Theology of Joy: Lisa Miller and Matt Croasmun

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Lisa Miller and Matt Croasmun discuss the subject of joy, following the fourth Yale Center for Faith and Culture Theology of Joy consultation (Human Nature and Human Destiny) at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT (September 12, 2014)

Dr. Lisa Miller is a Professor of Psychology and Education, Director of Clinical Psychology, and Director of the Spirituality & Mind Body Institute at Columbia University in New York, NY

Dr. Matt Croasmun is the Director of Research and Publications at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture in New Haven, CT.

Theology of Joy is a project of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture funded by the John Templeton Foundation

I'm here with Lisa Miller professor and director of clinical psychology at Columbia University Teachers College we're here in New Haven today for a consultation on the theology of joy Lisa I'm so glad to have you here with us I'm delighted to be here Matt and this landmark event is absolutely thrilling mm-hmm you know in the paper that you prepared for today's consultation you reflect quite a bit actually about depression an odd way into the topic of joy perhaps but but you say that the successful outcome of depression may not be mere functionality or recovery it may be joy what do you what do you mean by that well depression has long been looked at as an illness yet we find that there are reliable times in our lives coming of age and adolescence midlife emergence where more often than not deep growth is accompanied by struggle at times darkness and suffering so depression cannot only be looked at as an illness it needs to be looked at in many cases as a developmental emergence really as an opportunity and in that sense depression is a knock at the door and knock at the door for what well recently in science we have in the past decade accrued sufficient evidence to say that we are inherently spiritual there is a natural spirituality which we can look at in our genes through an MRI and long term clinical health and wellness studies we are born inherently spiritual so the emergence that we're seeing with the end of adolescence or the dawning of midlife is actually most fundamentally a spiritual emergence it's a time of spiritual growth and depression is then a knock at the door and to knock at the door for spiritual awakening a knock at the door for a deepening of our relationship with the sacred presence and so in your in your research you've actually found that there are kind of physiological connections even between similar mechanisms involved in spiritual awakening and in depression this kind of knock at the door that there is this kind of moment biologically what yeah what have you guys found in the lab well it's very much in in thanks to the Templeton Foundation that this research has been conducted there were a series of studies that myself together with my collaborators in the medical school at Columbia University together looked at depression and spirituality as potentially being two sides of one coin in other words is there a biological substrate is there a physiology that underlies both depression and spirituality and how that sounds how that feels whether it is experienced as depression or experienced as spirituality is based on our engagement our use of our birthright of our inherent physiology this spirituality depression faculty I could share with you some of the biological markers of that yeah so for instance together with my colleagues Myrna Weissman and Brad Peterson we looked at a group of people who for many years had maintained a personal spirituality many of these people had done that within religious faith and some people had done it outside of religious faith but they all said that my spirituality is personally important to me highly important and those people in a structural MRI study showed thickening of the cortex in the occipital parietal and pre cuneus regions of the brain the very same regions of the brain that would be expected to show thinning in people at high risk for depression or in people with recurrent depression so the very same part of the brain that is thin and withered in depression is thick and lush and flourishes through a sustained personal spirituality it's the first concrete structural evidence that spirituality and depression may truly be two sides of one coin in tandem with that study we also looked not only at the structure of the brain but at what the brain gives off the energy the wavelength using EEG we had the very same people with a sustained spirituality and those for whom it was less important come into the lab and simply asking them to relax with their eyes closed we found that people with a strong personal spirituality gave off a wavelength of a specific measurement high amplitude alpha which is the same wavelength given off the back of the head of a meditating monk and the wavelength was most pronounced in those people who had recovered from major depression through cultivating their spiritual path through the through the development of a personal spirituality and that's interesting you see in your paper that that actually folks who have developed a deep personal spirituality a strong personal spirituality are actually more likely to have experienced depression in the in in the past is that is that that's right it's not like there's happy spiritual people who never suffer in life it actually is through the road of trials it is through a deep major depressive