The Spirit of Summer
Through a new program in spirituality and psychology, the paths of 32 seekers converged at TC for three weeks in July
“Now, the way it’s going to work out in this gorgeous young woman’s life will depend on how we sing to her.” The British orchestral conductor and motivational guru Benjamin Zander was addressing the inaugural cohort of Lisa Miller’s Spirituality Mind Body Summer Intensive program. He turned to 25-year-old Dila Sultanova, standing next to him on a chair. “Now, Dila, these people love you and know that if you have an extraordinary life untold numbers of other people are going to be affected. So your job is to accept what’s about to hit you as a gift.”
Over the next 10 minutes, while Sultanova stood blushing, Zander, white-haired and beaming, led the group through multiple renditions of “Happy Birthday,” prodding them to gesture emphatically, stress different words, sing louder and implore Sultanova with their arms outstretched.
When the last notes had died away, Zander nodded his approval. The choice for how to sing “Happy Birthday,” he told the group, is the choice of how to approach any situation in life. You can shrug in resignation; clench your fists in anger or raise your arms and search for possibility. Each is a valid response, but the search for possibility begins with asking: “What assumptions am I making that I don’t know I’m making? And what can I invent that I haven’t invented that would give me something new?”
Sequel Of Success
Two years ago, Miller, Professor of Psychology and Education, and Teachers College took the third path, launching the nation’s first Ivy League master’s degree concentration in spirituality and psychology. Featured in The New York Times, the program, a unique blend of faith and science, drew 165 students in 2013 and 211 this year. Meanwhile, inquiries poured in from others who were unable to go to school full-time. Solution: in July, Miller launched the Summer Intensive, bringing together 32 participants for three weeks at TC and nine months of online collaboration and independent study.
“Intensive” may be an understatement. “Many of our students had been searching years or even decades for this type of innovative experiential learning in an institution of higher education” says Sarah Sherman Director of Summer Intensive Master’s program. “They told us they experience uncontrollable joy and unique connections.
From the day the students arrived (from as far away as China, and from fields ranging from high finance to biopsychology), they bonded with Miller and her team — Sherman, Summer Intensive master’s Assistant Director Lauren Foley and Ellie Cobb, Director of TC’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute; with the many guest speakers and faculty members; and above all, with one another.
“Our group is so powerfully dynamic, with people at the forefront of spiritual activism,” says Matthew Evans, who owns a holistic health club in the United Kingdom but relocated to New York City. “Understanding our potential will unite us forever.” First and foremost, Miller and her team focused on the personal spiritual growth of each participant. “This program marks a genuine pedagogical shift,” Cobb says.
“Where most graduate programs focus on performance and evaluation, ours emphasizes self-reflection, professional growth through openness and receptivity, and integration of one’s own journey with academia, science and the connection to others.”
The students were exposed to a wide range of spiritual practices from other cultures, faiths and fields. Visiting scholars and speakers included Rabbi-Hazzan Shaul Marshall Praver, who spoke at the memorial for children killed in the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; the Hindu leader Mātā Amritanandamayi Devī, known as Amma (“mother”), who has founded universities and hospitals in India and is said to have embraced and comforted more than 33 million people; Matthew Stinchcomb, Vice President for Values and Impact at Etsy, a global e-commerce website that preaches commerce as a form of human interaction; and Diana Muenz Chen, a medium who claims to channel the energy of angels.
“Our guest scholars are all spiritual activists,” Miller said. “They connect their beliefs and work to improve the world.”
But the program’s biggest draw may have been its presentation of scientific findings about spirituality’s physiological and mental impact. Addressing these issues were Gary Schwartz, Director of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health; Andrew Newburg, Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital; and Miller, whose brain-imaging studies in the United States, China, India and Brazil have found a thickening of the prefrontal cortex in people who regularly practice some kind of faith or spirituality, versus cortical thinning in chronically depressed people. The findings, in essence, suggest that a smile really is a frown turned upside down.
“We think that depression and spirituality may be two sides of the same coin and that the vast middle range of depression may reflect development landmarks that have a spiritual component,” Miller said. “We’re asking, ‘Are there chapters of spiritual emergence that initially rear their heads with elements of depression? And even more broadly, ‘Is there a core human capacity for transcendence that takes on a cultural overlay?”
As they probe such questions through independent study, the Summer Intensive students can share thoughts, findings and other observations online.
