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Teaching from Within

Lisa Miller is a psychologist who believes in the power of spirituality and the reality of the unseen

Lisa Miller is a psychologist who believes in the power of spirituality and the reality of the unseen

By Suzanne Guillette

In the late 1990s, riding the subway to Columbia’s medical school, Lisa Miller found herself captivated by a poor teen-aged boy across the aisle. He was obviously facing challenges, but Miller was struck by his resilient look. “I could see that he was connected to the source of life—and that’s 100 percent of the story.”

That epiphanic, New York moment got Miller, then a post-doc in child and adolescent psychiatry, thinking. With the support of her mentor, Myrna Weissman, she began what would become an ongoing exploration of the role of spirituality in adolescence. Miller, now Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at TC, has since pursued many avenues with her work, but her core finding, in study after study, is that when it comes to psychological healing, “psycho-social variables don’t hold a candle to the protective benefits of personal spirituality.”

In fact, spirituality—which Miller defines as “absolute values experienced personally, and ultimate connection to meaning and transcendence”—is the thread that connects all of her work, in the classroom, clinical settings and beyond.

It’s an orientation that can be surprising in a place like Teachers College, where science, with its emphasis on what can be observed and empirically validated, is the lingua franca. But Miller—who is past president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Psychology and Religion, and has been nominated to be an APA Fellow— has sought both to erase the distinction between “spiritual” and “scientific” and to win a place within the academic dialogue for the idea that “ultimate reality is not simply reduced to things we can touch and see.” Miller’s lab at TC has published more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles on spirituality’s role in preventing mental illness in youth.

“This is part of the education that our students seek,” she said one recent afternoon. A vibrant woman with wavy yellow hair and sparkling green eyes, Miller leans forward earnestly when she talks. “A new generation already lives according to post-materialist principles, and they are seeking knowledge from within this paradigm.” 

This past November, Miller chaired a major conference at TC titled “Spirituality and Healing: A Revolution of Consciousness.” An overflow audience of students, faculty and community members poured into Milbank Chapel to hear a group of speakers that included Wayne Jonas, former head of the National Institute of Health’s Alternative Medicine Division, and Robert Jahn, a former Princeton engineering dean who for decades ran a lab dedicated to amassing evidence of direct causal, physical relationships between people’s intentions and otherwise random results.

The conference proceedings will be represented in the soon-to-be released Oxford University Press Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, edited by Miller. The event also moved the main participants to form the Academy of Postmaterialist Science and Education, an organization that will develop research-based curricula and provide support for emerging education professionals in the field.

Last Thanksgiving, Miller visited a homeless shelter with her own three children and met a young boy named Angel, who was temporarily staying at the shelter with his family. The encounter moved her to launch Youth Rising, a major effort to provide Covenant House of New York, a shelter for homeless youth, with support from across Columbia, including TC, the Medical School, the School of Social Work and the Law School. The effort, which recently received a $170,000 grant from the Goldman Sachs Foundation, includes a direct service component, in which advanced TC doctoral students facilitate mental health and wellness groups for counselors of homeless youth.

“When you see these kids, the first inclination is to help,” says Miller. “There is no reason in a civilized society to have youth living on the street.”

Miller’s own childhood was a happy one. She grew up in the Midwest, where she fondly remembers long days of playing in sweet-smelling fields and enjoying a deep connection to the natural world. Her father was a theater professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and Miller herself knew from toddlerhood that she wanted to teach.

“My grandmother nicknamed me ‘the professor’ because I had a claim to natural authority,” she says, laughing.

Miller calls growing up around a university campus “formative,” with potluck dinners and students practicing tai chi on the lawn. She was even cast in one of her father’s productions, as the peasant girl in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

When she was eight, Miller traveled with her parents to Europe and attended an international arts camp in Geneva. She remembers bonding with two girls who had been displaced from their respective homelands in Iran and Iraq.

“It was an example of how well we, as humans, can commune at the level of spirit.”

As a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, Miller worked with Martin Seligman, father of the positive psychology movement. “It was like having Socrates as your mentor,” she says of his influence. Miller credits Seligman with giving her the confidence to expand beyond the traditional parameters of academia and psychology, following her natural curiosities. Recently, Miller won the prestigious Virginia Sexton Mentoring Award from the American Psychological Association, which she credits to the lessons learned from her own mentor.

Seligman, for his part, calls Miller “the leading psychologist of her generation in the benefits of religion and spirituality. Lisa always solves problems, not puzzles,” he says. “She asks ‘What makes life worth living?’ and finds evidence-based answers.”

Miller joined TC’s faculty in 1999 and set up a research lab with the help of a William T. Grant Scholars Award and an NIMH Career Development Award. She has studied and promoted a range of prevention and treatment interventions for children and adolescents, including increased access to treatment for lower socioeconomic status populations.

Miller has been particularly active in championing psychotherapeutic treatment for pregnant teens, who suffer increased rates of depression. She has also shown that once a teen has become pregnant, validation of that choice by parents is much more likely to foster better decisions and healthier outcomes for the baby.

Miller’s work has also focused on the benefits of spirituality for highly experienced teachers who mentor their peers. In a two-year study, “The Spirit of Teaching and Learning,” conducted at the Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and funded by the Klingenstein Fund and the Pritchard Foundation, Miller, her colleagues and a team of TC students found that the teachers responded positively to the chance to connect with their own sense of spirituality—whatever form that took—and to teach from a more “connected” place.

When the project ended, 60 percent of teachers in the study chose to continue meeting after school, without additional pay, so that they could foster an approach to teaching based in spirituality.

“Teachers are not just dispensers of curriculum,” Miller says. “They are a source of life through which learning is ignited.” To share her psycho-spiritual model of working with educators, this month Miller will be the invited keynote speaker at the Positive Psychology Conference in Israel.

For Miller, the shared humanity of all participants is paramount—an outlook that has prompted clients and students alike to ask her to officiate at their wedding ceremonies. She believes that one’s best teacher is within—a precept she often observes by stopping to enter Milbank Chapel in the mornings to honor the sacred nature of the work she is about to perform. “I pray to serve and to love on a spiritual level,” she says.

Ultimately, Miller hopes that a spiritual perspective will become more integrated with mainstream culture, including in the areas of education and policy decisions.

“As a society, we need to lead with spirituality,” she says. “We’re all born with it, but children are educated out of their spiritual realities. We should support them in holding on to it.”

That can mean starting small. In a recent class at TC, Miller’s students were in the midst of discussing oneness and universal connection when a beetle crawled out from nowhere. There was a mild uproar of shrieking and raised legs.

For Miller, it was an ideal teaching moment. If the students were to apply the ideals they’d just discussed, there would be no need to negatively judge a harmless insect as “bad”—or even “other”—and certainly no need for physical distance. At the end, the beetle appeared again, turning to the class as if to say goodbye. Everyone laughed, the principle of universal connectedness affirmed for the afternoon.

“All it takes is a whisper of validation,” Miller said.

Published Friday, May. 20, 2011