DONNA: I hope you don’t mind that I just called you Bernie because I feel like I know you after watching all your talks this week. That wasn’t very respectful. I should call you, Dr. Seagal.
BERNIE: What I used to say to my patients, Dr. Bernie Siegal. So, if they wanted to say “Bernie,” fine. If they wanted to say “Dr.,” fine. I didn’t introduce myself with a specific, “This is who I am.” I gave them all the options.
DONNA: Also, I have a cousin… Her name is Bernadette, but she’s an attorney so we call her “Bernie, The Attorney.”
BERNIE: Well, a wonderful quote from a lawyer. He said, “While learning to think, I almost forgot how to feel.” Because what he realized was, in the midst of a tragedy, he was totally stupid. People are going to the emergency room and he’s thinking, Where do I put their things? And he realized he should be in the emergency room… not worried about where you put their things. When our kids went to law school, I would always go to their class and talk to them about feeling. Caring for people. Not just thinking… how lawyers are taught to think.
DONNA: I’ll take this moment to thank you on behalf of Awaken and also personally. It’s just a joy and an honor to spend this time with you, Dr. Bernie Siegel and I’ll call you “Bernie” from here on out, as you told me I could.
BERNIE: When I was a kid, the gangster Bugsy Siegal was famous and all the kids started calling me “Bugsy,” which didn’t make my mother very happy.
DONNA: Well, we have a tradition, so we’ll hit the ground running with this question. As it is Awaken.com, where this interview will be posted, would you share with us, what is your idea of awakening? What does that mean to you?
BERNIE: What immediately pops into my head… Nine months seems like a long time. I watch my body change. Nine months pass by and I have a child. All my pain and discomforts are justified. And then she compared that to 12 months of chemo-therapy and radiation, which were justified to give birth to herself. So, what life is to me, is a labor pain. We are here to learn and if you use the pain it doesn’t hurt so much. You see, the way I was brought up, I didn’t realize was a wonderful gift because you are a child. You come home from school, you say, “Ma, I have to make a decision, what should I do?” “Do what makes you happy.” That’s no help! Then I’d come home. “I had a terrible day at school.” “God is redirecting you. Something good will come of this.”
After a while, I gave up on my mother. I thought, She doesn’t want to get involved with my troubles. But what she ultimately taught me was to learn how I felt and see that there are no coincidences. Something might happen two weeks later because of my bad day and I’d say, “wow, my mother was right.”
The last thing that my father taught me… His father died of Tuberculosis. Leaving six kids and his wife. And I heard him one day saying, “One of the best things that happened to me is my father died when I was twelve years old.” Now, I knew what they went through just trying to survive. So, I said to him, “what are you talking about? You went through hell.” He said, “Yeah, but it taught me what was important about life.” He was an incredible guy. So, he taught me that if you win the lottery, you help other people.
DONNA: Was he the eldest? Was it on him to take care of the other siblings?
BERNIE: I don’t think he was. There were four girls and two guys. They became family, if you know what I mean. They were all bonded together and wonderful people. And when you heard what they went through, it was amazing that they were all such caring people. But then, I’d say, it isn’t amazing… because what I’ve learned… because of what they went through, they helped everybody else. So, we all have our curses. Our labor pains. And when people have a sense of humor and are dedicated to others, they don’t have as much trouble.
A woman who had a bi-lateral myectomy for cancer… And the women are always writing poems. And her poem had more to do with humor. “I planned to get that off my breast.” Things like that. ‘Cause the titles Bi-lateral Myectomy can’t be fun and aren’t worth having. I feel I must make a new breast of it because life has given me the booby prize. And it just goes on and on and when you read that. It felt good to get that off my chest, you end up laughing and she’s helped heal you! And that’s part of what I learned in being a doctor. I did crazy things for people. I did a lot of child surgeries. You know, sometimes the kids would say to their parents “Don’t let him operate on me! He’s not normal!”
DONNA: So, you were the original Patch Adams!
