How Love Heals

Interview with Bernie Siegel
By Mary NurrieStearns


Bernie Siegel is the author of several books, including "Peace, Love and Healing," and "Love, Medicine and Miracles." He also is the author of videos and audio cassettes on healing. He started the Exceptional Cancer Patients, a specific form of individual and group therapy that facilitates personal change and healing. He lives with his wife and five children in New Haven, Connecticut.

Pain in our psyches and pain in our bodies take us into the offices of physicians and other healers. All of us, sometime during in our lives, experience physical illness or heart ache which thrusts us into the realms of healing. So we are well advised to understand how healing occurs and how we can participate in our own healing. Bernie Siegel is well known for his work in healing, particularly self-healing and the power of love to heal. When we selected healing as a central theme in this issue, we knew that Dr. Siegel could share wise words about how we heal our lives.

Personal Transformation: How do you define healing?

Bernie Siegel: My definition of healing has nothing to do with the body. People who are healed live peaceful, joyful, loving lives, serving mankind, and providing others with peace, strength and energy. They are not victims, no matter what is going on in their bodies or their lives. Helen Keller is an example of a healthy person.

If healing is a way of being, what is the importance of spiritual practice in healing?

What is vital, I believe, is to have faith. I don't think one can love if one does not have faith or hope. They are the foundations upon which you can build. The key is what you have faith in. If faith is in power, money or ego, you are going to have a difficult and unhappy life. If you have faith in the proper Lord, you will live a meaningful life and can perform the functions that your Lord requires of you with peace of mind.

How do you help people move into faith?

I act as their coach and director. I tell them to behave as if they have faith. That's the only way anybody ever changes. If they are unhappy enough or are in enough pain, and they make a choice to move in an area that would be productive and constructive, rather than sedating, tranquilizing and addicting, I can say, "Let me guide and help you." I also want to point out that they can get in touch with the writings of the great prophets of the last few thousand years. You don't have anything new to say and neither do I. We ought to put up a poster that says, "Please pay attention: you are preceded by Buddha, Mohammed, Christ, Mother Theresa and Gandhi. Read the Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian prophets. They will teach you how to deal with suffering, how to survive, and how to serve."

How do you encourage people to act as if they have faith?

There is an old Asiatic story. A man says, "I don't know how to pray and I can't pray." The Rabbi says "Well, why don't you pray for the ability to pray." I say "Behave as if, act as if." In studies of actors and actresses, their blood tests are altered by the roles they play, whether it's comedy, drama or tragedy. And they are only performing. We are performing, too. If I say, "How would I behave if I were a lover?" and live that way, I may have a poor performance at times, but I can stop, have constructive criticism from those around me, forgive myself and go on. If you're an actor or an athlete, you understand that. Practice is how you get better at what you're doing. So say, "I will act as if I'm a lover." I encourage people to select a role model.

Write down whom you would like to be like, and then act as if you are that person. Keep rehearsing. I follow Don Quixote. I view the world with love. I tell people to experiment with this. Judge no one you meet for the next 24 hours. Love everyone you meet and see. It's incredible how that changes your relationship with people. You learn about people, and they share with you. When you judge everybody he's lazy, he's no good, he only wants money, he doesn't care about me you project that, and you affect those people. When I walk around being loving, it's incredible how people respond.

I also bare my soul to them. When people say, "How are you?" I tell the truth. I bare my wounds. I may say, "I'm depressed, out of medication, my therapist is away, and I can't get my prescription renewed." You would be amazed at the responses I get. Most of them tell me they know how I feel because they are depressed too. They share intimate details of their lives with me even if I have never met them before.

You model transparency and authenticity.

Yes. You know you are authentic when your family, co-workers and clients criticize you. That's a sign that they see hope for you and believe in your ability to change and grow. If nobody ever criticizes you, I think you ought to worry because others may consider you hopeless. If no one ever criticizes your work, lifestyle or personality, then it is likely that they see you as hopeless and unwilling to change. If you were married to a total idiot, someone unwilling to ever alter his behavior, you would question the point of criticizing. He wouldn't listen. But if you know that your husband loves you and cares about your happiness, you can tell him what he is doing wrong. I don't see that as criticism. My thinking is that I want to know how to be better. She knows I care, but sees that I'm not doing it right.

You are talking about how we relate to criticism.

