Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

Peace, Love, and Healing
Bodymind Communication and the Path to Self-Healing
An Exploration

by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D.


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Peace, Love, and Healing

Bodymind Communication and the Path to Self-Healing

An Exploration

by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D.

Reviewed September 6, 2007.
HarperPerennial (HarperCollins), New York, 1998 (first published in 1989). 295 pages.
Starred Review.
2006 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7, Nonfiction, Personal Growth

In this book, Bernie Siegel looks at healing, and the way our attitude and spirit can aid in our own healing. In the foreword to the new edition, he talks about living a full life.

Don’t follow my advice to avoid death. Follow it to celebrate life. Let there be no need for therapy in heaven to work out resentments of all the things you did to not die, and all the fun you missed out on while exercising, meditating, and preparing your vegetables.

He begins the text of the book looking at how love, joy, optimism can actually change your physiology.

What we get back to again and again is that, although there’s no question that environment and genes play a significant role in our vulnerability to cancer and other diseases, the emotional environment we create within our bodies can activate mechanisms of destruction or repair. That’s why two people who grow up in the same environment, even when they have the same genes, as identical twins do, don’t necessarily have the same disease at the same time. A man showed up in my office at age fifty-nine with cancer. Some thirty years before, his identical twin had died of cancer. He told me that until recently he had always been happy and busy, but he had just been through a year of total despair and depression and had wanted to die. His brother, however, had always been unhappy. Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of disease grasping us as of our being susceptible to the disease.

He asks his patients five questions, the answers to which can help them get in touch with what is happening at deep levels of consciousness and help direct them toward healing:

1. Do you want to live to be a hundred? 2. What happened in the year or two before your illness? 3. Why do you need your illness and what benefits do you derive from it? 4. What does the illness mean to you? 5. Describe your illness and what you are experiencing.

He gives fascinating descriptions patients gave of their illness which helped them get to the root of what was happening and heal themselves.

By calling your attention to feelings and problems you may not have been aware of, the disease may be the first step in overcoming them. That’s one of the reasons why I think the five questions are so important and why I hope more doctors will use them in addition to the traditional review of systems.

He talks about how coincidences are “God’s way of remaining anonymous.” He says, “Once you start to become receptive to these messages, you get more and more of them.” This, coincidentally, fits in perfectly with another book I’ve been reading, Guidance 24/7, by Christel Nani.

He points out that illnesses can be “spiritual flat tires.”

When you are open and aware, you will have them in your life. They help you get in touch with the schedule of the universe, as opposed to your own personal schedule, which relates only to questions like, “Am I late? How do I look? What do other people think?” They get you to look at the real questions: “How can I live and understand the moment?” Diseases can be our spiritual flat tires—disruptions in our lives that seem to be disasters at the time but end by redirecting our lives in a meaningful way. These will occur more often when you are in touch with your intuitive, unconscious awareness.

After talking about what your body can tell you, he talks about what you can tell your body. He has had good results with music or affirmations played in the operating room. He even says, “I keep talking to patients throughout the operation, telling them how things are progressing and enlisting their cooperation if I need it. For example, I may suggest that they stop bleeding, or lower their blood pressure or pulse. People who have worked with me in the operating room know how effective these suggestions can be.”

Then he talks about the doctor-patient relationship, and how his patients help him.

I have always made a distinction between healing and curing. To me “healed” represents a condition of one’s life; “cured” relates strictly to one’s physical condition. In other words, there may be healed quadriplegics and AIDS patients, and cured cancer patients who are living unhealthy lives. What this means to me is that neither my patients nor I need ever face the inevitability of failure, for no matter how life-threatening their disease or how unlikely a cure, healing is always possible.

There’s much profundity in his message.

The doctor I would want for myself or for anyone else I cared about would be one who understands that disease is more than just a clinical entity; it is an experience and a metaphor, with a message that must be listened to. Often the message will speak to us of our path and how we have strayed from it, so that our life is no longer a true expression of the inner self, or, as Larry LeShan would say, we are no longer singing our own song. Only by listening to that message can we mobilize all the healing powers that lie within, and that is what the doctor must help each patient to do.

Accept your mortality and live your life, reach out for the help you need and accept it. To do so is a gift to those around you. You become their teacher and healer.

While explaining how important it is the way you think about your illness, he tells about a study done with dogs that focused on “learned” helplessness.

Similarly, people may learn helplessness if they have had repeated experiences of being unable to change external circumstances through their own efforts, especially if this sense of helplessness was learned early on from parents who gave them very little autonomy and had no personal sense of autonomy in their own lives.

One example of a cognitive change you can make is to interpret the side effects from your medications not as just another of your afflictions, but as evidence of something positive happening.

What is suggested by the Harvard study and a growing body of similar work is that our mental attitudes affect first our susceptibility to disease, then our ability to overcome it. Does this mean that sick people must bear the burden not only of their illness but of responsibility for having gotten sick in the first place?

