The Awakened Brain: Breathing In “The Psychology Of Spirituality”

“We live in a participatory universe.”

Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist John Archibald Wheeler 

“Breathing – the strategic and conscious cultivation of our Breath– brings each of us into a reciprocal dance of gratitude – 20,000 time daily – with the rest of Living and Breathing Creation. Flow into this Miracle.” 

Dr. Rob Williams; Peak Flow co-founder

Seldom has a book moved us so deeply as Columbia University clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Miller’s The Awakened Brain: The Psychology of Spirituality. Author of The Spiritual Child and founder/director of the Spiritual Mind Body Institute, Miller has emerged as a leading scientific advocate for taking spiritual matters seriously via scientific experimentation. Her book is a wonderful read – accessible, personal, and provocative – and makes a case for restoring spirituality to the center of our 21st century cultural conversations about what it means to be truly human. Our only two quibbles, and let’s get ‘em out of the way now, are: 1) Miller uses the reductionist term “brain” as shorthand for what might better be referred to as “being” or “consciousness” – perhaps to avoid backlash from the mainstream scientific community; and 2) curiously, the book’s hardcover version enjoyed a slightly longer but more provocative breath-focused subtitle: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest For An Inspired Life.

These two minor critiques aside, Miller’s book is a vital read at a critical time for Team Human, with depression, anxiety and mental illness off the charts among our young people, and notable humans from Harvard University biologist and best-selling author E.O.

Science is a useful Paradigm, yes – but what of the Spiritual?

 What follows is a speculative book review, in which we offer breath-focused observations about how our Peak Flow breath training experiences and observations overlap with Miller’s remarkable scientific discoveries, and how both together might inform matters spiritual.

To make explicit connections between Science and Spirit, Breath and Awakening, let’s first flow into some linguistics.

To wit – “spirit” comes from the Latin root “spira,” is the foundation of our English word “breath,” and can be found at the core many of our most powerful English words, including:

Respire: to breathe over and over…

Aspire: to breathe towards a higher goal or vision…

Conspire: to breathe together…

 Inspire: to breathe good energy into…

And, of course, the words spirits and spiritual – both of which speak to the intangible yet undeniable reality that all Life is animated by a mysterious connective force we call spirituality, loosely translated as “Awakening To Our Ability To Breathe Into An Ongoing Awareness Of Our Connections To The Life Force.” Remembering that we Humans breathe 20,000 to 25,000 times daily, our species’ ability to cultivate a conscious awareness of how we breathe, moment by moment, offers each of us a provocative technology – strategic breathing – for deepening our own spirituality, breath by breath. In our Peak Flow work, we suggest that every Breath is an Opportunity, every Breath is a Gift, every Breath is Potential, and Miller’s scientific discoveries confirm the importance of breathing as a potent technology through which we can deepen our own spirituality.

The Awakened Brain weaves together Miller’s own personal journey as a a wife and a mother, with her professional quest as a scientific researcher to uncover the relationship between spirituality and science as manifested by real humans in real time. Her book is equal parts a moving personal journey and a remarkable series of professional insights gleaned from her exploration of the relationship between the Spiritual and the Scientific.

Here are our summary breath-related takeaways, gleaned from our close reading of The Awakened Brain:

1.     Breathing: Awakening our Brain

“Each of us is endowed with a natural capacity to perceive a greater reality and consciously connect to the life force that moves in, through, and around us,” observes Miller in her book’s introduction. “Whether or not we participate in a spiritual practice or adhere to a faith tradition, whether or not we identify as religious or spiritual, our brain has a natural inclination toward and docking station for spiritual awareness. The awakened brain is the neural circuitry that allows us to see the world more fully and thus enhance our individual, societal, and global well-being.” And nasal diaphragmatic breathing – what we call Light, Slow, and Deep (LSD) breath training – improves cognitive capacity by increasing oxygen flow to our brain, as well as balancing our entire autonomic nervous system.

2.     Breathing: Understanding We Are Both Particles and Waves

Drawing on German physicist and Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg’s famed 1927 “Uncertainty Principle,” Miller observes that each of us, as individual Humans, are both “particles” – unique, sovereign, embodied individuals – and “waves” – individual beings inextricably and intimately interconnected with all other living things via networks of electromagnetic energy – which fuels what some refer to as “collective consciousness.” Breath training opens the doorway to greater Mindfulness, and deepens our understanding that each of us as “particles” are also “waves” – “in flow” with the rest of living and breathing creation.

 3.     Breathing: Synchronizing (via Synchronicity) Our Inner and Outer Reality

 “What happens when we learn – or relearn – how to validate our perceptions as real? To trust ourselves to know in many forms?” asks Miller. “Synchronicity – when two apparently disparate events are joined at the level of meaning or consciousness – seems like an accessible way to illuminate and validate those sparks of inner knowing, those flashes of meaning or insight that seem to arrive out of the blue.” Aligning our inner reality with our outer reality, she observes, means embracing “indeterminacy” – uncertainty – and opening ourselves up to what acclaimed physicist Albert Einstein famously termed “quantum entanglement” – “spooky action at a distance” – the notion that far from being fixed, Time and Space are in flow, and each of us as both particles and waves are entangled in interconnected ways, beyond our rational understanding, with what Miller calls (echoing the Ancients and Mystics) “the oneness of life.” Cultivating our Breath as a technology offers us possibilities for deepening our appreciation of the relationship between our inner reality (“interoception” – what is happening Mind, Body, and Spirit – within us) and our outer reality (“exteroception” – what is happening outside us), as well as optimizing our proprioceptive capacities (“proprioception” – our awareness of how we move through our external environment.) Breath training also creates the conditions for “receptivity” – being more open to “flashes of meaning” that reveal “inner knowing.”