“We have a jewel — a sacred spiritual community, with mentors and guides of all ages,” Miller says. “I’m so excited about this program. It speaks to the hunger out there among so many people for a more spiritually-infused world.”
The choice of how to sing “Happy Birthday,” Zander told the group, is the choice of how to approach any situation in life. You can shrugin resignation, clench your fists in anger or raise your arms and search for possibility.
Zahra Komeylian has long felt that people could improve their mental well-being by getting in touch with their spiritual selves. A 2013 graduate of Toronto’sYork College who studied mood disorders and potential interventions such as mindfulness and meditation, Komeylian has sought a closer connection between 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 readied for a clinical psychology graduate program, she found Miller’s web page. “I jumped up and down because it provided an empirically-based way to incorporate spirituality into well-being.” 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. For her thesis, Komeylian is exploring the benefits of mindfulness in clinical populations. She is working with Becky Hashim, a physician at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, on a clinical study that adapts dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) - a marriage of cognitive therapy and Zen mindfulness principles- for urban youth with diabetes. She’s also involved with the community center Mindful Harlem and is undergoing mindfulness-based stress reduction training.
“It’s been so great working with Lisa,” she says. “Having an academic role model who is so successful in her work, and who embodies the work she’s been doing, is really inspiring.”
“Komeylian has sought a closer connection between 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.” Zahra Komeylian
Growing up in Wales, Matthew Evans was working two jobs at age 13. “My purpose was to understand the role money plays in society.” The experience taught him that, while important for putting food on the table, “material gain is neither influential nor important to the fundamental experience of being.”
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 a confidence builder,” he says. “My whole ethos is that, with the right mindset, you can overcome absolutely anything. We have to learn to embrace fear and failure as something that can help us to learn and develop.”
Though not “a science soul,” Evans, while preparing for an undergraduate sociology course, 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 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.
“Lisa Miller is a rock star of psychology — it’s an absolute honor to learn and work with her,” he says. “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.”
Evans hopes the cohort will collaborate on a sustained group effort that extends beyond the program. “We completely complement each other, with skills in health, fitness, art therapy, finance, publishing and coaching.”
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.”
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.”
“My whole ethos is that, with the right mindset, you can overcome absolutely anything. We have to learn to embrace fear and failure as something that can help us to learn and develop.” Matthew Evans
Suza 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 combines her writing and photography to tell the story of an archaeologist who finds real-world sprites, Scalora is well-known 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 skepticism about spirituality — so to bring this to a mass audience, you’ve got to bring in the science.”
For her Teachers College thesis, she’s using her column for The Huffington Post to acquaint readers with new scientific findings about spirituality’s physiological impact. One example: MRI studies by neuroscientist and Summer Intensive guest faculty member Andrew Newburg that show 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.
“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.” Suza Scalora
Dila 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.”
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 from your earlier achievements. I jokingly call it my law of diminishing happiness because 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. You can get burned out, but 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 the 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. For many of us, that goes against our nature because we have been taught that we must first give in order to receive. I also learned that selfless giving of unconditional love can bring so much joy and transformation to others. I will never forget that day!”
“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.” Dila Sultanova
Ting Ting Hu
To me, spirituality means ‘inner power,’ ” says Summer Intensive student TingTing Hu. “Faith in your ability to shape your path.” Most of Hu’s peers in China’s agricultural Henan Province cared little about school- “their attitude was, I’m going to be a farmer, like my parents”- but she attended Tsinghua University (“China’s M.I.T.”) and in 2008, with two Americans, co-founded Teach for China. Like its U.S. counterpart, the organization recruits young professionals and university students to teach in high-need schools.
Hu has sold China’s national and provincial governments on the concept. “We need teachers who can get kids to see themselves as individuals,” she says. “We need our recruits to see this as beneficial to their careers, not a sacrifice.” In 2013, Hu came to the United States to improve her English and 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. “Combining spirituality and psychology and exploring it scientifically sounded amazing.”
Now, she plans to introduce another new idea into Chinese culture: spirituality. “There’s such a huge need. As the economy grows, people have no beliefs to rely on. They can’t go back to God, and there’s no therapy culture. Lisa Miller is saying, ‘What if you ground this in health instead of religion?’ “Because everyone cares about health.”
“Combining spirituality and psychology and exploring it scientifically sounded amazing.” TingTing Hu
Published Friday, Dec. 19, 2014