BERNIE: He was a good friend of mine, too. We learn. I have to tell you a Patch Adams story. The thing I learned in the hospital… To make people laugh, they couldn’t be afraid. But they meet you twenty years later at the Veterinarian with their pet. They say, “Remember me? You know what made me feel so good and not be afraid any more?” And it was saying things to a man and his wife, “I’ll get your husband’s ovaries out and he’ll be fine.” Or, to say to a lawyer, “Why do I need an operation?” “Because I have a lot of tuition bills… I have five children…” And then they’d laugh and we could talk. Now Patch Adams, he was one of the people with me who started the American Holistic Medical Association. Because we saw all the things that needed to be there for some patients. You didn’t close your mind and say “I didn’t hear that in medical school.” It included humor, it included nutrition, hypnosis, Imagery. All kinds of things that we saw helping people. And he’s like 6 foot 6, or so. He’s a big, tall guy. I’m a foot shorter than he is with a shaved head. And after one meeting, cross country… my wife and I and he went to the airport and we were walking to our gate to get the plane. And I noticed my wife drop behind us and we were talking and I didn’t know what was going on with her. We get to the gate and I said, “why didn’t you walk with us?” She said, “I was enjoying watching the airport.” You two guys turned the whole airport upside down. Everybody is staring at you two wondering, where did they escape from? Because I shaved my head when everyone was wearing their hair down to their shoulders. Even the guys. So, I was way out of touch with everything and everybody. And I got such a kick out of her comment. Because the whole airport was wondering where we escaped from and who you are.
DONNA: It was Kojak and Patch Adams. So, awakening is a constant process that never stops… Would it be fair to say, it’s a constant refinement of our relationship to the challenges that life gives us?
BERNIE: Being open. I always say, “don’t say what you believe. Talk about what you experience.” What locks the door is, I come in and say, “I can’t believe that.” Well then, we can’t talk. But if I came in and said, “I just want to share my experience with you.” And the other person said, “alright, I’ll listen,” “I might think you are crazy, but I’ll listen.” Then we can accomplish something. Because I have to say there were a lot of things I thought couldn’t be true… weren’t scientific. But when it happened to me, then there was no question. Even if I can’t explain it. If I can’t explain how something happened, that doesn’t mean I can’t accept the fact that it happened. So, I keep my mind open. And I got lots of criticism when I started talking about mind, body… You’re blaming your patients. It was just crazy. You have a disease that you are supposed to die of… disappear. What does a doctor call it? Spontaneous remission.
What does the author Solzhenitsyn call it in his book, Cancer War? “Self-induced healing.” And he describes it as a rainbow-colored butterfly, fluttering out of the book. He says it all. The rainbow is order, harmony. What’s the butterfly? A symbol of rebirthing out of the cocoon. And when I read that, I said, “yeah, he knows what I’m talking about.” Someone else might say, “Oh, that is crazy.” You don’t learn anything if it’s a spontaneous remission. But if something is self-induced… That’s what I learned to say to patients. “Why don’t you die when you are supposed to?” And you hear some wonderful stories that leave you laughing. There are not people denying their mortality. But they went home to enjoy the last few months. And then they noticed that they didn’t die when they were really enjoying themselves. From moving to another part of the country to taking their tie off, getting a dog. There weren’t all these fantastical, philosophical events. Just having a happy, joyful life, doing the things they wanted to do.
Now, does your mind also affect that? Think of Lourdes. People have gone there and been healed. As a matter of fact, one study…I don’t know who did it. They had a bottle labeled Lourdes Holy Water and then, Tap Water.And they switched them. But what do you think affected the people the most? The label. They went in believing. So, it helps to travel to Lourdes with faith and belief, and then it can happen. The potential is there. I had a patient of mine who went home to die, come back to the office, and my partner was examining her and he yelled out “Bernie, come in here! You are interested in this!” So, I went in and he said “her tumor is gone.” I said, “Tell them what you did.” She said, “I left my troubles to God.” That’s her complete answer. And think of what the peace did for her? What message did her body get then vs Ugh it’s Monday?
Mondays we have more heart attacks, strokes and illnesses. And the other is love. Harvard students were asked, “do your parents love you?” Middle age, 98% had suffered a major illness. Did your parents love you? Yes. 24% by middle age, has said they had suffered a major illness.
BERNIE: I keep saying, the biggest public health problem on the planet is parenting. If your kids grow up with love, they take care of themselves.
DONNA: You call yourself a “love warrior.”
BERNIE: That’s right. None of our kids were smokers. Why? Because they knew it wasn’t good for you. And if there were things that came up… One of our sons wanted to get a motorcycle. And I told him as a surgeon, I see so many tragedies in the emergency room with the motorcycles… If you are going to get one, you have to move out of the house. So, I don’t get a phone call if you have an accident. Because I can’t handle that. Every time the phone rings at an odd hour… because I am a surgeon for some emergency…I don’t want to think it’s my son. And he gave me such a hard argument about it and then left the house and sat down with a bunch of his friends in the front yard. What do you think he told them? He told them my lecture that we are not going to get motorcycles and then he told them what his father said. The kid I got. He pushed me. He argued with me in the house. He wanted to know if this was real and tested me and when he knew I was doing this out of love and care, he went out and did the same thing with his friends.
