Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #131 Wired to Awaken
About this episode

"Did you know there is a powerful connection between spirituality and mental health? Martha recently read a book about this subject—The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life by Lisa Miller—and she’s talking about it on this episode of The Gathering Room: The Benefits of Awakening.

Wired to Awaken

Martha Beck:

Welcome to the Gathering Pod, the audio version of my weekly Gathering Room broadcast. I’m Martha Beck. If I’m looking extra haggard today, it’s because I was up all night reading a book that I should have read years ago, and it only came out in 2021, in my defense. Sometimes, I’m writing about what I’ve read, and I don’t have a chance to keep up with my reading. But last night, I finally started reading a book by Lisa Miller called, I want to get this exactly right, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.

So Lisa Miller is a very well reputed social scientist. I think she’s a psychiatrist, Ivy League, Yale, Columbia, the whole thing, credibility out the wazoo. And she, years ago, was working on a huge data set that had been pulled. There were people doing research on thousands and thousands of people on all these measures for a long time. And different social scientists will all join together and work on one big dataset. And you can do things statistically. If you have a question, you can go in and see, “Oh, what’s going on with this question?” Are people happier if they eat bacon? Are they happier if they kiss a dog or whatever? They don’t have those questions usually. So you can only use the questions you’ve got.

So Lisa Miller was working in psychiatry at a mental health ward, and she noticed that some of the people got together and did a religious ceremony, one of the Jewish holidays, and she noticed that all these people who were mentally ill and supposedly sort of broken, seemed to get a little dose of exactly what they were needing from this ritual. And she was like, “Huh, that’s very interesting.” So when she got to work on this huge data set, a few years later, she decided to look for spirituality measures and what was happening there.

And guess what? They hadn’t asked anything about spirituality. They told her, “No, no, no. That has nothing to do with social science. We’re talking about actual science here.” But she kept looking, and she found one question they’d ask, which was like, “How involved are you in religious and spiritual life, or something like that?” And she went and did statistics on this dataset, and it turned out that there were all these measures they’d taken like hereditary risk for depression and life accidents, like having had a trauma of some kind, whether they’d been depressed in the past, all these measures of mental health.

And it turned out that when she looked at the relationship between spirituality and mental health, she found the strongest correlation that they’d ever seen, I believe this is right, I was reading late at night, between any one variable and mental wellness or resistance to depression.

In other words, the more people said that spiritual life was important to them, the more they seemed to be protected against depression going forward. And this was stronger than the relationship with other variables, like whether their parents were depressed or whether they’d been depressed in the past, or whether they’d been traumatized. Those all had an impact on their mental health. But the spirituality link was very, very strong, weirdly strong.

So Lisa Miller was working with Martin Seligman, who was the big psychologist of happiness. He got in charge of the American Psychological Association. He was put in as president, and he said, “Let’s stop just looking at disease. Let’s look at happiness, and see what makes people happy.” So they started studying that. And he and the people around him were impressed with Lisa Miller’s take on these data.

So they had her present to a sort of Ivy League professor crowd, and all of them were like, “Okay, well, you weren’t controlling for the right things. The spirituality has no impact on mental health. We know that to be true.” And she said, “No, it really does.” And they said, “No, it must’ve been some other thing, like the way it affected their diet or something.” And she said, “No, I controlled for that.” Well, it must have had something to do with the circumstances of whether their parents were divorced. No, I controlled for that.

There’s a way you can do statistics where you look at the impact of one variable on another, and you can actually subtract out the impact of other variables so that you know that what you’re looking at is actually a causal link, or it’s a very strong likelihood that there’s a causal link.

So Lisa Miller began devoting her whole career to this particular question, does spirituality affect mental health? And the answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And as the technology got better and they were able to look at the brain in action and do more tests, and she got invited to do research with more people, they were able finally to look at what a brain is like for somebody who has a strong spiritual life or a personal practice of spirituality. It didn’t matter what the context was. It didn’t matter whether it was religious or not, whether people were agnostic. It didn’t matter. As long as they had something that they felt was a spiritual identity and they regularly connected with it, that was what she was looking at.

And when they saw brain maps of people who had a more spiritual life versus those who did not, there was much thicker material in the upper right cortex of the brain for people who had a spiritual life. And these were the same parts of the brain involved in causing sensitivity to depression.

So in other words, this is what was happening. People who were sensitive to depression and had been depressed and then began doing spiritual practice of some kind, had brains that were really different from other people’s brains, and the way in which they were different, is that they were more able to connect with happiness and that they were resistant to more incidents of mental illness or depression. In other words, the more spiritual they got, the more their brains changed to make them happier people.

