An Interview with Dr. Bernie Siegel
for Common Ground Winter 1996
by Virginia Lee
This interview is a miracle in itself. When I received the assignment to interview Dr. Bernie Siegel, an accomplished East Coast surgeon and author of the bestseller Love, Medicine and Miracles, (and later Peace, Love and Healing and How to Live Between Office Visits), I thought it would go smoothly as usual, like the countless interviews I’ve done since 1978 when I began my career in new age journalism.
But after my initial interview with Dr. Siegel in mid-October 1995, my worst nightmare came true. After 90 minutes of brilliant conversation full of insight, quotes and anecdotes, I discovered that not a single word of it was recorded on tape.
Taking a yogic deep breath, I called Bernie back (he likes to be called “Bernie”) and explained the dilemma. Responding to the immediate opportunity to demonstrate compassion and unconditional love, he agreed to do the interview over again two weeks later.
But by then, Dr. Siegel had given hours of lectures and days of workshops. Armed with my new telephone tape recorder, I called on Halloween morning only to find out that he was losing his voice. It was barely audible. Surrendering to divine will, we proceeded anyway. Fortunately, his voice got stronger and I managed to capture the words of wisdom — and humor — that I now share with you.
CG: Do you believe in miracles?
BS: There are all kinds of amazing stories about miracles. Like the pilot whose plane got lost in the middle of the night and heard a voice telling him where to land in the middle of a cornfield. He got the plane down safely, but when he went back in the daylight, there was a tangle of electrical wires surrounding the area. No one in their right mind could have ever landed there. It was incredible.
But what happens when God doesn’t show up? If your your family is on the plane that crashes the next day, you’ll want to know why an angel didn’t help them. I don’t know if it’s really an angel that works miracles. Maybe it’s a matter of the person in crisis being calm enough to hear that inner voice of guidance — and being open to something that a person who is frightened can’t get in touch with.
We’re all capable of experiencing miracles. If I am in a meditative trance, I am open to more things than the person who isn’t. If you’re worried about your kids making the school bus (or whether your tape recorder is going to work), you can’t tune into that creative energy. There’s too much static going on. When you are at peace, it’s amazing what you can hear.
CG: How can getting cancer be a positive step on the spiritual path?
BS: I call it an “enlightening force” if you will. Many people are hiding from their mortality in one way or another. They think they’re always going to die later and don’t really accept it. You can live endlessly thinking that “Someday my day will come.” Then if you get cancer or AIDS, you suddenly realize that there is a very limited amount of time here. You can be enlightened by it and let it change how you live your life.
I know a Buddhist who says that information is of no help to people. In general, people are well-informed. They already know what’s good for them. But the one bit of information that changes you is that you’re going to be dead in six months. But how it changes you, is up to you.
Because I was brought up loved, I had no trouble asking people, “Why do you need an illness? How are you benefiting from it?” For me it wasn’t a guilt issue or a reflection of what kind of person they are. But a lot of people did feel guilty when I asked that question and got upset with me.
Then one women wrote and said, “Why don’t you ask (as she did of herself), ‘What did cancer give me permission to do?’” It was brilliant. If you get permission to quit a job you don’t like, move, take your tie off or get your spouse stop abusing you, then it becomes a wake-up call — and a blessing. It’s an enlightening thing.
CG: Do you think that doctors do patients a disservice by telling them they only have a short time to live? Can it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
BS: At times. A lot of it has to do with how doctors are trained. In medical school, we were never taught how to deal with feelings when they come up — either the patients’ or our own. So, there’s this tendency to bury our feelings and hide behind an impersonal façade. In fact, we doctors get mad at people who are dying because we can’t cure them. It makes us feel powerless.
And why do we get mad? Because no one told us in medical school how to behave under these conditions. So, to keep our power, we often predict what will happen to people. And if you are a typical submissive patient listening to the voice of authority, you may well cooperate, go home, lie down and die.
Now the patient who gets angry and says, “I’m going to show you!” has the personality trait of the person who survives. I know a medical student named Jordan who was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. He woke up blind after his surgery and the doctors told him the condition would be permanent — and that he would live for a year at the most. Well, a week after he went home, his sight came back. His feeling was, “If I can have one miracle, why not another?”
So, he went down to the medical library at Harvard and began reading about his brain tumor. Everything he read said there was less than a five-year survival rate and that it was invariable that his tumor would recur.
I told him that he was a terrible medical student. A good medical student would have immediately gone home to bed and pulled the covers over his head and died. But Jordan got mad. He said, “How dare they say ‘invariable’?” Seven years later, he graduated from Harvard and delivered the commencement address.