DONNA: And they all abandoned the idea?
BERNIE: Yes. It upsets me if they go driving by without a helmet on. Why don’t you care about yourself? That’s what I’d like everybody to do.
DONNA: You must have been frustrated working with the medical community during the time when your ideas seemed so unconventional. And you’ve not only worked with prayer and laughter, but also dreams. And that fascinates me, and I’m wondering if you can spend a moment on that. How do your dreams create a sense of well-being?
BERNIE: We need things to help ourselves, as well as learn. Carl Jung is an amazing guy and all the things that he shares in his writing. And in one of them he talks about diagnosing a dream and listening to the dream and diagnosing a brain tumor due to it. And again, he’s a special guy, I don’t think anyone could listen to it. But it had to do with some milky fluid being obstructed. And he diagnoses a tumor in the part of the brain called the mammary bodies. There are two bumps and the cerebral and spinal fluid couldn’t get through.
BERNIE: When I read that I was like, “Wow!” But then, I began to ask patients, “did you dream. Did you have anything?” It’s incredible. In one of my books written more recently, called A Book of Miracles… Just the stories people sent… You got to sleep. A dark-skinned woman with an accent appears, and says, “you have a lump in your right breast, you need to have it removed.” The woman woke up and felt it. And so, she went to the hospital. They diagnosed her with breast cancer. And then they said, “the doctor that is going to be guiding your treatment will be coming in a few minutes.” Who do you think walked into the room?
BERNIE: The lady in her dream. She was from India with an accent and darker skin.
DONNA: That’s a phenomenal story.
BERNIE: I hear these stories all the time because people aren’t afraid to talk to me. There is a world that exists out there beyond our body. Our consciousness… and it comes to us in dreams, in drawings, in all these things, so we have to keep an open mind. One of the things it showed me is the problems in medicine. I sent an article on all the dreams and drawings my patients did and what I can see in them. I sent it to a medical journal. They sent it back saying, “it’s interesting, but it’s not appropriate for our journal.” So, I sent it to a psychiatric journal. Came back again, saying, “it’s appropriate, but it isn’t interesting.” We know all this.
That to me, is one of the sins of medicine… that we are treating people like a mechanical object. You can go to the garage and they say, “you are having trouble with your brakes. We have a guy who specializes in brake problems and he’ll take care of it.” They don’t have somebody take care of the car. But we are not mechanical objects. So, you need to know the person. That’s the thing I learned. This is another quote from Jung. You need to know the person’s experience… what they are living. He said, “the diagnosis helps the doctor, but it doesn’t help the patients.” For them the key thing is the story. And only at that point can the doctors begin to operate.
So, I began to talk to people about what was going on in their lives. I was blamed for being nasty to my patients because if you ask them what is happening in their lives, you are blaming them. Jesus said, it is done unto you as you believe. I didn’t notice anybody yelling at Jesus for blaming them, you know? It’s about your beliefs, how they affect your body chemistry. All of these things are tied together. So, when I would say to people, “what are you experiencing?” They would come up with words. Then I’d say, “how does that word fit your life?” They’d say, “I was a failure and my body failed.” I’d say, “that’s not my question. How does failure fit your life?” It’s not about the disease. And then she said, “my parents committed suicide when I was a child. I must have been a failure as a child.” And this was a lady with such intense migraine headaches. I happened to be in the doctor’s office, who is a friend of mine… They told me about this lady and said, “keep your voice down. She’s in such pain.” So, I went in to help her, you know? To get her to relax. And I said, “what is the pain like?” “Pressure.”
So, without asking her what is wrong in her life… because she’s not my patient, I just worked on alleviating the pressure from her life. 15 minutes later, I’m back talking with my doctor friend and the nurse came in and said, “it’s her marriage.” Her headache is gone. She’s going home now to work on her marriage.
Read and Watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Dr. Bernie Siegel MD Pt 2 – The Power Of The Mind
Read and Watch Part III Here: Awaken Interviews Bernie Siegel, M.D. Pt 3 – No Beginnings, No Endings. We are immortal!