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The Art of Healing
Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing
By Bernie S. Siegel, Cynthia J. Hurn
New World Library Copyright © 2013 Bernie S. Siegel
All rights reserved.
THE DOCTOR'S AWAKENING
Buried within the subconscious, in the farthest corner of our memory, lies the knowledge of everything we need to know about living.
— Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Imagine what it is like to look into the eyes of a person as you tell him, "You've got Stage IV cancer." His whole life is now turned upside down. You see the expression in his eyes and in the eyes of the loved ones who have accompanied him. Imagine what it is like when your patient is alone, with no one there to support her when she gets the news. In either case, you are that patient's lifeline and their source of hope. You are their life coach on the road to survival and can help them achieve their potential through self-induced healing.
I became a physician because I like people and I wanted to help them get well when they were ill. But after years of practicing as a pediatric and general surgeon and performing many operations, I felt overwhelmed with the realization that I could not fix or cure all of my patients. I was in a lot of pain with nobody to talk to about it. I was also angry that my education as a doctor had not prepared me to deal with people's lives; it had only taught me about the mechanics of medicine and surgery. I even wrote to the deans of the medical school I attended, saying: you made me a wonderful technician, but you did not teach me how to take care of myself or my patients.
A retired physician who went to divinity school and became a chaplain at the Yale School of Medicine did a study in which he asked surgeons, as part of his research, how it felt to be a surgeon. With each respondent, he had to repeat the question three to five times before he or she stopped saying, "I think...." When these surgeons finally used the words I feel, most of them said it felt painful and admitted they did not want to get to know their patients.
Many other studies have revealed that surgeons have a higher rate of depression, burnout, and suicidal ideation than the general population, and that when a surgical error is made, or surgery is not successful in curing the patient, surgeons suffer even more. They are also the least likely of those in high-stress professions (such as police, social workers, teachers, and nurses) to seek counseling or psychological help.
Trying to avoid emotional pain, surgeons often distance themselves from their patients and refer to them by their diagnosis or disease, hospital room number, or treatment. I've heard doctors discuss patients with their colleagues and refer to them as "the double mastectomy" or "the glioblastoma," even when standing within earshot of the patient. What picture comes to mind when I say "the double mastectomy?" Do you see the face of a woman who has a family, a husband, and children who love her? No. You see only her deformity and the scarring of her body.
I believe a doctor who sees patients without knowing how to listen to and communicate with them is like a minister who doesn't know how to talk with God. When a patient feels that his surgeon doesn't see him as a human being, both the disease and its treatment become sources of greater fear; feelings of isolation and powerlessness can settle in a patient's mind and affect his ability to survive.
The longer I practiced as a surgeon, the harder it became for me not to feel as if I'd failed my patients and myself. I couldn't understand why God made such an imperfect world. In 1977, I heard about a workshop called "Psychological Factors, Stress and Cancer," which was presented by Carl Simonton, a radiation oncologist.
During the early years of Dr. Simonton's career, he observed that when patients with similar cancers were given the same dose of radiation, the outcomes of their radiation treatments varied considerably. He identified the variables between the patients and found that the only statistically significant difference appeared to be in the patients' attitudes and will to live. He concluded that people with a more positive attitude generally lived longer and suffered fewer side effects from the radiation.
Simonton added lifestyle counseling, which included meditation and mental imagery, to his therapeutic techniques, and he helped to break through the rigid mold of established medical practices at that time. The results of his research indicated that when lifestyle counseling was incorporated into the medical treatment plan for patients with advanced cancer, their survival time doubled and their quality of life improved. Simonton published the results of his studies in medical journals and in Getting Well Again, a book he coauthored with his wife, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton (a psychologist), and James Creighton.
I was excited to attend Simonton's seminar and looked forward to learning skills that would help me and my patients. I had presumed the event was designed for physicians and other people in the medical field, and I was shocked to discover that I was the only physician in the room. With the exception of two psychologists, all the other attendees were cancer patients.
In my work as a surgeon, I would often visualize a surgical procedure in great detail the day before the operation, preparing myself for the anatomical structures I would be working around and predicting what challenges might arise during surgery, but I had no previous experience of guided mental imagery. I was somewhat skeptical, then, when Carl Simonton played soft music and told his listeners to close their eyes. I was seated next to one of my patients in the front of the room, and when Carl looked at me I didn't want him to think I wasn't complying, so I closed my eyes. When Carl said, "You will see your inner guide approaching you ...," I thought, "This is nuts; I didn't come here for this."
