Interconnectedness and shared responsibility: What spirituality has to do with mental health

A flame of overlapping shapes.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

This story was originally published in Group Therapy, a weekly newsletter answering questions sent by readers about what’s been weighing on their hearts and minds. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

If you asked me five years ago if I was a spiritual person, I would have probably said no.

It wouldn’t necessarily have been a true answer. I just didn’t have a great sense of what spirituality looked like for me, or how I was already connecting to something larger than myself — through my relationships, through the natural world. And I had an aversion to the word itself. I associated spirituality with religion, which I have a complicated (at best) relationship to, having grown up Christian and queer.


During the early pandemic, though, I began searching for ways to make my problems feel smaller and less consequential. I started meditating and spending more time with the part of me that wasn’t longing or striving or worrying, but just was. I accessed this part of me every time I went on a hike and tuned into the crunch of my feet on the dirt and the rustle of the trees, or when I made a conscious effort to really be present in conversations with friends and strangers.

I still get tangled up in my fear and anxiety all the time. But I know that a state of calm awareness, of just being, is always a home I can return to no matter what is happening around me, and that knowing has changed how I move through the world.

Columbia psychology professor Lisa Miller writes about this awareness eloquently in her book “The Awakened Brain,” an exploration of what happens to our minds when we’re connected to something greater than ourselves. “We can see our choices and the consequences of our actions through a lens of interconnectedness and shared responsibility,” she wrote. “And we can learn to tap into a larger field of awareness that puts us in better touch with our inner resources, with one another, and with the fabric of all life.”

A Group Therapy reader sent us a great question about this intersection of spirituality and well-being: “How can issues of faith, religious traditions and spirituality be more greatly incorporated into mental health treatment and understanding?”

To answer this question, I interviewed Miller, who is also the founder of Columbia’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program in spirituality and psychology. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A Q&A with Lisa Miller

Group Therapy: Let’s start with the basics — what is spirituality, as you understand it in your work and personal life?

Lisa Miller: Whether your word is God or the universe or source or Jesus, Hashem or Allah, spirituality is a guiding presence in us, through us and around us. It’s our deep relationship with the source of all life.


It’s a sense of oneness, that we’re all made from the same cloth.

Group Therapy: You’ve written that humans have an innate, biological capacity for spiritual development. What does this capacity look like?

Miller: When we look through the lens of clinical science, we can identify the threads of lived human spirituality that are innate and have a tidal-wave sort of impact on our life, our health, our ethics, our ability to love, care, connect and move forward in the world. And the two threads of innate human lived spirituality that we have identified to date is the innate capacity to be in a transcendent relationship with one’s higher power, and the capacity to feel that great transcendent presence in our love for one another, with fellow human beings and other living beings. These capacities use the same neuro-docking stations; the same circuit of the brain that I use to turn to my higher power I also use when I feel love toward another person.

Group Therapy: What does research tell us about the role spirituality plays in our well-being, including mental health?

Miller: Peer-reviewed science shows us that a strong spiritual life affects us enormously. Relational spirituality places us at an 80% decreased risk for addiction, and 75% less likely to have major depression during times of high stress. And there is an enormously decreased risk of completed suicide when we engage our relationship to a higher power and show up for one another with radical, unconditional love.

We wait for people to suffer from profound addictions to finally say, “Oh, you know what? You’ve gotta hand it over to your higher power.” We wait for people to suffer terribly to offer an embrace. We wait for people to bottom out.

We can control a few things, maybe 3% of things. You can push an elevator button but when it comes to who steps onto the elevator and whether or not they have the flu — you can’t control that. But in our culture we teach an illusion of control. And only when we’re addicted and frustrated, or there’s a trauma that’s too horrible to bear, we say, “You’ve gotta turn to something higher and greater than yourself.”


Why is Alcoholics Anonymous hands-down the most successful treatment for addiction? [Author’s note: There has been debate about the research that backs up this claim, which you can read more about here.] Because AA embraces the two innate, hardwired forms of awakened awareness — to turn to our higher power and to radically love and accept one another. It’s this sense of, “it doesn’t matter what I did yesterday. If I show up at AA tomorrow, I am greeted with unconditional acceptance and love. My sponsor picks up at midnight, my sponsor picks up at 4 a.m.” That’s relational spirituality.

So much of of spiritually oriented therapy is about opening up from a closed, white-knuckled sense of control, and treating life as a series of accomplishments and acquisitions, to “What is life showing me now, right in this moment?”

Group Therapy: Some faith traditions can leave harmful imprints on followers. For example, queer people may spend many years unraveling a sense that they are inherently bad because of what they learned in the religious traditions of their families. This can lead to anxiety, depression and suicidality. Of course, this is not the case for all religious denominations, but it’s still a very present reality. How do you reckon with this aspect of religiosity as you seek to understand how spirituality shapes the human psyche?

