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Changing, Healing and Helping: Tales of Awakening, from TC’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute

by Martha Moreno
by Martha Moreno
The Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI) at Teachers College is the first Ivy League graduate program to merge the study of spirituality with psychology. Founded by Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology, the institute explicates ancient wisdom with modern science.Originally Miller offered a single class in spirituality and psychology in the late 1990s. Today, Miller says, “with the devotion of Sarah Sherman as Director of the Summer Intensive and Peri Zerrilla as Assistant Director,” SMBI is a thriving, highly successful program housed within TC’s Department of Counseling & Clinical Psychology. The program attracts students in all phases of life, from those just out of their undergraduate studies to mid-career professionals to beginning their second or third career.

“By the end of the full SMBI program we hope students have had an opportunity to expand in their capacity to explore, experience and understand personal spirituality and that all of this might lead to service and contribution.”
— Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology & Education

Now in its fourth year, the SMBI Summer Intensive, brings students from around the world to Teachers College to study with world-renowned educators, scientists, healers and artists, all day, every day, for three weeks. After the summer, most students take online courses while some return to TC for studies during the fall and spring semesters.

“Some of the work may deeply touch a student right away and some may re-emerge when germane down the road,” says Miller, author of the New York Times best-seller The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (Picador, 2016), editor of The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality and Co-Editor of the American Psychological Association journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice. “By the end of the full SMBI program we hope students have had an opportunity to expand in their capacity to explore, experience and understand personal spirituality and that all of this might lead to service and contribution.”

In the following stories, meet three SMBI students who have been doing just that.  


Finding Himself in the Desert: Mark Spohn

Mark Spohn
Mark Spohn
Five years ago, Mark Spohn ran a thriving real estate business with prestigious clients. He lived in a beautiful house and drove luxury cars. In the eyes of society, he had it all, but inside, he felt empty and alone – or as he puts it, “a scared little boy, living an ego-driven life of fear and insecurity, trying to prove himself worthy of love.”

Then Spohn became ill and lost everything: his business, his relationships, and everything he had considered of material importance. Gnawing inner doubt erupted into a full-blown, late-in-life identity crisis.

Finally, Spohn relocated from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, drawn to a physical environment that resonated with the spiritual desert he had entered within. It was the beginning of a transformation, though to what, he didn’t know.

“I struggle to find words to describe the SMBI program. It not only formed my mind but nurtured my soul and helped me become the person I was meant to be. I think that is unique in American higher education.”
— Mark Spohn

“The desert is a place you go to find yourself, but you have to lose yourself first,” he says. “In the desert, I surrendered to the divine mystery of creation. I was asking ‘Who am I?’ and the reply I received was a unique expression of love from the source of all; that we all are beloved, we just need to claim it.”

With that knowledge as the foundation for “my truth that we are all perfect in our imperfection,” Spohn applied and was accepted to TC’s Spirituality Mind, Body Institute. He was 66 years old when he entered the program, but felt an excitement and certainty that past studies in Political Science and Business Administration had never come close to eliciting: “I knew I was taking the next step towards becoming the person I was meant to be.”

During his two years at Teachers College, Spohn often lived in nearby Union Theological Seminary, where the lovely courtyard enhanced his spiritual experience. Under the direction of Barnet Bain, an Academy Award-winning film producer who teaches in the program, Spohn made a short film, “God the Seducer,” based on the story of his inner spiritual journey.

“The power of personal storytelling from the place of the heart is a form of spiritual activism, and digital media is a unique way to communicate the ineffable,” he says. “Whenever I show the film, people say it touches them – that they relate to the questions raised by my story. It reminds them that we are all divinely loved regardless of the personal circumstances of our lives.

“I struggle to find words to describe the SMBI program,” Spohn adds. “It provided me with the intellectual framework to find new meaning and purpose in my life experiences, and enhanced my psycho-spiritual development. I was lovingly encouraged to dive deep into my relationship with life itself and the divine mystery we all navigate together. I think that’s unique in American higher education. I began the mystical realization that I am the love I had been seeking from others, and that my personal mission is giving rather than seeking for myself.”

