Interview with Dr. Lisa Miller, Founder of Columbia University’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute—Part 3
In part three of The Earth & I’s interview with Dr. Lisa Miller, she spoke at length about how the attributes and potential of Generation Z, which refers to people born between 1997 and 2012, might impact the natural environment.
The Promise of Gen Z
Dr. Lisa Miller: Gen Z possesses two wonderful milestones as they stand on our shoulders. The first is Gen Z does indeed have a sense of unitive awareness that fellow living beings and the Earth are conscious. They need more support and language around that, but they are quick to see it for the most part.
The second thing that Gen Z already has in their hearts is the dignity and rights of fellow living beings. They are outraged by things such as the mistreatment of animals and deforestation that takes the lives of trees and food away from orangutans and their babies.
So, the only piece that Gen Z, I think, is now on the cusp of starting to discover—and where we might be supportive in putting together the unitive reality and their deep respect for living beings—is that all life, the unitive reality, its expression, and the distinct point from incarnations to fellow living beings, are emanations of God.
Where we have failed Gen Z is we have taken the voice, the witness of holy, sacred, ultimate Source— God—out of the public square. Forty years of silence have left a whole generation—and 40 years is long enough for somebody to grow up and have a child who is now Gen Z—without a deep roadmap of “how-to” language and understanding of the deep, unitive, sacred source of all life, whom I call God, the Universe, Spirit, Ashem, Allah, whatever one’s word might be, or Jesus, right?
So, where I think we can support Gen Z now is in understanding that all life is sacred and to be respected; we are part of one unitive reality, and this whole thing, every bit of it—even you—is godly. There is ultimate sacredness.
There has been a desanctification—an influx of radical materialism—and I think this desanctification that is so in the air and water has cut off Gen Z from the sense of connection to God. That has caused the epidemic—actually, I would say the pandemic—of suicide.
There has been a desanctification—an influx of radical materialism—and I think this desanctification that is so in the air and water has cut off Gen Z from the sense of connection to God. That has caused the epidemic—actually, I would say the pandemic—of suicide. The desanctification of the environment is the source—I would say it is 98%, maybe 100% of the source—of the pandemic of suicide and homicides, school shootings, and mass shootings.
We can fix this. And the good news is that Gen Z is in a developmental growth spurt in late adolescence and emerging adulthood. We are hardwired to be seekers, to be in a quest, to be biologically prepared to inquire of the head, “And what is the deep nature of life? Who am I in this landscape of reality?” And from the heart, “How might I love more deeply and who loves me, and am I alone or are we connected?”
And so, Gen Z is on a hunt developmentally, and we see this in science through a 50% increase in inheritable contribution for spiritual capacity in ages 15–18 and 20–22. We are catching Gen Z at just the right moment to help them reshuffle the deck and understand reality that is foundationally sacred. That is what will create the generation that leads us into a unitive reality with all living beings and Earth.
E&I: In your classroom, what sense do you have of where Gen Z is getting their guidance? The guidance that’s going to open their hearts to nature—how to get involved, how to care enough to make the changes in their own lives, grow their own food, volunteer, start their own shelter, or whatever. Do they talk about that?
Dr. Lisa Miller: Gen Z considers it normative and important to convene. They are conveners, whether they can be in small groups, whether they can be in crowd sourcing, whether they have a mission and they exercise it by getting 400,000 other Gen Zs to do something. They understand themselves in collective, which I take to be a human expression of their deep awareness of the unitive nature of life. They do not see themselves as a solo act.
I would say that the Millennials and older—including myself—see ourselves as connected to others but also see ourselves as pursuing our path, whether it be a path of contribution or service. There is a very dominant presence of making our way. Meanwhile, Gen Z thinks in terms of making “Our” way. They are foremost aware of the superordinate.
Where Gen Zs Get Their Guidance
That said, where do they get their guidance? Well, in very much part from one another. They learn from multiple teachers, which is, of course, part of the spiritual path, Dharma, resonating with what comes as it comes, with what teacher might come in our path or what tradition we encounter on our own journey.
They are learners from what I might call “trail angels,” multiple teachers. They learn from one another in the sense their lives are a great blessed quest, which is precisely where I think we can have a more sustainable world.
Where Gen Z Struggles
Where I think they still struggle is that they can be at times more relativists, more ideologues, you know, “This person got it, this person doesn’t.” Instead of saying, “I disagree with what they said,” there is a tendency to, through the miseducation of Gen Z, to disagree with THAT person. “Actually, no, they’re a BAD person.”
