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The Awakened Brain

An in-person conversation with Dr. Lisa Miller.

Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is the New York Times bestselling author of The Spiritual Child and a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the Founder and Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program and research institute in spirituality and psychology, and has held over a decade of joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School.

Her innovative research has been published in more than one hundred peer-reviewed articles in leading journals, including Cerebral Cortex, The American Journal of Psychiatry, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.


Adam Jacobs: So, Dr. Lisa Miller, it's great to finally meet you in person. As I mentioned when we were talking before, you have a lot of groupies here and I'm really excited to have you, and thank you so much for spending the time with us today.

Lisa Miller: This is so much fun. This is a joy. I'm thrilled to be here.

Adam Jacobs: So I read your book, which I recommend to everyone, The Awakened Brain, and one of the fascinating accounts, one of many, was your description of a religious service that you conducted in a hospital setting. And I'm going to ask you a question about it, a specific question, but I wonder, just for the sake of the audience, could you just give us a sketch of what happened?

Lisa Miller: So I was a new intern at the time. I'd just gotten my doctorate and was on an inpatient unit in a New York City hospital. I don't use the name. It was very typical of the time. It was really no different than anywhere else. And when the High Holidays rolled around, this hospital served a great number of Jewish patients. There was a community meeting in which one of the patients raised his hand and said, doctor, what is the plan for Yom Kippur? And the doctor was a good person and felt badly about this. He kind of looked down and he said, well, there's nothing planned. The chaplains will be gone that day. And this gentleman who had bipolar disorder was devastated by that news, and I had not even known that he was Jewish, but he looked despondent. And then he got agitated and he said, what?

No, Yom Kippur service, what? And he got up and he stormed out. As I looked across the room, there was another patient who I did know was Jewish who was deeply depressed, and she collapsed. And it occurred to me in that moment, even as a new intern, that there was a real painful loss in not having a Yom Kippur poor service. And so after the meeting, I pulled the unit chief aside and said, listen, I'm not a rabbi, but I've been to 20-plus years of Yom Kippur services. May I facilitate one? So I show up on Yom Kippur and the service was to be held in the kitchen. The bright fluorescent lights were beaming. We had a linoleum table. And there that day, the very same patients had come dressed beautifully. They'd all called home for beautiful clothes instead of the overly revealing, perhaps degrading gurneys.

And by each of their side was an attendant. And the moment I walked into the kitchen, our sanctuary, there was a deep sense of specialness. The prayers were the prayers that they'd been raised with for decades, and we all knew what to do. So very little facilitation was needed. But what I noticed, Adam, as we started to say the prayers that we'd said every year, Yom Kippur and picked up together the pace and the feeling and the depth, it was the gentleman with bipolar who was holding the cadence of the service the most. The so-called psychologically disorganized patient was the backbone of our organization, of our service. And the woman who had looked very slumped and despairing sat up, she had a radiance.

And it was very clear to me very quickly that what was happening in a Yom Kippur service was not happening in mental health at that time. And very quickly became clear to me that mental health minus a spiritual core, really made no sense. I can share with you, that I went on over the course of that experience to find out that actually when we disintegrate the spiritual core from the whole person, we are creating harm in the hospital. We would call that iatrogenic harm, making people worse.

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