Meet five students from the Spirituality Mind/Body Summer In... | Teachers College Columbia University

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Meet five students from the Spirituality Mind/Body Summer Intensive

Tingting Hu

TingTing hu“To me, spirituality means ‘inner power,’” says Tingting Hu. “It’s your faith in yourself and your ability to shape your own path.”

Hu grew up in China’s heavily agricultural Henan Province. Most of her peers cared little about school – “their attitude was, I’m going to be a farmer, like my parents, so why should I care about learning English?” – but she attended the prestigious Tsinghua University, known as “China’s M.I.T.” There she met two Americans with whom, in 2008, she co-founded Teach for China (TFC), which, like its U.S. counterpart, recruits young professionals and university students to teach in high-need schools. Hu’s role has been to work with the national and provincial governments to sell a concept seemingly at odds with Chinese mores.

“We need to prepare teachers to act as leaders who can get kids to see themselves as individuals,” she says. “To do that, we need our recruits to see this not as a sacrifice, but as something beneficial to their careers.”   

In 2013, Hu came to the United States to improve her English. Alone in a strange country, she embarked on “a journey of self-discovery,” exploring the Indian meditation technique Vipassana and undergoing 10 days of “noble silence” meditation. Then she heard about the Summer Intensive.

“The idea of combining spirituality and psychology and exploring it systematically, in a scientific way, was amazing to me.”  

Now, she plans to introduce another new idea into Chinese culture: spirituality.  

“There’s such a huge need, because as the economy grows, people have no beliefs to rely on,” she says. “They can’t go back to God, and there’s no therapy culture. So Lisa Miller is saying, ‘What if you ground this in the context of health instead of religion? Because everyone cares about health.”  

As Hu sets out on a new career path, her questions remain the same.  “I’m still thinking asking leadership looks like,” she says. “Are mindfulness and leadership at odds? I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to be a mindful leader.”


Matthew Evans

Matthew evansGrowing up in Wales, Matthew Evans was working two jobs at age 13.

“My purpose was to understand the value of money – how it fits into society and the role it plays.” The experience showed him that, while important for putting food on the table, “the material gain of finance is neither influential nor important to the fundamental being of existence.”   

Evans has brought that same outlook to his career as a physical trainer and health club owner. He has turned down offers to run gymnasiums for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Liners and private health club facilities in Finland, Australia and New Zealand, as well as service as a Royal Marines Commando in the U.K. – all to fulfill a lifelong dream to “live, work and inspire” in New York City.

“I’ve always seen myself as an inspirational and motivational confidence builder,” he says. “My whole ethos is mind over matter, smile in the face of adversity – with the right mindset, you can overcome absolutely anything.  We have to learn to embrace fear and failure as something that, far from being detrimental, can help us to learn and develop.”

Though not “a science soul,” Evans hired a tutor while he was in school in order to master some basics and pass his exams.  While preparing for an undergraduate sociology course, he began reading up on the growing importance of neuroscience in psychological research.  In 2013, after reading “some hugely influential books, he learned about the new spirituality mind-body summer intensive at TC.” In short order, he arranged his business so that he could run it from afar and moved to the United States – a decision about which he has no regrets.

“Lisa Miller is a rock star of psychology – it’s an absolute honor to learn and work with her. Gary Schwartz has been truly inspirational  – he’s going to work with me to develop my ideas. And Ben Zander, with his witty, playful demeanor as a speaker, was an instant overnight role model.”

Like many of the students in the program, Evans hopes the cohort will collaborate on some sort of sustained group effort that extends beyond the program. “We completely complement each other, with skills in health, fitness, art therapy, finance, publishing and coaching,” he says

For his own part, he plans to further develop his holistic health business “so that everyone has exactly what is needed for mind, body and soul, all under one roof.” He laughs. “Like a Toys R Us for spirituality!”

And then there’s his thesis project – a study he plans to conduct under Schwartz’s guidance that will explore links between consciousness and Newton’s Law of Gravity. He also hopes to develop his creative writing skills and publish a line of children’s books with inspirational stories “to help the next generation embrace its true potential.” 


Suza Scalora

Suza scaloraSuza Scalora gave up a successful career as a beauty photographer to live “a conscious, mindful life, supporting other people.” She founded a nonprofit, Love 365, which  “teaches people how to live their best lives by developing a more loving relationship with themselves and the voices in their heads.”

With several books to her name, including The Fairies, a children’s best-seller that her writing and photography to tell the story of an archaeologist who finds real-world sprites around the globes, Scalora has become a well-known figure in health-and-wellness and spirituality communities. But she wants to do more than simply preach to the choir.

