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Spiritual Awareness: A Road Map for Science

Twin studies suggest innate spiritual awareness  ©3194556/Pixabay
Twin studies suggest innate spiritual awareness ©3194556/Pixabay

The following is an edited talk given by Lisa Miller, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, at the Third International Conference on Science and God (ICSG 3), in April 2022.

I would like to share a story about a child because, as many of you may realize, we come into this life fully aware, born as naturally spiritual beings.

This is a story of my beloved son when he was about two-and-a-half years old. We were in the park, enjoying the sunny day—the glistening on the water, the green grass—when suddenly, we spotted yellow, fluffy, baby geese.

My son wanted to be friends with the geese and, with great enthusiasm and joy, started waving and padding towards them. This was done with his whole heart but was very frightening to Mother Goose. When she saw this robust human coming toward her little children, she turned with a huge protective hiss. But she did not turn to my son. She turned and hissed at me.

A mother goose protecting her goslings.  ©Kaitlin Bellamy/Flickr
A mother goose protecting her goslings. ©Kaitlin Bellamy/Flickr

Mother Goose said to me what any mother on earth of any species might say, which is, “You have not been watching over your child to the protection of mine.” She knew my son was just a baby. She knew I was the mother. She knew that we had like responsibilities.

All living beings on earth are knowers and in relationship with one another, but we have created a culture around the world in which we have all but gouged out our eyes, leaving us blind to the reality of relationships all around us.

So, what does that mean? It means that we live in a situation where humans must be very scary to other living creatures.

There is a symphony of life. The geese and the fish and the birds and everything else in nature are in relationships. When we come lumbering around—basically anyone over the age of three—we are dangerous because we are not living with the wisdom of the universe. We are not aware of the many relationships that are in action right before us, de facto. And yet my son, like any young child, was intimately aware of this foundational relationship.

His story is actually the story of any child and all of us here on earth. It has to do with our natural endowment—alongside fellow living beings—to be in relationship to the deeper force, the deeper presence, what I call God, and some have called Spirit in nature.

New, Peer-Reviewed Science

We now have very good, peer-reviewed science—published in mainstream medical journals such as the American Journal of Psychiatry and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and supported by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry—that points to this innate human endowment, this endowment that I call our spiritual awareness.

©Lisa Miller
©Lisa Miller

Across the many beautiful faith traditions on our earth, we have thousands of ways to connect into the deep spirit, to talk to God, Spirit, the universe, Hashem, Allah, Jesus, or whatever one's word may be. These are rich faith traditions, our religions, our wisdom traditions, our cultural traditions. For about two-thirds of people, their faith tradition or wisdom tradition goes hand-in-hand with their natural spiritual awareness.

About a third of people on earth will say, “Yes, I do feel connected, I am a spiritual being, but I do not share in a faith tradition or wisdom tradition.”

Whether we are part of a religion or tradition or not, each one of us is born with this natural capacity. Since there is a rich array of expressions and symbols, we might say there is one source of life—one mover, one spirit, a loving guide, an intentional spirit through life—one source with many names.

As there is one source in and through all of us, leading us to feel and know a deep love of neighbor, a deep unitive reality might be felt and seen in the presence of one another.

When we know that there is a unitive reality and connection with the force of life, the higher power, and when we know that the higher power exists through every one of us, then we no longer look upon each other as merely the bio-body suit, the way we are zipped up and dressed up as souls on earth. We are able to feel and see into one another the same presence that my son felt in seeing the baby geese.

A Road Map for Science

Here is a road map for science. This is a blueprint of our human composition as knowers, as spiritually aware, innately spiritual beings.

The first of the four axioms of science is that every one of us is born on day one as a spiritual being. How do we know this? Science uses something called a twin study: we look at twins raised together and twins raised apart, and factor out the degree of commonality as a function of shared things and shared environment.

We have an innate capacity through which we experience a relationship to the higher power and feel the existence of spirit through one another. By the time we are thirty years old, however, we say it is about one-third innate and two-thirds environmentally socialized. If we go back to my son when he was two-and-a-half; there had been very little external socialization. He spoke from his natural awareness.

A child holding a goat. We feel spirit through one another.  ©Nizampanhwar/Pixabay
We feel spirit through one another. ©Nizampanhwar/Pixabay

By the time we are thirty, we have received many socializing messages—that animals are somehow different from us, that, “Oh, that little duck, that little goose, he just wants your food.” The relationship is seen as instrumental or transactional, instead of one of common heart, which is a transformational relationship.

