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The science of spiritual growth: Awakened Schools aims to support students

The Awakened Brain by Lisa Miller
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The Awakened Brain When: 5-6 p.m. Wednesday Where: Paepcke Auditorium, 1000 N. Third St. Cost: $30 More information: acp@aspeninstitute.org; 970-544-7970

The brain has a natural capacity for spirituality — a “neuro seat of transcendence” — according to Dr. Lisa Miller, and Aspen knows it best. From the schools to the trails, Aspen holds many pathways for getting in touch with the spiritual brain. 

“We are born with the ability to be in this deep, loving, guiding, holding relationship with the transcendent,” Miller said.

Miller’s work involves research to discover a human process of spiritual development based on science. She will present her findings at the Aspen Institute at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Paepcke Auditorium in conversation with Simran Jeet Singh, Ph.D. The findings are published in Miller’s newest book, “The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.”



For her research, Miller spent three years studying spiritually supportive schools, eventually coming up with the DNA of a spiritually supportive school. The framework includes “12 drivers of cultural transformation.” Educators can select a few of the drivers to focus on, according to which elements best fit their school’s culture.

Although science and spirituality are often seen as separate and sometimes conflicting ideologies, Miller believes they go hand-in-hand. The historic refusal of the scientific community to look at questions of spirituality was a product of the culture, not of the limitations of science, she said. 




“We can take the lens of science and turn it to ask a broad host of questions, including the impact of lived human spirituality, including the extraordinarily different way that our lives unfold when there’s a strong spiritual course,” Miller said. “We can look at the profound life-changing effects of spiritual awareness on mental health, on personal ethics, on relational ethics, on outward performance. It’s absolutely game-changing”

KEY LINKS

In the 1990s, scientists began studying links between spirituality and mental health and found a multitude of protective benefits from spirituality. Now, there are hundreds of peer-reviewed articles supporting the importance of strengthening the spiritual in youth.

Miller is the founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers’ College, Columbia University. The Collaborative for Spirituality in Education, which is a branch of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, runs The Awakened Schools Institute. The Awakened Schools Institute is a year-long course for educators that combines scientific research and educational frameworks that foster spirituality and show how schools can support the “spiritual core” of children and young adults.

“Let’s support natural spirituality in all children in a way that is inclusive, in a way that honors diversity, in a way that is constitutional by supporting just the pure, natural, spiritual core,” Miller said. “Because this is not just for those who in the end struggle with (Alcoholics Anonymous), this is not just for those facing trauma. This is for every single child to strengthen. They’re really the hub of the wheel, the spiritual core of the whole child.”

Miller’s own experience with awakening the mind began with her innate spirituality being fostered from a young age. When her family went through a tough time, she dived deeper into the spiritual world.

“Through that road of trials, like anyone’s road of trials, more was made apparent,” Miller said. “In the worst moments of our life — 52-card pickup, bottoming out — it is actually the perfect moment. It is the best moment to open up to a deeper, richer and more spiritual understanding of life.”

The work Miller is doing aims to build a stronger mind for youth. According to Miller, when children and teens build their natural spiritual core, they are 80% less likely to struggle with addiction, 60% less likely to be depressed and 80% less likely to commit suicide.

The spiritual core begins to flourish during puberty, and continues developing into late adolescence and emerging adulthood, according to Miller.

“No matter what lens you use, you see the same developmental pattern,” Miller said. “We are born with a natural spirituality; it burgeons, whether or not we’re told it’s coming, whether or not it is supported.”

Miller’s view regarding the importance of whole-child education is increasingly supported by social emotional learning professionals who are implementing lessons to strengthen students’ spiritual core in classrooms.

“It makes it deeper, it makes it more long-standing and addresses this deep, latent capacity that increasingly is just left to lay fallow, but very much to the detriment of young people.”

Many teachers enter the educational world because they feel a personal calling to support children’s values, capacity for love and connection to nature, according to Miller.

“It is empowering for teachers to realize why they came into education in the first place,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, you have teachers realizing their spiritual core, you have students who through the relationship with one another and teachers flourish through the strength of their own spiritual force. All that we’ve really done is give people back their birthright, which is to realize what is natural spirituality, the genetic inheritance of every single person.”

AWAKENED SCHOOLS

This year, several Aspen educational leaders will be part of the Awakened Schools fall 2022 cohort beginning in September. Although individuals in the Aspen School District have attended Awakened School events in the past, this will be the first time that the entire school community has been invited to attend and work together on their own school and as a larger Aspen Valley community.

“I think what Aspen will contribute to the national understanding of awakened schools is the power of spirit and presence in and through nature and how that radically changes how a young person grows up,” Miller said.

Miller is optimistic about Aspen’s potential for implementing all 12 dimensions of an awakened school due to the community’s spiritual awareness and connection to nature.

“Aspen is the perfect place for Awakened Schools,” Miller said. “Aspen is a very spiritual community. When we are in nature for an extended period of time, it entrains to awaken the natural spiritual brain. Nature truly is a sacred cathedral.”

Anna Meyer is an editorial intern at The Aspen Times for part of the summer. She will be a sophomore at Vassar College this fall.


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