Donna Quesada: Well then, if you don’t mind, I’ll get right into it. I was so moved by what you were saying about resilience.
So, in case our viewers haven’t seen your Ted Talk, I want to get right into it…I was so moved and you were saying how it all started with you looking at an old family portrait of relatives who must have known that they were destined for Auschwitz. And I’m sorry to switch gears in such an intense way, so quickly, but this kind of gets into an important aspect of your teaching. I would love if you would share more about that…and you noticed that they had very serious faces…and you were struck by this…and it made you wonder, How on Earth can they carry on, knowing what they must have known on some level? And so, this started a fascination with what you call resilience, in your own life. And I’m fascinated with that, too. I was wondering if you could give a little more background on that?
Joan Borysenko Ph.D: Well, first of all…the fact that it was a dozen members of my family that died in Auschwitz…I knew this intellectually, Donna. But there is a very big difference between knowing something intellectually and actually feeling it in your body…the actual emotional response to that. And I got that photo suddenly, from a relative I’d never even heard of. It just appears in my box. I took one look at it and what really got me is that it was my grandfather’s brother and his family. They hadn’t come to the United States, at that time. And They were the last of the family that was in Eastern Europe. The resemblance. The family resemblance from my grandfather…my grandfather’s brother…his children. It was so overwhelming that I just started to cry. And all of a sudden, it was as if I was there and I could feel my body…kind of the neurons…I could feel in my body the tremendous dread. And what I know as a scientist is that trauma from previous generations passes down for three or four generations. And I’d always wondered…to my psychologists, I always seemed like a trauma survivor. And I’d been working on patterns of low-resilience in myself for years. And even though I wasn’t in the direct lineage of my great uncle, my grandparents had left because of pogroms in Eastern Europe. It was so common for Jews, for example, to be rounded up, put in a barn and the whole thing set on fire.
And there was a history of that. It’s a history that gets handed down from generation to generation. And it’s not so much in the DNA itself because that doesn’t change. But whether your DNA, aspects of it, get silenced, or whether they remain active…what it tells us is that DNA does not estimate. We live in an enormous environment…our inner environment of thoughts and feelings, as well as the outer environment…our social interactions…the plants around us and how they speak…the quality of the light…the beauty. All of these things that we would have formerly said “Hey, that’s great poetry, Joan.” It’s more than poetry. It’s our biology. And there’s a whole new field called, Inter-Personal Neuro-Biology, which defines the mind as the way that information and energy flows across time. And it’s an emergent property of what is within us and what is outside us. Our mind is embodied within our nervous system and embedded within our environment. And we’re all in inter-relationship with each other. And as a scientist, I find the new Neuro-Science fascinating! Coupled with epi-genetics and we know because of this, a lot more about what it takes to be resilient. And you know, Donna, right now, we really need to be resilient. Because we are in the middle of a sea change.
Donna: So, this is fascinating and I’ll just restate it, to see if I understand correctly. For so long we have had this debate, which was big in the 50’s, which was nature vs nurture and the whole thing, but we’ve come to a subtler understanding where it’s not just the environment dancing with the genetic tendencies. It’s our internal landscape, as well. And depending on what is going on there, it turns on certain genetic tendencies, or they remain dormant. Would that be a correct way to say it?
Joan: You said it beautifully. Thank you so much, that was an excellent recap.
Donna: Well, it’s fascinating to me, too…we’re so in sync. I just want to tell you on a personal level, in terms of what you are talking about and my interests. I’ve been so interested in that somatic way of knowing…that our body talks to us. And you talk about that, too, so I’m going to be asking you about it. And I love that you have spoken about that in your talks…and helped us understand these deeper ways we know or that we understand how we ourselves feel. You know, we are so used to growing up with pros and cons lists…and that we can work things out rationally. But in fact, the deeper truths about the stuff that really matters doesn’t come that way. And I love that you speak of that.
