Author Talks: How spiritual health fosters human resilience

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Leigh Weiss chats with Lisa Miller, professor in the clinical-psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and founder and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. In her latest book, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life (Random House, August 2021), Miller reveals that humans are universally equipped with a capacity for spirituality and that our brains become more resilient and robust as a result of it. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book now?

Our world has a pain in its heart right now. We’re suffering. We’re suffering from isolation and disconnection, and we’ve never as a global community faced as elevated rates of addiction, depression, despair, anxiety, and even suicidality. We have within clinical science a road map that says that depression is an invitation to awakening. Our traditions around the world have known this for a long time, but clinical science now says there is indeed a road map. Through despair is an opening for an expanded awareness.

If you feel trapped, isolated, or frustrated with your organization, there is not only promise but scientific hope, well-grounded pathways to expanding what is possible in your own life and for your company. It has to do with something very deep. It is our deep seat of perception, our very own brain. We are hardwired with the capacity for an awakened brain. We oftentimes power up our awakened brain through times of suffering. This is our actual opportunity. This is our moment.

When you know, you know

What is the awakened brain and this concept of awakened awareness?

Very often in education, in professional circles, we are encouraged to use what I call “achieving awareness” to strategize, implement tactics, understand, and prepare our goal. As a team, we’re going to tool up, get ready, and in six months we’re going to go through the red door. That is a very important side of organizational leadership and functioning in a high-performance way in life. But, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, life often does not square with our plans. The best-laid plans with the finest details often completely collapse, because the world is dynamic. The nature of the world is flux. When our plans are foiled—and that can include our multilayered, many-person, highly resourced plans—we need to shift gears and find a way of thinking that squares with the deeper nature of life, the inherent flux and volatility in the world.

Awakened awareness involves a different set of circuits in the brain, it involves an entirely different host of feelings, and it leads to a different style of decision making. We stop saying, “What do I want to have happen now?” because that’s clearly not working, and instead, as a much more open question, “What is life showing me now?” We may find some magnificent surprises. We may find our lives going in a direction and our companies flourishing in ways we had never even envisioned.

“What is life showing me now? Might I draw into a living dance with life? Might I draw into a relationship with the spirit of life that allows for surprises? It is not what I wanted at all. It is bigger and far better than anything I envisioned.”

Achieving awareness is based on data that is historical from this moment backward, looking over our shoulder. But awakened awareness is a receptive form of knowing that perceives information with a value we have yet to even see realized. It is a jewel box, and we have yet to know how these jewels will be laid out before us.

How do you see the interplay between achieving awareness and awakened awareness? Do we need both?

Achieving awareness alone is far too rigid; it doesn’t square with the dynamism of life. But awakened awareness alone is without implementation. So we need to be able to integrate achieving and awakened awareness to be inspired, to have a flash, and then to discern through achieving awareness how to implement: What’s the rollout? What’s the strategy?

It’s the same process used by good scientists—the flash of insight and then the rigorous rollout. So too can we pose a rigorous question, doggedly hammer through the numbers, question, draw from our advisers, and then see if a flash, intuition, perhaps even a dream or a mystical moment, might come to us, where the meaning is rearranged and it squares with a more numinous, wise part of our soul.

Can we use both? And can we overtly say, “Let me bring my achieving mind to this. Let me bring my awakened mind to this”? Can we benefit from the greater power that we carry as decision makers and as teammates? Can we benefit from our greater innate power by overtly saying, “Let me throw my achieving awareness to my awakened awareness”? Can we openly share with colleagues, “I had an awakened flash. Let’s toss it to our achieving minds and figure out together what the implementation might be”? When we unify both forms of knowing, what we see in the MRI machine is that we pave the highways—there are myelinated tracks between regions of the brain representing a more optimal, fuller realization of our human potential.

When it comes to work, sometimes we’re very slow to own up to that form of knowing. We might even conceal it or not put this high-pixel, high-density form of information on the table. It may never even see the light of day. That’s only a limitation of culture. It’s a limitation of our broader mainstream culture in the West, and it’s also a limitation, perhaps, of an organization’s culture, and that can be changed.

