When I have a tough decision to make, I ask, What really does my higher power want me to do? Nature is a sacred home. I feel one with the sanctity of life. My family is a spiritual home. Daily spiritual awareness, that teen, a standard deviation above as compared to below—I mean, I don’t really know what you’re talking about, is at 80% decreased relative risk of addiction. Going through the window of risk, the trailhead for a lifetime course of struggle. 60% less likely to be deeply depressed. Every teen gets depressed because as our capacity boots up, it can feel like a half empty glass of spirituality, existential struggle. But this developmental depression is a knock at the door to cultivate a spiritual response to suffering. What God do you ask of me now? What in my silence do I feel life is showing me now? What in my prayer do I feel is being revealed and asked so that I might inherit the next mantle of my journey, my contribution? Develop mental depression is a knock at the door to spiritual awakening. This is understood, of course, in all sacred texts. The moment of greatest darkness, we are hardwired to move through to an awakening.
And when this is built, a spiritual response to suffering, the rest of our lives, we gain protective benefit against the deep downward spiral. 70% less likely to jump out a second-store window at a party, drive 90 miles an hour. And in a meta-analysis, which is a study of all good studies, 2,000 tragically completed suicides, and 5,000 matched controls, we’re at 62% decreased relative risk of completed suicide. When we have a strong spiritual core, and that goes up to 82% when our spiritual life is shared. As we feel the presence of our higher power God, we feel that love in one another, right here. If I told you there’s a little pill and you can give this to your teen, your Gen Z. And in a hard time at 40 or 50, you can take this little pill. And you’re at 82 % protected against completed suicide. As we go through a pandemic, not by COVID or cancer does Gen Z die, it is by suicide. Any parent would take this if it were like melatonin or vitamin C. This is our birthright. This is who we are. And when we strengthen the spiritual core, we realize our whole composition.
Now, here is where the rubber hits the road. Three thousand people, as we come out of COVID, as we come at times through very difficult times and my heart breaks for what this week has brought. Three thousand people, everyone in this study meets criteria for Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Well, as you go out the X-axis, there’s more struggle and more suffering and more sleeplessness. As you go up the Y-axis, those are units of growth. More struggle, more growth. More struggle, more growth. Until we’re so flooded, we need support to grow, post-traumatic growth. The predictors of growth, access to the experience, putting it in words, sharing it in a group, and then shining the light of God, one’s higher power onto the very experience. As in so many ways our fellow contributors have brought forward today, shining the light of what I call our awakened awareness, our innate capacity for transcendent relationship onto that very experience. Our spiritual core grows stronger. The hardest times in our life can be times of post-traumatic spiritual growth. Just as developmental depression as a knock at the door for an awakening to a deeper connection to God, our higher power.
Post-traumatic spiritual growth is a crossing. And on the other side, we have built a deep connection with God, with the deep spiritual level of life, which we through inspiration, bring into dialog with our distillation, discernment. And when we have questions, we are discerning, send back the question with a request for guidance to be loved and held. Inside every one of us is a table at which there is an empiricist, a logician. And you know I love science. And so too there is a mystic. And there is an intuitive and a skeptic. And the skeptic can actually propel faith and inquiry when everyone has a seat at the table. But what our culture needs to know immediately is that the skeptic is not the bancer at the door. Skeptic, the skeptic cannot throw out the mystic and the intuitive. Yes, that’s right. There is nothing rigorous and certainly nothing scientific about a priori throwing out the deep journey, the deep inquiry. We are built as naturally spiritual beings. And when we engage this awareness, our red brain can be detected to give off a certain wavelength. This wavelength has a name, high amplitude alpha. When we deepen our spiritual connection through suffering, the wavelength is even stronger and more pronounced.
And in fact, after a few rounds of developmental depression, the knock at the door and terrible pain that yields and opens into the light, we start to have a new set point, a new normal of high amplitude alpha. High amplitude alpha is the very same wavelength that goes by another name in another field. It is Schumann’s resonance. It is the constituent wavelength of life from the earth’s crust up one mile all the way around the world, the spiritually engaged brain vibrates at the same frequency as creation. We reenter the oneness, the at oneness, where we join life. This kingdom, this sacred kingdom. When the spiritual core is built, it is there the rest of our lives. 18, 38, 58, 58. Again, we may struggle. And in fact, it turns out that the emergence with puberty and emerging adulthood is the first of three bridges. We come back at midlife, I’m sure. We come back. And this time, we may not ask, What is my meaning? What is my purpose? But have I lived my meaning? What is my spiritual footprint? And again, the third bridge, as we cross to elderhood, What will I leave? What is my legacy?