I'm an artist — a painter — which means I'm a visual person. Despite my initial skepticism, I closed my eyes and followed Carl's voice, and soon I began to walk through the guided imagery, visualizing with clarity and great detail. The experience I had was incredible. Suddenly it was no longer a matter of: What do I believe? Instead it was: What did I experience?
During each of the exercises we participated in, my mind opened to things I had not been exposed to in my professional training; the lens of my perception began to change. I watched in fascination as workshop participants visibly relaxed and expressions of happiness, hope, and serenity transformed their faces. Rather than feel like victims of their disease, patients came to realize they had powerful inner resources for healing and problem solving.
In 1979, I returned to my office after only three days at another seminar, one run by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. By the end of the day, one of my partners, Dr. Richard Selzer, said to me, "You're gone."
I asked, "What do you mean?"
"You're a totally different person," he said. "You are going to leave surgery."
He could sense the change in my consciousness and intuitively saw what I couldn't. He was right. Within ten years I retired from surgery to talk to people and help heal in another way. How did he know what was in my future? What intuition spoke to him, and where did it come from?
When I attended the Kübler-Ross seminar, the work we did with spontaneous drawings revealed, in a matter of hours, incredible insights and information about my life. Because of my training as a surgeon and my knowledge of anatomy, I was also seeing things in the drawings people made that a psychotherapist would not normally be aware of, particularly the structure of various disease states and of treatments that were unconsciously being revealed in those drawings. Subconscious leaks of information appeared in normal objects like trees, clouds, and people, and they showed the patient's authentic physical, emotional, and spiritual state; the images became symbols of each person's inner and outer truth. While there I learned that Carl Jung was fascinated by individuals' subconscious knowledge about the body and the psyche as revealed in his patients' drawings.
It was then that I became a believer, and a box of crayons became one of my therapeutic tools. I began to ask my patients and their families to draw pictures. These would help us to make therapeutic decisions based not simply on intellect but on inner knowingness, and would help us understand family relationships and psychological issues. I soon became angry that the significance of drawings and dreams, as they relate to physical and psychological factors, is not routinely taught in medical school. I have yet to meet a medical student or physician who was told during training that Carl Jung was able to diagnose a brain tumor from a patient's dream.
When I realized how much knowledge I lacked, despite the number of years I had spent in medical school, I made contact with Jungian therapists to explore their work and wisdom. Gregg Furth, a Jungian psychologist and the author of The Secret World of Drawings, helped to guide me, as did another Jungian psychologist, Susan Bach, author of Life Paints Its Own Span. She based her book on her studies of drawings made by children with leukemia. She too had become aware that both psychological and physical aspects were revealed in the children's drawings. The somatic or organic clues aided in reaching their diagnosis, treating the child, and developing a prognosis, and they became an important means of communication for the doctor, patient, and family.
I will never forget a note I received from Bach after I wrote to tell her what I had discovered in my patients' drawings. She wrote back: "Calm down; we know all this." Psychologists had long been seeing a change in people's physical health when they got their lives in order. In my excitement, I also wrote to editors of American psychological journals, and was told that this information was "appropriate but not interesting," while the editors of medical journals told me it was "interesting but not appropriate" for their publications. The reaction of the former editors, along with Susan Bach's response, confirmed to me that there was consistency in what was known and accepted by mental health professionals across the world.
Before attending the workshops, when I thought about my patients I would see their cancers. I would focus on the physical aspects of their diseases and take on the burden of responsibility to fix them. After the workshops, I began to visualize my patients as human beings who have the capacity and potential to heal. I took more time to listen to them and asked more questions, such as "Can you describe for me what you are feeling and experiencing?" Words like confusion, failure, and draining would pour out of them. If my patient said, "It's like pressure on my back and shoulders," I would ask him, "What is happening in your life that could be described as pressure and is creating pressure for you?" Inevitably the patient would talk about a current or recent circumstance in his life that he associated with the feeling of carrying a burden or being trapped by the weight of responsibility. The mental connection between his emotion and his physical state made it possible for him to explore ways of making changes that would ease his burden and give his body a better chance to heal. Some patients began to heal when they saw their disease as a blessing, a wake-up call, or new beginning.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Now that I was focusing on the positive aspects of my patients and the goals we aimed to achieve, I no longer felt isolated and burdened with responsibility. One of my patients had said to me at the Simonton workshop, "Bernie, I feel better when I'm in the office with you, but I can't take you home with me. I need to know how to live between office visits." When she said that, I thought, Wow, I don't have to feel like a failure. Even if I can't cure their diseases, but can help people to live, I've done something for them. So I sent out letters to a hundred of our patients with cancer, saying, "If you want to live and have a longer, better life, come to a meeting."