That's right. Rumi said, "Your criticism polishes my mirror." When you reach that point in life, you are here to work at helping others. When criticism is something you whine about or explain it is not your fault, you haven't reached the right place yet. When you are, you can say, "Thank you for your criticism." There are people who criticize because of their projections. I get unhealthy criticism too. Due to their problem, they've got to put me down. I can accept that; I don't get angry and yell back. For example, I may go somewhere, give a lecture, and come back to my hotel room to find somebody slipped a note under my door with no signature, criticizing me. That's not productive. If they sign their name and leave their number, I can ask them what they mean. We communicate and both of us end up better people. Those are people I respect.

Let's discuss love and healing. How important is being loved and how important is being loving?

Being loved is vital to one's health. Statistics verify that. In a study at Harvard, 95% of the students who described their parents as unloving suffered a major illness by the time they were in midlife. Only 29% of those who said they were loved by their parents had a major illness. We began to see that how we care for ourselves what we eat, whether we exercise relates to self-esteem and self-worth. If you don't have it and are never given it, how are you going to care for yourself? The ability to love is incredibly therapeutic. It affects two people, the person loved as well as the person giving it. Rather than go into great detail, I recommend a book by Ashley Montague called The Practice of Love. Read it and you will know the benefits of love.

When we grow in love, we realize that we are here to serve and to give love to the world. Our choice is how we do it. That is how you have a meaningful, significant life and live your longest, healthiest life. When you are acting out of love, your physiology is as good as it can ever be. In that sense, you are never working: you are just loving what you are doing. With life-threatening illness, people give themselves permission to do what they love because they are going to be dead in six months. I can't tell you how many people say, "Thank God, I have cancer." There are side effects to cancer, and a lot of them are wonderful. They have a chance to spend time loving and learning because they didn't die suddenly. They are happy they got cancer rather than some other potentially fatal illness that would have killed them quickly and not allowed them to appreciate life. The giving of love, as I said, is the thing that we are here for. Life is meaningful and complete when you have given love, which eliminates the need to be here for ninety-four years. You can be here for four years and accomplish what you're sent for. Many authors have said it beautifully. "Love is immortal and makes all things immortal, but hate dies every minute," William Saroyan said. This is true. If you've loved, you live on. In Christ's words, "The Son of Man comes not to be served but to serve, to ransom his life for the good of the many."

Serving isn't being a doormat. You choose how to serve. You can't be a victim if you are here to serve. You are serving, you are doing, you are loving, you are giving. You benefit by how you feel each day. So happiness is choice. It's not something that is provided by others; it is something that comes from within you.

How do we relate to our feelings?

What you must do, if you are going to remain healthy and follow your path, is pay attention to feelings. It is not an intellectual choice. I will quote an attorney who said it well, "While learning to think, I almost forgot how to feel." I test people by saying, "I want to take you to dinner what do you want for dinner?" If they don't answer within five seconds, I know they haven't had a major loss or life-threatening illness. They aren't in touch with their feelings. They are thinking about what they should tell me they want. They are worrying about cost, fat content, my sincerity, or what would I like. When someone asks what you want for dinner, tell them. The answer will come. Ask yourself what will make you happy. You can't think of that answer; you have to feel the answer. It isn't about selfishness, but choices. Go back to Christ's word. He said, "If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you. If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you." That's the answer to how we relate to feelings. If you don't pay attention to them, you will get sick. I mean that literally. If you don't pay attention to your feelings, your body is going to wake you up. It will make you feel things more and more, until you pay attention.

But that doesn't mean being led around by your feelings?

I let my feelings lead me around. Don't pay attention to your feelings, and you'll get in trouble.

What do you say to someone who wakes up in an angry mood, day after day, and who defines themselves by that anger?

If you said, "I'm angry," I'd say "Well, you are not going to live forever, so why do you want to spend all these days being angry?" If I wake up angry or upset over something, I ask, "What I can learn from this, how I can resolve it, how I can finish this"? Feelings aren't right or wrong; they just are. So learn from them. Anger can be appropriate. I can have righteous indignation because I am not treated with respect. I don't resent or hate anybody, because I let them know how I feel. I don't let you affect me endlessly. You are not in charge of my life, so I resolve the uncomfortable feelings. I resolve them because I am here for a limited time. Do I want to spend all these hours being unhappy? My answer is "No."

