Originally published in 'Laughing Man' magazine, Vol 6, No 2, 1985
As Adi Da once said, “Paradoxically, it is possible to be involved in the practice of medicine in our time and not be a healer. Indeed, the typical model of modern allopathic medicine is that of a mechanical process. This process involves patient and physician in a dehumanized ritual in which the unresponsible and childish patient seeks a magical cure from the parental doctor authority.
Such a mechanistic, symptomatic approach fails to take into account the actions or behaviors that created the disease in the first place. For true healing to occur, the healing process must address the whole patient, not merely his or her symptoms. True healing requires the one being healed to come to a greater level of responsibility for his or her life. Otherwise, the person will only continue in the pattern that initially gave rise to the disease, creating new symptoms.
Ultimately, healing is a spiritual matter, because our existence is not merely material but it is a spiritual process. As Master Da Free John has pointed out, “We are spirits. We do not contain a spirit—we are spirits. We are made of energy. ” And as spirits, we are involved in a trial of real growth and self-transcendence. For, to realize that one is a spirit is only the beginning of spiritual life. Even spiritual existence must be transcended in the Realization of the One Spirit in which all spirits inhere, the Radiant Consciousness of which all beings and things are only modifications.
In the following interview with Bernard Siegel, conducted for The Laughing Man by Ty Koontz and Ron Strauss, we meet an unusual physician—one who has begun to become aware of the spiritual nature of existence. Not surprisingly, he prefers to work outside the limitations of the conventional doctor-patient game. While practicing within the corridors of the established allopathic regime, Bernard Siegel has achieved exceptional results as a healer by reasserting human responsibility as part of the healing process.
Dr. Siegel, who prefers to be called Bernie, not Dr. Siegel, was born in Brooklyn, NY. He attended Colgate University and Cornell University Medical College. He holds membership in two scholastic honor societies, Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Omega Alpha and graduated with honors. His surgical training took place at Yale New Haven Hospital, West Haven Veteran’s Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. He retired from practice as an assistant clinical professor of surgery at Yale of general and pediatric surgery in 1989 to speak to patients and their caregivers.
In 1978, he originated Exceptional Cancer Patients, a specific form of individual and group therapy utilizing patients’ drawings, dreams, images and feelings. ECaP is based on “carefrontation,” a safe, loving therapeutic confrontation, which facilitates personal lifestyle changes, personal empowerment and healing of the individual’s life. The physical, spiritual and psychological benefits which followed led to his desire to make everyone aware of his or her healing potential. He realized exceptional behavior is what we are all capable of.
Bernie, and his wife and coworker Bobbie, who died in 2018, lived in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut. They have five children and eight grandchildren. Bernie and Bobbie have co-authored their children, books and articles. Their home with its many children, pets and interests resembled a cross between a family art gallery, museum, zoo and automobile repair shop. It still resembles these things, although the children are trying to improve its appearance in order to avoid embarrassment.
In 1986 his first book, Love. Medicine & Miracles was published. This event redirected his life. In 1989 Peace, Love & Healing and in 1993 How To Live Between Office Visits followed. He is currently working on other books with the goal of humanizing medical education and medical care, as well as, empowering patients and teaching survival behavior to enhance immune system competency. Bernie’s realization that we all need help dealing with the difficulties of life, not just the physical ones, led to Bernie writing his fourth book in 1998 Prescriptions for Living. It helps people to become aware of the eternal truths and wisdom of the sages through Bernie’s stories and insights rather than wait a personal disaster. He wants to help people fix their lives before they are broken, and thus not have to become strong at the broken places. Published in 2003 are Help Me To Heal to empower patients and their caregivers and 365 Prescriptions For The Soul, in 2004 a children’s book about how difficulties can become blessings, Smudge Bunny, in 2005 101 Exercises For The Soul and out in the Fall of 2006 a prescriptions for parenting book Love, Magic & Mud Pies. Published in 2008 Buddy’s Candle, for children of all ages, related to dealing with the loss of a loved one, be it a pet or parent, and published in 2009 Faith, Hope & Healing with inspiring survivor stories and my reflections about what they teach us. Also out is Words Swords, my poetry and chance to write and react with your own. In the Fall of 2011 A Book of Miracles was published with amazing stories and my comments. In September 2013 my latest book The Art of Healing was published containing 60 drawings by patients and what they reveal.. Out in November of 2015 Love, Animals & Miracles containing heartwarming inspiring and informative stories about life.
