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Bernie Siegel

heal the burdens, remove the roadblocks, and why you’re feeling like a failure? By helping these people heal their lives I realized I was also helping them to find a way often to be cured.

See, these were not people avoiding their mortality. I think shamans understand that too–we’re all going to die. So if you help people live, they might not die because they’re enjoying life. I know that may sound crazy, but I’ve watched people refuse treatment, go home to do what they wanted to do before they died, and then they lived for decades without any treatments and no sign of a disease. This is because they were home loving every day and they felt that they were contributing to the world. I have a wonderful letter that ends with, “…and I didn’t die, and now I’m so busy I’m killing myself.” And that’s from a lady who went home, made out a will and gave away her treasure. In other words, she was not denying that she was likely to be dead in a short amount of time. So these are not people who go home and deny–although I may add, “deniers” do better than people who feel hopeless and helpless. The fighting spirit, that survival behavior, gives you the best results.

David: How do you think dreams can offer insight into the symbolic meaning of one’s illness and help us to heal?

Bernie: I often ask the question, why do we sleep? I was just reading the a magazine called Cerebrum, and I notice other scientists are beginning to ask that too. Why do why sleep? Why does our body have a rhythm? It’s called our circadian rhythm, so that we’re active and awake in the day, and then we quiet down and go to bed at night. You can throw away clocks and people still live that way.

To me dreams represent what I call the universal language, how creation or God speaks to us through universal symbols. My true sense is that one of the reasons we sleep is to allow ourselves to be in touch with this inner wisdom and knowledge that present themselves to us through dreams. I use drawings literally to communicate with lots of people, and help them make decisions, because then they can put the symbols on a piece of paper which are largely coming from their unconscious. I say to people, draw yourself–like I mentioned I did with doctors, asking them to draw themselves at work. Those are simple instructions and a hundred people hear the same thing, but you get a hundred different images, because it’s coming from an intuitive place within them. Then we can interpret the drawings, and interpret the dreams, and help them be in touch with that.

But it really is fascinating to me because most living things don’t sleep. I didn’t know that, but most animals don’t sleep. When you think about it, a fish can’t go to sleep, and I learned that horses sleep on their feet because they’re afraid of predators. When you think about it, sleeping is a dangerous thing. We lock ourselves in houses and have alarm systems now, so we’re safer, but why should we do it in the first place? I’d say yes, it lets our body rest. I think there are certain physical parts of our body that need to rest. As a matter of fact one study showed if chemotherapy was given at night the patient could tolerate far more with no side affects and the response was much better. The body was at rest while the cancer cells were not. But I think also, while they’re quiet, there’s this other wisdom that comes forward.

Here’s the reason I call it a wisdom. There are people who’s intellect tells them–don’t have an operation. Don’t have chemotherapy. Don’t this, don’t that, and they may make a decision that comes from their intellect. Then the drawing that they do will show them that the decision is either right or wrong. Again, it’s their inner wisdom–intuitive wisdom, heart wisdom, whatever you want to call it–saying no, this is not good for you or it is good for you. And believe me, that other wisdom knows more. Drawings can answer all kinds of questions, like where should I live? Or what job should I take? It doesn’t have to be about medicine.

So I help them to either change their belief systems, their ways of thinking, or I help them make different decisions, but to try to help them put these two things together and reprogram their mind and body. At other times people will say no, I don’t want that, and the drawing will be beautiful. I say your inner wisdom knows it’s good for you and I suggest you go and do it, and don’t worry about it. So it helps them find a harmony through that. But the trouble is most of us are busy thinking, and we forget how to use this inner wisdom, which comes from the body, from feelings, as well as this intuitive aspect.

David: What do you mean when you say that a disease is more than “just a clinical entity; it is an experience and a metaphor, with a message that must be listened to”?

Bernie: It’s easiest just to give you examples, and these aren’t necessarily all about life-threatening illness. One is a lady with cancer who said that her disease is a failure after I asked her what it was like to experience the cancer? She had been yelling at her doctor for making her ugly with a scar–yet the incision was in her upper thigh, and nobody even knew it was there, unless she was wearing a bathing suit. So her physician said to me, “It’s something more, maybe you can talk to her and figure this out.”

When she came in I said, how would you describe what you’re experiencing? She said, It’s a failure. I said, How does failure fit your life? See, that’s my question then. And her first answer was, Oh my body failed. I said, No, you’re not answering my question. I said, How does failure fit your life? And she said, “Oh, my parents committed suicide when I was a child, so I must have been a failure as a child.” Then her life poured out. See, what she had decided was not to ever develop a relationship with anybody because it’s just going to hurt her again, like her parents did to her. So she’s living a life of pain because of that childhood experience, and then, because of the cancer, and that word, she changed totally. She set out to change herself and her entire life, and stop being afraid of the world, relationships, and everything else.

Another was a lady with a severe migraine headache that was sent to the hospital because she was vomiting and in pain. I was in another doctor’s office while she was there, so I walked over to talk to her for a minute. She was lying a room with all the lights out. I walked over and said, “How would you describe your headache?” She said, “It’s a burden.” And I thought, That’s a weird word for pain. So I worked with her on burdens. She wasn’t my patient, so I didn’t plunge into her life, but we talked about burdens, and how you can deal with them and live with them. After about fifteen minutes I left her. Then the nurse walked in a few minutes later to say to me that her pain was gone and she’s going home. And by the way–the burden’s her marriage. (laughter)

When I asked a woman with a urinary tract infection how she would describe it, she laughed and she said, “Oh, it’s very draining.” Then she looked at me and said, “Okay, thank you,” and walked away. See, she knew that she’s got to deal with all the things that are draining her. So for some people it becomes very obvious, and they look at me and say, thank you. For others, yes, you can help them a little bit to define what that word means in their life and why. As a matter of fact, I just received an email from a friend of mine who’s having problems, and one of the things that he said to describe the situation was that he felt like he was hitting his head against the wall. So I said, Okay, let’s look at the barriers in your life that you’re banging your head against. People send me pictures, and these descriptions, and they say, Okay, what does it mean? How can you help me? Then I ask them to think about why they use these expressions, and how it applies to their life. I also use this process in my own life.

I was once training for a marathon. I was really doing a lot of running in hot weather, and I began to have dizzy spells, particularly in the morning. It became just so hard to get out of bed. So I said, “Hey, what would I ask a patient? How would I describe this?” And I said, “The world is spinning around.” Then I said, “Yep, right. Slow down. (laughter) It was very obvious to me that my body was trying to keep me in bed and get me to rest, and I’m out there pushing, pushing, pushing. So I listen to those words myself.

David: What do you think are currently the best ways for a healthy person to slow down, or reverse, the aging process and extend their life span?

Bernie: I think if you want to reverse the aging process, the number one thing that every doctor agrees upon is to exercise. Keep moving and keep active. Also, have some meaning in your life. What I find particularly helpful is to not think of yourself as an age. Don’t let the child in you die. See things through the child’s eyes, and it just makes life interesting and humorous. If you are always doing what you love and have no sense of time how can you age?
I mean, I’m a real character. What I mean by that is, if I see a contract that says “sign here”, I write “here” on it. (laughter) See, that’s the kid in me. Everytime I see a sign that says “Depressed Drains”, I say let’s stop and try to cheer up the drain. (laughter) It’s this little kid inside that keeps me laughing and seeing the world differently. I think when you do that you don’t age. Studies shown that if you live in an environment that you lived in

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