He answers his question,

Viewing disease as a sign of personal inadequacy or culpability is both cruel and false….I hope all therapists, doctors, family members, and friends never make people feel like failures, or make them feel that they are still ill because they have not changed enough, achieved enough or made significant enough existential shifts. That is why I focus on teaching people how to live, not how to not die, for that is something that is always within their ability.

He talks about how much damage is done because people don’t love themselves.

We’re so self-destructive there have to be laws—what I call please-love-yourself laws—even to get us to wear seatbelts or helmets. We poison and numb ourselves with cigarettes, tranquilizers, drugs, alcohol and unhealthy diets, and we seek out relationships that can never work in a desperate attempt to convince ourselves of our own value. No relationship in the world can make us feel worthy if we don’t know that we are.

Without self-love it’s hard to fight for one’s life. When we give advice to someone about how to live, it’s fine if it falls on the ears of an individual who wants to live. But if it falls on the ears of someone who does not love life, there’s no point to it. Why live longer if one does not enjoy living? I think the message needs to be “I love you and I hope someday you will love yourself.” Criticizing doesn’t help; it will only destroy a relationship and cause feelings of failure

Yes, I do think there may be things happening in a child’s family life that can contribute to illness. I say that not to assign blame but to empower people, to give them insight into positive ways of dealing with illness if there are family problems they can do something about. I want them to respond with love, not guilt; I want to turn on the repair mechanisms, not create further breakdown.

We’re used to the idea of disease as a punishment or a failure—but a gift?

He talks about lessons he’s learned from people who accept their diseases with grace.

We too have to learn to step back and start saying, “We’ll see.” Instead of judging the events in our lives as good, bad, right or wrong, we must recognize that of itself nothing is good or bad, and everything has the potential to help us get back on the universe’s schedule. This does not mean that we have to like what happens, simply that we must remain open to the uses even of adversity. A disease may serve as a redirection—or, as I often describe it, a reset button (which starts you up again the same way the reset button works on a jammed garbage disposal).

When you learn to live your life with a “we’ll see” attitude, you will understand how it is that disease can be considered a gift. You will know why it is that people asked to describe their illness have called it a beauty mark, a wake-up call, a challenge and a new beginning.

I want to add that this can apply to any trial in your life. I’m beginning to think of my own marital separation and the illness I had along with it as God’s Accelerated Program for Personal Growth. (The illness is what got me reading books like this.) Now I’m paying attention to things God wants to teach me. Perhaps He had been trying to teach me those things for years before—but now that I’m in the middle of trials, I’m actually learning.

Does it take courage to be open to this kind of healing? Sure. Do I have the right to tell you your disease is a gift? No, I do not. The gift is yours only if you choose to create it—as I’ve seen thousands of others do. Listen to the people who have lived the experience, and realize you are the source of your healing.

Cancer, death or loss are not the issue but love and healing are, and we finally see that in the pain lies the opportunity to love and care even more. As Mother Teresa has said, the greatest disease of mankind is the absence of love. There is only one treatment for that, to let in the loving light and to heal your life.

He talks about taking control of your own treatment, as well as asking for help when you need it.

One characteristic of people who have achieved peace of mind is their independence. They trust their instincts. Nobody can tell them what to think if their inner voices say otherwise.

He is quick to point out that everyone dies, eventually.

If you choose to be exceptional and confront life’s challenges, after you are gone your loved ones will go on living with a fullness, not an emptiness. Yes, there will be grief, but not emptiness. I have spoken around the country at memorial services held by family members of those who have died. And these people are living memorials to their loved ones, because they bring something back to the community, a way of sharing what they have learned about life from the individual who died. It is wonderful to see this happen because it means that life and the message of that person’s life have continued.

What we’re talking about is taking on the challenges of life, not living forever.

In his final chapter, he tells the following story. It’s a bit long, but I like it very much:

I think that every spring when the leaves come out, if you look closely you’ll see that each one is slightly different. Some are reddish, some bright green, some pale, and they have different shapes and sizes too. But picture yourself as a maple leaf coming out. You think of how you can express yourself by manifesting your uniqueness, but the other leaves on the tree say, “Hey, this is a maple tree, fit in. You’ll be green and this shape. Do you want people to look at us and point and say, ‘What a funny tree’?” You want to be liked, so during the spring and the summer, when the sun is shining and you have plenty of food, you turn the same green as everybody else, take the same shape and fit in.

Then the fall comes and it gets cold, and some of the guys who were telling you how to behave start dropping. You’re still hanging on, but you realize that you’re not going to be able to hang on forever, and if you’re not, then you’d like to let everyone know who you really are before you let go of the Tree of Life. So the green, which is a cover-up, goes, and you become your unique individual beautiful self.

Then you hang on as long as you want. There are still some dried-up scrawny leaves hanging on even in January, just as there are some dried-up scrawny specimens walking the streets. But this is an individual choice—how long you want to hold on to the Tree of Life, how long before you can feel that you’ve shown your true colors and lived your life. If you have lived and had your moment, then it will be much easier to let go. You will know and your loved ones will know your unique beauty, and it will be something they remember and live with.

Truly this is a wise, beautiful, and loving book.