I know a two-person team on Wall Street. Martha sets the three-month plan, and Paul executes. He decides what day and what time to buy or sell. Martha will say, “Paul, come on. Let’s move ahead. It’s time to buy.” And he’ll say, “No, not yet.” And she says, “How do you know?” He says, “I don’t know how I know. But in my inner gut I know it’s not time yet.”

Time and time again, Paul is right. Paul says, “It’s not time. Let’s wait.” Then he comes in one day, on Thursday morning, and says, “Now’s the time. Let’s sell.” Over time, Martha has come to rely on Paul’s deep intuition. His knowing is in a form that is inspired and receptive. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he has a deep, inner wisdom that Thursday morning is the time to sell. Martha counts on Paul’s awakened awareness, and Paul counts on Martha’s master strategy, her achieving awareness, her data-driven tactical plan. It’s together that this team has an extraordinary record and has done very, very well.

Tap into your inner wisdom

How have leaders you’ve worked with applied this concept?

When I speak with leaders, whether I’m speaking to a general in the Pentagon or someone who runs a large hedge fund, I will hear time and time again, “The most important decision I’ve made, the life-or-death decision I’ve made in the Pentagon, was made on a deep, inner form of knowing. My inner wisdom. I simply knew that I should get on that helicopter. I simply knew that we shouldn’t move in this direction, but we needed to pull out.”

This deep, inner wisdom is a form of knowing that’s honored by highly successful, high-impact leaders. A gentleman who for decades had run a very, very well-known, successful hedge fund said, “You know, every time I give to charity just a little more than I’m comfortable with, one of my funds shoots way up.” That’s how life’s built.

There is in life a power, a consciousness, a dynamism that is greater than human control. When we acknowledge that we are navigating the skies, sailing the high seas, and not controlling life, we make far more profitable, ethical, and sustainable decisions. We join the flux of life and we listen to her words, and we don’t pretend that we control the most important outcomes in our lives.

There is in life a power, a consciousness, a dynamism that is greater than human control. When we acknowledge that we are navigating the skies, sailing the high seas, and not controlling life, we make far more profitable, ethical, and sustainable decisions.

How do we tap into this potential, at work and in our personal lives?

I could see through science that in general in our culture we are not engaging all of ourselves. We have yet to avail ourselves of our great potential and opportunity. I could see through MRI studies that there were whole forms of perception, ways of knowing, a seed of being, that we had yet to realize in our mainstream culture. We are not yet all of ourselves. We are not yet whole. We are not all of what we are capable of being.

In MRI studies, I could see clear as day on the screen that there’s a form of perception where we see ourselves knit into the fabric of life. Where we see life as showing and guiding. Where we feel deeply connected to one another. Where suddenly inspiration hits us on the head, and we receive an idea we had never before envisioned possible.

There is a seat of human perception that I can see in the MRI scan that is a quarter inch under the surface. It’s available to all of us. In fact, through twin studies, I can even tell you with certainty that this is heritable; you have this built into your genes. Yet it wasn’t taught in K–12 or at university or in graduate school. It’s going to need to be learned now. We can tap our awakened brain.

You can ask the very same person to tell you a story in two different ways. He or she can tell you about a moment of great challenge through their achieving awareness, or that same moment, same challenge, same gain, same loss, same disappointment, through awakened awareness. The story I hear goes like this: “I’d just been turned down at the promotion where I had everything lined up—I had A plus B plus C. And then I thought, well, when one door slams, another opens. And maybe life”—or some people say God or the spirit of life or the universe—“has another plan for me. Because that door slammed, because the promotion—despite everything being in the bag—fell through, I pivoted, I shifted, and I found a start-up, I found a company I wouldn’t have even known existed. There, I met my best friend. I met the person I married. I became quite a stakeholder; it changed my life. Only because the promotion fell through did I join this start-up, was I part of an IPO, was I part of this whole new horizon, far brighter, far more exciting than I would have ever envisioned.”

Story number one is hermetic, it’s sealed, it’s narrow. It’s one in which I have total control. But story number two is far more full of magnificent possibility, opportunity, surprise, expansiveness. It’s one where I am in deep dialogue with life. What is life showing me now? Life is showing me that this door slammed but that over here, there is a door wide open that I never even knew existed. This is more than being present or mindful; this is being in a dialogue, this is being in a relationship with a living, guiding, loving universe. This is awakened awareness.

