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Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the Founder and Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first[…]

Clinical psychologist Lisa Miller discusses the loss of “spiritual pluralism” in the U.S., caused by the removal of religion from the public square in the last 40 years. This, she says, led to the spiritually disconnected society we live in today, where many young adults lack a strong spiritual core.

Alongside this spiritual decline has been an uptick in diseases of despair: alcoholism, addiction, and suicide. However, Lisa suggests that we may be on the brink of a spiritual renaissance, with people waking up to the importance of spiritual exploration and connection in a world that demands rationality and productivity. 

Lisa identifies three crucial stages of spiritual emergence in life: emerging adulthood, midlife, and elderhood, during which individuals experience growth and a hunger to love more deeply and contribute with meaning. Miller emphasizes the significance of reconnecting with spirituality and understanding ourselves more profoundly to lead fulfilling and purposeful lives.

Lisa Miller: 40 years ago in the good attempt to be inclusive, the United States and much of post-industrial culture threw all religion out of the public square, and actually became radically exclusive. We lost the powerful voice of pluralism where you tell me about Easter, or Christmas, or Diwali, or Ramadan, and I share about Hanukkah. This sense of, "I want to know you in the deepest way," was lost, and with that we have become a spiritually non-conversant society.

And while many young adults do still have a strong spiritual core, never have so many not. We now have profound beautiful souls who've never been asked to pray or meditate by the side of a parent or grandparent, who've never been given opportunity to read any sacred text from any tradition. And who, therefore, are understanding morality as cherry-picked or driven by hedonics versus derived from ultimate reality. And with the sharp decline in personal spiritual life and family faith tradition, there has been a statistically related sharp increase in the diseases of despair.

But right now, we may well be on the cusp of a spiritual renaissance. All of us are waking up. There has been a mass developmental depression which is a knock at the door for a mass spiritual awakening. This may be our renaissance. Spiritual emergence in adolescence is our birthright. And whether or not we tell them it's coming or not, young adults face a surge. There's a hard-wired force from within to quest for ultimate meaning, ultimate purpose, to feel in the heart. 

But actually there are three bridges: The first in emerging adulthood, the second at midlife, and the third as we cross the bridge to elderhood. And at each of the three bridges, we grow spiritually, our inner life hungers to expand, to love more deeply, and to make a footprint that is one of contribution and meaning. There's no way around this. And the culture that doesn't tell you it's coming leaves you to kind of figure it out on your own.

Wouldn't it have been nice if sophomore year someone had told you you were having a spiritual awakening rather than a so-called "sophomore slump"? Wouldn't it have been nice if at midlife someone said, "No, no, that's not a midlife crisis. You are at the trailhead of a developmental depression." Midlife is a time of profound life review to emerge and grow spiritually. And finally, as an elder, to love and know everyone you see as a child, your child, a child of God, to take care of this place before we cross over.

So together with my colleagues, we looked at the data of Myrna Weissman and through this three-generational study, we could track the way that spiritual awareness and depression go hand-in-hand. And it turns out, between ages of 16 and 26, there was a time of confusion, a time of true depression through which was a quest for ultimate purpose. Depression wasn't lost time or downtime. Depression was the trailhead of a quest: Why? Because when we don't get what we want, we think, "Well, maybe there's a plan." There's a spiritual response to suffering that becomes the new normal. And what lies before us is discovery into our own deeper nature and that of reality around us through which we might be more loving, see more deeply, and contribute in a more profound aligned way to life itself.

The heart guides the head in most wisdom traditions, but lately we have it reversed. Far too often, we have the head guiding the heart. The heart is the instrument of knowing what is true, of discerning our direction, and the head has tactics and strategy and goals and achievements. And the heart, following the head, is left to hunger for more, to be envious, or jealous, or never satisfied.

In truth, we need to be able to feel deep guidance of the heart and then discern the way forward with the head. And when we do, our lives become one of a 'quest.' Quest is when I can ask a question of my head, "What direction should I go? Do I want to get married? Where do I want to travel?" And then receive guidance through the knowing of the heart, through a mystical experience.

By combining logic and empiricism with mystical awareness and intuition, we have a much more innovative, highly interconnected, and ultimately more successful brain: innovative in solving problems at work, in building new ideas, but more importantly, innovative in our lives, so that moments of trauma and loss are actually portholes of opportunity for discovering, "What is life showing me now? What has this moment of despair prepared me to inherit?" Maybe 90% of the time we do not have control over what comes our way in life, but what we can do is deeply anchor ourselves in a stance of quest so that whatever may come, use that to flourish, to ask, "What is life showing us now?"

I'm going to share a practice that helps cultivate an awareness of quest, how we may already have been on a quest in our lives, and how we can be mindful of establishing a stance of quest even in life's most unwanted, volatile, and dynamic moments. I invite you to clear out your inner space. Take five breaths. Think of a time where you wanted something so badly. It was a job, an admission to a college or graduate school. Him, her, them to say, "Yes." That red door was yours. You prepared tactically, strategically, and you went for the red door. You grabbed the handle, but it stuck. And you can't believe it stuck because you had done everything right. It wasn't fair. But only because that red door was stuck, you had no choice. 

You pivoted 30, 80, 120 degrees, and over there was a wide open yellow door. And on the other side of the yellow door was not what you had wanted. It was better than you had wanted. You met someone who made you feel alive. You found a boss that truly became a mentor. You lived somewhere where you made lifelong friends. And I invite you to sit back and look at the stuck red door, the hairpin turn leading to the wide open yellow door that has everything to do with who you are and where you are today. Was there anyone at that hairpin turn who pointed the way, gave you information, told you a story? It could have been someone you met for three minutes or someone you've known for years. There was a 'trail angel': a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a counselor, a trail angel guiding you to the wide open yellow door.

And as you sit back now and you see the stuck red door, the hairpin turn, the trail angel, and the wide open yellow door that has everything to do with who you are today, how really are the most important parts of our lives found? Is it through radical control? That we are masters of our fate? Or are we more discoverers of our journey? Where in your road of life is your higher power? Is your higher power in the wide open yellow door? And equally, the stuck red door? Is your higher power in the trail angel and your openness to be in dialogue with what God, the Universe, whatever our word may be, is showing you now, is it possible that you have been on a quest, that you already are walking a spiritual path?