THIS is the story of the efforts of a small band of clinical psychologists to re-establish the links between spiritual awareness and psychological wellbeing. It is told by one of the leading researchers in the field, Lisa Miller (Features, 20 August). Her pioneering work has shown both that spiritual feeling guards against depression and anxiety, and that this sense of presence can be measured in brain studies — the all-important evidence in an age of neuroscience, and which gives the author her title, The Awakened Brain.
Miller argues that spiritual awareness is to be found across religious differences and should be considered a birthright. Her book includes discussions of synchronicities and the efficacy of rituals and ceremonies. She emphasises the need for modern humans to awaken again to the fact that we live in a living, not dead, cosmos, with which we can be in an active relationship — which is why she advocates a “postmaterial” world-view in The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality, of which she is the editor. The only way to account for the richness of experience is to move beyond the idea that consciousness is generated in the brain and that living creatures are biological robots.
That may sound uncontroversial to religious people, but it can challenge them, too. For instance, there is good evidence that compassionate or healing intentions directed, at a distance, towards recipients have tangible, if not straightforward, effects on bodies and mental processes. Miller also discusses research that shows that the alpha waves generated by meditators are present in nature, as what are called Schumann resonances. They could be a physical correlate of the widespread, if often discounted, experience of oneness with others and nature. Miller argues that learning to take such sensibilities seriously, at an individual and cultural level, is crucial for our well-being and that of the living world.
To that end, the book outlines practical ways of treating the pandemic levels of mental distress present in our routinely alienated society. They include visualisations of higher selves and reflecting on the connections with others which are often felt most powerfully during periods of suffering. Miller herself discovered this when trying to have children. Depression is really a call to renewed spiritual awareness, she concludes, which is wholly unlike the achieving awareness that often shapes faith communities as much as others, with their demoralising drives to reach goals, and conflations of meaning with numerical growth.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer.
The Awakened Brain: The psychology of spirituality and our search for meaning
Allen Lane £20
Church Times Bookshop £18