Dr. Bernie Siegel stands in a rare circle of pioneers who still are guiding today’s army of spirituality-and-health advocates. So, it’s big news that Bernie’s latest book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing is available in time for holiday shopping. If you already own some of his books, then today’s interview will underline the unique nature of this new book. Among other things: Hey, it’s fun! This new book is packed with lots of material about Bernie’s long-standing work on visualization, symbols, drawings—and good humor.
Ancient inspiration: The faith-and-health connection stretches back thousands of years to the founders of the world’s great faiths and to the physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim leaders were pioneers in founding hospitals. The first major Islamic hospital was established in 707 in Syria—with Christian assistance. In Europe by the later Middle Ages, Christian religious orders drew on both ancient Roman and newer Islamic ideas to establish their own hospitals. Flash forward to 18th-century America and Shakers were among the many new religious movements to connect health and religion. By the late 19th century, advocates like Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were changing the way all Americans thought about food, faith and health.
A new wave of scholars: It should have come as no surprise, in the late 1970s, when famous journalist Norman Cousins dropped the first of his bombshell books about the importance of what amounted to spiritual awareness, coupled with nutrition, in combating serious medical problems. Among Cousins’ famous words of advice? Teach yourself to laugh! And, in Bernie Siegel’s new book, there’s a whole section on that discipline of humor. (Care to read more right now? Our weekly WeAreCaregivers section has an excerpt of Bernie’s chapter on laughter.)
Of course, Cousins was greeted with skepticism—and even scorn from some critics who felt the brilliant Editor of The Saturday Review had lost his mind. What those critics didn’t understand was the ancient connections under-girding Cousins’ insights—and the growing circle of spiritual pioneers among serious scientists. By the 1980s, Harvard’s Dr. Robert Coles was publishing landmark studies of the moral and spiritual lives of children, complete with interpretive drawings—much as Bernie Siegel recommends to readers in a fresh way in this new book. Soon, Dr. Larry Dossey was writing about the relationship between faith and wellness, as well. In 1986, Bernie Siegel risked his own career by publishing his most important volume, Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients.
One key distinction in this new wave of scholars—including books by Coles, Dossey and Bernie Siegel—is that these experts are not selling any specific religious creed. They’re not “faith healers.” In fact, all of them, including Bernie Siegel, warn that some religious doctrines may actually be barriers to healing.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. BERNIE SIEGEL, MD,
ON ‘THE ART OF HEALING’
DAVID CRUMM: There are a lot of faith healers out there and I want to clearly distinguish your work, for our readers, as standing in a long tradition of serious, scientifically based inquiries into the healing power of spiritual disciplines. So—before we get to the fun stuff—let’s start with your critique of some religious leaders. For example, you’re outspoken in criticizing various popes from the 1800s to today for, all too often, condemning the newest medical advances out of hand. In your view, there is too much of a conservative backlash against scientific developments—coupled with an unfortunate tendency to say that suffering is the will of God.
DR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Let me use an interview with Billy Graham as an example. I remember this because his response was so striking to me. He was asked, “Does God want me to have cancer?” And Billy Graham’s first words were, “Not necessarily.”
DAVID: To be fair to Billy, he tells people that they need to take care of their bodies. He tells people that they should pray and follow a doctor’s advice—and he does both of those things himself. But your basic point is on target: Billy has strongly emphasized the importance of praying to God for healing—and he isn’t as clear as you are about the need to seek out the best in medical care.
BERNIE: Well, when Billy Graham was asked that question and the first words out of his mouth were, “Not necessarily,” I thought: That’s wrong! The answer should have been a clear, “No.” He should have said, “No, God doesn’t want you to have cancer.” In that interview, he went on to tell people that sometimes God uses disease to wake us up. And, that’s encouraging people to have that old guilt response to illness—the blame response. To me, that’s not what good religion should be telling people. We need to start by telling people that God built healing potential into everything. We need to say clearly: Disease is not a punishment.
DAVID: You’re right. There still is an over-emphasis on guilt and blame in many of the common religious responses to illness.
BERNIE: I look back to Maimonides, who gave us a lot of good advice. Here’s an example: Let’s say you go to your house of worship and, when the services are over, you walk into the parking lot—but you can’t find your car keys. Does that mean God wants you to walk home? No, most people don’t believe that. They go back and search everywhere for their keys. Well, Maimonides said the same thing about healing: “If you’ve lost your health—look for it.”
BERNIE SIEGEL: ‘MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE’
DAVID: You’ve explained that your study of religion and spirituality is not aimed at conversion or preaching—but is a part of your broad scientific inquiry into connections that can help people.
BERNIE: I always say I live by my experience, not by beliefs. I keep learning. I have studied religion to help understand the lives and the experiences of my patients. A sentence that changed my life was when a patient said to me: “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That got me started on this whole process of helping people learn how to live.
This is practical. I call this whole process: looking for common themes. If I discover something that’s helpful to a person, and then I encounter this same thing in someone else’s writings—perhaps in a novel or in the Bible or in some other writings—then I can see a larger connection. I am continually observing the world, continually reading, too. And in novels, plays, books, and images people are putting out into the world all of these things that they have observed about the world. When we can make connections in what we are observing, then we can begin to realize truths that are being spoken to us.