The other important element to survival is the spiritual aspect. Instead of getting angry, he could have turned the whole thing over to God and gotten well also. If you combine all of these things, a miracle can happen. If you and God are making the decisions, then you are never a victim.
Sometimes when I give lectures with hundreds of people in the audience, I’ll say I have a set of car keys that someone dropped in the parking lot. Then I say I’m not going to hold them up because I believe God wants someone to walk home tonight. Everybody laughs while I’m being perfectly serious. Then I say, “The next time you lose your health, remember this and let someone help you find it.”
CG: Is this how you define an “exceptional patient”?
BS: When we first began to hold meetings for people with cancer, we were struggling with what to call these groups. When I sent out a letter to all the cancer patients in my practice offering them a longer, better life, less than 90 percent of them responded. Of those who came, all were women. Ironically, I had thought 500 people would show up and was a nervous wreck wondering how to handle them all. It made me realize that I didn’t know the people I was caring for. Here I was trying to save them, and many of them didn’t really want to get well.
At that point I stopped, looked around and began to question people. I was trying to come up with all these terms that would mean something. Then my wife described them as “exceptional people who are willing to participate in their own healing.”
The problem is that if you call one person exceptional, it implies that someone else isn’t. But anyone is capable of being exceptional. You just have to be open to the possibilities. As soon as you do, life gets easier. Think about when you look at a newborn: All you see is potential.
I tell people that the way to change is to behave like the person you want to be. And what you choose to be will change you physically. But it’s not magic. If you really want to be something, you have to be willing to work for it. Even movie stars and athletes are not just born with talent; they have to get out there and practice.
CG: Where does science meet religion?
BS: I think somewhere in New Jersey. I wish that term that Ernest Holmes started, “religious science,” hadn’t already been taken. I don’t really like the word “religion,” so I’ll just refer to “spirituality.”
But where science and religion really meet is in the body. Notice what happens if you walk down the street and ask 100 people if they believe in God. You’ll see that the people who say yes are generally healthier than the people who say no. So, what does spirituality do for them? They’re obviously at peace. Prayer can physically affect the body. You cannot separate your spirit, your soul, your mind and your body. They’re all together.
If Christ walked down the street today, he would say, “You are all satellite dishes, remote controls and TV screens.” People would say he’s nuts. But what does a satellite dish do? It receives. But it receives everything. So what does the remote control do? It selects a channel. (That’s why God has more trouble with men: They can’t leave it on one channel.) And the TV screen? It projects the images that are inside.
If I choose to be a doctor, that’s fine. But I could just as easily open a restaurant and do just as much good for people. Choose whatever channel you want to pay attention to, then work with it.
CG: Can people believe in science as fervently as they believe in God and get the same result?
BS: Sure. My definition of God is “creative intelligence.” It’s not a man or a woman keeping cosmic score in a book. Many scientists are far more spiritual than most people would believe because they are open to possibilities. They know they can’t explain everything, and can’t help but be in awe of the miracle of creation. There is intelligence in all matter, in all life. If divine energy didn’t care when I cut my finger, then I would bleed to death. The fact that we are capable of healing proves there is loving intelligence in the universe.
Let me tell you about my new religion. It has four symbols: ice, band-aids, pennies and maple leaves. That tells you everything you need to know about God.
Ice is an example of divine intelligence. If you are a physicist, you know hat there is only one liquid which defies the laws of physics — and that is water. Normally, if you freeze a liquid, it becomes more dense. The molecules are closer together, it becomes heavier and sinks. But if you take water and freeze it, the molecules move apart, it becomes less dense and floats. Think of an ice cube in a drink and ask, “Why would it do that?” What would happen to life on Earth if everything froze from the bottom up? If you think about it, it’s obvious. Where would the fish go? The life in the oceans would die. Water would stop flowing.
Now what about band-aids? You get hurt and your body creates a scab. Now God knew She created imperfect people, otherwise life would be meaningless. But She didn’t want them to bleed to death, so She gave humans the ability to form a scab. Then God realized, “Oh no, they’re picking on them.” So, She decided to put the idea for a band-aid inside the head of an employee at Johnson & Johnson, and the rest is history. Think about it: You put on a band-aid and when you take it off a week later, a miracle has occurred.
Now pennies are important simply because of what it says on them. Initially, our country had “Mind your own business” on its pennies. Then it was changed to “In God we trust.” To me, it’s significant that we are reminded of our inherent freedom and liberty, and our relationship to God, every time we spend money.
The there’s the maple leaf, which to me symbolizes the ability to change — and to be brilliant just before they die. The message is, “Before you die, lighten up.” But the truth is, why wait?