I don’t mean my name on the building, I mean my living legacy and what might be fixed and renewed. I’d like to share with you now a practice that was shared with me by one of my dear colleagues here in Salt Lake, part of the B-Y-U community, Dr. Gary Weaver, the late Dr. Gary Weaver, who worked very closely with young people who may have felt distant from their spiritual path. He worked with people who watched torchbearers who didn’t always walk the walk. The light was true, the fire was true, but the torchbearer was human, foibled, sometimes moderately foibled, sometimes quite egregiously foibled. And his work was to help the young adult have a direct connection with the flame. And so he did two things. The first is he took his patients, his young patients, went out into the Moab. Together, they trecked and no one sat down for dinner until the last one had crossed the line, relational spirituality. Then he shared this practice, which I’d be so honored to share with you now. I’ll let you know that my students at Columbia University for many years were only allowed to work with me if they first went out into the Moab with Dr.
Weaver and the Court-referred boys. They’d say, Do I have to go? I’d say, No, only if you want to work with me. This was a practice he shared, so I now share it forward with you, thanking him as an invitation. I invite you to close your eyes if you’d like and take five breaths. I invite you to set before you a table. This is your table in your inner chamber. 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. Now, you may invite your higher self, the part of you that is so 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, God, whatever word is yours, however you know your higher power, and ask if they love you. Now, with all of these people sitting here right now, what do they need to share?
What do you need to know? What do they need to tell you now? When
you’re ready, I invite you back. This is your counsel, and they are always there for you. Who shows up may naturally change depending on where in your journey. You may travel and you might ask what’s on your heart. This is your birthright. This is your innate, awakened brain. Your awakened brain is yours. No one can ever take it away from you. Your capacity to have relational, transcendent awareness, to be in a sustained relationship with God and God’s presence through those in our lives. No matter who carries the torch, you have a direct connection to the flame. And messengers, well, we’re all only human. This is your birthright. I’d like to invite you to think of a young person you’ve known or perhaps someone you admire any decade with tremendous grit, and now someone with optimism and now someone with commitment. How many people are you thinking of? You know many wonderful people. But most people say one, and this is why. Those folks in blue are high in all of the character strengths and virtues, meaning, grit, optimism, gratitude. The folks in red who we love just as much are low in everything. Character is a global trait, and this has been replicated on hundreds of thousands of people.
But whether we are blue, green or red, high, medium or low in character ultimately boils down to daily spiritual awareness. What you just shared, I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty. We shared it here in Council. You have your own deep way of connecting in a transcendent relationship. Because life with and without a spiritual core unfolds entirely differently. Let’s ask whether it’s Bridge one, coming of age, bridge two, midlife, or bridge three, at all times where our capacity is augmented and we might feel at times that we have a half empty glass of spirituality, existential struggle. Who am I? Who am I? Well, who am I in a public square minus a spiritual core? Who am I? I’m the greatest tennis player. I’m the greatest at math. Actually, I was cut as a junior and I haven’t gotten into not one college. I am my outward parts and pieces. I am nothing more than my performance. That is a transactional way of knowing one another in a public square without a spiritual core. But as we put the spiritual core back into our lives, who am I? Well, because of how you talk to me and how you look at me as a fellow parent, as a child from the next door neighbors in your kitchen, I know that I’m a soul on Earth.
I’m a child of God. I’m a bean of infinite worth. And if I’m oh, so smart or not or oh, such an athlete or not, those are endowments through which I might carve my calling, my contribution. But that is not who I am. And when I hit a bump and today I was oh, so smart and today it’s not looking so good, that’s disappointing, but it is not existential annihilating. It is noise on my larger calling, my larger service to God. If I’m a soul on Earth, you’re a soul on Earth. Our relationship is about commitment and interest on a tough day forgiveness. But we are not a narrow competition. We are not keeping up with the Joneses. We’re helping and walking the Joneses along as they walk with us. Thanks. This is who we are. This science that I shared with you today in the awakened brain is the science that was used for three years by the Pentagon to build the spiritual readiness initiative. It is who we are capable of being. It is in business schools, it is in campuses. I hope to be your partner in rewriting our public square, renewing our nation to reenter the spiritual core into the center of our world.
Bless you. Thank you.