DAVID: When you and writers like Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey began publicizing these ideas, there were lots of detractors. Now, there’s a lot of research about the role of emotions and relationships in healing. In other words—today, you’re on what seems to be more solid ground with readers. Is that fair to say?
BERNIE: Years ago, remember, nobody thought that a support group could possibly help anyone. Now, we know that support groups truly do help people. Relationships benefit our health. Yes, there now is a lot of good research behind this. We’ve studied a lot of things that, when I started, nobody was advocating. For example, we know that, for many people, even having a dog in the house can positively affect your health.
We now have studies that show how loneliness affects genes and the control of our immune functions. So, we now know that loneliness is a factor in disease. When we begin making connections, it may not be science at that point—but we can do research over time and some of the connections we make may become science.
I talk about making the invisible visible. Years ago, Ernest Holmes wrote about this.
Here’s an example: From the Bible, we know that God speaks in dreams and images. Today, many people know that there is value in using images, including drawings and dreams, to learn more about what are bodies are saying to us. You may think that your body can’t speak to you—but it actually can speak to you when you go to bed at night and you dream. Your body can create many images for you. We know that, in this process, colors may have meaning. Images have meaning. One thing I love about this new book is that I was able to reproduce so many full-color drawings in the middle of the book. You can really see what I’m talking about in that section of the book on patients’ drawings.
BERNIE SIEGEL: DRAWINGS OF ‘INNER WISDOM’
DAVID: In your career as a pediatric surgeon, you often used techniques that I associate with Dr. Robert Coles and others—giving children a pack of crayons and asking them to draw pictures for you.
BERNIE: Drawings can reveal the truth for that person. I did a lot of children’s surgery and, yes, a child would say a lot to me through these pictures. We’ve got 70 full-color pictures in the book and I explain them. One thing I would ask a child is: Will you draw your home? Will you draw your family? One of the pictures in the book was drawn by a child with cancer. She draws this long sofa and her family is sitting there with arms wrapped around each other. We can see that there’s another space on the sofa—there’s room for the girl, but instead she’s drawn sitting on a chair, separate from her family. This child is saying, “I don’t get enough time with my family.”
I showed this drawing to her family and that made a big difference. They told me later: “Thank you for your help with that drawing, because we devoted a lot more time to her.” Using drawings often let me get in touch with inner wisdom. We have an intuitive, unconscious awareness of what we need, but often we’re not able to express it. This girl’s drawing told her family something very important about their relationship.
BERNIE SIEGEL: ‘LAUGH OUT LOUD’
DAVID: You’ve got a whole section of your book called Laugh Out Loud. I think it’s one of the best portions of the book—in fact, it’s a good reason to buy this new book even if you’ve got other Bernie Siegel books already on the shelf. I really like the way you explain the importance of laughter and good humor in general. And, you point out that this isn’t just a matter of good intentions—this really can lead to improved health.
BERNIE: This is not beyond science. There is chemistry behind what happens within a person during laughter. When people are battling a disease, laughter helps.
DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines from that chapter in which you salute Norman Cousins: “In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins wrote a fascinating account of his self-induced healing-by-laughter from a diagnosed condition, ankylosing spondylitis. When his doctor gave him a 1-in-500 chance of recovery, Cousins checked himself into a hotel, watched Candid Camera tapes, and laughed, day after day. Choosing to use humor as his medicine, rather than react to his fear and do nothing, is the sign of an optimist—a survivor.”
BERNIE: I have made laughter a part of my therapy as a doctor for a long time. Imagine doing surgery on children every week, which was my specialty. I found that laughter was very distracting. When you laugh, you can’t be afraid. I did this in lots of ways. I would play nursery rhymes in the operating room and the whole room would relax because everybody in the room would regress as we listened.
DAVID: This kind of pioneering work you have pursued for so many years—it took a lot of courage. You and Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey—everyone in this field—weathered a lot of criticism along the way. But it’s a basic part of your own spiritual orientation that pushes you onward, right?
BERNIE: Here’s a workshop question I’ve used through the years: I ask people, “If you could be God for a day, why would you want to be God?” And some people will say: So I can do this. Or, so I can fix that. But the ultimate response? The best answer to my workshop question? It’s when people say: “So I can understand: Why?” That’s the ultimate question we need to keep asking: “Why?” That comes from the Baal Shem Tov and many other great spiritual teachers. We are here to live and learn—to keep asking: “Why?”
I just keep working with people and learning—and that’s why I like the word “potential.” We mentioned Ernest Holmes before and this comes through in his writing, as well. He asked the question in The Science of Mind: “What if Jesus was the only normal person who ever lived?” Of course, Holmes had to be smiling when he wrote that. He was writing about potential. We need to be helping people to reach their potential. We know that, when we give the human body the message that we really do want to live—that we want to restore injury and live—the results are amazing.
It’s so important to remember: When you’ve lost your health—keep looking for it.
Care to read more?
In our WeAreCaregivers section, this week, we’ve got a short excerpt from Bernie Siegel’s chapter ‘Laugh Out Loud.’ You’re sure to enjoy it!