For more details is www.BernieSiegelMD.com.
“Physicians are trained basically to do two things: One is to do things to people to make them well, and the other is to not allow anyone to die.”
SIEGEL: Physicians are trained basically to do two things: One is to do things to people to make them well, and the other is to not allow anyone to die. But everybody dies some day. Therefore, the system is a failure system. It also sets people up for failure by turning them away from true healing. Healings outside the system are considered to be miraculous or spontaneous, not something you can learn from or teach. The system requires that the physician do things to people, rather than allowing people to participate in their own healing. If a patient gets well, the physician is wonderful or the disease is well-behaved. It doesn’t have to do with the patient accomplishing anything. There is no room in this system for self-induced healing. The physician is given the full burden, so that when anybody dies or does not get well, the physician feels like a failure.
TLM: In your work at the university, how does your approach to teaching differ from the conventional approach?
SIEGEL: I try to make people aware that illness is not just a coincidence. Physicians should help patients correlate life changes with the onset of the illness. There is a reason for the occurrence of the illness, whether it’s appendicitis, cancer, or a heart attack. If you have lived with your appendix for twenty years, why do you have appendicitis this week? I try to get people to look at such issues, to look at what the disease means to an individual. I also want people to be aware that the part of the body that is ill is symbolic and can be of great significance.
I talk to people when they are anesthetized or in a coma, because I am trying to deal with the unconscious. And I make the people around me aware that patients have options. People do choose to die or get well when we tell them what’s happening and give them permission to choose.
I am also trying to create a role model that will allow others to do some of the things I am doing. I am not asking them to be me, and I am not saying I am better than they are. I’m not trying to create conflicts. I am simply saying there are other issues we need to look at.
TLM: Have you been able to effect any changes in the university’s approach to teaching medical students?
SIEGEL: It’s very hard to change the system, but students are now integrating into their education areas that were previously outside the main curriculum. For example, students used to ask if I could talk to them during the lunch hour. This was one of the few times when I could bring up such questions as, Why are you becoming a doctor? What is the healing process? Do you ever talk to patients about their dreams? Now the medical school is allowing these types of discussions to be part of the curriculum.
You may have heard of the doctor who said to the patient, “All you have is a hope and a prayer.’’ The patient asked, “How do I hope and pray?” And the doctor replied, “I don’t know. It’s not my line.” I think that some doctors are beginning to realize that maybe this should be part of their line, and if it isn’t they often ask me to help them. I am a surgeon and I am practicing every day, so people know that I have my feet on the ground. I don’t throw out traditional techniques, because I think they are valuable. I let patients know that whatever healing techniques they choose will be accepted by their bodies and not rejected as toxic or an assault, if they are at peace and accept the technique as a gift.
SIEGEL: Many physicians say they don’t know where I hear all the stories I hear and how so much could happen with my patients that never happens with theirs. These things didn’t happen to me for ten years either. Then when I started talking and sharing with my patients, they started opening up: “When I developed skin cancer I wanted to die. I was thinking of suicide when I got the cancer.” After I removed six feet of one patient’s intestines, she said, “I couldn’t digest the stuff that was coming up in my therapy. Then you come in here and tell me you’ve taken out six feet of my intestines and I’m not surprised.”
A woman came in the other day to have a skin lesion removed, and I started talking with her. She told me about the conflicts in her life and how she had pulled to the side of the road one day saying, “God, you have got to help me!’’Suddenly a voice answered and told her how to straighten out her life. These types of things happen on a daily basis.
TLM: You have said that about twenty percent of your patients are what you call survivors. You also acknowledged that everybody dies. What do you mean by a survivor?
