Bernie Siegel on Love, Medicine and the Art of Healing

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Dr. Bernie Siegel says, smiling, “I call myself a Jungian surgeon.” An enthusiastic follower of the concepts and philosophies of psychotherapist Dr. Carl G. Jung, Siegel strongly believes that every human being has the potential for self-healing, and a surgical knife isn’t always the best tool for cutting away disease.

He should know. He’s spent as much time in the operating room as he has leading group therapy sessions with patients struggling with illness. “The body has become like a house,” he tells me. “You have electricians, plumbers, roofers and so on. We take care of parts of the body, but not the whole person anymore.”

A pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine for over 30 years, Siegel left a surgical practice behind to teach a philosophy of living and dying that challenges traditional medicine and offers hope for people everywhere grappling with cancer and other life-threatening conditions.
The best–selling author of more than a dozen books, including the landmark 1980s classic, Love, Medicine and Miracles, Siegel offers a prescription for healing that combines science and spirituality and empowers the patient to take control of his own destiny. In 2011, Siegel was honored by the Watkins Review of London, England, as one of the Top 20 Spiritually Influential Living People on the Planet.

In his newest book, The Art of Healing, Siegel talks focuses on his unconventional and often controversial use of drawing, visualization, dreams, love, and laughter to get to the core of what ails us.

Linda M. Potter: Your new book has so many inspiring stories of healing. From your years of experience in this arena, what would you say is at the heart of healing?

Bernie Siegel: Whether or not people get better has little to do with the treatment. It’s about what people believe. The term that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used is self-induced healing. Doctors never use that. We’re all trained to say things like “spontaneous remission” or “miracle.” We just say, they [the patients) were lucky. But what I learned was that people who didn’t die always have a story. They have changed something in their life.

Since you’re in Colorado, let me share a Colorado story. This was this fellow from our support group in Connecticut who was getting close to dying so, he said, “I’m going to go to Colorado to die in the mountains because it’s so beautiful there.” I said to the family, “When he dies call me; I’ll come to the funeral.” That’s not something I would normally do – go all the way to Colorado, but I was so close to him. Months go by. A year goes by. But I don’t get a freakin’ phone call. I’m really mad that they didn’t respect my desire to come out there. So I call to tell them they really hurt my feelings, and he answers the phone. And I said, “what’s going on!? And he says, “Well, it’s so beautiful here I forgot to die.”

Potter: Some people would call that man’s experience a “Miracle.” How would you define miracle?

Siegel: I agree with Einstein. Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle. And for me, everything is. A miracle is something that is totally unexplainable, and there’s no explanation for life. My definition for God is loving, intelligent, conscious energy. We create miracles by taking intelligence, love, energy and consciousness and putting those things together. That’s how we create [with God] what’s needed to heal.

Potter: If we’re expressions of God – whole, perfect and complete just the way we are, why is there illness in the first place?

Siegel (laughing):Why do we have illnesses? Because we have Monday. I say that in my sense of humor, but there are more heart attacks, strokes and illnesses on Monday morning [than any other day]. It shows how your life can change your body chemistry and make you vulnerable to disease.

Potter: Does that mean we’re responsible for attracting illness into our lives? Are we to blame?

Siegel: There’s no blame. I had a tick bite and I developed Lyme disease. I don’t blame myself for getting sick. But, I can affect whether I get better or have it as a chronic disease.

Think about the various toxins we can become exposed to in the food we eat. Why does one person get poisoned and infected and another person doesn’t? Instead of looking at the people who get sick, why don’t’ we look at the people who don’t? When you do that, you begin to see that it relates to personality. With cancer, for example, psychologists can predict how fast a cancer will grow based on the personality of the individual.

Potter: You talk quite a bit about love in your writings. How important is it that we have love in our lives in order to stay healthy?

Siegel: We have studies that show loneliness affects the genes which control the immune functions. You can’t separate your health from your life. One study was done with Harvard students. They were asked if their parents loved them. For those who said, “No,” 98 percent of them suffered a major illness by middle age. And if they said, “yes,” something like 25 percent of them had.

People who are surrounded by love, who have meaningful relationships, stay healthier and live longer. There was a study done in Australia that found when people went home after a heart attack to a house with a dog, a year later, only 5 percent of them had died. If there was no dog in the house, 26 percent of the people had died. Dogs lower your blood pressure. And, you’re less likely to have the heart attack in the first place if you have a furry pet in the house. When you pet them, you change your body chemistry in terms of bonding hormones — very similar to what happens to a woman after she gives birth.

I used to have patients come into the office who had a house full of pets. The family would say, “The house smells terrible — we don’t even visit her. We’ve got to get rid of these animals now that she’s got cancer!” And I would say, “No! Tell her you can’t find anybody to take the animals. Then she can’t die. Go in and clean the house, but do not get rid of those pets.”

