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How Faith Heals

Half a century ago, people were asking, "Is God dead?" Now TC is offering a new master's degree program in spirituality and psychology

“I want to highlight together how magnificent and full of awe you are.”

Lisa Miller, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education and Director of Clinical Psychology, is greeting some three dozen master’s degree students on day one of her course in Spirituality and Psychotherapy. She invites the class to “clear a space for yourself with your breath and intention.” She invites them to “journal what sacred space is for you in your own life.” She asks everyone to think of a time of spiritual awakening in their own lives, and of a person who had a spiritual influence on them.

Then, she quotes the author Marianne Williamson.  

“Your playing small does not serve the world,” she intones. “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” She looks around, smiling. “So, in that spirit, I invite you to reflect and reenter a time when you were a spiritual teacher for someone else. We have asked the elephant in the room – modesty – to leave, because this is quite naturally the reservoir from which you live out your practice as a teacher, a healer, a guide.”

Learn how Goldman Sachs Gives is supporting the College's work with Covenant House.

Welcome to what The New York Times describes as the Ivy League’s first master’s degree concentration in spirituality and psychology – part of a new focus within TC’s clinical psychology program on spirituality as a powerful force in mental health and well-being.

Titled Spirituality and Contemplative Practices and directed by Miller, the concentration offers courses in “alternative” areas taught by well-known adjunct faculty such as Ted Dimon, pioneer of a holistic approach to mind and body health known as psychophysical education, and Sam Menahem, author of All Your Prayers Are Answered and When Therapy Isn’t Enough, who advocates the healing power of prayer.

Doctoral students who work with Miller use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain to research the links between spiritual practices and resilience against major depression. Other students are working in field placements in Manhattan at Covenant House, a nonprofit charity serving homeless youth with a network of shelters across the Americas, where they use meditation and reflective techniques inspired by Buddhism to help young men and single teenage mothers. 

All of this work, which falls under the umbrella of a new venture within the department called the Spirituality and Mind/Body Institute, places the College at the confluence of several national trends.

A growing number of Americans are engaging in mind-body practices such as yoga, meditation, Tai Chi and mindfulness exercises. According to Yoga Journal, for instance, the number of yoga practitioners in the United States more than tripled between 2001 and 2010. For many, the goal is fitness or stress reduction. At the same time, as reported in Time and on NPR, surveys by the Pew Research Center and Gallup describe an increase in people who say they have a personal spiritual orientation that is uncoupled from organized religion and that often includes a physical dimension such as a “deep connection with nature or the Earth.”

Of course, the term “spirituality” can seem vague. Miller defines it as “a direct relationship with a loving and guiding universe,” while others describe it simply as the relationship that individuals feel to something greater than themselves.

But there is nothing vague at all about the growing body of research from top universities and hospitals that is identifying the physical effects, particularly on the brain, of faith and spiritual practices, and their implications for mental health and wellness. 

Multiple studies – including some on Buddhist monks – suggest that people who practice a form of religious faith or disciplines such as Zen, vipassana and other forms of meditation have a thicker prefrontal cortex and more concentrated gray matter in parts of the brain that influence emotion and mood.

At last year’s American Psychological Association convention, Miller, Ravi Bensal and their collaborators in the labs of Myrna Weissman and Brad Peterson of the New York State Psychiatric Institute presented brain imaging studies showing cortical thickening in people who, over the preceding five-year period, had attached a high degree of importance to religion or personal spirituality. The thickening occurred in brain regions where thinning is typically observed in people who have strong family histories of depression. The people in Miller’s study who were religious also reported higher levels of emotional satisfaction and mental stability than “controls” who were not religious.

Karen Froud, Director of Teachers College’s Neurocognition of Language Lab, is leading a study comparing people who have meditated for many years with those who are novices at the discipline. She was inspired to conduct this research by a visit to her lab a few years ago by three Buddhist monks from Thailand, who underwent electroencephalogram scans. The scans pinpoint, to within milliseconds, the brain’s response to specific stimuli. Froud found that brain activations in all three men became much more coherent and organized during meditation, with some residual effects afterward. However, in one of the monks – a Rinpoche, or lama-like elder, who lives in a constant state of meditation – the brain activations looked extremely organized all the time.

And in 2011, neuroscientists at Massachusetts General Hospital found that people with no prior meditation experience displayed changes in gray matter density after using a technique called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for just eight weeks. The positively affected brain areas influence memory, compassion, empathy and resilience to stress. The study’s brief duration established an unmistakable cause-and-effect relationship between meditation and the observed brain changes.

While such work is still mostly in the basic research phase, mainstream health care clearly has recognized the importance of patients’ spiritual orientation and the value of spiritual and mind-body therapies.

Since 2001, for instance, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations has required hospitals to perform a “spiritual assessment” of critical-care patients. The commission’s suggested questions include: “Does the patient use prayer in their life? How would the patient describe their philosophy of life?”

Meditation and yoga in cancer care, end-of-life pastoral counseling and 12-step addiction treatment are other accepted techniques that draw on patients’ spiritual resources.

