Bernie Siegel on Passion, Empowerment, and Life
“To me, health is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with your body.” —Bernie Siegel, M.D.
By Cat Saunders
Bernie Siegel, M.D., practiced general and pediatric surgery in Connecticut until 1989. At that point, he retired in order to pursue new directions stimulated by the publication of his books. He is the author of Love, Medicine & Miracles; Peace, Love & Healing; and How to Live Between Office Visits (all by HarperCollins).
Bernie and his wife, Bobbie, travel extensively to speak and teach workshops about the mind-body connection. They also educate others about the importance of humanizing the medical professions. When they are not on the road, the Siegels spend their time at home in Woodbridge, Connecticut. Bernie describes their home as “a cross between a family art gallery, a zoo, a museum, and an automobile repair shop.”
In this interview, Bernie talks about his book, How to Live Between Office Visits. He is a natural-born storyteller, and his warmth, humor, compassion, and humility are a delight.
Cat: One of my favorite lines from How to Live Between Office Visits is this: “Healing is a work of darkness.” Would you say more about that?
Bernie: It doesn’t matter if it’s myths, fairy tales, or your own life. Everyone has to start in the darkest part of the forest. To me, darkness represents passion. When you ask people to draw pictures, the two colors of passion are black and red. Passion is about what hurts and what stirs you up—whether it’s love, pain, or despair. These are the things that change people.
Healing is a work of darkness because it involves our fear of the dark. It involves looking into the dark, bringing light into it, and feeling all the passion this creates in us. If everything is lovely and light around you, you’ll keep things just the way they are. You won’t change. If you want to change, you will change—even if you are afraid—but it will come from out of the darkness. Compress charcoal and you make a diamond.
Cat: You talk about Norman Cousins’ term, “psychological malpractice,” in regard to how doctors can hurt patients through words. Would you give an example of how you tell people they have a serious illness without robbing them of hope?
Bernie: First of all, I never lie to people. I always make that clear. Also, it’s important to help people understand that statistics don’t apply to individuals. For example, the average income in Iowa is twice what it is in the rest of the country. Based on that, would you move to Iowa and expect to make twice as much? No. People don’t move to where there is more “average income.”
The same thing applies to “average survival.” Average survival rates don’t show individual situations. Some people live five times longer than average, and some people drop dead a week later.
When I think about your question an old story pops into my mind. Once I had to tell a patient that he had a very serious illness. Afterward, he looked up and said, “Well, I guess I’ve got 60,000 miles left.” He and I both laughed! He was into cars and auto repair, so that was his way of looking at the world.
Since then, I’ve used that idea with several patients, to see what would happen. You know, it’s totally unscientific! But when someone asks, “How am I doing?” I say, “How many miles do you drive in a year?” The person would answer, then I’d multiply it by some number and say, “Well, you’ve got about 100,000 miles to go.”
The funny thing is, no one has ever said, “Bernie, stop being ridiculous!” They all smile and walk out. I hadn’t lied to them, but I had given them the knowledge that although there was a limit, we would keep working together. We would keep fixing and repairing to help them keep going. They were able to keep their hope.
Cat: Would you talk a bit about how to empower children who are seriously ill?
Bernie: Recently, I wrote an article for parents of seriously ill children. I wanted to talk about what would be ideal for healing. One thing I said was that hospitals would need to have the right aromas. Real estate agents understand what I’m talking about. They know that if you put vanilla on a light bulb, or put coffee and apple pie in the kitchen, people will walk into the house and want to buy it!
People need to understand the importance of smell and sights and sounds. For example, if people have a picture of a water scene in their hospital rooms, they will have less anxiety and hurt less. In healing situations, I would surround people with colors, pictures, sounds, music in the lobby, pleasant aromas. That way, when you walk in you think, “Wow, I feel safe here.”
Another thing would be to create hospital rooms where there is space for you. It would be great to have shelves and crannies to put your toys and games. There could be corkboard to put up pictures and white cardboard on the wall. That way, everyone who cares for you or touches you can draw a picture for you and sign their name. These pictures would go home with the child as a way of saying, “We all love you.”
My latest idea is to give a water gun to everyone who is admitted to the hospital. Just think what would happen if you walk in and poke a child with a needle, and the child says, “You’re rough!” Then she squirts you. Who’s got the power now?
Or what if every time you visit a child who has had chemotherapy, he says, “Look, you have to rub my lucky bald head if you’re going to do that to me!” These aren’t big issues, but they are wonderful little ways to help children regain power.
It’s important for people to be encouraged to be characters! If you are known in the hospital by a nickname, like “The Kid Who Makes You Rub His Head,” or “The Girl with the Water Gun,” then people won’t be able to treat you like a room number or “The Hernia,” or “The Lymphoma.” They will have to treat you as a person.
