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