Miller: Spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand for many people, but they’re not the same thing. Religion is handed down by our parents, our grandparents, our community. We might choose a religion. Religion is 100% environmentally transmitted. Spirituality, on the other hand, is innate. Every single one of us is born with an innate capacity for spiritual life, to have love for our neighbors, for our planet. I am often asked from people with tears streaming down their eyes, “Am I spiritual, too?” and my answer is always yes. That’s like asking whether you have a body or a brain.

There is the torch (religion), there’s the flame (spirituality) and then there’s the torch bearer (believers). When a young person meets a torch bearer by whom they feel disavowed or harmed or excluded, it is very easy to turn from that torch bearer and away from the flame, too. Healing in psychotherapy from a spiritual perspective is developing a direct connection to the flame, and learning that the torch bearers that harmed us were only human beings.

Group Therapy: In some ways, spirituality and science are naturally at odds. Science validates what can be quantified and measured, and aspects of spirituality — like the connection to something bigger than yourself — are not quantifiable. How do you navigate that conflict in your work?


Miller: In much of the 20th century there were two camps. Some people said, “The only truth is that which can be shown by science.” The others said, “I know in my heart that spiritual life is real. I don’t care whether science can show it or not.” But it turns out that now, finally, we have 25 years of excellent peer-reviewed science that shows that science and spirituality can go hand-in-hand. Science is a lens, and we can take that lens and point it at a broad host of questions, including the impact of spirituality onto the rest of our lives, like the impacts on our health, our wellness, our ethics, our capacity to connect. So science is not a theology — it’s a form of witness.

And what we see through this lens is extraordinary. The magnitude of the impact of spiritual life onto the rest of our life is jaw-dropping. For example, we’ve learned that those who recover from depression by accessing a higher power and the love of others show a thickening of the brain across regions of perception, reflection and orientation. And once there’s a thickening of the cortex, it can protect against future bouts of depression.

Group Therapy: Much of your book tackles how to awaken your brain to spiritual awareness. Can you give us some brief guidance on how we can do that?

We all have moments of undeniable loss and challenge and pain. “I was just turned down at seven out of seven colleges. I just got broken up with. I just lost my house.” And we have a choice: How in this moment do I handle it? At those times we have the opportunity to meditate, take a walk in nature, pray, doing something in service of others. We can crack the hard eggshells of separateness between us.

We can dust off a rusty prayer that might have beautiful associations with a grandparent or a time in our lives of great love. We can return to a place that has meaning for us. For some people, their childhood feels like kryptonite, but others go home and feel awakened just being there. So wherever you know that you return to your natural capacity, go there and know that it’s real and honor it.

I also want to highlight that there are gifts all around us. When you have an intuition that you need to talk to someone, and after seven years they show up at the coffee shop or call you that day, bear witness to that synchronicity. People often say things like, “You know, it was the funniest thing. I didn’t even wanna go to that party. I went as a favor to my best friend. And that’s where I met my partner who made me feel so alive, who I felt so happy just to be with.” And the partner was only in town for one day, and if they hadn’t gone to this party, they never would’ve met them. You might pause, bear witness to this gift and and say, “Thank you.” This is being in dialogue with a force much greater than ourselves.


Group Therapy: I’d like you to answer our reader’s question directly: “How can issues of faith, religious traditions, and spirituality be more greatly incorporated into mental health treatment and understanding? How can mental health issues and treatment be addressed and taught in the church?”

Miller: It’s my job as a therapist to support the inner wisdom of the client, and this is what guides the work. Within every one of us, there’s an inner table of knowers. Every one of us has a magician and an empiricist, but we also have an intuitive, a mystic and a skeptic. These are all organic ways of knowing that we’re endowed with, and my job is to help the client take as valid wisdom that which is spoken through their intuition, through their spiritual heart — to take that as a profound and meaningful experience.

I don’t know where they’re headed, but I can support them as knowers.

. . .

Until next week,


If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic & other resources

If you’re interested in hearing more expansive perspectives on what spirituality can look like, I recommend the “On Being” podcast. Here’s one of my favorite episodes, in which host Krista Tippett interviews Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Kimmerer, botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, speaks about her humility for the intelligence of all kinds of life that most people in the West see as inanimate.

Other interesting stuff

Latinos are the nation’s youngest and largest ethnic group and about a quarter of the population are millennials — a demographic that is seeking therapy more than previous generations, writes Tina Vasquez for De Los. “But the nationwide shortage of mental health professionals is hitting our already underserved communites the hardest,” Vasquez said. “When coupled with the fact that the vast majority of therapists are white, the difficult task of finding a good, culturally competent therapist has become even more challenging.”

If you feel a void in your life, hobbies can help you find fulfillment. Immersing yourself in an activity that absorbs your attention can be a salve for anxiety, and lead to community and friendships. This Times piece by Emma Fox offers guidance for finding a hobby that’s right for you.

Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.