Cat: The story in your book about why you stopped spanking your children is precious and very important. Will you tell it?
Bernie: We have five children, and I really don’t believe in spanking. But one day our son Jeffrey was driving me nuts. I can’t remember what I was upset about, but I was chasing him around the kitchen table. Finally, I caught him. I was about to hit him on the behind when he said, “You can’t hit me!”
I said, “What? What do you mean, I can’t hit you?”
Jeffrey said, “You can’t hit me because I’m a person! And if you hit me, I’ll call the police!”
Well, I started laughing so hard that of course I couldn’t hit him. I could never hit anybody again after that. “I’m a person,” he said. It may seem simple, but that’s really my message. We all need to be seen by each other as persons.
Cat: If you could wake up tomorrow and have your three fondest wishes come true about how to change the medical profession, what would those wishes be?
Bernie: My first wish would be to humanize medicine and medical training. Of course, my books go into great detail about this, but let me see if I can simplify it. One major change would be to get physicians to understand that disease is an experience, not a clinical diagnosis.
Ten people with AIDS will give you ten different stories about what they are going through. People are living an experience. We need to help them with their experience. We need to help them with their lives.
Another essential subject that is left out of medical education is the use of dreams, images, and drawings. Over 60 years ago, Carl Jung listened to a dream and made a physical diagnosis. I write and lecture all the time about how to use drawings and dreams to help people understand themselves, their illnesses, and their options for treatment. We need to teach about this in medical school.
Along with humanizing medicine, I would look into teaching people about living. I’m not talking about prevention. You can’t teach prevention, because most people aren’t really interested in living. So what are you teaching them to prevent?
Let me give you an example. People often take better care of their pets than they do themselves. I read about one lady who said that one of her cats had died of lung cancer and two others had asthma. Because of this, she and her husband decided to smoke outside the house, in their back yard.
At the end of the article, she said, “I’m not killing my cats anymore.” But she’s killing herself! Do you think she needs a lecture on prevention? No! She already knows how to prevent trouble. Her cats are better now, but she doesn’t love herself as much as her cats.
No, I wouldn’t teach about prevention. Instead, I would teach about self-esteem and self-love. I would help parents with parenting, so that children grow up feeling loved. I would help with education so that it would really be education—so that children learn about themselves, about self-esteem and self-worth. This is what would help people get more interested in living and taking care of themselves.
One last thing I’ll mention is that I wish we would study success more. We need to study people who get over “incurable” diseases, or people who live to be a hundred. It’s all very simple when you sit down and talk with these people. We’re really talking about life.
Cat: You quote the father of one of your former associates as saying, “True good health is the ability to do without it.”
Bernie: It’s true. I always get back to the animals as my teachers. In my book, I spoke about a vet who said that there’s so much that human patients can learn from animal patients. She said she could amputate a dog’s leg or half of its jaw, and the animal would wake up from anesthesia and lick its owner’s face. Animals realize they’re here to love and be loved. They also know that they are not just their bodies.
I show slides of people who are quadriplegic, who’ve had arms and legs blown off in a war disaster. Or people who have cerebral palsy, so they can’t even speak, let alone control their bodies. These are incredibly inspiring people who type with their noses, or paint with a brush in their mouths. I call them prisoners. They’re in prison, in terms of what their bodies are like. But they’re also happy, joyful people who are contributing to the world despite their limitations.
To me, health is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with your body—or with your life, for that matter. If people are healthy and happy, that relates to their choice.
Cat: My last question is a personal one. Where are your own passions leading you next?
Bernie: Two things. One is to move in a more spiritual direction, in terms of feeling gratitude and awe for life and for everything around me. A gentleman who was close to death summed it up very well. He said, “You realize time isn’t money. Time is everything.”
I think very much about how I spend my time. That same man also said that seeing something for the last time is almost as good as seeing it for the first time. So I always look at the world as an extraterrestrial would, as if I’m here for the first time every day. Life is amazing!
Third, he said you should spend more time with the things and people you love, and less time with the things and people who don’t love you. If people aren’t happy with you, fine, don’t spend time with them! You don’t have to stay involved with all your adversaries.
The other thing I always work with is this question: “How can I become a more loving human being?” What I’ve learned from the people who teach me is that if you act as if you’re more loving, you basically become more loving. I don’t mean this as a deception. This is not a deception. It is my desire. This is my work always.
This interview was originally published by The New Times (January 1995) and updated in May 2017.
In 1978, Dr. Bernie Siegel started Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECaP), which utilizes a specific kind of individual and group therapy—including the use of dreams, drawings, and images—to help people become more aware of their own healing potential. If you’d like more information about ECaP or about Bernie’s workshops, books, and tapes, please visit berniesiegelmd.com.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).