For two-and-a-half years, clinical psychologist, author and scientist Lisa Miller and her husband grasped onto hope and prayers amid failed fertility treatments. In a 2014 TEDx event at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, Miller recounted how “despair woke us night after night.”

“Depressed” didn’t begin to describe their emotions. “Each cycle a disappointment that felt like a funeral,” said Miller, author of “The Awakened Brain” and “The Spiritual Child.”

Then she began to encounter hope from unexpected “helpers and healers”: From a mama duck who brought her a worm to a stranger on a bus who told her she looked like a woman who would travel the world “adopting all kinds of kids.” In a hospital room where the TV remote wouldn’t change the channel, she and her husband endured “an interminable documentary” about a child who longed for parents with the same intensity they longed for a child.

He would not be their child but was a guide on their journey.

Husband and wife learned together something that would light the path of her career: Depression is the porthole to a world of connection; spirituality an unquenchable human must-have.

Miller says that depression and spirituality are two sides of one door. And she has the science to prove it. 

Now a mother — through adoption and through natural birth — she studies the connection between flourishing and having faith in a supernatural force that goes by many names, including “God.” Using imaging, she’s watched prayer and meditation light up brains, showing the same vibration frequency as that of the Earth’s crust, she says. 

Those open to the spiritual are never alone; their paths contain guides, she says. An inspired life is “one of meaning — not one we create.” The benefits beckon. Miller told that adolescents with strong spirituality are less prone to depression, substance abuse and risk-taking and are more likely to find meaning and purpose and to thrive. 

She founded the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute at Columbia University that hosts the annual Awakened Campus Summit, focusing on spiritual and mental health for college students nationwide. 

Deseret Magazine talked to Miller about nurturing the spiritual nature of children and what science teaches us about faith.

Deseret Magazine: how does a scientist study faith and spirituality?

Lisa Miller: I use the lens of science to understand the ordinary impact of personal spiritual life on the rest of our lives. The extraordinary impacts of spirituality are game-changing. And I look across all the beautiful faith traditions and include people who are “spiritual but not religious.” 

I’m very interested in how recovery and renewal from depression, despair or hard times is often found through spiritual life. And I’m very interested in how to help feed a more spiritually aware society. So I use science in collaboration with schools, with health and wellness initiatives and issues of human rights.

I see understanding our true spiritual nature as the path toward deeper connection, deeper friendship and greater peace around the world.

DM: You’ve said we kicked spirituality out. What does that mean?

LM: When we look at the data, it turns out that 40 years ago, in a very good attempt to be inclusive, we threw religion out of the public square and with that, we are now seeing enormous cost. We became virtually nonconversant and lack the ability to embrace pluralism. So while we have made great gains in inclusivity around diversity — gender and orientation and race — we are just starting to develop inclusivity around spiritual expression and religious diversity. People don’t know how to talk about it.

DM: Why does that matter?

LM: Forty years is long enough for someone to grow up and have a child who grows up in acute pain because they have never in their life received support for natural spirituality. 

Through MRI studies, it is absolutely the case that human beings are physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual. 

One-third of spirituality is innate, two-thirds environmentally cultivated.

Our parents or grandparents, our priests, rabbi, imam, whoever weighs in for the first two decades of our life, our school culture and climate, all shape the spiritual core. And yet, the natural spiritual core can atrophy. The chief mental health crisis of our time is understood to be atrophy of the spiritual core, by removing spiritual life from the public square.

It’s incontrovertible that a teenager with a strong spiritual core has an 80 percent decreased risk of addiction. …  So for a teen without a strong spiritual core, an 80 percent increased risk. It is to the great pain and peril of the young adults themselves.

DM: Can that be fixed?

LM: It’s not too late because it turns out that in young adulthood, adolescence as well, there’s a time of tremendous opportunity, there’s actually a spiritual growth spurt. 

Every young person wants to know, “What is the ultimate meaning of my life?” Not just do I want to be a doctor, teacher or scientist, but the ultimate meaning of my life in relationship with God, the higher power.” Every young person wants to know what is right and what is wrong; they’re hardwired to seek spiritual understanding.

We’re born with an innate capacity to experience God’s presence. The word changes. Some people say Jesus, some people say spirit or energy, but whatever our religion may be, religion as a gift is environmentally transmitted from parents and family. 

DM: How does it develop in youth?

