Interview With Dr. Lisa Miller, Founder of Columbia University's Spirituality Mind Body Institute
Dr. Lisa Miller spoke with The Earth & I about our sacred bond with nature:
I am going to start with a story. Some years ago, I was on the river near our home, and it was March, so the snow had just melted, and the waters were high and strong, and I thought, “What a great day to go kayaking!” So, I hopped in my kayak. Suddenly, as I hit the midpoint of my travels, a goose, and another right behind her, started squawking and craning their necks [as if to say], “Go right! Go right!” The message was clear—and the message was strong and unanimous—so I pulled my kayak to the right. And, as I moved by the geese, I saw I had narrowly averted a big cement pylon in the middle of the river. The geese had really saved me.
As I went another 300 yards downstream, new geese appeared and began to squawk and gesture, “Go left!” and I thought, “I’ll follow their instructions,” and I again averted another buried impediment under the river (the waters were high).
The third time I approached an impediment, there were no geese. I did not know where I was, and I hit the impediment and flipped over in the March waters, barely holding onto my kayak. I looked up and, high on the cliff above, there was a human couple. So, I waved with one hand and called out, “Down here! Down here!” and, truly, they looked at me, got back in their luxury car, and drove away.
So, the geese had saved me twice that day and the humans did not really show up, or perhaps did not fully connect with the moment. But I think what I experienced that day was a microcosm of the fact that all living beings of all different sorts are in relationship with one another and are very present and aware. Included in the range of those relationships is “care” and “love” and “protection” and “guidance” in the sense that we show up as emanations of the force of life—loving, holding, and guiding—and everybody is part of the symphony, except, at times, we humans.
“What I experienced that day was a microcosm of the fact that all living beings of all different sorts are in relationship with one another and are very present and aware.”
I can only imagine how terrifying and bizarre we must look to fellow living beings. It is as if we have gouged out our eyes and covered our ears. We are deaf to the present living moment, to the needs of fellow living beings, and to the help and love and connection with our fellow living beings. We must look strangely “cut off” from the rest of the world. But everyone else is showing up, and we humans are this close—every one of us—to reawakening our awareness of our capacity to be in relationships with other living beings. It really is a matter of being present and feeling that deep love of what I call God, or Source, and being 100% “on” and alive to see who is showing up right before us.
If I were not listening to the geese, I would have capsized in a violent way, and yet, when I needed the humans—I don’t think they were bad folks; I think if I’d met them at a school board meeting, they would have been very gracious—they did not dial into the moment, to the needs of fellow human beings that day.
So, this is a good opening, perhaps, to our discussion today of who we really are to one another and who we are to all emanations—like rays of the sun—our fellow living beings in nature.
E&I: I recall reading a passage from an article where you were talking about humans being like whitecaps on an ocean. And the ocean was the totality of consciousness or the Source or whatever word one cares to use. Don’t you think that animals, everything that lives, is a whitecap on that same ocean?
Dr. Lisa Miller: Absolutely! Every animal, every plant. I would say every body of water, and water itself, all bodies of water, the clouds, the sky, every bit of creation, the sun, the mountains, and the Earth. When I speak to my students at Columbia on this point, I say we are a “point” and part of a “wave.” We are each distinct and unique. We have different, zipped-up, bio bodysuits and GPS coordinates, and we are, indeed, part of the mind and body of life, one sacred consciousness field—whitecaps on one ocean.
In this duality of being, both as a point and part of a wave, we can show up as a point—uniquely, as we are, as we have been called into position into this world—and hold the deep awareness, the unitive awareness of love and interbeing with all of life. We feel each other’s needs—their “calls”—and turn to Source for guidance, and do our job as a distinct point into which we have incarnated. And that is a tremendous opportunity, as we “show up” for each other.
“In this duality of being, both as a point and part of a wave, we can show up as a point … and hold the deep awareness, the unitive awareness of love and interbeing with all of life. We feel each other’s needs—their “calls”—and turn to Source for guidance, and do our job as a distinct point into which we have incarnated.”
I sometimes use the term “trail angels” as an expression of the way in which we are guided through our unitive awareness to show up for one another in this state of interbeing in which we are both one “sea of love” consciousness as well as having unique, distinct incarnate roles to play.
This is an opportunity to realize, I think, something sacred in every step. Nothing is wasted, nothing is accidental. Everything from the guy on the subway to the bird in front of me as I wait in traffic—every single piece is important.
