Dan Millman — gymnast, author, and speaker of “Peaceful Warrior” fame — said, “Find the heart of it. Make the complex simple, and you can achieve mastery.”
On Wednesday, Dr. Lisa Miller, New York Times bestselling author and professor of clinical psychology and founder of the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute at Teachers College of Columbia University, spoke at the Aspen Institute as part of the Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit Series. Her latest book by her, “The Awakened Brain,” addresses the neuroscience behind health, healing and resilience. Suffice to say the allotted hourlong conversation was a worthy challenge to Millman’s maxim, but Dr. Miller largely rose to the occasion. Her talk about her may be summed up accordingly: We are inherently spiritual beings who have strayed from these roots, yielding all manner of physical, mental and emotional maladies, most of which can be significantly altered for better by reintegrating our spirituality, for which we all have capacity.
A key moment in the discussion occurred when Dr. Miller highlighted the concept of “post-traumatic growth,” a term coined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s and outlined in an April 20, 2020 (coincidental timing?) article in Scientific American by Scott Barry Kaufman titled, “Post-Traumatic Growth: Finding Meaning and Creativity in Adversity.” The premise is straightforward: severe trauma can be a catalyst for growth, as it often forces us to reset our paradigms. I’ve written about this concept quite a bit myself in these pages over the past year, from traumatic death to Caribbean trials to having guns drawn on me in Colombia last month (I like to compete with Lo Semple and Steve Skinner for lighthearted humor and uplifting material in my columns).
While I don’t disagree with the overall conclusions surrounding post-traumatic growth, I find the concept itself problematically fetishized and uniquely American — a worship of pain, suffering and “the grind” that leads us further away from spirituality, not closer to it . Job may disagree with me, but humans can only endure so much (which is, granted, far more than we often imagine — and that’s before tapping divine reserves).
We live in a culture largely loath to use joy as source material. Samuel Pollen has a popular tweet that reads, “European out-of-offices: ‘I’m away camping for the summer. Email again in September.’ American out-of-offices: ‘I have left the office for two hours to undergo kidney surgery but you can reach me on my cell anytime.’”
We have precious few cultural icons in any arena who preach a doctrine of context or quality over quantity, much less joy, and as I grow older, I become far more interested in top performers who have reached this level without trauma than those who have gazed long into the abyss and fought monsters — however heroically — a la Nietzsche. The abyss indeed stars back with a gravitational pull no human can resist, but that’s why we have post-traumatic growth, right? And we get to be dragon slayers!
To this twisted reimagining of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, I call bs Not with any empirical data that would stand the scientific rigors of Dr. Miller’s 100-plus peer-reviewed articles published in leading journals, but on the examples of single-digit individuals I know (all female, not coincidentally) who have subverted pain-based patriarchal structures with pleasure — joy — as a performance driver. If both sides of the coin are valid, growth and performance can and do equally stem from joy, yet we insist on living in a society that worships pain, keeps us imprisoned to consume, and then further demands we produce growth from trauma.
This is where the wonderful, childlike, eternal curiosity — the core spirituality, if you will — of Nicholas Vesey, Aspen Chapel’s minister since 2014, comes into play. Vesey stood and asked what research has been done on the “evolution of consciousness.” The reply was, “very little,” as Dr. Miller acknowledged the brilliance and importance of Vesey’s query. Then a lady from the audience shared a personal story about losing her son to suicide last summer with what appeared — from her composure to tone to aura — to be the kind of peace I have rarely encountered, even from across the room in a packed auditorium . She articulated the belief that we’re all here to have an experience and that we don’t die, not really.
“That’s right,” I thought, “because energy just recycles, and as with all things, the evolution of consciousness about which Vesey is inquiring is simply a circular return.” It’s a return, if you will, to a way of being before we started gazing into the abyss and fetishizing fighting monsters as a way to grow spiritually through trauma while using pain as the source fuel for production and dominance over less-resourced communities whose wounds we are affected with our own lack of joy and spiritual connection. As Audre Lorde wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Our “resources” serve chiefly to allow us to temporarily beat ourselves at the game we invented, the objective being oppressing others while simultaneously and unwittingly imprisoning ourselves.
There’s not much research on the evolution of consciousness because we’re stuck in “resourced” communities using our intellects and academia to understand things that can only be felt. I agree with Dr. Miller that most modern maladies can be addressed by reintegrating our innate spirituality. I disagree that this otherworldly phenomenon needs to be quantified, measured or otherwise even understood in order to be valuable, accepted or legitimized — although I appreciate the attempts, enjoyed the conversation and support the cause.
These days, I’m like a Chili Peppers song: “I like pleasure spiked with pain.” I need some shadow work and adrenaline to keep life interesting, but I’m no longer the masochist seeking identity or performance through trauma. But what do I know? Most things I know about joy I learned through post-traumatic growth.