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How To Tap Into Your Spiritual Brain & Awaken Your Awareness During Stressful Times

Lisa Miller, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology & NY Times Bestseller
By Lisa Miller, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology & NY Times Bestseller
Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is the New York Times bestselling author of The Spiritual Child and her new book, The Awakened Brain; The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life. She is a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she is the Founder and Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program and research institute in spirituality and psychology, and has held over a decade of joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School. Her innovative research has been published in more than one hundred peer-reviewed articles in leading journals, including Cerebral Cortex, The American Journal of Psychiatry, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
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March 21, 2022

According to the latest polls from the American Psychological Association, over 80% of adults in the United States are feeling stressed right now, and nearly 70% of parents fear for their child's longer-term mental health and academic progress. 

Those polled by the APA attributed their stress to a "constant stream of crises," such as the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the costs of inflation. There's no denying that we're going through a difficult time right now. But I think back to the conversations that my generation had as children with our grandparents. Is the outward world more dangerous and scary than it was in the 1930s and 1940s? Or is our culture simply lacking some of the resilience, power, strength, and fortitude that we had back then?

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Untangling the old from the new.

"I cannot figure out what was old and what was new depression," finally admitted Margaret, a mother of two children and participant in my awakened awareness workshop. She was one of several mothers sharing their struggles to "feel alive" or energized, engaged, and purposeful as their children started to gain independence or leave home. Things seemed even worse for these moms now than before the pandemic, but it was clearly not the pandemic alone causing struggle.

"Do you mean," I ask, "what is really the fault of the world and what is inner suffering?"

Margaret reflected on whether her life was truly rosier before February 2020. Back then, she was busy with her kids and giving all of herself to support them, bolster their happiness, and provide them with a quality education. She was there at nearly all home games for her athletic son Jon. She researched extracurricular STEM opportunities for her highly academic daughter, Gillian.

Margaret has done everything she can to set her family up for a successful and full life. But now that the worst of the pandemic seems to be behind her, she admits that she still feels empty inside. 

"I am more down and anxious than during the pandemic," she notes. "Clearly it wasn't just the pandemic that was getting to me. I wake up at weird hours from anxiety. And I know that my kids are doing fine, but I worry about them too."  

Margaret is one of those 80% of U.S. adults experiencing despair right now, and she is asking herself a question that many of us might have: Did the pandemic or Ukraine or the worsening economy really create despair? Or was there something deeper inside of me that I had ignored now finally being heard? 

I asked Margaret if the existential void she was feeling was there before the pandemic.

"Back then, I did not stop for two seconds to ask how I felt," she admits. "I was looking ahead to get things done for the kids. Was it there, down under it all? Probably. But I was busy and ignored the feelings inside. I adore my kids. When I am with my kids I feel whole and good (even when now and then I am irritated). But otherwise, really I did not feel 'on' or excited, nor really even comfortably at home in my own inner life."

Margaret is not the only one who is suddenly picking up on this latent voice that could not be heard prior to the pandemic. The question now is: What do we do with it?

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The lesson of the pandemic.

It is easy and understandable to blame our stress on outward situations like Ukraine and the pandemic. As devastating as these realities are, I do not see them as the sole cause of our anxiety as a culture. I also blame the American view of the past 25 to 30 years that we have nearly total control.

Since we are very young, we learn the value of planning. (The first item to land on my desk in first grade was a time organizer.) We are taught to think strategically. "If my kids goes to X for elementary school and we do activity A, B, and C, she will land at Y for college, then bingo, Z nearly ensures prosperity." Plan, strategize, and deploy. Then entered COVID.

The pandemic made us pay attention to ourselves and taught us a valuable lesson: The best-made plans alone cannot navigate life for us.  

A practice for shifting awareness and releasing control.

Two years ago, the U.S. Pentagon asked me to collaborate on what has become one of the most meaningful missions of my lifetime: the Army Spiritual Readiness Initiative. Now every young soldier can be supported through building a "spiritual core," to be fit and ready, mentally healthy and resilient if called to win in war.