LM: It’s in all of us. Late adolescence marks a surge of biological clocks where the spiritual core itself is strengthened if we support it. The kid has questions to understand and feel a deep connection to God or a higher power.

Two dimensions of life and spirituality are most important and they both surge in adolescence. The first is a directly felt dynamic relationship to our higher power — spirit, God, universe, Jesus, Hashem, Allah — a direct shout. “I turn to God for guidance. I have a question in my head; the answer comes through the heart, very often brought by intuition, mystical experience and deep connection.” 

The second is that our brain is hardwired to see and feel and perceive God’s presence, to be in relationship with our higher power. We are built to see that in one another, to see each other as expressions of God’s spirit, so love thy neighbor is also the concern of the adolescent: how to treat people.

DM: How can parents and other adults help this building process?

LM: We’re here to stand by you. And we’re here to speak transparently as parents and teachers of our own spiritual path. And we will help draw you together with fellow adolescents, fellow young adults, to talk about the deeper spiritual nature of your lives. 

When young people can speak to one another with trust about their spiritual heart, that is a profound connection that young people yearn for. 

We know that there are two dimensions of natural spirituality that if supported will sustain the adolescent. They are a deep relationship to the higher power and the ability to see the higher power and feel it in one another: relational spirituality. They share the same neural circuits in the brain. They need to be built up like a muscle.

We find young people are two-thirds less likely to become depressed, 82 percent less likely to take their life when they have a strong spirituality that is shared.

We know that a strong relational spiritual life that is shared is more protective than any pill, than any therapy, than any program. 

Our job now is to reignite the spiritual life inside of society. We’ve got to do it, because it is an emergency.

DM: If we’ve moved away from talking about faith, how do we go back?

LM: I think the most important point is that whether or not someone has ever been touched by the guidance of a parent or grandparent or something in our culture, they still have this natural capacity. It is there. So no one is ever a lost case. We look at people in their darkest hour, for instance, in Alcoholics Anonymous when people say “I had bottomed out. There was nowhere lower for me to drop. And just then I turned to my higher power.”

There’s a buoyancy that comes and the answer that you were never alone. Why do we wait for people to bottom out?

Our brain is built to recover from despair to a deepening and awakening of spiritual awareness.

DM: Does that awakening last?

LM: The spiritual core is formed through the darkest hour for many people if we say yes and that remains strong the rest of our lives. So whether it’s five years later, 10 years later, we see it through long-term clinical course study. People who say, “In my darkest hour, I turned to God,” and built a strong spiritual core that protected them 75 percent against the next depression. The worse things are, the more our spiritual core protects us. The more pain around us, the more despair, the more genetically at risk, the more our spiritual core protects us. We see that through MRIs. The same folks who recover from depression have broad regions of cortical thickness, have strong brains in the regions of perception and reflection and orientation. What is my purpose? What am I doing here on earth? What do I have to give?

DM: If I’m a parent, what’s my job?

LM: Adult behavior now is very challenging for young adults to look at: the in group, the out group, the red shirts, the blue shirts, you know, the people who are wrong and the people who are right — that sort of radical divisiveness. And it’s very far from the spiritual heart that wants to love all human beings. It’s very far from the spiritual heart that wants unity and connection, even when people might have different opinions or look different. It’s challenging right now for the teen to build a spiritual compass when they’re testing and exploring in a social ecology in which adults are behaving very badly.

The coaches, teachers, the adults have an extraordinary opportunity to set a spiritual culture and climate, one in which everyone is loved and seen, one in which we honor social values. That is essential. Democracy is based on the notion that we love each other more deeply than however you voted.

DM: It’s not about specific faiths?

We need to reawaken natural spirituality, relational spirituality, through supporting the young person’s connection to their higher power. And to do that in a group, to do that with other young adults. That can be done within a faith tradition, and that can be done outside a faith tradition. 

Spirituality and religion are two different things. For 70 percent of people, they say spirituality and my religion go hand in hand. I express my natural spiritual awareness through the prayers, the language, the practices of my religious faith. Thirty percent of people say I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious, I feel spiritual in nature, with my family, music.

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We shouldn’t throw religion out of the public square. We need to invite all religions, every single one of them back into the public square, as well as people who are spiritual but not religious, or humanists or anything else, to speak in the first person and to take deep interest in and know each other.

DM: What is your last word?

LM: Despair and disorientation is the trailhead for spiritual awakening and we have the opportunity of a lifetime right now to help adolescents awaken their natural spirituality.  

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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