disorder that we are more likely to harness our deep spiritual lead foot our sacred relationship one way of understanding that data is that emergence of spirituality often first boots up as a half-empty glass of spirituality we hunger for more we have questions we can't answer there's a yearning for a deeper relationship with the sacred the Christian theologian st. Augustine says in a prayer he says are our hearts are restless until they find restless until they find rest in you God there's this fun so theologians have long said that this is the fundamental structure a fundamental structure of the of the human person is this orientation to what's beyond oneself and so that that restlessness that hunger that desire 2,000 years right of tradition saying this is a kind of fundamental structure of what it is to be a human being who we are of how we're built and of what we're doing here hmm it's such a marvelous point and it highlights the importance of the discussions you host here at Yale bringing together deep thinking theologians and scientists human observation is good and keen and I trust those who've come 1,000 2,000 years before me as much as I trust my colleagues today in the lab we're looking at the same thing now here's a fun point those people who recover from depth of suffering dark night of the soul depression through spiritual emergence once they develop what you have just described in that lovely lovely reference they are 90% protected we are 90% protected against recurrence of major depression for the next decade so it is indeed a teleological process beckoned by depression through which we emerge into sound spiritual footing there's short cuts and one short cut although I would honor each person's path is that we found in our EEG study that the very same wavelength given off through a spiritual path as resolution to depression is the very same wavelength given off through resolution of depression through use of Prozac Prozac and its mass application to our society may be essentially jumping over the hard work of spiritual emergence now I wouldn't ever ask someone to get off their medication and suffer but Prozac alone is not an answer to depression in many cases it can be Prozac can be taken SSRIs in tandem with the deep work of spiritual emergence it's not an either/or proposition you know once you understand these spiritual processes having and emergency REO talk about supervenience basis or these sorts of things right being related to fundamental lower levels of emergence more fundamental structures like the neurobiological you don't have to choose between different paths with pathways of causation we can kind of have both and answers to these sorts of question deeds spirituality is biological just as depression is biological and it also is at once spiritual yes yeah you say that that often if we if we over medicate or we tend to turn toward medication we can end up in a felt healthy state of joy ish Ness so I think it's a fantastic phrase joy ish Ness we tend to want to talk about you know joy fullness that sounds like you've been careful you know even in our conversation right now but that sounds like that's an opinion that could run you afoul of some of your colleagues or some this is a kind of dangerous or provocative thing to say well you know the medical field has really wrestled with depression and we certainly do not have a grasp on depression depression is one-third as reliably diagnosed as PTSD and only half is reliably diagnosed as bipolar disorder if two different medical professionals to mental health professionals see the same patient the correlation of their diagnosis is between point three and point six there really is not a very reliable grasp on depression and while symptoms travel through families if we look at twin studies and symptoms recur over a lifetime there's very little consistency in the symptom cluster between people so we are likely as we look at depression as a mental health community looking at a cluster of many different entities with many different ideologies different formative past so I think we're on strong footing to say that mental health has not cracked depression and that there might be a lot of very good healing going on in treatments that's not represented in our scientific formulations there's a lot of room particularly particularly given the robust association and study after study after study after between spirituality and protection against recurrence of depression and given the strong biological markers now that suggests we really are looking at two sides of one coin there's really almost a moral call to look more deeply at what spirituality is in terms of our possibility our emergence and our sacred presence our humanity mm-hmm so if personal strong personal spirituality is so important and has such a protective factor in fact you say that it's part of our personal development universally this is just part of what it means to develop as a human being is to develop spiritually what what is this strong personal spirituality that you talk about when you talk to study subjects what are the across various different traditions you've done this what are kind of the common features of that personal spirituality that you find so if we look across the many world traditions in the different religious traditions we see time and time again that there's one dimension of personal spirituality which is by far the most predictive of health and wellness the most the greatest source of resilience really known to the medical or social sciences and that is a strong personal