In her 2021 book, The Awakened Brain, Lisa Miller, Ph.D. explores the topic of the intersection of science and spirituality. Dr. Miller, professor in the clinical psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University, is the founder and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League program in spirituality and psychology.
It begins with her recounting her experience of a study she helped conduct with people who were at high and low risk of depression to see if there were brain patterns of depressed and non-depressed people and to find better treatments for the disease. She and her colleagues were attempting to see if spirituality was correlated with the risk for depression. They asked the following question to the study’s participants: “How personally important is religion or spirituality to you?” The brain scans comparing those who were ‘low spiritual” versus those who were “high spiritual” revealed that those with high spiritual brains were healthier and more robust than their counterparts.
From there she describes her amazing journey of discovery that demonstrates, with scientific, evidence that there is a high correlation between spirituality and good mental health. But she goes beyond that to talk about her own lived experiences that reflect these findings. She shares remarkable stories that could be considered miraculous in nature.
While reading the book, I learned a great deal about how the brain functions and how we, as human beings, are capable of connecting with each other on a deeply empathetic level. It also affirmed many things which I already believed.
When I was young, church was a regular part of my life. And while I didn’t really understand the significance of what it meant to have a belief in a Higher Power, it helped to create the foundation upon which I built upon as an adult, and in particular, after my first bipolar episode in 1981.
I’ve believed, since that time, that there is a guiding presence in my life. I can’t explain in logical terms how I have gotten to where I am today otherwise. There are just so many things that go beyond explanation. For instance, how was I able to withstand virtually annual psychiatric hospitalizations, including twice at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, where severely affected patients are housed.
I subscribe to the belief that people are placed into our lives for a reason and these people are manifestations of God. In other words, I believe that God works through people. One of my favorite quotes is from the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” When I look back at my 60-plus years, I can see evidence of how there were certain people who were there at specific times who helped me along the way.
When it comes to my mental health journey, one of these people was a counselor I had named Dick when I was a client at Horizon Health Services.. Dick served as the catalyst for me getting into 12 Step recovery, which thereby resulted in me gaining stability with my mental health. Dick was the first counselor I had in nearly seven years who was able to break through my wall of defenses. In the session that will forever remain etched into my memory, Dick said to me, “I’m going to give you three choices. Either you go to rehab. You go to a (12 Step) meeting. Or you end up back in the hospital.” I was actually working at the time so I didn’t want to tell my boss I had a drug problem. And I definitely didn’t want to go back to the hospital. So I went to the meeting. And thus began my journey of healing, which continues today (I believe that recovery is an ongoing process).
Dick was but one of many people along my life’s journey who have served to guide me. I feel that these individuals were not mere coincidences.
One thesis that Dr. Miller proposes in The Awakened Brain is that we need to remain open to the concept of what is actually present, and when we do so, we can tap into it in a manner that will open our lives to new possibilities and better mental health.
In his song, More Than This, British musician Peter Gabriel, describes how he experiences something that defies understanding, yet is abundantly clear. There is a force which we cannot see,
“Much more than this
Way beyond imagination
Much more than this
Beyond the stars
With my head so full
So full of fractured pictures
And I’m all there
Right next to you”