I had no idea how many people would respond to the letter. At the time, I was thinking, "If I had cancer and my doctor sent me a letter asking if I wanted to try something new, wouldn't I tell everyone I knew with cancer to come to the meeting?"
A few hours before the event was scheduled to begin, I panicked. I was imagining several hundred people showing up and forming a long line outside the building. How would I seat them all? My wife, Bobbie, who was helping to facilitate the workshop, reminded me that all ventures must begin somewhere, somehow, and no matter what happened, at least we were moving in a positive direction. She cracked a few of her one-liners, and our laughter helped me to relax.
By the appointed time, fewer than a dozen women had shown up. I couldn't believe it. I realized I would have to accept that I just didn't know the degree of my patients' will to live or their real motivations and desires. My wife said that since the majority of my cancer patients received the invitation but ignored the opportunity for something free that might help them, the people who did attend must be exceptional patients, and so she named the new group Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECaP).
My patients became my teachers. One of the most important things they taught me is that exceptional behavior is something we are all capable of, and that when we learn how to practice it we become aware of our own healing potential. Members of ECaP have experienced so many physical, spiritual, and psychological benefits, that many of them earned a reputation among my hospital colleagues as being "one of Bernie's crazy patients." Doctors were overheard saying, "That group of Bernie's — they seem a little nuts, but they keep getting well," and so the description "one of Bernie's crazy patients" became a compliment.
ECaP continues today. It is a synthesis of individual and group therapy that utilizes meditation, creative visualization, spontaneous drawings, dreams, humor, and the exploration of feelings. It is based on carefrontation: a safe, loving, and therapeutic confrontation, which facilitates personal lifestyle changes, personal empowerment, and healing of the individual's life.
More than thirty years after ECaP began, cancer centers across the country are, I'm happy to say, utilizing some form of multimethod therapeutic group work. The need for encouraging more of a mind-body-spirit approach in traditional medicine is still great, especially in the training of medical professionals. But scientific research and attitudes are slowly changing, and the direction of change has often been positive.
In this book, I hope to offer not only information but also inspiration. In each chapter, I give theoretical background backed up by stories of patients, and I suggest exercises that offer you a chance to experience each of these complementary healing tools.CHAPTER 2
SOURCE, SIGNIFICANCE, AND VALIDITY OF SYMBOLS
When the soul wants to experience something, she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.
— Meister Eckhart
I often marvel at the intelligence within seeds, wondering what image of life they hold in their cells. How does a seed know what it is to become and how to nourish its growth? What impresses me even more is seeing a sprout pushing up through pavement. How do seeds know which way is up when light and warmth are blocked? And why don't they give up when they realize they have been paved over and are hitting a stone wall? I have used examples of plant behavior to inspire my family and patients. Plants possess a source of wisdom in their genes and a sense of gravity too. They don't give in to adversity when they run into obstacles; they push forward or find new ways to reach the light. So what signals plants to keep going and not succumb to obstacles?
The key to all forms of life is communication. This includes the ability of simple, one-celled organisms as well as the more complex ones, such as humans, to communicate with each other. It also refers to the exchange of information between systems, organs, and cells within individual bodies, and with the greater consciousness that is behind all creation.
Cellular communication evolved when one-celled organisms discovered how to pass on vital information by altering the chemistry of their environment. In times of danger they would secrete substances that led them to come together into balls of cells that could survive adverse living conditions such as droughts or temperature fluctuations. This clustering can also be seen in far more complex creatures, such as herd animals like elephants and even gray whales when they circle around and protect vulnerable members of the community from predatory attack.
Excerpted from The Art of Healing by Bernie S. Siegel, Cynthia J. Hurn. Copyright © 2013 Bernie S. Siegel. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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