CG: Why aren’t conventionally trained doctors more curious about miracle healing? Why are you the exception?
BS: I’m not really the exception, because there are two kinds of doctors, just like there are two kinds of patients. For example, a lady at one of my lectures has lymphoma and hasn’t had any kind of chemotherapy treatment — and she’s been fine for three years. Her doctor just shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know. I guess you’re just lucky or never really had it.” Instead, he should say, “What are you doing? Tell me something that I can tell other people.”
I simply began to question why some people didn’t die when they were supposed to. I’d ask, “Why didn’t you die?”
And I’d hear things like, “Well, I moved to Colorado. And the mountains were so beautiful, I forgot.”
CG: Why do you think these doctors have such a hard time embracing the metaphysical aspects of healing?
BS: It’s a simple answer — poor training. And I’m not referring to their ability to treat the disease, because 90 percent of them are good at writing prescriptions. I mean that they don’t know how to treat people. They don’t know how to deal with human suffering.
And that was the case with me. I was miserable. They say that M.D. means “my disease.” Most physicians are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and don’t even know it. We don’t know what to do with our own feelings, and certainly don’t know what to do with other people’s feelings. Someone who’s lost their kid in are car accident wants a little more than an anti-depressant. Of course, they want to talk about it.
CG: Is this what created the holistic health movement?
BS: It didn’t create it because holistic health was always there. As a matter of fact, holistic health was more a part of medicine a generation ago, especially when it came to things like home birth. But you do have to appreciate the incredible advances, technologically, in modern medicine. I could offer you complete treatment with everything that’s less than 50 years old. As a result, medical education is overwhelmed by this volume of information and technology. I’m not opposed to it, because it can keep us all alive a lot longer, but it doesn’t leave much time to learn about people.
New doctors need know about health alternatives, things like herbs, massage, acupuncture, counseling and diet. It’s not a political choice between allopathic and holistic medicine. It’s just a matter of understanding how people can live better and longer.
There are some interesting statistics about birth. If you leave women to labor alone in a room, about 55% of them will need anesthesia and 27% of them will need a cesarean section. If you take another group of women and put someone in the room who cares about them, only 8% will need anesthesia and 12% will need a cesarean. That’s where science and spirit overlap.
CG: What’s the role of things like visualization and music in the healing process?
BS: If you want to sell a house, you call a real estate agent, right? But a good real estate agent will tell you to out some vanilla on the light bulb, some coffee on the stove and an apple pie in the oven. Why? because your attitude its changed by the sense of smell. Your electro-encephalogram is altered by the senses.
So, the same is true in medicine. Similarly, your neuro-peptides are stimulated by touch. That’s why massage is an important part of healing and why babies must be held. And that’s why I brought music into the operating room. At first, I was criticized, but now it’s standard policy in the hospital where I worked. It made everybody feel better. Now, rather than tell people what I think is right, I just tell stories. Everyone likes to hear stories.
CG: How were you regarded at Yale?
BS: Some people loved me and some thought I was crazy.
CG: Are you happy to be doing your own thing now?
BS: I have always done my own thing. I had very unusual parents. I didn’t realize it when I was a kid. I knew they loved me, but I still had a normally unhappy adolescence. Like Carl Jung said, therapy is to help you lead a normally disillusioned life and turn neurotic complexes into normal problems.
But my parents always let me know I was loved, and not always in a direct way. I would hear them say nice things about me when I wasn’t in the room. When something bad happened, my mother would say, “God is simply redirecting your life. Something good will come of it.” Adversity would become a reason to open a bottle of wine. And when something wonderful happened, she’d say, “Don’t worry dear, we’ll try and get you through it.” My mother was a Jungian therapist but never knew who Carl Jung was.
You begin to realize how to use pain as a way to awaken consciousness. That way, instead of a punishment, it’s an opportunity to learn. I grew up with these mottos which helped me to become the kind of person who’s not afraid. When it came time to decide what I wanted to be, the underlying message was already there: I could be anything I wanted to be. The real question is: What will make you happy?
In my life, I’ve had at least four careers. I’ve been a doctor, a painter, a writer and now I’m a teacher. You know, the word doctor originally meant “teacher.” The leaders of the ancient world were the ones who would teach, preach and heal. It was all one job. In modern times, all these roles have been divided up.
CG: Why do we get sick? What is the nature of disease?
BS: Do you want a philosophical or a medical answer? On the medical level, there are things that happen to us. It’s inevitable; you can’t live forever. There are things we become vulnerable to.