I’d read similar work done by Andrew Newberg in his book about how God changes the brain. There have been a few people doing research on this all along. But one of the things I loved about Lisa Miller’s book… I was up all night reading it. I literally could not put it down, read it in one sitting. And one thing I loved about her is she used the word awakening, and she also told some beautiful parts of her own story. And they really resonated with me, and I think they’ll resonate with you all.

For example, she was trying to get pregnant. She struggled to get pregnant for several years. And during that time, she became more spiritual in her outlook, and she started to notice because she was in a place of real desperation, she’d been trying so hard and yearning so hard for a child, and she hadn’t been able to fulfill that yearning. And so, she was on a quest, as she put it, to find her happiness anyway.

And for example, one day she came home, and there was a little scrawny little thing on her doorstep, and it was the embryo of a duck that had been… The egg was broken. The embryo wasn’t big enough to survive, but she gave it like a Christian… No, she didn’t give it a Christian burial. Sorry. She actually is of the Jewish persuasion. So that’s a really insulting thing for me to have said, but it was just an idiom. She gave it respect and love and thought, “Oh, this poor embryo, I wish it had made it.”

And later that day, she was sitting around, and she hears something at the door, and she goes over and there’s a mother duck there with a worm. And the mother duck gave her the worm, and then walked away. I have had wild animals come to the door and knock when I’ve been in a state of deep spiritual questing. So this felt very, very resonant with my experience. And other times, she was kayaking, Lisa Miller was, and some geese started to make a big racket up ahead of her.

And because she was looking to the natural world for a connection with her spiritual identity, say more about that in a minute, she actually paid attention to them as if they were a part of herself, as if they were connected to her, and she allowed them to take her attention. And because of that, she saw this big cement block right under the water that she would’ve collided with if the geese hadn’t gotten so loud. So she felt like they were warning her.

So I’ve had lots of experiences like this with wild animals, and it was so exciting for me to read about that happening to her. In a weird way, we took a bit of a similar path because it was through despair and questing and feeling like when my son was diagnosed with Down syndrome, there was a lot of a sense of having parental pain. And it was very deep, and it took me into a place where I was willing to be openly spiritual with myself.

And then I started having these odd synchronicities everywhere and interactions with wild animals that I couldn’t explain. And the whole world seemed to connect with me. And then I became privately obsessed after a decade of this with the literature from Asian philosophy on awakening or enlightenment. And the reason I was privately obsessed with it, two things. First of all, it doesn’t go with your Ivy League degrees. As Lisa Miller found out at first, people weren’t up for it for a while. The second thing is that it’s considered very arrogant in spiritual circles, especially those Asian traditions, to say, “I want to be awakened in this lifetime.” It’s kind of like, “Yeah, don’t claim that. Don’t claim that.”

Ram Dass, Richard Alpert, who taught at Harvard and then went off and became a spiritual person and was roundly lambasted because of it, basically derided by the whole academic community. When he would teach, he would say, “Okay. Are you going to be awakened in this lifetime?” No. Okay. Now, you can relax because that’s an unattainable goal. But I was totally obsessed with stories of people who seem to have awakened out of the dream of suffering.

And then I started reading things, for example, a book by a man named David Hawkin, Power versus Force about spiritual power versus the physical force that we use to move things around. He also had an awakening experience, and he started writing in the late ’90s saying, “At one point, it would have been useless to write about this because there weren’t enough people who were going to be awakened in this lifetime to even bother writing a book about.” But now, that has become statistically much more probable.

Eckhart Tolle said the same thing. When he first had his awakening experience, there was really no one to talk to about it that was going to go to that space. But then in the ’90s, he got this very strong impulse that he should start writing about it, and he wrote The Power of Now, which started with a print run of 4,000 and has sold 14 million copies at this point.

So anyway, I was a secret devotee of awakening. And sure enough, here’s Lisa Miller just using the word awakened. And at the end of her book, she talks about publishing some papers where they went out for peer review, and she just flat out said this stuff. She’s been doing research on it for years and years now, and she’s like, “She’s not shy.” And instead of getting mocked and ridiculed, she got back thoughtful material feedback from her peers that said, “Try running the spirituality variable against this, this, and this.” And she did, and she found more exciting things. In other words, the folks who were reading her articles, her peer-reviewed articles, these are people at the top of their profession, were just saying, “Okay. I trust these numbers. I trust the data. You’ve done really good work here.”

There is a link between awakening and mental health, and it is a really, really powerful one. Excuse me, I’m getting something here. It’s a really powerful link. So I am coming to you today to say, “First of all, read Lisa Miller’s book. You’re going to love it, the Awakened Brain.” And next, I just wanted to say I’m coming out as someone who believes in awakening in your power to awaken, my power to awaken.