“In leveraging spirituality for healing, other fields are well ahead of clinical psychology,” says TC lecturer Aurelie Athan, who collaborates closely with the Spirituality and Mind/Body Institute. But now, Athan adds, that gap is starting to close. “We have books and articles that I never had when I was starting out in my training. People are asking how to best integrate spirituality in curricula. None of this was here 10 to15 years ago.”

Much of that progress stems from the work of Miller, who joined TC’s faculty in 1999 and now serves on the governing body of the American Psychological Association. At a time when psychology saw itself as largely antithetical to religion, Miller, who had previously studied at the University of Pennsylvania with Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, was investigating religiosity and spiritual development in adolescents. She focused on the ability of positive messaging to boost self-esteem among vulnerable groups such as teen mothers. She began an ongoing involvement in a 20-year study of women with a history of depression and their adult children, which has found, among other things, that personal spirituality limits the recurrence of major depression. She and her students at TC have since produced more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles on the protective property of spirituality against mental disorders. And this year saw the publication, under Miller’s editorship, of The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, a 600-page, 39-chapter tome that includes contributions from more than 60 scholars. The Handbook spans spiritual development, Western and Eastern traditions of prayer, meditation and “sacred dialogue” in treatment, connections between physical health and spirituality, the neuroscience of spiritual experience, and the history of psychology’s engagement with these issues.

Miller’s former students have also added to the field’s literature. In 2011, Randye J. Semple and Jennifer Lee, both of whom hold doctorates from TC, published Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Anxious Children. Integrating Buddhist meditative practices with Western cognitive therapy, the book builds on clinical trials in which Semple, who now teaches at the University of Southern California, and Lee, a psychologist in private practice, found that the hybrid technique they recommend fostered greater concentration and increased attention to schoolwork among children ages 9–12.

Ultimately, Miller is interested in developing clinical approaches that aim not just to diagnose and cure disorders (such as anxiety or depression), but also to actively increase well-being. She has argued that depression and the emergence of personal spirituality may be tightly connected, or even two facets of a single phenomenon in which depression serves as a painful but necessary phase that people pass through en route to finding a more stable kind of happiness. If so, then treating depression as a spiritual process, rather than as the result of trauma or chemical imbalances, may benefit patients in the long term. Miller recently secured a $2.5 million grant to test this hypothesis through a five-year study that will look at emerging adults ages 18–22, using MRI, genotyping (the process of determining differences in people’s genetic makeup by examining their DNA sequences) and other techniques.

That same idea, of spirituality arising out of depression, underlies Miller’s work at Covenant House, which is supported by Goldman Sachs Gives at the recommendation of Phil Armstrong, Co-Chief Operating Officer for Goldman Sachs’s Operations Division.

Miller’s team of current Ph.D. students offers a form of group therapy that feels as much practical as spiritual, addressing the issues of participants who are in crisis or transition, but with some use of meditative techniques and a discussion emphasis on love and connectedness. Alexandra Jordan and Marina Mazur lead sessions for single mothers. Biaggio Mastropieri and Lorne Schussel work with young men transitioning to self-sufficiency. It’s a real-world setting, with clients who often carry great anger and suspicion. The therapy aims to help them overcome the trauma of homelessness and “nourish internal resources intended to increase emotional regulation and awareness.”

Schussel opens each session with a mindfulness exercise, asking the young men to focus on the sound from a Tibetan singing bowl as it dissipates. Later, the men take time to visualize their “best selves.” In a session with volunteers willing to let a reporter sit in, these techniques mingle with more classic sharing of past traumas and current challenges.

“Meditation is great for conflict resolution,” Schussel says later. “It helps you step back, see your anger as it arises and allow it to dissipate. And that’s what we’re experiencing at Covenant House. Once you transform anger, you can bring in love.”

In the women’s group, Mazur reflects, “we look at the motherhood experience as a spiritual transformation, as well as other things. We are there to help them bring out their inherent strength and the knowledge that they really already have.” This group is co-supervised by Aurelie Athan, whose own work with women is informed by a spiritual orientation that frames motherhood as a growth-producing process.

These doctoral students are spiritually inclined themselves, in eclectic ways – some more intensely than others. Mazur, for instance, simply sees a “spiritual connection to the universe” as a useful tool for managing daily life. Schussel, by contrast, embraces an array of alternative techniques such as energy healing and Holotropic Breathwork.

Perhaps the biggest change she has witnessed in teaching spiritual psychology for the last 13 years, Miller says, is that each year more students arrive already curious about spirituality and involved in practices of their own.

“They get it,” she says. “Many of them meditate, many pray, do spiritual journeying, some of them do a shamanic practice. They’re already making a practice in their life of spiritual awareness and spiritual values.”

Miller believes that everyone’s expression of spirituality is unique, and that holds for patients as well as therapists. In her master’s degree class, she asks students to explore their own spirituality, precisely so that they will be able to help their patients do the same.

Her job as a teacher, she says, is to give students full-fledged scientific training in clinical psychology methods while validating their spiritual orientation.

“I find that students are quickly able to work out of this spiritual understanding,” Miller says. “And when students are clear within, they go into the therapy room as emerging healers, and then the client is naturally at home.”


Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012