Spohn is now working on a concept for developing a small contemplative retreat house in the wilderness of the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park. It is intended for those seeking solitude in a “soul-nurturing, sacred place, away from it all, and in harmony with nature.” The retreat house would also serve as a community gathering place for musical performances, art exhibits, movie screenings and workshops.

“I see my role as that of a ‘soul friend,’” Spohn says.

After years of searching, he’s earned the title.



Bringing Mindfulness to Her Students: Martha Moreno

Martha Moreno
Martha Moreno
As a child in Mexico, Martha Moreno grew up in very difficult conditions. Her mother suffered from depression and was often bedridden, and her two older sisters were busy working.

“I would go outside and spend time drawing,” Moreno recalls. “My town had a lot of trees.  Being in nature and expressing my feelings through art was my way to cope. I felt a spiritual connection to nature.” 

Moreno has never forgotten those difficult times. With her husband, she founded and leads a private elementary school, Colegio Deseret, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, dedicated to helping children find not only learn but find happiness. The work is fulfilling, demands constant time and energy, and a few years ago, Moreno felt that her life was growing barren. In particular, she missed the feelings that had come with being in nature and creating art.

“SMBI gave me the tools I needed to heal myself, so that now I can dedicate my days to helping others to heal.”
— Martha Moreno

Moreno’s restlessness wasn’t just about her own life. She had long wanted to combine teachings from both psychology and spirituality to help the children in her school, but she couldn’t find a master’s program in Mexico that combined the two fields. Then one day she was reading The Huffington Post and saw an article that profiled the SMBI program at Teachers College. She had never heard of TC or even of Columbia University, but she recalls thinking, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I want to do. This is what I’ve been waiting for.’”

At TC last summer, Moreno studied with Linda Lantieri, an SMBI professor who is an internationally known expert on Social and Emotional Learning – an approach that teaches students to focus their attention on the present moment and connect with their bodies and emotions.  She visited two New York City public schools where Lantieri is putting her ideas into practice, and she’s since brought mindfulness education to Colegio Deseret.

“It’s been really great for the students,” says Moreno. “It’s helping them to become more aware of their bodies, their emotions, their thoughts. And it helps them to relax and control their feelings and their behavior.”

Aided by mindfulness herself, Moreno also has started to draw again. She is particularly fascinated by the mandala, a symbol that represents a sacred circle in Hinduism and Buddhism. Drawing mandalas has been so calming, and given her such aesthetic pleasure, that she’s introduced art therapy in her school. She also teaches a workshop called Mandalas and Healing. Students and adults create mandalas, which helps them relax, calm themselves and make connections with their inner lives.

“It’s especially useful when kids are having problems at home or just having a bad day at school,” says Moreno. “Before SMBI art was a hobby of mine, but now it’s an integral part of my profession as an educator.”

Moreno is back at SMBI this summer. She’s excited about taking a course in Positive Psychology, and she’s eager to reunite with the students in her cohort after staying in touch online throughout the winter and spring.

“We come from all over the world yet we have a sense of family,” she says. “Even though we are different and diverse people we share the same goal: We want to help people heal.

“Once I entered SMBI, many things changed in my life,” she says. “I started incorporating art into my daily life again. SMBI gave me the tools I needed to heal myself, so that now I can dedicate my days to helping others to heal.” 


Finding Options Beyond Wall Street: Eli Scheier

Eli Scheier
Eli Scheier
For 20 years, Eli Scheier made a handsome salary as an options trader on Wall Street. During the boom years of the 1990s, he also, by his own admission, led the “wild” Wall Street life.  

Then one day “I awakened to questions of purpose, meaning and fulfillment,” recalls Scheier. “My life seemed to be going in a circle. I needed more.”

So he quit his job and began a pilgrimage. He worked as a shepherd in the Israeli desert. He became an integral part of Burning Man, the annual gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. He founded an organic farm in upstate New York, and spent time studying yoga and meditation at ashrams in India.