This experience of working with the Army has shown me the life-saving importance of situational awareness, or SA, the ability to see new information, innovate, and update the best course of action in a split-second on the battlefield. 

SA reminds us that life has a voice and that there are forces greater than us humans driving the unfolding of our very lives. When we don't listen to life, when we plow right into the wave at 100% effort, we get pummeled by it. The solution is to watch out for the tidal waves of life and learn to ride on top of them. The battlefield of life offers the same opportunity for awakening to a new way of being.

To get started, ask yourself: What is the great force in life showing me now? If you are a spiritually oriented person, pray or meditate on the question: "Higher Power, what are you showing me now? Please touch my heart, my awakened awareness: what do you want from me? Which way shall I go? Please work through me." Note that these are not requests for specific outcomes, objects, or people. These are requests for guidance.

Awakened awareness allows us to ask "what is living showing me now?" and get a catch of inspiration in our mental mitt. It might be a new friend or family member sharing precious guiding information. Sometimes it is a direct catch, where a Higher Power speaks to our heart through intuition, a sudden realization, or a dream or mystical experience. It leads to the understanding that we are loved, embraced, and guided by life itself.

One way to awaken our awareness is through using an elegantly simple practice called Hosting Council taught to me by the late Gary Weaver, Ph.D., a psychologist who worked for over 30 years with people who felt cut off from spiritual life. I have shared this practice with thousands of people from patients and clients, investors in midtown banks and Army leaders, to homeless youth, top high school students, psychotherapists, and teachers. I shared it in my book, The Awakened Brain, along with other practices of awakening to the loving and guiding presence or force in life. I shared it with Margaret, and I now share it with you in the hopes that you share it with your own children or loved ones: 

  1. Sit down. Close your eyes. Take seven breaths to clear out your inner space.
  2. Set before you is a table, an inner table. To your table, you may invite anyone living or deceased who truly has your best interest in mind. 
  3. With all your guests sitting there at your table, ask them if they love you.
  4. Now to your table, invite your higher self. The part of you that is much greater than anything you have done or not done, anything that you have or do not have.  
  5. Ask your eternal higher self if you love you.
  6. Now to your table invite your Higher Power, whatever word is yours, however you know your Higher Power. Ask if your Higher Power loves you.
  7. And now, with all of those people sitting there right now, ask, "What do I need to know right now? What do you need to tell me?"
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The information that you receive from your council is inspired, real, and important. Its meaning can be discerned now and gradually over time. Who shows up may change as you travel your path, and you can ask different questions that might be on your heart. But know that your sacred council is always there for you. 

The bottom line.

Practices like Hosting Council allow us to connect to the spiritual brain that we all possess. They can help anyone navigate this difficult moment—especially mothers and fathers looking for ways to support their kids. I'll leave you with one way to frame this tricky time that finds a sense of solidity in flux: "The universe turned up the volume so that now our inner feelings of discordance and stress can be heard. Now we know how important it is to be connected to our Higher Power and care for one another. It looked tough at times, but really what a gift."

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Lisa Miller, Ph.D.
Lisa Miller, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology & NY Times Bestseller

Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is the New York Times bestselling author of The Spiritual Child and her new book, The Awakened Brain; The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life. She is a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she is the Founder and Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program and research institute in spirituality and psychology, and has held over a decade of joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School. Her innovative research has been published in more than one hundred peer-reviewed articles in leading journals, including Cerebral Cortex, The American Journal of Psychiatry, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dr. Miller is Editor of the Oxford University Press Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, Founding Co-Editor-in-Chief of the APA journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice, an elected Fellow of The American Psychological Association (APA) and the two-time President of the APA Society for Psychology and Spirituality.

A graduate of Yale University with Honors in Psychology and University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her doctorate under the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, she has served as Principal Investigator on multiple grant funded research studies. Dr. Miller speaks and consults around The Awakened Brain and The Spiritual Child for the US Military, businesses (including tech, finance, HR and sales), personal development, parents and families, faith based organizations, schools and universities, and for mental health and wellness initiatives.