Miller talks book, research at Akiba
By Deb Silverthorn
Special to the TJP
Parents and teachers were the students on April 20 when scientist, professor and psychologist Dr. Lisa Miller, author of The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, was hosted by Akiba Academy as part of the Harold and Leah Pollman Lecture Series.
“Akiba is a school founded on a pillar of the value inherent in both Torah and general education. The message of Dr. Miller, a scientist who teaches about the intersection between science and spirituality, captivated our audience and resonated with us,” said Tammie Rapps, head of school at Akiba Academy, who introduced Miller.
Miller, a professor of psychology and education and director of clinical psychology, is also director of the Spirituality & Mind Body Institute at Columbia University. She is the wife of Philip, mother of Lila, Leah and Isaiah, daughter of Margo and Sid Friedman, and sister to Mark, and is still connected, literally and at heart, to synagogues in Des Moines, St. Louis and Boston, where she was raised. Miller touched on her roots in realizing her career.
“My children were young when I started this book and now they’re in high school. There’s plenty of ‘research’ from my own Jewish home filled with faith, tradition and science,” said Miller.
In The Spiritual Child, Miller explains the scientific link between spirituality and health. She shows that children who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality are 40 percent less likely to use and abuse substances, 60 percent less likely to be depressed as teenagers, and 80 percent less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex, and they have significantly more positive markers for thriving, including an increased sense of meaning and purpose as well as high levels of academic success.
“Twenty years ago there were no articles about religion and science and the portrait of health and wellness. In these two decades, a strong body of peer review has been built. We see those who move through the tunnel of darkness and depression, do so entirely differently if they do so with Hashem, with faith in God, than those without,” said Miller. Her father, a theater director, viewed art as a “window into life, a road to spirituality,” and her mother lit candles, prayed expressively, and guided her with light in her heart. “I could feel the sacred orchestra of my mother, but my classmates didn’t share this. My life’s work is to bring this to the human discussion.”
Miller says spirituality is an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding. The word we give to this higher power might be God, nature, spirit, the universe, the creator, or other words that represent a divine presence. The important point is that spirituality encompasses our relationship and dialogue with this higher presence.
“To my mother, every neighbor, store clerk, the mailman — everyone we met — was a dear, precious person to be respected and it was her behavior that taught us to find the goodness in each person. That was my growing up. My research is just the same, that parenting translates into the support of a spirited life for our children. It’s game-changing.”
Her first and most frequent points made to the Dallas audience emphasized the need for parents to live not only by example with regard to religious practice and traditions, but to live those examples side-by-side with their children: Do as I do — as we do together — not only do as I say. Light the Shabbat candles together, prepare meals together, go to synagogue and celebrate traditions together.
“Through the clear, precise language of scientific research, we see the enormous benefits of a spiritual life. Dr. Miller delineated the protective powers we as parents and educators can cast on our children,” said Rapps. “This is exactly the relationship that Akiba strives to cultivate with our students and hopes to facilitate between our parents and their children.”
Miller posts a chart (page 246 of her book) addressing our development, meaning, purpose, calling and connection from occurrences in life. Examples include “work” as the developmental task, and for those “with spiritual core” it is “calling and contribution” that is assessed, while it is “acquiring success” for those without. For those tasked with determining their “place in the world,” those with a spiritual core are “always connected,” and those without are “ultimately alone.” For those dealing with “bad events,” those with the spiritual core found “opportunities and learning,” while those without grappled with the result as “random and failure.” The positive versus the negative, based on the presence of a spirited belief.
“With biological puberty comes a surge in our spiritual capacity and a hunger for more. Counselors tell us the number of young adults asking ‘what is the meaning,’ ‘what is my purpose,’ increases manyfold,” said Miller. She has been elected a fellow by the American Psychological Association and received the Virginia Sexton Mentoring Award for graduate students whose works have previously been published in prestigious research journals. “With spirituality, identity grows from ideas of meaning and purpose; without it, identity can be dependent on acquiring ‘success.’”
Miller noted that when taking her children to see a musical, what affected her daughter the most was not the excitement and planning for the occasion, not the travel into the city, not the show itself. “The exquisite intensity with which our teens care, with which they’re looking for truth, comes from their core,” she shared. The moment that captured her daughter was the sight of a homeless person sitting on the floor outside the theater — the cold, hunger and loss so apparent.
Miller said that those who are more devout of faith, regardless of what the religion might be, are more likely to be resilient, have greater optimism and lives with greater degree of strength.
“As parents, we pave the way for our children in their first 20 years and there is no one more important as a spiritual ambassador than the parent. We do lots as parents; we schlep, we coach their sports teams, we help with their SAT prep, we have tea parties and we do lots. Nothing we do will ever be as important as the role we fill as the spiritual ambassador,” said Miller, who has shared her expertise in print and online media as well as in appearances on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and NBC’s Today Show.
To purchase Miller’s book, to watch her TED Talk “Depression and Spiritual Awakening: Two Sides of One Door,” or for more information about her research, visit www.lisamillerphd.com.