I’ve been talking around it for so many years. It’s almost like you already know this. When I came out as gay, people were like, “Yeah.” It’s not a big surprise to anybody, but in the Wayfinder Coach Training or whatever, I talk around it, but the real point of everything I do as a life coach, Lisa Miller differentiates between achievement orientation and awakening orientation. And a lot of things that are called coaching are very much about achievement. And so people sort of think that I fall into that camp. I really don’t care about achievement.

You can’t achieve awakening. Awakening is being what you are in your essence. You can’t achieve it any more than you can achieve having lungs. It’s just in you. It’s something that you can realize through discarding illusion. So I don’t know how that got me called a life coach, but I’ll accept it.

But when people come to me for coaching, or if you do the training or whatever, you’re not going to learn much about how to achieve harder. You’re going to learn about the awakened mind, the awakened brain, the awakened state, and how we can move into it because after reading this book last night, I am just without any modesty whatsoever.

I’m just like, “Let’s do this. Let’s all wake up together,” because here’s what happens when you truly awaken. You stop being afraid of death. You stop feeling separate from the other aspects of the universe. You begin to feel loved by everything. You begin to feel held. You begin to see synchronicities and miracles. You begin to manifest stuff you think about without really trying. You find your integrity and you get really solid. You don’t need other people’s rules to go by because they’re coming from inside you.

You learn to be kind and to be compassionate at a level that you’re not even capable of without awakening. There is a state available to all of us, and I just think we should all go for it right now. I love Pema Chodron’s… I may have said this last time I was on the Gathering Room. She says in one of her books, “I am awake. I will spend my life taking off this armor.” So the armor is everything we use to try to achieve and make things happen and make ourselves feel like somebody and not be so afraid of aging and death and illness and loss. All those things we’re trying to achieve, nah, nah. Awakening is the loss of the fear of those things.

And what comes out of us after we’ve lost our fear of everything is completely unique, completely unexpected, completely individual to each person because that’s the reason we exist as separate people, to have a different facet of the jewel that consciousness apparently is creating with all of us as its facets.

So Dr. Donna says, “How can we use the distinctive feelings of spirituality to calm the amygdala fear?” All right. So the distinctive feelings of spirituality include everything. They don’t exclude anything. They surround and embrace. So if you’re out there feeling like, “Well, my life sucks, and I hate it and I’m never going to be awakened,” guess what? Your awakened self right now is already on board without saying, “Yeah, I hear you. I get that you feel that way, and I’m right here. I’m right here. Relax, relax, relax.” And you’ll feel that you’re being held. Trust, go to the place where you don’t know what’s going to happen and trust. And then wait until the feeling of being held shows up by itself.

You cannot force this. You can only invite it. And the way you invite it is to continuously challenge and question the things that cause you suffering. So, “Oh, I should be afraid of everything.” No. No. I’m going to go to a place with no fear, and I’m going to turn that around and say, “I am loved by everything,” and then send your creative mind to figure out how that might be true.

That way, you’re using the apparatus of the brain in such a way that it isn’t spinning more tightly into anxiety, but is going over into the creative association mode on the right hemisphere that has no anxiety in it. So during the time you’re connecting with these new thoughts and feelings and beliefs, these new things you’ve never thought of, you will find looking back on it that there was no anxiety at the time.

If you look at it in the moment, the anxiety may snap back in because the whole thing that goes, “Oh, I got to measure my anxiety.” Now, that’s part of anxiety. So when you’re out of anxiety, you don’t notice that you’re out of anxiety. You just feel good, and these feelings of bliss and connection and tenderness and love, these things come on you unexpectedly and just take your breath away.

And then those become the moments that you link back to when the amygdala starts saying, “But I’m afraid. I’m very afraid.” Yes, I know you are. Come, get a hug, and stay with me. As Huffy says, “Troubled, then, stay with me for I am not troubled.” Oh, Jamie says, “Wayfinder Life Coach Training was awakening.” Oh, yeah, Jamie Lynn, yeah. Come to a life coach training course, and wake up. She awoke.

It’s not my fault. I can’t give anybody awakening. I wouldn’t call myself awake right now, but I know the method. I know how to get there, and it’s by questioning anything that causes you to suffer. Solace Steph says, “Is spiritual awakening and ego death the same thing?” I think so. Yeah. I think they might be slightly different, but they happen at the same time because the ego death is what allows the awakening to show. So you’re always awake. You’re always awake.

That’s the thing that they say. And I’ve had little glimpses in meditation and going through my life. It’s like you don’t discover something brand new that you’ve never known. You just realize, “Oh, everything was perfect all along. Oh. Well, oh.” And it’s almost like you start to laugh because everything is so okay, and it always has been.

When the ego stops shouting, when it stops screaming its bad ideas and fears at you and all the false… What would you call them? Scream is what comes to mind. A screen on which is projected things that look real, when that drops away and you’re looking straight at reality without the scream, you kind of go, “Oh, oh, I’ve been this way all along,” but my ego was in the way, that’s the scream, and it just died.