relationship with the divine a direct relationship a two-way lived relationship with our higher power in the judeo-christian tradition that can take the form of a dialogue and so in science it's often assessed as I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty when I have a tough decision to make I asked myself what really does God want me to do that dimension of spirituality is more protective against depression substance use it abuse i risk-taking and is more predictive of academic success thriving commitment and forgiveness than anything known to the medical or social sciences that is the heart of the strength of spirituality as reflected in our health and wellness now if we look around the world that takes different forms so for instance in some Eastern traditions there's maybe a sense of oneness that I'm one with the universe rather than a that's a different cognitive wraparound it if you will but it is still foundationally a personal relationship with transcendence and in the rich indigenous traditions we may see spirit in and through all living beings so Crow has shown me or the Creator through wind and Sun has showed me this is again a direct lived relationship immediately relevant in my daily life to Who I am and how I make a choice and how I lean into life when that is the lead foot we fulfill the wholeness of who we are that is the highest order of health and if we look through the lens of science that is the highest level of executive functioning because it has such broad and pervasive effects on wellness and on thriving and because the effects are consistent and enormous it can only be the highest level of the executive function and it changes all else it changes expression of genes it changes you know when the telomere is unwrapped it changes what's transcribed it changes at every level of scientific analysis our thriving our health so clearly stepping back and we look at this rich array of scientific findings we say this is who we are we are inherently spiritual we are whole and healthy when we lead with a direct relationship with the sacred transcendent and as much as you call that a relationship and you push even in terms of dialogue and conversation you you at the same time insist this is this is not I mean this would someone you say to say I to say I talked to God he is pious to say that God talks back is madness but you're you're quite happy using this dialogical sort of language and you say this this isn't a matter of kind of disconnect from from the real right this isn't a you see there's actually about a higher degree of attunement of actual presence in in in the world this isn't a matter of hearing hearing voices this is there's there's something else going on here how do you how do you how do you distinguish that those differences it's extremely important because indeed part of the sacred relationship is attunement in relationship in the sacred presence in and through all life and indeed a perceptual sensitivity to hearing God answer back and that is all of ours this is our birthright so to silence that it is really a violation certainly of who we are but more egregiously a bigger violation than that you know from a clinical perspective there's a vast difference between a sacred dialogue and quite different from that psychosis psychosis tends to be narcissistic it tends to be negative it tends to be bizarre right there the sacred dialogue is life-giving it's affirming it's beautiful its directive it bears fruit it's an entirely different experience now certainly one person can have both experiences but they are tuning in on different channels and their different dimensions of how we can journey the sacred relationship is foundational and in fact twin studies show that it's literally literally about 30% attributed to heritability the apparatus through which we experience a transcendent relationship in 1997 and to be replicated in 1999 ken Kamler who's well known for his twin studies on various forms of health wellness and pathology looked specifically at the heritable versus the environmental contribution to the capacity for the transcendent relationship when he looked in people who were about mean age 30 years old what he found was that the sense of I turned to God for guidance and I hear an answer back that capacity within us is about one-third attributed to broad heritability now if we back that into adolescence what's so absolutely wonderful is we can watch that capacity booting up between the time were 12 and 22 which these days is adolescence we can see an increase of 50% and the heritable contribution to the capacity for the transcendent relationship that is our spiritual emergence that is spiritual awakening is known through theology and through culture for thousands of years and that is concomitant with the window of for onset of the most prevalent forms of disorder and youth so we have to we owe it to youth and we owe it to the truth being revealed through science as well as through our hearts to see spiritual emergence unmet I'm midwifed left willy-nilly as the roots of suffering in adolescence and emerging adulthood so we're back it's over back kind of where we started which is talking about adolescents and thinking about this kind of really important season of life and traditional religions the religious traditions that we know have always actually marked though you note this in your paper they've always marked this season as one where the adolescent needs to be shepherded by a community through this process of spiritual awakening whether it's Bar Mitzvah or confirmation