The embrace of environmental socialization is very powerful and can be so severe that it blocks us from seeing through our naturally endowed eyes.

The Longing for Purpose is Universal

However, there is great hope. Because we are hardwired to connect, so, too, are we hardwired for renewal.

With adolescence, puberty, and coming-of-age physically, there is a burgeoning of our spiritual capacity. From the inside out, we hunger to connect to all living beings and to the source of life. We, in our heads, are driven to understand life's ultimate purpose.

These are universal longings. Search Institute researcher Peter L. Benson and colleagues looked at youth populations in Thailand, Ukraine, Australia, Canada, the US, and several more countries. They found that no matter where a teen is growing up, he or she hungers to understand the nature of reality and wants their actions—how they use their own precious life—to be of consequence to the greater realization of goodness on earth.

This deep, underlying intention built into our lives can be harnessed in education, in all walks of life, and in youth, at midlife, and beyond.

What we call a “midlife crisis” is not just a time where people buy new sports cars or think they need a better house or a new spouse. Midlife crises are another hardwired booting-up, where we hunger to see more deeply into life, to live in a way that is in keeping with the most profound possibilities, opportunities, and intentions of the universe.

When we support one another—our children, our colleagues, our friends—in realizing our spiritual nature, and when we speak truth from our deep heart, we are providing the two-thirds environmental socialization that can help each other realize our natural, spiritual potential. This has often not been the case, and we needed to make a change yesterday, or at the very latest—now.

The Pain of Postindustrial Culture

There is enormous suffering in postindustrial culture because we have acted as if we are parts of a machine, one lever on an assembly line to be pulled, one cog in a watch to turn.

In the eyes of consciousness-based sciences, we are not pieces and parts. We are more aptly understood as whitecaps—waves on an ocean. We are part of one body of life that is seen in the moment we are connected with one another.

A man standing in front of a weave. We are like whitecaps on the ocean of life.  ©Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia Commons
We are like whitecaps on the ocean of life. ©Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia Commons

The view that we are nothing but mechanical parts can lead us to wonder: How good a cog am I? How well do I pull the lever? This notion is really a latent, atomistic view that we are alone, and that we are functional beings whose only purpose is to produce.

At the moment, across the world, in postindustrial countries, there is a rate of addiction, a rate of depression, a rate of suicide in young adults that surpasses the rate of death by auto accidents. There is suffering, not because of the state of the world or the tragic conflicts or the difficulties in economies. The suffering is because of our inner seat of awareness.

Postindustrial culture has told us that we are alone, that we are valuable only insofar as we produce. We are using what I call only half the brain—the half of the brain of achieving awareness. It says, “I am better if I do more, if I earn more money, if I am more famous, if I take on a bigger role.”

But achievement-awareness is very brittle. Sooner or later there is a day when all of us face someone who is bigger or better. Achievement-awareness is a very thin slice of how we function in life. Achievement-awareness says when we get all the right factors lined up—we get that promotion, that marriage, that new house, A-plus-B-plus-C—there is a 99% chance we can have the life we want.

But as we reach for the door to claim our prize, it could be stuck. There is no time where that has been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, everything we planned for was stuck. The promotion did not come through. They hired someone else; they went in another direction. In these moments when the door is stuck, it can be frustrating; anger can yield to despair.

Open a New Door

Seek the door to awakened-awareness.   ©Michael Maggs / Wikimedia Commons
Seek the door to awakened-awareness. ©Michael Maggs / Wikimedia Commons

Because that door is stuck, we have the opportunity to shift, to turn to the deeper nature of life, whether it is through meditation, prayer, or contemplation, and ask, “What, Life, are you showing me now?” We invoke what I call an “Awakened Awareness”—moving from the narrow view of “I have got to have it; I planned for it; it was mine” to the view of “What, God, or Spirit, or Life, are you showing me now? You are showing me a bright, open door. A door that is not only easy to see but that can be walked through to discover a landscape that I never knew existed.”

From the remnant of achievement-awareness, I have only the information from today and the past, but from awakened-awareness there is infinite information that I have yet to unpack and discern. The discovery of open doors in our lives is a discovery of a guided reality. When we engage in a two-way conversation with life, we encounter surprising discoveries, receive opportunities to care and contribute, and our inner life is expanded to hold more love.