And you have to remember — it’s an interplay between environment, genetics and psycho-social influences. You can expose two people to cholera bacteria: One will get sick and the other one won’t. When people are exposed to radiation, some get leukemia and some don’t. Why? There’s a constant balance between you, your state of health, your state of mind and the universe. Talk to people who live to be 90. Are they just lucky or are there qualities in them that help them live a longer life?
Now you can be born with a lousy set of genes where everyone in your family dies at 50. Then if you live to be 60 or 70, that’s an incredible thing.
On a simple level, what do I mean? A married man lives longer than a single man with the same cancer. How can he smoke more and not get lung cancer?
The deeper question is: Why is there suffering? Why don’t we have a perfect world? It’s something I wish we had addressed in medical school, especially when I had to watch children die. For a doctor, there is nothing worse than not being able to save a child’s life.
In Gods words, “If I had created a perfect universe, it would be a magic trick and have no meaning. There would be no place in it for you.” Would we need magazines or doctors? There would be nothing for us to do. God created free will. Why? Because if we’re not in the Garden of Eden, then love becomes meaningful. In the Garden of Eden, love is boring as hell. We need our physical and emotional pain in order to know ourselves. Even though the pain exists to teach you, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a pill to modify it. But don’t numb yourself. That’s what addicts do. You can turn charcoal into a diamond when it’s under pressure.
We’re also here to learn how to respond to the suffering with compassion. Then we become God. As a young man who died of AIDS said, “The epidemic isn’t evil. But evil can be the response to suffering.” Some people who read this might say, “Well they’re gay or they’re drug addicts. And so God is punishing them.” But what about hemophiliacs or a kid who’s been raped? Most AIDS patients I talk to say that it’s all so much easier to deal with when you’re loved.
CG: What’s the difference between a disease and an illness?
BS: One is an intellectual statement. A disease is something that is diagnosed. But an illness is something you are going through. Your disease may be multiple sclerosis. But if you’re in a wheelchair and I ask what you’re going through, the answer may be “solitude.” I can treat solitude which may also improve the multiple sclerosis, too.
So that’s what I do with people. I say, “How can I help you? What are you experiencing?” And when they tell me, their words are always related to their life. Once a lady came up to me and asked about her recurring urinary tract infection. And I asked her to describe what she felt. She answered, “It’s very draining.” Then she laughed. Her eyes lit up and said, “You’ve helped.” And she walked away. Healing can be literal and metaphorical — and quite simple.
CG: How is consciousness related to disease?
BS: Everything comes from our state of mind. That’s what consciousness is — our state of mind. Consciousness manifests itself on a physical level. Therefore, consciousness is what life is all about. I believe that your state of health is more related to your state of consciousness than to your physical body. We create both illness and healing through our consciousness.
I say go learn from the animals. They don’t have trouble knowing what will make them happy. They’re not concerned with owning a new car or a better house. They’re not distracted by problems with God or with each other. They’re not living in the past. They teach us about love. Even if they lose a leg, they give you a lick and keep on going. Learn from the creatures and from nature. Nature doesn’t charge a damn thing for therapy.
CG: You say that love heals. As a doctor, can you comment on the relationship between attitude and illness?
BS: Monday morning. There are more heart attacks and more suicides on Monday morning than any other time. If you loved what you were doing every day, and saw it as your way of contributing to life, Monday morning wouldn’t be a threat.
If you do what you love, first of all, you lose track of time. That’s my definition of play. So if you’re doing what you love, you;re at play your whole life. You don’t age. Physiologically, you’re altered by that state. Truthfully, if I could live my life over again, I doubt I would be a doctor. I became a surgeon because I was really an artist and I wanted to use my hands. That’s why I’m not a normal surgeon. Think about Picasso. Do you think he ever worked a day in his life?
I can sum it up by telling you what God has over Her desk. There’s one plaque that says, “Don’t feel totally, personally, irrevocably, eternally responsible for everything. That’s my job. Thank God,” The second one says. “Everything you remember, I forget. And everything you forget, I remember.” And that relates to both the good and the bad we’ve done. The third says, “If you go around saying what a miserable life you have, I’ll show you miserable life. If you talk about how wonderful your life is, I’ll show you a wonderful life.”
CG: What is the most hopeless situation you’ve ever seen?
BS: I can’t think of one. There may be things I can’t fix or cure, but I can still do something for the ones who are suffering. If I see a duck with his neck stuck in a six-pack ring, I take it out. If I see a deer trapped on a frozen pond, I help her get off. If I see six kids tangled up and afraid to move for fear of breaking an arm or a leg, I stick a pin into one boy’s foot. He yells, “Ow,” and I say, “That’s your foot.” So, what’s hopeless? If I’m with someone and can give them love, that’s enough.