or or other traditions we've always kind of marked these moments how would we how do we do this today what kinds of structures how can we community Shepherd our young people through this critical season well you're so right and from the view of Sciences indeed a surge of spiritual awakening across the course of the adolescent decade the heritable contribution to our capacity for transcendence for the sacred transcendent relationship boots up along with other forms of adolescent maturation and in fact we see a 50% increase in the heritable contribution and essentially the expression or the emergence of our genes through the course of adolescence in the capacity for the transcendent relationship cultures as you say have round the world have seen this as humanity we've known this through time and we've met the adolescent at this crucial moment and welcomed honoured and guided their emerging spiritual capacity so for instance the Navajo in this country at the first onset of fertility hold a sacred space for over a week in which the young woman goes through a test of trials many of which are for service to her community such as digging a hole and making a corn cake and then her week of initiation culminates in time alone quietly in a spirit Hut coming to know her augmented spiritual powers this of course is led by her grandmother so it's half scene of the sacred torture so it's it's it's communal it's kind of larger than the family but it's also familial its intergenerational these sorts of structures that that traditionally we've provided we by and large often don't have those structures anymore what what what can be done what can we do to provide what kinds of structures do we need to be providing our youth is this something that that schools can provide is something that that neighborhoods can provide is this something that religious communities have to provide so this very sacred moment of emergence is beautifully embraced by religious community because in a religious community we have the shared spiritual language of a sacred life of a spiritual life that's lived out by people of all different decades in life we can see people five years older who've just been through spiritual emergence and we can see parents of children and elders all of whom are living out spiritual values at different points in the journey that is a tremendous gift as well as well as the support and the interest of the spiritual values that guide the relationships surrounding the teen then even if someone is not part of a religious community there are things they can do prayer even if it's unfamiliar opening up the sacred transcendent relationship through whatever practice or form that might feel comfortable and of course there's a very broad and pervasive interest these days in mindfulness yoga the contemplative traditions that does not replace prayer what we found in our data is that prayer plus contemplation creates the highest level of personal atonement or or tends to produce the highest level of rapport of a strong spiritual path we tend to think in our lab of contemplative practices as opening the pipeline clearing the mind and engage in our natural attunement for transcendence but prayer is a sacred intention prayer is a sacred dialogue or relationship so that taken together this can help a teen form a strong spiritual footing and then the fourth thing which is instrumental is parental guidance on the spiritual path the teen is flooded with hunger for transcendence wondering about good and evil wondering if life is empty or if life is full and as a parent if we can meet them where they are and link their link their felt moments of despair or fullness or transcendence with their emerging meaning making the prefrontal cortex can the front of the brain in the back of the brain we can help them hook that up which is indeed the job of adolescence from a physiological perspective we can set up a lifelong spiritual understanding that once established in the second decade is a very strong lead foot for thriving in the decades ahead that is the spiritual path that protects us 90 percent against recurrence of severe major depression that is the spiritual path that protects us 80 percent against substance use and abuse that is the midwifing of our natural spirituality a lot of what you described is is very is very much focused on this personal this individual kind of relationship we've talked about the kind of role of a family what about peer relationships how do peer relationships kind of function or you know contribute or detract from the development of so there's been wonderful work done from the University of Texas at Austin showing that both religious community and communities build around service support the natural spiritual development of a teen and that this is largely mediated through good friends but secondarily mediated through the ecological spiritual values that surround the teen so for instance going to a school where there are many people with spiritual values does affect the spiritual growth of the teen peers are very important at the same time in my own lab we've looked at the relationship between friendships chosen and the nature of ongoing child parent relationships and as you might expect to the extent that a parent shares in a very transparent open and generous way their own spiritual path with their child the child then goes out and selects friendships through which they can continue that deep spiritual discussion the spiritual inquiry of the teen and their quiet moments in the basement with their peers is really a mirror of