SIEGEL: Two things are involved here. If a patient calls me and says, “I want to get rid of my cancer,” or “I want my blindness to go away,” or “I want to be healed of multiple sclerosis,” I would say that person is calling for the wrong reason. If someone wants to achieve peace of mind, to leave their troubles to God, to have a clear conscience, which is really what I label healing, that is a real goal. In that process the disease may disappear.
In any case people will not be failures if they take on life as a challenge. If they only want to recover from a physical illness, then they are setting themselves up for failure, because ultimately everyone dies. Those who take on the challenge of life I call survivors because they show the personality characteristics of people who survive against great odds. They show characteristics that increase the likelihood of getting over disease, of making it out of a concentration camp, of coming out of a ghetto and being successful, and so forth.
TLM: When someone comes to you who doesn’t display those characteristics, do you work to develop them?
SIEGEL: If possible, but people come to me as a surgeon, not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I see some people who want to die, some who want to get well, and some who don’t care one way or the other. I present a package of what I can offer them and what they can do as well, and I say, “Look, if I do this and you make these changes, you have the best chance of getting well.” If they say to me, “No, thanks. You do what you can,” I do what I can. I remain available in case they need me. But people who limit their options are limiting their chance of getting well.
I touch people, I hug them, I’ll give them a kiss. I have found that if you accept a patient and develop a loving, caring relationship, the patient will accept what you offer. I have seen patients with incredible tumors growing in their bodies who have said they never wanted to go to a doctor because of the way they were treated. Some of them have refused surgery, saying, “Don’t talk to me about surgery. Help me heal myself.” A month or two may go by and they say, “This is the operation I want you to do.” But now they know it is their choice and that if I touch them it is with love. Therefore they can wake up after surgery and not have any pain.
TLM: You mention that chances for recovery from serious, chronic, or catastrophic illnesses are greatly improved if one accepts life’s struggles as a challenge, rather than merely wanting to be made well. What is the place of Grace in the healing process?
SIEGEL: I think that those who have faith and love obviously have an ally. If I have to intellectualize God, or I don’t even trust God to do everything right, I have an awful lot of work ahead of me! There are patients who will say that cancer is the best thing that ever happened to them. Their life was so empty, and until they knew they might die they never lived. One of Carl Jung’s students said that cancer is the illness most symbolic of something going wrong in the patient’s life. The message is to take another road. I say to them “Look, if you want to get well, live as if you are going to die tomorrow.” So, don’t wait until you know you are going to die tomorrow. Live that way now.
TLM: If disease is a sign that a change is needed in one’s life, then a dramatic disease is a sign that dramatic changes are needed. Compared to someone who has cancer, it would probably be much harder to convince someone with a flu to change his life. As a surgeon, you tend to see mainly extreme cases, people in crisis. Do you think this has colored your view of the physician’s role?
“When I tell patients, “I have two ways for you to get well: change your lifestyle or have an operation,” eight out of ten times the answer is, “Operate. It hurts less.””
SIEGEL: No. I see a full spectrum. But no one will change unless they feel their pain and suffering. For one person it may be a catastrophic illness. For another person something less may be enough pain to make them not want to live this way anymore, and off they go in a different direction. When I tell patients, “I have two ways for you to get well: change your lifestyle or have an operation,” eight out of ten times the answer is, “Operate. It hurts less.” I try to help everybody who steps into my office to understand that possibility to change. Yet, they can refuse all of that and still know I care about them. That’s what allows them to keep coming back. I think it is important to have what somebody labeled “care-frontation”. That means having loving people confront you to keep you headed in the right direction.
Another issue that I think is important to the medical profession is to try to live what we ask our patients to do. My desk is against the wall so that I turn and face a patient directly. I am not the expert looking over my desk at the failure. I try to live that message. If the patient asks me how I feel about myself and my family I tell them what 1 have experienced. They feel and understand that I am human.
TLM: You have written that during a workshop with Carl and Stephanie Simonton you first encountered a spiritual guide named George. Can you describe this?