Potter: I love the patient drawings that you have in the book. You talk about how drawings can help diagnose and even predict illness. Can you explain?

Siegel: One of the reasons I wrote this new book was because I wanted to get into these drawings. Drawings can predict what diseases you will get. For instance, Dr. Caroline Thomas, a professor and psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical School had medical students draw a picture of themselves and fill out a personality profile as part of a long term study. She looked them up 35 years later and found that specific aspects of their original drawings and personality profiles correlated with diseases the students experienced after medical school (and the parts of the body which were affected). For example, if the picture of themselves didn’t have arms or hands, or they were tucked behind them or in their pockets, the students were more likely to have emotional troubles later in life. My way of thinking about it is, how do you reach out? How do you get a grip on things?

If their arms were wide open, they were more likely to have heart disease. My feeling is you’re making your heart vulnerable; everybody can come and get your hugs.

People who drew different positions for their arms like one arm up, one arm down – what she called “ambivalent” [positions] – were more likely to have cancer. And the “healthy” drawing was the person with their hands at their sides ── what she called the neutral position.

I’ve used drawings to diagnose disease many times. I had a patient (a child) who had large lymph nodes in her neck and jaw area. The mother said that lymphoma runs in the family and she thought that’s what her daughter had. The daughter drew a couple of pictures for me. One was of herself with this swollen jaw, but the second picture was of a big cat with big, long claws. After looking at the picture, I told the mom not to worry; her daughter had cat scratch fever. We took the node out, and I was right.

Potter: Many people know about your work with healing, but not as many are aware of your role as a patient advocate. I loved the chapter in the book where you talk about your “Siegel Kit.” How did that come about?

Siegel: Being a “good patient” means you’re a submissive sufferer. But I say be a respant—a responsible participant. You speak up; people know you as a person. I tell people that if you have to go to the hospital, always take a Siegel Kit. It includes:

· Noise maker: To get attention when you need it. I know people would be dead if they didn’t have roommates. It’s a standard joke in the hospital—if you want an hour of uninterrupted silence, push the call button.

· Magic marker: So many tragedies that have occurred in the operating room. People have the wrong surgery, [surgery on] the wrong side, patients get mixed up. So I say, write “cut here, not this one, Stupid” on your body. Everybody laughs and you become family when you laugh.

· Water gun: I had a teenage patient who was in the hospital to die. When he closed his door, it meant he wanted to be alone with his family and girlfriend. But people would still barge in. So, he would drench them with the high-powered water gun. He was getting his anger out, but not hurting anybody.

· Pieces of paper: These are for “vital signs.” Hang a sign on your door that says, “Unless it’s an emergency, DON’T DISTURB.” Or “Napping, visiting.” People should feel they have some rights.

Potter: You talk about how important it is that we learn to become “immune competent,” so we can stay healthy, overcome disease and face challenges when they occur. You offer a short self assessment test. Why are these questions important?

Siegel: I have three questions that you should ask yourself.

  1. I am taking you to dinner. Where do you want to go?

If there’s a room full of therapists and you say, “I’ll take you to lunch; what do you want?” they don’t answer. If you ask a bunch of kids who’ve had a life-threatening illness or people who have cancer, they immediately give you an answer; they’re not worried about me or what I might want. It’s important that your answer relate to YOUR feelings, not what it costs or the food preferences of the other person.

  1. What would you hold up before an audience to demonstrate the beauty and meaning of life?

People who’ve had experience with a life-threatening illness will always say, “a mirror.” I spoke to a 1000 personal health trainers at a convention and I asked them that question. Here are gorgeous men and women in perfect shape. When I asked them what they would hang up, not one of them said “mirror.” They all started yelling out, “rainbows, butterflies, flowers.” When they looked in the mirror, they were looking at what was wrong — that they weren’t perfect. They didn’t have self-love. People who have survived illness have learned self-love.

  1. How would you introduce yourself to God?

The most important thing to know is that you are a divine creation. If you say, “God, it’s me the doctor,” or whatever your profession, or that you’re a mother or a father, or something else, God says, “Come back when you know who you are!” You’re separating yourself from the divinity. When you say, “It’s me!” or “Your child’s here,” God says, “Come on in.”

The best answer in all the years I’ve done this was from this kid who said, “Tell God, his replacement is here.” For a teenager to say that…you wanted to call his parents and say, you did a great job.

Potter: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

Siegel: We all die. I don’t try to get people to not die. In my sense of humor I always say that the bitterest people in heaven are the vegetarian, meditating jocks. They should have spent more time enjoying themselves than trying not to die. What I am saying is, if you heal your life, your body derives the benefits.

Linda M. Potter is a writer, popular speaker, and the author of If Only God Would Give Me a Sign! available on her website www.LindaMPotter.com, at selected bookstores, at Amazon.com and at BarnesandNoble.com. Linda is also the Managing Editor of BellaSpark Magazine. lindampotter@LindaMPotter.com.