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Blazing a Spiritual Path

BRAINSTORM  (4/3/15)

Dear readers: Welcome to Brainstorm, a new series that describes how TC faculty members have not only developed their core ideas, but also built new structures within the College that have enhanced the reach and impact of their work. Our first Brainstorm feature describes how Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology & Education, launched new programs and centers based on the science that underlies the connections between spirituality and health.
Thomas James, Provost and Dean

Blazing a Spiritual Path

In the late 1990s, when Lisa Miller was casting around for her first faculty position, she considered only one possibility.

“It was going to be Teachers College or I wasn’t going to work in academia,” recalls Miller, Professor of Psychology & Education. “I wanted to change the world, and the whole spirit at TC is about supporting innovation. It was true then and it’s even more so now. Susan Fuhrman and Tom James really see the value of an idea before it’s been proven to the world, and they provide the intellectual freedom to pursue it. That’s what enables new fields to be born.”  

In all likelihood, Miller would have enjoyed individual success no matter where she went. She had a compelling hypothesis, which she’d begun developing as a doctoral student  at the University of Pennsylvania under Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the field of positive psychology:: that faith, or what she calls “a loving relationship to a higher power,” provides measurable benefits in the brain that protect against depression, addiction and other ills. (“Marty was an ideal mentor who truly valued my ideas, even when they were "off the grid” for psychology at the time.  He was more interested in truth then vogue.”) She had begun amassing the scientific evidence to back it up – work that, even as a postdoc at Columbia, where her mentor was Myrna Weissman, she was publishing in mainstream venues such as The American Journal of Psychiatry, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and The Journal of Adolescence.

But Miller was looking for something more than just a place to continue doing research.

“I wanted to bring the right people together for the right conversations,” she says. “That’s how you really make things happen.”

So from the first, Miller has worked on two parallel tracks. Over the past 15 years, she and her students have published more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles on the protective property of spirituality against mental disorders. She has been elected a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, served as President of the APA’s 2,600-member Division of Psychology of Religion and edited The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality. This spring, St. Martin’s Press will bring out her newest book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving.

Yet during the same period, she was tapping all the resources the College affords to create “the right conversations” at TC.

In 2000, in just her second year on TC’s faculty, Miller successfully pitched her program head on teaching a new course on spirituality and psychology.

“That was huge,” she says. “There are so many places where it would have taken years to push that through. Instead, everyone was enthusiastic. It was such a powerful signal to me.”

Enrollment in the class grew every semester, until finally, in 2011, Miller and her former student, TC psychology lecturer Aurelie Athan, created TC’s Spirituality Mind/Body Institute, a new entity within the College’s Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology. She also launched the first master’s degree program in spirituality and psychology, titled Spirituality and Contemplative Practices.

“At the end of my course, students would say, ‘Now what? How can I continue, can I join your lab?’ So the voice for a program came from the students’ hunger to learn more.”

In accommodating them, Miller exercised her considerable diplomacy and political savvy, taking pains to reorganize the department’s master’s degree program “for everyone, and not so it would just be Lisa’s M.A. program.”

“I start out with the view that everyone is my friend, that we’re all on the same team,” she says. “But I also remember what Jung said – that your so-called enemy is your friend, because your enemy will tell you what your friends will not.”

Under the new structure, students could elect to focus on different areas through a cluster of courses, which still fulfilling a group of core requirements.

“You were still getting the gold standard in applied psychology, but now you could specialize,” she says. “So everyone was doing what they loved.”

In June 2014, backed by a grant from TC’s Provost’s Investment Fund, Miller established a second master’s program, the Summer Mind/Body Intensive, which enables people with jobs and families, during three weeks at the College, followed by nine months of online study, to cover the same ground as in the traditional master’s program.  She had done her homework, modeling the structure on that of other TC offerings such as the intensive programs in Executive Change Management and certain courses within the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership.

“The intensive format made sense for mid-career professionals – particularly in the field of spirituality, where the signature learning modes are the retreat and the workshop,” she says. “My attitude is, if something’s already working, why build a new structure? Do your innovating around pedagogy and content.”

Meanwhile Miller was also developing outside partnerships and winning funding from non-traditional sources.  In 2011, she launched the program Youth Rising, through which TC students provide mindfulness workshops and other supports for the staff at Covenant House, an organization that provides shelter and support services for New York City’s more than 12,000 homeless youth. Written up in The New York Times as part of a larger story about Miller’s work in spirituality and psychology, the work has enjoyed significant backing from the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

At a certain point, each of Miller’s successes began to reinforce the others. The Goldman Sachs support helped her win a Provost’s grant, for which one of the criteria is an ability to attract outside funding.  Editing The Oxford Handbook opened additional doors within the APA.

“I got up at four in the morning every day for three years to edit the Handbook,” she recalls. “But it was worth it, because when I went to the American Psychological Association a few years ago to propose starting a new journal” – Spirituality in Clinical Practice, which she now co-edits – “I had the credibility, and they said yes.”

 Miller is aware that many breaks have gone her way, and that not everything about her own success is easily replicated. But there is one thing that she particularly urges others to keep in mind.

“At TC, we all share a commitment to work for the greater good, and the spirit of our work creates opportunities,” she says. “Our work speaks to other people’s hearts, because they know when something is life-giving. Their shared passion opens doors.”

Published Friday, Apr. 3, 2015