But first, to sort of stay on point…this business of resilience. Is this too personal? You talk about your own struggle with OCD. I want to connect the dots here. So, you already had this idea that your ancestors had gone through extreme challenges. And then you, yourself, were put into a situation where you had to face that in your own life. Pretty much, a personal example of what they dealt with. You had your own…maybe it’s too dramatic to say “holocaust,” but for all of us that are going through a challenge, it feels that way. It feels traumatic and dire and life changing. And you had that happen where you had to put it to the test when they told you that you were going to go to a new school. And you realized, my reaction isn’t maybe what they expect…this isn’t a happy thing…this is a scary thing. And all of these fear mechanisms were coming up in you. Could you talk about that and how you discovered within yourself, ways of coping or ways of dealing with those challenges?
Joan: Well, yes. Because, you know, it’s interesting…going to a new school is a new challenge. But it’s not usually enough of a challenge that a child actually becomes psychotic. And I think there were several other extremes that came into this at that time. But the approximate cause of really developing a psychosis and developing OCD and managing that psychosis… And when my mother took me to see a scary movie…and that movie took place in the jungle with head hunters. There were snakes and scorpions and blow guns. Stuff that could be upsetting to a ten-year-old child. I started to dream about the movie at night. But then, I started to hallucinate it during the day.
And I developed the belief that only I could see the head hunters. So, I had to do something about them. Because they were going to break into the house and they were going to kill my whole family…which is terrifying beyond belief. Absolutely terrifying to feel like the life and death of all your loved ones rests upon your little ten-year-old shoulders. And in order to deal with that, I came to the belief…and this is now the OCD…that, if I did a stylized set of rituals, which sort of grew week by week in number and complexity…that if I did those rituals, the head hunters, who I could actually see…not quite manifest…I saw their energy forms. And if I did the rituals, their energy forms would disappear and there would be safety in the house for a little while, until they tried to get back in. And I had typical OCD types of rituals, like having to wash my hands, and counting like a hundred times. Or, picking up something to read and having to turn it upside down and repeat three times…the reading upside down. And this starts to take up your whole life. Your whole life is a ritual and it interferes with school. I saw psychiatrists and nobody could help.
This was a very long time ago. Sixty years ago, or more. And finally, I sat down one day…maybe six months into this…in a state of absolute hopelessness. And I said a prayer that had such body sense to it…such a felt sense. An absolute prayer of the broken heart. And it was like…”Help.” If there was anything out there…”Help.”
And what I had, Donna, was an experience of cosmic consciousness. And the fear completely dissipated and was replaced with a kind of peace that was just such peace. It was, to use a metaphor, like you were being held in the palm of God. That at all points, all was well. And I felt connected to something much larger than I was. Something that was absolutely loving. And I also connected deeply with my own inner intuition. And I do believe that there is a part of ourselves…whether you are a Buddhist, you’d call it true nature. It’s who we are. There’s a wonderful metaphor for that. That I learned from Steven Mitchell. It’s like a window pane into a larger reality, but usually the window pane is covered with dirt. You clean it and you realize, I was never separated…I was always part of this reality. So, whatever you call that, your true nature, your higher self…
I connected with that. And because that is connected with a larger energy, a larger wisdom than your personal base of knowledge…I started to know things as a ten-year-old, that ten-year olds don’t know. And what I knew most clearly, is that I could recover from this. And I also knew exactly how to go about it, which was pretty amazing. And I like to tell people, “if you have OCD, this will not apply to you.” It’s very specific to me. Because what happened was, in a flash, a poem came to my mind. And this is a poem that spirit gave to a ten-year-old. And I called it “The Light.” And here’s how it went:
Somewhere in the darkest night there always shines a little light.
This light up in the heavens shines to help our God watch over us.
When a small child is born, the light her souls adorn.
So, when our human eyes look up in the lightless sky, we must know.
We must know that this light burns far into the night.
To help watch over us.
Donna: That’s beautiful.