“When I worked on Wall Street it was all about making money. Now it’s about being happy.”
— Eli Scheier

One day, he was walking along the banks of the Ganges when he struck up a conversation with Erin Doppelt, an American woman who had been studying at a different ashram and was returning stateside to enroll in TC’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute. As they parted, she told him, “You really need to check out SMBI. It would be perfect for you.”

Later that week, Scheier looked up SMBI and was immediately smitten.

“My first impression was that it was an amazing program that combined psychology, spiritualism, mindfulness and science,” he said. “Some people think yoga and mindfulness is far out there, a bit nutty. But I knew from experience that it works and I knew that Teachers College and Columbia would give the program legitimacy.”

He started SMBI in 2016 and is about half way through the master’s degree program. He’ll return this month for the summer intensive program, where he’ll take an elective in Spiritual Healing.

Scheier says his classes at SMBI have helped him learn to control his mind; to stop reliving the past and worrying about the future; to let go of unhealthy attachments; and to stop blaming others for his own discontents. He also draws on these and other SMBI techniques in his new career as a yoga instructor and health and wellness director for three hotels (Ahau, Alaya and Villa Pescadores) in Tulum, Mexico.”

“Yoga is mind-body medicine,” Scheier says. “A good pose helps you let go of ego. It helps you to control your mind and it helps you heal yourself, which is what I now dedicate my life to doing: Teaching people how to heal themselves.

“When I worked on Wall Street it was all about making money. Now it’s about being happy.”


The Spiritual Entrepreneur: Amy Li

Amy Li
Amy Li
Amy Li is an accomplished woman with a capacity for hard work and a talent for entrepreneurship. In China, she co-owns four restaurants and a new bake shop; she’s the author of the Chinese-language self-help book: Happiness Trumps Success, and she translated How NASA Build Teams, another popular leadership and team-building book, into Chinese; she founded an event center and an international educational company and is a sought-after executive coach; and she also worked for many years in real estate development and interior design.

By her own admission, Li is a workaholic with a drive to succeed. But one morning in 2003, while sitting in a business meeting at Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel with a team of architects, designers, and senior managers, she couldn’t concentrate. The night before, she’d dreamed anxiously of plans, buildings and negotiations. Her work was so consuming her life than it had even infiltrated her dreams. She decided then and there that she’d had had enough. After the meeting, she approached her boss and told him she was quitting.

He was shocked,” recalls Li. “But it just dawned on me that I didn’t want that life anymore.”

“It just dawned on me that I didn’t want that life anymore.”
— Amy Li

The moment was the beginning of what Li calls her spiritual awakening. At first she tried simply channeling her energy into different work, opening an interior decorating shop. It did well but her heart wasn’t in it and she soon grew tired and bored. Then she sought out a friend who was a therapist – and after the first week of sessions, she fell into a deep depression and slept for eight days straight. When she came out of it, she knew she had to change her life.

Li began visiting ashrams in India, where she studied meditation. She developed what easterners call a “third eye,” or gate to inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness. She refocused her energy on ventures aimed at helping people and bringing them together -- her restaurants, the event center, life coaching -- but she wanted to learn more about spiritually and perhaps become a teacher. Two years ago, a friend who’d graduated from SMBI told her about the program.

Now Li is entering her second year and loving it. SMBI has made her understand how to be happy with herself, and not so self-critical or so driven to achieve material success. She’s incorporated those lessons into her businesses. At her four restaurants, for instance, Li coaches her staff in spiritual principles and inspires and motivates them to be their “best selves,” and to try to find “enlightened moments” in their work.

Patrons often comment on how happy staff members seem to be.

Li still works very hard, but she sees her mission now as building a bridge between the spiritual and the material world.  People must work for a living, yes, but they need spiritual principles to guide them to happiness, she says.

“SMBI is a perfect fit for me at this stage in my life, my middle years,” she says. “The program has shown me the spiritual way to happiness and I want to help as many people as I can to walk the same path.” – Robert Florida

For more on SMBI, check out these stories in The New York Times and TC Today magazine.

Published Tuesday, Jun 20, 2017