Once I knew a boy dying of cystic fibrosis who didn’t understand why he was sick and all the other kids were outside playing in the sun. It seemed silly but told him, “Because it makes you beautiful.” Since his death, $400,000 has been raised to fight cystic fibrosis in his name.
The most painful thing is anyone who outlives their children.
CG: What’s the most miraculous thing you’ve ever seen?
BS: The most miraculous thing is what love can do. When I operated on a man named John Florio, whose stomach was filled with cancer, I closed him up and said, “John, you need more therapy.” He said, “Have you forgotten something? It’s springtime and I am a landscape gardener. I’m going to go home and make the world more beautiful. If I die, I’ll leave a beautiful world. If I don’t die, fine.” John just celebrated his 90th birthday and his 50th wedding anniversary. He has never been treated for cancer and there’s no sign of it in his body.
CG: Does crisis bring people together?
BS: Sometimes. And sometimes it drives them further apart. It’s up to you what it does.
If my wife came after me with a gun, I would certainly get a divorce. But If I make her unhappy or she makes me unhappy, that’s not a reason for leaving. it’s time for the two of us to sit down and ask ourselves what’s going on. My wife knows I love her and our marriage is better than most. But she’s a problem for me. She tests me and my ability to love. I don’t pack up and leave if I have a tough day. I ask, “How can I love her more?” My family is my teacher. And my job is to love them.
CG: Why did you shave your head?
BS: I had a very difficult birth. Two descriptions of my head were it was either a purple melon or a green cucumber. It was terribly distorted and hemorrhaging. As an infant, I looked so peculiar that my mother was embarrassed to take me out in public. Then her mother took over when she saw how disturbed her daughter was. My grandmother literally anointed my head with oil and massaged it every day, pushing the features back into place. And as a result, I was several times a day. The message I got from this was “Everybody loves me,” not “I’m funny looking and she’s doing plastic surgery.”
So, as an adult, I went into a trance when a massage therapist rubbed my head with oil. It took me back all those wonderful memories of infancy. That’s part of the reason why I shaved my head.
Also, it was a symbol. Carl Jung describes the barber who shows up and shaves the hero’s head. He goes on to talk about “tonsure,” which is the ritual shaving of a monk’s head as a symbol for uncovering one’s spirituality. When I read that, something went on like a light. I knew it’s what I had to do. And you have to remember, when I first shaved my head 18 years ago, it was not in style. It was considered rather bizarre. And by the way, it had nothing to do with patients in chemotherapy.
CG: Do you believe in divine intervention or do people heal themselves?
BS: I think it’s all one. When I was four years old, I was playing with a toy telephone that had all these little parts. I was taking it apart, and like a carpenter, I held the little pieces in my mouth. Then I aspirated one of the parts and realized I was choking to death.
I was dying. I was having an out-of-body experience. I could tell because there were two of me sitting on the bed. One of me was feeling very peaceful and thought it was neat to die. And the other was convulsively struggling to breathe and worrying about what my mother would say when she came in and found me. I worried about being good and not wanting to upset her by dying. The other me didn’t really care because I felt so peaceful. And then I vomited and out came the parts of the toy and I could breathe again. It was like a self-induced Heimlich maneuver. Even as a four-year-old, I wondered, “Who did that? What made me vomit?”
I believe that we are unconsciously aware of everything that happens. Often when I have patients do drawings, the future is in their drawings. I can read you poems of people who got on an airplane which then crashed. It’s as if they knew. The future is in our dreams too, because we are constantly creating it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change it either.
CG: What does it take to cure someone of cancer or AIDS?
BS: I’ve cured people who didn’t participate in their own healing whatsoever. I just performed an operation and they got well. And some of those people are still trying to kill themselves. That’s why my message to people is “I hope you love yourself as much as I love you — and as much as you love your pet.”
You can cure people mechanically and people can cure themselves through self-inducing healing, a term I got from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If we had called it that years ago, I think medicine would be different today. If you want to get well, use everything.
CG: Is there a difference between male and female doctors?
BS: Yes. It’ s superior for a doctor to have feminine qualities, and women are more naturally suited to healing. But the medical training can always mess them up. There are some female doctors who are more patriarchal and masculine than any man you’ll ever meet. And some male doctors are very sensitive. By nature, a doctor has more compassionate and an innate desire to help people.
CG: What does it take to be a real healer?
BS: A willingness to deal with your own wounds. And being open. If you are close-minded, you are not a scientist — or a healer. Know what you don’t know, and that’s when you become enlightened.