SIEGEL: The workshop concerned stress, psychological factors, and cancer. I went fully expecting the participants to be mostly doctors. It blew me away to see only three physicians out of about eventy-five people. I was the only body doctor there. The others were a psychiatrist and a holistic practitioner. If this conference had been about a new chemotherapeutic agent that cured cancer but made people turn green, it would have been packed with doctors.
One of the exercises that we tried involved meeting an inner guide. I felt ridiculous, but I couldn’t leave. So I closed my eyes and followed Carl’s instructions. Suddenly I saw a figure coming down a path, and I thought “Holy smokes! I am going to be taught a lesson.” As the figure came closer I saw it was a young man with long hair and a beard, in a white robe, sandals, and a prayer cap. He said his name was George. I asked him some questions and he had very intuitive answers! The answers aren’t always what I want to hear. I would like the answers to be a little more gentle sometimes, but what George has to say is straight to the point. I see George as my unconscious, my intuitive communication with myself.
One morning Olga Worrall, the well-known psychic, came up to me and asked, “Are you Jewish?” I said yes, because I consider myself apart of every religion. She said, “Well, standing next to you is a Rabbi.”
Then she described George to a “T”.
I also bring music into the operating room. Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross once mentioned that her guide needed energy in order to materialize, and music is energy. When I started to bring music into the operating room, I realized it also helped bring loving energy in. Music is my way of bringing life energy back into the operating room. We have to realize that our patients are alive, not dead. We tend to treat people with terminal illnesses as if they are already dead. I say treat people as if they are alive, please. You can have cancer and still laugh.
“the purpose of medicine is to alleviate suffering, rather than to cure disease.”
SIEGEL: Absolutely. As physicians we should be helping people realize why they are alive. What are we all doing here? I feel that 1 am simply, as Olga Worrall said, a conduit for that healing energy. I don’t tire myself out healing people because it is not “me” giving something up. If people are willing, I try everything from hugging or laying on of hands to whatever might work. By giving love to patients, I feel that we are following the spiritual pathway.
I also try to thank God in whatever way I can as I work. I stop in the hospital chapel regularly and meditate and say thank you. The chief thing is to love, and I am not always that loving. When I operate, sometimes complications occur, and I am not always happy with myself. But there are really wonderful people around me from whom I have learned a lot. There are patients who are survivors. All I have to do is talk with one of them and feel their courage to realize, “Wow, what do I have to complain about?”
One important thing that I try to get across to patients is that one way you communicate with your body is through feeling. I think that love and laughter are the “live” messages. Despair, depression, and fear are the “die” messages. If you deal with the “die” messages—in other words, if you acknowledge the unpleasant feelings—then your body still fights for you. It says, “This is uncomfortable, but we are working on it.” The denial of this despair, depression, and fear is what kills people rapidly. I tell patients, “If you want to die fast, then when you are depressed and feeling awful, and I come in and ask, ‘How are you?’ tell me, ‘Fine. Everything’s fine.’”
TLM: In one of your papers you said that the secret to being eternal is love. Can you elaborate on that?
SIEGEL: In The Bridge of San Luis Rey Thornton Wilder said, “We ourselves shall be loved for a while and then forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
This also brings us back to success and failure. If a patient is loved by someone else- – and he will be if he gives love—he is a success in life, and he is immortal because his love lives on. Love sometimes creates a healing miracle, and sometimes it allows somebody to die in peace, to make death a form of healing. So, don’t wait until you know you are going to die tomorrow. Live that way now.
“I define God as intelligent loving energy”
I am trying to get people to take up the effort of loving. Most of us are afraid to take on that challenge and to enjoy living. But I think that is what we are here to do—take on the challenge to learn to love and give to each other. We are basically born lovers, and we need to heal ourselves through love.
TLM: It would seem, then, that the most beneficial course for people who are ill would be to take up spiritual life.
SIEGEL: Yes. Absolutely.
TLM: Would you also apply this recommendation to the medical profession?
SIEGEL: Yes. I would say the most beneficial course for everybody is to take up spiritual life. This is part of our growth and evolutionary process. ■
- Anita Sikand Bakshi – Practising Paediatric Intensive Care Specialist, Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.