Trail Angels

What happens at that junction between the stuck door and the open door?

We have asked hundreds of people about this experience. They often speak of it in terms of synchronicity, that suddenly someone showed up in my path and pointed to the open door. Suddenly, I found a book. Suddenly, I found a free or very inexpensive airline flight to a part of the world I did not ever think I would visit. Suddenly, something changed.

As we look back on the moments in our lives where we lost the closed door and gained the open door, most often people say there were messengers, there were helpers, there were healers. People who I call “trail angels” showed up on the path. And when we stand back further and ask people to reflect on the open door, they say they could feel God's presence in bringing the trail angel. They could feel the presence of life or spirit in guiding them to the open door.

Hairpin Curves

At moments of hairpin curves, our paths enter a form of recovery from loss, despair, and even trauma through which we augment our Awakened Awareness. We are not merely recovered, not merely back to baseline, but we are renewed; we are made more and bigger inside.

A spiritual response to loss and trauma through prayer and meditation—through a deeper reflection and realization—leads us to know that we are loved and held, guided, and never alone.

In this time of COVID-19, I invite you to think of how many people you know who walk with a sense of trauma. As we move out along the x axis and see more and more trauma, we go up the y axis and see more and more growth, post-traumatic spiritual growth. This is so much the case that 75% of people who meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also report meaningful growth. It is a realization of our Awakened Awareness, an igniting of our spiritual core, so that on the other side we are in a deeper relationship of life.

We see that we are not makers of our path, but we are discoverers of our journey. We look at one another as trail angels with love of neighbor—relational spirituality—and we draw closer to our higher power.

Using Our Spiritual Brain

Each one of us is equipped with a spiritual brain. Whether or not we use our spiritual brain in moments of struggle and despair—when we are hitting our head and fist on the stuck door—is a choice. It is a choice to invoke the use of your spiritual brain through which you might see the open door.

We published this in 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry. There are broad and pervasive regions of cortical thickness in the brain, regions like thick trees in a forest that are powerful and strong. The cortex is processing power, and there is greater processing power in people with a sustained way of digging deep in times of suffering, people who in their darkest hour say, “What, God, do you show me now? What, Life, are you showing me now? What is the unitive reality? Where in the ocean am I being brought to?”

When we respond to suffering with our Awakened Awareness, we strengthen the muscle, we gain greater power in the regions of perception, reflection, and orientation.

The next time a stuck door comes along, we are more able and ready to invoke this choice again, to engage our natural spiritual brain for Awakened Awareness. When we do, time and time again, it becomes the go-to place, the new normal.

The Wavelength of All Creation

We invited people with a strong awakened-awareness—a spiritual way of seeing life's disappointments as opportunities—to come into our lab and simply close their eyes and sit down. What we found is, for having time and time again engaged Awakened Awareness, they gave a wavelength off the back of their head. This wavelength—a high-amplitude alpha of the spiritually engaged brain—is the wavelength that goes by another name in another field. High-amplitude alpha is the same wavelength as Schumann resonance. It is the wavelength from the Earth's crust up one mile. It is the wavelength of nature. It is the wavelength of creation.

Recovery from despair through an awakening of our naturally spiritual brain gives off the wavelength that is found throughout creation. The felt sense of being one with all life is mirrored in the oneness of this wavelength of energy.

I think that my grandchildren someday will laugh that their grandmother talked about wavelength, alpha and Schumann resonance, when it is so abundantly apparent to them that there is one field of consciousness, one sacred field of life, in and through all creation.

Today, we are crossing the bridge from radical materialism to postmaterialism, moving away from thinking that only that which we can touch is real. Using our awakened awareness to feel unitive reality, we can see there is a common wavelength associated with knowing and feeling and experiencing our unity with all life—and the wavelength is identical, found in all life.

It is a small step—even for today—to say that the same wavelength perhaps reflects an ontology (nature of being), a way of knowing and being in a unitive reality. This is a unitive reality in which we are in relationship with water, with trees, with sun and air, with mountains, and yes, with little baby geese.

I invite you to share in this science and to share more deeply in the story of our finding our precious son in the book, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life. Thank you for the joy of sharing this work with you. Thank you for being on this journey to renew our global culture, so that we can live and connect as one emanation of the great source of all life.


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