“Most people feel there’s something deeper than what happens in your everyday life,” she says. “They want sustainable happiness, not just a new car or a new pair of shoes. But there’s a lot of skepticism about spirituality – so to bring this to a mass audience, you’ve got to be able to bring in the science.”

For her Teachers College thesis, she plans to spend the year using her column for The Huffington Post to acquaint readers with new scientific findings about spirituality’s physiological impact. This fall, for example, she’ll do a series of interviews with Summer Intensive guest faculty member Andrew Newburg, a neuroscientist who has done MRI studies showing that certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are more present in the brains of religious people.  

“We’re learning so much more about the brain – evidence from scans and other technologies that can’t be denied – and when people see it, that’s when they start to listen,” Scalora says. That’s what’s so exciting about Lisa Miller’s work, and it’s what I hope to bring to mine.”


Zahra Komeylian

Zahra komeylianZahra Komeylian has long felt that people could improve their mental well-being by getting in touch with their spiritual selves. In her own life, Komeylian, a 2013 graduate of Toronto’s York College who studied mood disorders and potential interventions such as mindfulness and meditation, sought a closer connection between her work in biopsychology and “the way that spirituality has resonated for me” – not simply her Islamic faith, but her broader interest in the power of positive emotions.  

Last year, as Komeylian was gearing up to enter a six-year graduate program in clinical psychology, she came across Lisa Miller’s web page. “I started jumping up and down, because it provided an empirically-based way to incorporate spirituality into well-being,” she says.

The Summer Intensive program has more than met her expectations.

“It’s so liberating to be in a group where everyone is speaking their truth,” she says. “I’ve been opened to understanding people from different walks of life.”

Komeylian plans to write her thesis on the question of whether there is an underlying universality to all forms of spirituality.  Do the practices of different faiths and belief systems tap into something that is the same? Are there common benefits associated with these different practices, or different ones?

“It’s been so great working with Lisa – having a teacher who looks at you and sees all of your potential,” she says. “At this point in my life, having an academic role model who is so successful in her work, and who embodies the work she’s been doing, is really inspiring.”

Meanwhile, the program has made her life a bit more complicated, albeit in a good way.

“I’m such a goal-oriented person, and I’ve always had such hard-set goals, but now I want to get off the conveyor belt of undergraduate, master’s degree, doctorate,” she says.  She still envisions a career as either a researcher or a clinician, but adds, “We have to take into account our own growth as people. The key is being open to different opportunities, and then the right thing will present itself.”


Dila Sultanova

Dila sultanovaDila Sultanova grew up in no particular religious tradition.

“My parents were very pragmatic, focused on math and hard sciences,” she says. “They wanted me to become financially secure and independent early on in my life – a view I readily shared.”   

Indeed, at 25, Sultanova has carved out a successful career with one of the top global investment banks on Wall Street, where, most recently she has led an initiative to streamline and standardize reporting, analysis and forecasting in accordance with the European Union’s Capital Requirements Directive IV legislation, which sets new safety guidelines for how much risk financial institutions can incur. She has published her own research on government regulation of Wall Street companies and, in addition to her day job, founded her own real estate business, buying her first multi-family home.   

“I love my work, both in finance and the real estate industry, but I’ve realized: You can build your life early, but the highs you receive from achieving your next goal may not be the same as the ones you from your earlier achievements. I jokingly call it my law of diminishing happiness: satisfaction and pride I derived from my projects were becoming less and less. I found myself constantly planning and plotting the next project instead of taking a moment to reflect and become mindful of my mistakes, achievements, wins and losses.  Well – you can get burned out. Spirituality offers a balance so you don’t always need the next big thing. Instead of constantly worrying about the future, you shift your focus to the present and you begin to experience and enjoy life. This is what my cohort group and program taught me. I realized that satisfaction and fulfillment can be achieved here and now with everything I’ve so far created for myself, not with the next ‘best thing.’”

Sultanova, who used her accumulated vacation time to complete the Summer Intensive, says she has no plans to change careers.

“I am in this program for my own self-development,” she says. “The second day alone of the Summer Intensive provided me with so much personal growth.  With so many people singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me under the guidance of a world-renowned conductor, I learned to gracefully receive. That goes against the nature of many of us, because we have been taught that we must first give in order to receive, we must earn the recognition, and we must work for an achievement. I also learned that selfless giving of unconditional love can bring so much joy and transformation to others. I will never forget that day!”

(Photo Credit: Meira Gottlieb)

Published Thursday, Sep. 4, 2014