what we have done as parents to open up that way of connection so for one of the things that we do at the Center for faith and culture is we convene conversations among youth ministers youth ministers that are practicing youth ministers and training and so they're largely what they do is they kind of Shepherd these sorts of peer groups and try to help right a youth group is a peer group right that they're trying to structure in certain ways that are going to promote good healthy life and development for the teens that are involved what would you if you give some advice to it to a youth pastor who's in training or who the pastor's trying to figure out boy it's it's a Friday night whose youth group night and here we go I got what am I going to do they're concerned about depression they're concern about these about substance abuse and these other kinds of negative paths of development how how do they how can they be straight what would you say to them what would be your advice of how they can structure their youth groups have this kind of positive impact well first of all they're very wise I find that youth pastors use ministers and college counselors are ahead of the curve and understanding the struggle of adolescents expressed through depression anxiety and substance abuse as foundationally a spiritual struggle this they understand I recently gave a talk in eastern Tennessee after which many of the youth ministers in the community came up and said this is indeed why I've gone into the work I am here doing this work because I know if I can provide spiritual guidance spiritual community spiritual family to teens who really need it it will affect the rest of their lives they will their rest of their lives have bearings and inner compass so there is really nothing that exists that replaces a youth minister this is what I found in our research this is what I found on the road and aren't many talks and here's why let me start with some research this work started 15 years ago and it started in a lab but in tandem it also started in a journey together with my lab we traveled around to many different youth groups of many different faith traditions around New York City around the country the center of the country the west coast and what we found was that for children who had no one else absolutely no one else the youth minister had a 100% success rate when the love intention and authentic connection was there we saw it was deeply moving young teens get on the subway from the Bronx and traveled two hours to a regular youth group meeting and downtown Manhattan and pretty soon they'd start bringing their little brother and pretty soon they'd start bringing their friend and by the time we showed up they said this is my family my mother she's on crack my father I don't know him but I have a family this is my family and it was a family understood as held together by sacred presence it was those young teens understood that really what our relationships on earth are about is a divine love and that is a family unshakable Jesus and the Gospels is told at one point teaching and and some people come to him and say your your your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you and he said who are my mother and my brothers these these people that I'm having this spiritual making a spiritual connection with having these spiritual conversations with these these are my mother and my brother and my sisters I can do this way that yeah that spiritual that spirituality forms that kind of intimate that sort of intimate relationship that can be sustaining doesn't have to hopefully it doesn't have to replace always the family of one's of one's birth but it can I can function analogously and support and we have reason to think so from the traditions themselves and it's in that loving sacred connection that loving sacred community that the direct relationship with the higher power is often formed so for instance we often hear teens say in the presence of their youth group and their youth minister you know you need to find out how you pray for me I pray when I write and I write and I write and I write and God comes through me and that type of loving and encouraging sacred community is the rich soil and which grows the transcendent relationship and the data that we've seen on nationally representative samples also brings that to bear so for instance while it is the transcendent relationship that it offers great protected benefits we find it as often cultivated through spiritual community it is often cultivated through youth group specifically and frequent attendance at religious services to go back to our MRI study funded by the Templeton Foundation it was the direct transcendent relationship that was associated with thickening of the cortex but that relationship was associated with engagement in religious community so there can be many ways to get the transcendent relationship but a very good one his religious community and through that spiritual connection all kinds of Health and flourishing life and and an experience of joy Lisa thank you so much for this great honor to be here looking forward to more conversation later today yes thanks

2 thoughts on “Theology of Joy: Lisa Miller and Matt Croasmun

  1. I am just turning 86 and I never felt serious depression. Anytime I feel the "sads" coming on, I listen to music on YouTube and tune in to my spiritual gurus….Michael Bechwith, Marianne Williamson, and now I have been introduced to you, Lisa Miller, recommended by a friend. Thank you, Babala

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