E&I: This is not a typical college curriculum…, so how do you see this manifesting in your students when they immerse themselves in this material for a full semester? What do they tell you? How does it change their lives, especially vis a vis animals and nature?
Dr. Lisa Miller: Well, this is such an important point because this generation, Gen Z, has grown up with an implicit understanding of a unitive reality, whereas, forty years ago, we picked up a telephone that was connected by a wire; everything had a mechanistic route. Gen Z has spent their whole life pulling information out of the air, or being connected to people at radically different GPS coordinates simultaneously.
So, the notion that we inhabit one unitive consciousness field, and yet are distinct points in a three-dimensional sense, is very much resonant and at home with them. Gen Z hungers for a language, for a system of meaning, for an academia, a science that you show up in and share that lived reality. And I think you have people now—activists, scholars, people of great wisdom—who are bringing forward— verbally, explicitly, through action and activism, and walking the walk—a unitive reality.
So, Gen Z is very quick and hungry for this, and when the conversation in other settings might slide into the materialistic and mechanistic, I watch their eyes glaze over because it does not resonate with their reality.
So, we are poised and ready to go. I think where Gen Z might continue to expand and flourish, and perhaps where we can be helpful is in the realization that every bit of this unitive field is sacred.
We don’t need to feel fear… we’re not going to fall through an existential hole into oblivion. There is something in the deep fabric of reality, who I call God and others might say Source or Hashem, Jesus, the Universe, Allah, whatever one’s word might be. There’s an Ultimate Source or Force, loving, holding, and guiding, through which we are never alone.
And because the very resource that nature absorbs is loving, holding, and guiding, not only will we not erupt or existentially face Hell, but our way forward will unfold if we allow ourselves to be an open system to be used with what is our birthright, the neuro docking station that is awakened awareness.
I share in my book, The Awakened Brain, that everyone of us is born innately with this neuro docking station, an innate transcendent awareness. We are built for the sacred, transcendent relationship through which we receive guidance, as well as direction for our frightened, seemingly isolated moment in which we are actually loved and held.
So, this is our birthright and how the universe is built.
I think we then step into the urgency of understanding our environment more deeply, just as we are built—to be loving, holding, guiding to one another and other beings. Not only do we have a transcendent relationship, not only do we feel God’s presence through our neuro docking station, but it is the very same neuro docking station through which we perceive immanence, the presence of all sacred force in every being—in every tree, in every ray of sunlight, in every fish and bird.
Not only do we have a transcendent relationship, not only do we feel God’s presence through our neuro docking station, but it is the very same neuro docking station through which we perceive immanence, the presence of all sacred force in every being—in every tree, in every ray of sunlight, in every fish and bird.
So, where is God? Well, God is here and in this beautiful planet. God is everywhere. And this is something that inhabited human knowledge for so many thousands of years; we knew this. And then we got a little bit frozen out and lost sight of this. And no one was more lost than perhaps the sciences in the 20th century when we moved away from a deep intersubjectivity with all living beings, where nature was not just beautiful, but we were emanations of nature. Nature was our guide, our teacher, our parent, our child for whom to care. Nature is part of our family.
The sciences got very lost in the 20th century and objectified nature. And nothing, I think, was a worse lesson for humanity than to dissect a frog in fifth grade to say “this life only has knowledge for you when it is dead and cut open on the table.” That is a real violation of the life of that living being, the little frog, and it is also a violation of the growing child who actually would learn far much more, I’m sure, if she or he were to watch the frog and befriend the frog and learn how the frog handles weather when it’s cold and how it learns to work with its own little babies and tadpoles. That would have been a lesson in relationship, and certainly a relationship in sustainability.
So, we need to revisit how we teach science. We need to revisit how we teach who we are in our relationship to Earth in just about every academic discipline. That is because the “silent” curriculum is the one that is infused with radical materialism, a lack of intersubjectivity, and radical objectivity that, in the end, really leads people to feel lonely, and isolated, and willing to harm the Earth. We end up thinking that we are stampeding on an inert Earth, as opposed to being in a deep, connected relationship, learning from and watching Earth, while giving something back to protect Earth.
*Lisa Miller, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Education at the Teachers College and Founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute of Columbia University. She is also the bestselling author of The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.