4.     Breathing: Wiring Us for Spirituality

Based on magnetic resonance image (MRI) scanning and laboratory experiments, Miller and her research team have concluded that Humans who engage in a regular spiritual / religious practice have “healthier neural structures” comprised of “broad and pervasive regions of cortical thickness” than do those humans without.  “For spiritually aware people across faith traditions – and including those without a faith tradition…the brain appeared able to protect itself from the long-standing neurological structures of depression,” Miller observes. “Depression and spirituality appear to be two sides of the same coin, vastly different experiences that in fact share some significant physiology.” For thousands of years, in every religious and spiritual tradition, humans have baked “breath work” into chants, mantras, songs, and prayers that harmonize Mind, Body and Spirit via the power of conscious and strategic breathing such as the ancient Sanskrit chant Om Mani Padme Hum.

5.     Breathing: Integrating our Achieving and Awakened Awareness

According to Miller’s research, each of us embody two forms of awareness. “Achieving awareness is the perception that our purpose is to organize and control our lives…and allows us the focused drive and undistracted execution we need to implement and achieve our goals,” Miller writes. “When overused, or exclusively used, achieving awareness overrides and changes the structures of our brains, carving pathways of depression, anxiety, stress, and craving.” By contrast, Miller explains, awakened awareness allows us to “literally see more, integrating information from multiple sources of perception…and allow[ing] us to perceive more choices and opportunities available to us, feel more connected with others, understand the relationships between events in our lives, be more open to creative leaps and insights, and feel more in tune with our life’s purpose and meaning.” How do we integrate achieving and awakened – these two forms of Awareness? “The more we toggle between Achieving and Awakened awareness,” Miller concludes, “the more we tune into an inspired way of thinking, feeling, and walking in the world.” Inspired” means “full of good energy via the Breath.” Breath training, in outher words, offers us one powerful pathway for integrating achieving and awakened awareness.

6.     Breathing: Awakening our Attention

The word “attention” means “to concentrate one’s awareness.” Paying attention to our breathing – cultivating a more conscious awareness of our Breath, and how to use our breathing to sharpen mental clarity, physical presence, and spiritual focus, presents us with powerful protocols for awakening our attention. “When we awaken our attention, we can access the perceptions that help us rewrite our understanding of the world,” explains Miller. “We’re available for surprise, for new information that turns our head…Life is always reaching out to us.” 20,000 time daily, our breathing offers us opportunities, potentials, gifts for awakening our attention.

7.     Breathing: Awakening our Connection

“Realizing that we are in relationships – with our ancestors, our loved ones, our higher selves, our higher power – that transcend physical presence, and through which we gain something vital and useful,” Miller explains, is central to awakening our connection. Breath training provides protocols to “calm the nervous system, quiet achieving awareness, and ready participants to come at their healing with more ease and less reactivity,” to quote Miller’s observations about group therapy sessions her team always begins with “a relaxation exercise and a guided visualization.” Breathing together – “conspiring” – is a powerful collective force that has shaped human affairs for eons.

8.     Breathing: Awakening our Heart

“People who recover from depression through a deepened spirituality give off a posterior high-amplitude alpha wavelength” that “mirrors extremely low frequency (ELFs) waves known as the Schumann resonances that are found in the Earth’s electromagnetic field spectrum,” Miller’s research demonstrates. “The same wavelength of brains in meditation or prayer, and shared by men and women holding hands in times of pain, is the wavelength of the oneness of all life.” Our heart, a powerful and resonant symbol representing courage, altruism, and love, also creates its own electromagnetic energy field which is amplified when conscious and strategic  breathing begins to bring our breath, our heart and our brain into “coherence” – greater awakening and alignment. Miller’s work suggests that “altruism and love of neighbor correlates with cortical thickness across the spiritual network of the brain” and is “perhaps the biggest revelation of the awakened brain – that it’s in our innate nature to build a better world – that what’s good for everyone is also what’s best for each one of us.” When we inhale, our hearts expand, and when we exhale, our hearts contract – so every full and conscious breath helps awaken our heart and align our heart and our breathing.

9.     Breathing: Towards a New Life

“Spiritual awakening is a choice we can make at every moment – a choice of how we perceive the world and ourselves…and depends more on the deliberate use of our inner life than it does on relative endowment,” Miller concludes.  “We are all on a path of awakening, again and again facing new challenges, closing and opening doors, moving ever and always towards greater awakening.” Indeed, and conscious strategic breathwork offers each of us – moment by moment and breath by breath – opportunities to breathe ourselves into new life and new possibilities.

Flowing forward, the possibilities we humans have for using our breath to deepen our spiritual practice – as humans have done for millennia – with the emerging support of scientific research – are profound. Kudos to Dr. Lisa Miller and her work, and may the spiritual/scientific collaborations continue!

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Patrick McKeown

“My mission is to empower people to take control of their own health, well-being and fitness using simple breathing exercises proven to improve body oxygenation” – Patrick McKeown.

World- renowned author and breathing practitioner Patrick McKeown was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, before completing his clinical training in the Buteyko Breathing Method at the Buteyko Clinic, Moscow, Russia. This training was accredited by Professor Konstantin Buteyko. Patrick continues to have a tremendous impact on breath and educating millions around the world..