When we use awakened awareness, the character strengths and virtues—like grit and persistence—all follow from a more superordinate hub of perception. In other words, when we can have a broader range of information, when we can be more creative and receive inspiration, when we have a deeper felt sense of connection with those with whom we work, then what naturally flows are the character strengths and virtues of forgiveness, encouragement, grit, and persistence.

When we looked at over 5,000 young adults, we found that the character strengths and virtues, grit, optimism, don’t sort evenly amongst us. They cluster up in the same young employees. Why is that? It’s because actually we’re looking at a singular strength, which is character. And character is the natural outcome of awakened awareness. It hinges on a felt sense of connection, of possibility, and that hope isn’t an idea, but it’s built into the fabric of life.

I’ve worked extensively for over two years with the US Army. And leaders in the Pentagon, generals, will say, “The most important decision I made, I made because of a deep sense of intuitive knowing. Of all the 18 logical permutations, and of the reams of data available to me, the final decision, the life-saving mission, came to me because of a deep, inner wisdom.” For many people, this knowing is an inspired sense of ultimate truth.

When the chips are down, most people in their personal lives will say that the most important decision they made, for their family, for their child, for them to marry or not marry, the personal decisions in their lives, are made through deep intuition and maybe perhaps a flash of receptive knowing—an awakened flash.

Trust your gut

Is it easier in a work environment to get a better result from intuition if you have more experience?

Leaders in an organization have a deep bench of experience. A leader often has decades of experience. He or she can use the creative process to avail themselves of even more scenarios, even more data points. We all have this. The type of decision that’s made by a midlevel or a junior person can still be much improved if the leader ratifies awakened decision making. If the leader of an organization, if he or she is transparent about their own use of awakened awareness: “I just had an awakened flash, and it was a vision of our company seven years from now,” and he or she goes on to spell out the vision.

How are we going to get there? Let’s take this awakened awareness and throw it as an organization to our achieving mind and envision the rollout. Then let’s throw it back again to our awakened awareness and see in their iterated process what the next flash is. Let’s honor the flash, the high-pixel, high-density information that comes through inner wisdom, a dream, mystical knowing, intuition, gut instinct. These are high-density forms of information. It can take months, years, to untangle the threads that are in a moment’s flash, a moment’s gut knowing. That information is absolutely precious, and it’s certainly how we make our personal decisions in our own lives.

Why wouldn’t we want the very best for our companies and organizations? Why would we hold back the very best resource we have for high-density, high-impact knowing and share that only at home, depriving our organizations and our companies of the best thing we have?

How do we cultivate that in ourselves?

In The Awakened Brain, I talk a lot about cultivating our innate capacity for awakened awareness. One of the four major ways is knowing. We have to listen to that flicker, that flash, that is so often dismissed. We have to listen to people when they’re sharing something that, in their deep, inner wisdom, seems to be valuable, though they may phrase this information in a way that is diminutive or undercutting of their very own knowledge.

What that sounds like is, “You know, this is going to sound really unscientific,” or “I don’t know why I think this, but . . .” The half-apologetic erasing of leaps, gains of insight, of nonlinear gains, are degrading of the quality of information on the table. We need to encourage one another to speak from the heart, to speak from nonlinear, nonimmediately apparent understandings and say, “Yes, thank you for putting that on the table. Let’s put that in the middle of the table and see how this unfolds in time.”

Sometimes, the most important red apples to fall from the tree don’t have their immediate value apparent; they don’t have an immediate application in mind. Let’s put the red apple in the middle of the table and see what comes from this insight. There’s a tendency to feel that a leap of insight, a mystical gain, a dream, a hunch, an intuition, a gut instinct, is somehow not real data. But inner knowing is real data. It’s every bit as real as outer data on a piece of paper or on a screen.

There’s a tendency to feel that a leap of insight, a mystical gain, a dream, a hunch, an intuition, a gut instinct, is somehow not real data. But inner knowing is real data. It’s every bit as real as outer data on a piece of paper or on a screen.

We’ve got to use the inner data as much as we use the outer data—own it, call it for what it is, and know that very often that holds a promise and a purpose of which we may not even yet be aware. Leaps of insight, intuition, gut instincts, often have information that we will need later. We don’t even know we need that information yet. But if leaders can feel validated in helping the team by putting awakened info on the table, it’s there for everybody, and everyone prospers.

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