If people feel frightened or full of fear, I ask them to be specific "I'm afraid of dying, I'm afraid of cancer, I'm afraid of" What does that mean? If you really take these fears apart, you find answers to them. One may be that I choose to be dead, to leave here, because I don't want to go through that.

Sometimes death is healing.

Yes, death is a therapeutic modality when you are tired of your body. It doesn't mean you won't be sad and grieve over separation from others, but you will say, and this I see in symbols, dreams and drawings, that you are leaving. I love my father-in-law's words, "You just fall up." You are whole again. Dying is not a problem for those who are living their life and following their path, do not have family members telling them not to die, or do not have doctors interfering. When you get tired and want to leave, you just go. It's not hard. In today's society it is difficult, because of the people who interfere with the process.

When we're in a relationship with someone who is dying, how do we help?

We communicate and listen. If they say, "I'm tired," we hear them. My father-in-law said, "I don't want my vitamins, and I'm not interested in dinner tonight, thank you." He died that night. When my father said to my mother, "I need to get out of here," I explained to her that his body was bothering him, not the side rails on the bed. She said "okay" and he left. In hospitals, most people die alone in the middle of the night because nobody is listening. They wait until everybody leaves, and then they die.

Why is it so difficult for us to relate to dying as natural and healing?

If you don't have faith or spiritual understanding, if you haven't accomplished what we come here for, to give and receive love, death is harder. The medical profession is not taught how to deal with death. In medicine, death is a failure. How many people say that somebody died? They say he went to heaven, passed away, failed, or left us. We have such trouble dealing with and understanding that death isn't a failure, that it's a part of life. When people get a life-threatening illness, they learn so much. Who writes books and articles? People who develop afflictions and become enlightened. Enlightenment comes through accepting one's mortality. That what's God intended when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Our creator intended for us to know we are mortal. People do the opposite of what they are told. God said, "Don't eat that fruit." They said, "Gee, I wonder what it tastes like." They ate and learned they were mortal. That's what we need to accept. We cover death with all kinds of craziness. Many magazines about health and longevity have nothing to do with health and longevity. There may be three pages on what is good for you, and the rest is about cosmetics and appearance.

Aren't we mortal and immortal?

Yes, a part of us lives on. From personal experience, as well as from the experience of others, I am convinced that we live more than once. This is an educational process, and we are moving up the scale. If you are in the third grade, you are not a very enlightened person and may not spend any time loving. Hopefully, next time you'll get into the fourth or fifth grade, and work your way to eventually be a post-graduate student and contribute something to the world. A Mother Theresa or a Gandhi is a post-graduate student. Those who haven't learned about faith, hope and love are in real trouble. I tell those people to develop amnesia. If you are incapable of loving, don't remember what happened yesterday. Start the day anew. Their relationships are better if they don't remember what happened the day before.

We are killing each other because of race, religion, creed and nationality. It's absurd that killing each other makes life interesting and exciting. We need to learn from animals. Each family should have a beloved pet. Children would not kill each other if they were brought up with pets and learned care and love and reverence for that life. I say to people, "Do me a favor; take as good care of yourself as you do your pet." It's laughable, but I know people who smoke outdoors because their pet got sick. They are still killing themselves. And I say, "Excuse me, is it okay to kill yourself, but not kill your pets?" They don't think of that. They don't realize what they are doing.

How do we become loving?

Through experience. When someone loves you, you are changed. The child who is difficult may be testing your love. The patient who follows absolutely no instruction may be testing your love. I've had people call and ask for Jack Kevorkian's phone number, who are now alive and well. They had surgery for their cancer because somebody said, "You are a child of God." They never heard that from their family, so they want to be dead until somebody says, "I love you." Then they say, "I guess I'm worth loving," and they find that love. So keep on loving. Anyone has the potential to save a life by continuing to love those who are unlovable.

As did Mother Theresa.

Christ told us to love one another. I often say to people "Kill them with kindness." Love is the most powerful weapon we have. People stop what they're doing when you say, "I love you." They don't stop when you say, "I hate you, and I'll kill you if you come across that line." When you say "I love you," they are confused, stop what they're doing and wonder how to deal with you. That's true, unconditional love.

What is your path to becoming loving?

To be loving is my goal. I say it this way, "I have one person I have a lot of trouble with myself." I am my only problem on earth. I have decided to be as kind and loving as I can be. I'm making a mess out of it, but I'm probably better than most people. I don't say that egotistically. I work at it, but I am far from the person I want to be.