Joan: Isn’t it beautiful? It’s a gift of spirit. And what I knew intuitively is, I could never do a ritual again or I would get stuck there. But because that poem contained the essence of the connection that I was feeling…if I just said the poem when I got scared, I wouldn’t have to do any rituals. And so, of course, I wrote the poem down. It was already memorized. It was like emblazoned on my soul. And for the next three or four days, whenever I saw head hunters or woke in the night from a nightmare, or needed to do a ritual, I’d just say the poem. And, sure enough, at the end of three or four days, there were no more dreams, no more head hunters, no more need to do rituals. The whole thing had disappeared. And while as a scientist, I have a Ph.D in Cell Biology from Harvard Medical School…and as a licensed psychiatrist…
Donna: And here you are reconciling that with the miraculous.
Joan: Exactly! So, Science has no words for that. Science calls this “spontaneous remission.” But, if you ask anyone who has had a spontaneous remission from anything…physical or mental…they usually have a very interesting story to tell. And I think we learn a lot by listening to those stories. And so, at 10, I didn’t know any words like higher self. I didn’t know any of that. It was just an experience. And so, only as I got older, could I parse this out in any kind of language…because there is no good language for the soul. And yet, what happened at 10, Donna, was the seed for everything else that I do in this lifetime…my purpose. My fascination is with psychology, consciousness, neuro-science, the mind, the body and the spirit. That’s what I’ve always done, It’s my passion.
Donna: Would it be fair to say that at that moment, when you were a girl, praying to something higher than you had words for…that you didn’t even know who you were praying to? An Angel, God? A Saint?
Joan: Well, you know, I’d been to a Jewish girl’s camp and it was quite a wonderful camp. We used to sit in this pine grove on Friday night. And Saturday morning service…we would have our services out in nature. And for me, what’s lovely in Judaism, is that God is a mystery. If you’ve progressed from the esoterica kind of the religious, it’s not like God is even a male. In the pine grove, we welcomed the feminine aspect of god. And I already knew from there that God was a mystery. But I identified that mystery with coming so clearly in nature, I can still flash with being in that pine grove. I can feel it in my body. It was more a sense of being that is embodied in nature. And because there is a feminine aspect to it, too…they were sort of a comfort, knowing that as a feminist, and that aspect is there, too…of the divine mystery, of the divine mind. That creates all of manifest reality. We kind of all move…and being in the body of the benign feminine. For me, that was much more of a felt sense than anything else. So, I knew I was praying into the mystery…to God.
Donna: So, I want to appeal to the work you have done in the scientific realm. And also, this comes back to my interest that the body talks to us. I’ve read about athletes who send intentions into their bodies, and how the body responds the same, regardless of whether the event is taking place. You can visualize yourself going through the jumps and stuff…and this causes very real physical changes within your body. So, how do we trust these sensations? How do we know these sensations are real? Or, how do we know that we aren’t just producing some physiological effect? I guess that gets into discernment which you also talk about. So, I’m wondering if you could comment on that…
Joan: Well, I’d love to because in fact, my husband and I have had a lot of conversations about that. We tried to see what people who have dealt in this subject matter for a long time think about it. How do you know the world apart from your own ego and and its own wants and fears? That’s the question. We decided we would ask people from a variety of different traditions. We interviewed Jewish Mystics, Sufis, Christians…we interviewed the wonderful, wonderful, Catholic monk, Thomas Keating. And there were no female catholic priests, but there were episcopal. We interviewed 27 sages—we called them. Hindus, Buddhists, and what we came up with…we asked about 10 questions. And then we did an analysis of the themes that came out. How do you know? What’s knowing? What is discerning? And so, often people mentions a tale of thing. One of them was Karma Helminski, who was a Sufi teacher. He talked about the aspects of god; there are 99 aspects of God in Islam. 99 aspects of Allah. And he talked about the inner teacher. And the point is, to try to awaken us, Donna. And that tradition is responsible for the synchronicities…and when you are advancing a little bit in your discernment of what is actually real and what you are making up with your ego, one of the ways to discern…it starts to rain synchronicities.
Joan: And I think we’ve all had that experience. You shake your head and you say “man, I couldn’t make this up myself.”