I think where Gen Z has been miseducated, in large part by academia, is in equating one’s ideas with the worthiness of one’s being. And when we are reawakened to the notion that we are all rays of the sun, all emanations of God, including all sacred sisters and brothers—even the person with whom you disagree—trees, plants, mountains, and the sun. If you are a Democrat, a Republican is a child of God, and vice versa—if you’re a Republican, a Democrat is a child of God. God loves EVERYBODY. And in so far as we are loved, held, guided, and never left alone by God, so, too, might we show up for one another, and that means for EVERYBODY to be loving, holding, guiding, and never leaving anyone alone.
You do not cancel people because they have a difference of opinion. We do not cancel people because we might consider them to be in a place of learning or disagreement with our stance.
[T]he reaction to everyone is that of love. It does not mean you agree with people. It does not mean you don’t take a stand … but no one is to be cancelled.
So, the notion of being held, guided, and never alone, is a foundationally spiritual view through which everyone counts and the reaction to everyone is that of love. It does not mean you agree with people. It does not mean you do not take a stand. And, certainly, I am 100% for spiritual activism, but no one is to be cancelled or eradicated. Gandhi, in speaking of the British, said, “I don’t want to kill them. I want to change their minds.”
Three Seasons in Life for ‘Spiritual Awakening’
In the course of a human life, there are hardwired periods of developmental depression, where, suddenly, what was fine yesterday—the people in our lives, our jobs, our situation, how we live, where we live—feels like it is not enough. There is a tendency to respond with, “I don’t think I want to be married to you anymore” or “I had better change my job.” But, actually, this is a hardwired, body/mind/spirit unitive shift from inside. It is a time of existential growth and emergence.
Developmental depression is a booting up of an augmented capacity for spiritual life. It feels full of hunger and quest. It feels like a half-empty glass of spirituality. It is the mission or “knock at the door” for the emergence of a deeper spiritual awareness, of an awakening of our natural, awakened brain, or awakened awareness. It happens in emerging adulthood, where Gen Z is now, and it happens in a second bridge of midlife, and, again, in elderhood—three bridges of developmental depression—the knock at the door for spiritual awakening.
This is not lost time nor down time. This is not time away from our careers. This is the most important work we will do and are beckoned to do so—we really have no choice.
We are moving from a narrow, command-control, air traffic control perspective: “What do I want? How am I gonna get it? Where is this plane going to land?” to “Hey! I can control maybe 2% or 3% of life; if I push the elevator button, I don’t know if it’s coming in ten seconds or four minutes, if it’s packed, if it’s empty, if everyone has COVID-19 or is healthy, if there’s dogs on it—I have no idea who’s on the elevator.
“We can control 2%–3% of life. Ninety-seven percent of life is flux, is dynamism, and actually is sacred and evolutionarily.”
We can control 2%–3% of life. Ninety-seven percent of life is flux, is dynamism, and actually is sacred and evolutionarily. So, in these moments of despair, I can shift my conversation from narrow, achieving awareness for myself—“What do I want, how am I gonna get it, how do I close the deal? Why didn’t I get what I want?”—to beyond myself: “Wow! I didn’t get what I want. What is life showing me now? What is God asking of me now? What, through the knowing of my heart through which I talk to God, Spirit, or through fellow living beings, seek guidance, synchronicity, am I being asked to understand, deepen, go beyond my ego, have an ego dump that can grow and expand to a greater state of awakened awareness?”
Developmental depression is the knock at the door for spiritual awakening. Well, right now, coming out of COVID-19, we have had a mass, global, post-industrial, developmental depression. This is our knock at the door, for an ego dump, from where we ask, collectively, “What do we want? How are we gonna get it, whether it be bigger, better, faster, and more money, power, control, and my way?” to “Wait a minute! We can’t control any of that. The schools were closed. The hospitals were full. The government can’t take care of you every day. What is life showing us now? What in life is real?”
Well, what was real is our beautiful Earth. What was real was the regeneration of Earth, the birds started singing, the forest repopulated, and there were more animals that didn’t get hit by cars on the highways, who could live and have offspring. The Earth, very quickly, started to regenerate and become more alive.
What was real—"What is life trying to show me now?”—is that we are loved, held, and guided; we are never alone. COVID-19 was scary, but we did not fall through the existential black hole. We were loved, held, and guided. This was the mass developmental depression, the knock at our door for our new emergence, our renaissance of profound awakening, and our awakened awareness after which we are loving, holding, and guiding all living beings, including animals and human beings. No one is ever alone.
*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.
Editor’s Note: For the Earth & I, Jerry Chesnut spoke with Dr. Lisa Miller.