And now, there’s nothing but awake. There is nothing but awake. And then you go, “Oh, there actually never was anything but awake. That was an illusion all along.” It’s a very interesting thing. It’s a very relaxed thing. It’s a very simple wondrous simplicity. It’s like a baby reaching for a soap bubble, that kind of joy. So Jessica says, “How do we let go of the craving for more of these special spiritual experiences and relax into awakenings gifts?” Well, in a minute, I’m going to do our little meditation that we like to share on the Gathering Room.

And you will find that as you focus on these things that allow you to feel your own awake self, the craving for anything special goes away because what you are in your essence is absolutely perfect and deeply satisfying, infinitely satisfying. We’re going to go there in just a minute. I have two more questions, then we’ll do that.

So Ellis says, “Is it possible to awaken in life in your youth and then lose it again when life gets harder? I feel like I was awake once, but fell into illusion again. Is that possible?” Yes. I have asked people, I believe, are awake, and I have read about this in numerous places. The brain, which I’ve been studying for the last few years to see how this awakened state works, the brain can slide into anxiety and create myelinate pathways that cause fear, anxiety, depression. And if you don’t sort of clean house, if you don’t notice that you’re suffering and go in and question those thoughts again, they can pile up.

Your brain can get those same feelings. I started playing a little game on my phone that just came in automatically. They wanted to sell me this game, and it was very much a left hemisphere game. It required a lot of sorting and counting against the clock, and I got very excited by it. I was getting lots of dopamine hits off it, but it was also really pulling me into the left side of my brain, which is the part that can get really anxious, verbal time bound, and the place where our society says we should live.

So I was doing that, and I was still had all my same ideas. This was just recently, and I just noticed, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting anxiety. This is really weird.” And I was talking to [inaudible 00:24:30] about it, and she said, “I think it’s that game.” And I was like, “You are right.” I deleted it off my phone immediately and started to calm down again.

So I have to house keep because I have a very strong left hemisphere and I have to bring it back, bring it back. And then I’ve asked Byron Katie, if she stopped doing her thought work, would she slide back into suffering? And she said she does it continuously. The impression I got from what she said is that it happens automatically. It’s so built into her brain. It is so myelinated that it’s super-duper easy for her, natural. But if she stopped for some reason, cold turkey questioning any thought that caused suffering, she seemed to think that that could still rise up.

So Tracy says, “Question, I began to feel that awakening is more of a spectrum process rather than an on and off switch. I’m looking for more awakening than to be awakened. Do you think that sounds true?” Well, what Nisargadatta Maharaj says, and this rings really true to me, is that, “The fruit ripens on the tree.” So the psyche moves toward awakening, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until the weight of it breaks it off the branch. And at that moment, there is an irreversible switch, and you can’t go back. You can’t unring the bell. You can’t unknow what you now know.

I also think that there’s a time when the fruit… Imagine an apple tree, and it’s got a very heavy apple on it, fully ripe, and the branch is moving in the wind and it touches the ground occasionally, but then pulls back up, and then it breaks and comes off. But you touch the awakened state. And I’ve heard this and read this in many books by ancient, modern, all kinds of people who have been seeking enlightenment, these moments of touching, touching, touching. And then there’s the absolute breaking free.

I feel like I’ve touched things before. I think y’all out there, we share this experience of having touched the awakened state. And I think when we do our meditation weekly, I feel us going there. So the idea is to just keep ripening, to keep doing what we’re doing, keep questioning our painful thoughts, keep doing meditations, keep moving away from anxiety and allowing ourselves to see what happens when the scream falls away from our eyes.

Keep ripening. And one day… But why wait until we’re fully awake when we can touch the awakened state right now? So let’s do it. And then I’ll say, “Have a fabulous week.” So let’s start as we always do, by getting comfortable, deep breath, uncross arms and legs. Let yourself relax back into your seat, and then open the focus of your attention with the strange question. Can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Can I look at the space between what I’m looking at in my face?

So if you’re looking at me on a screen, a phone, a computer, can I imagine that I’m looking at the space between me and the screen instead of the screen itself? Can I imagine the empty space in the atoms inside my head? Can I imagine the empty space in the atoms between the top of my head and the bottoms of my feet?

Can I imagine the stillness beneath the physical movement of my world? Can I imagine the space that holds us all as a matrix? Can I imagine it alive? Can I imagine the silence underneath everything I am hearing and fill that silence with love? Can I imagine that all of this is what I am, and that those who are with me now are one continuous being? Can I imagine the space that connects us all? Can I imagine the love, and joy, and peace and change we will make in the world as we all wake up? The gloves are off, people. Full awakening. Go for it. I love you, and I will see you soon again here on the Gathering Room.

Read more