Dr Bernie Siegel

Traditionally University surgeon trained Yale and family man moves deeper into the heart and soul of healing.

Dr. Bernie Siegel, a pioneer in body/mind cancer healing at Connecticut's prestigious Yale University Hospital, expands his wisdom to new personal, interior frontiers. He offers us a model to explore and develop our unique interior landscapes. Eastern healing has known for a long time that repressed parts cause disease. Until these aspects are expressed and integrated the whole organism will not function optimally. When the wisdom of the East and the energies of the West come together the harmonious development of humankind will ensue. The experience of reading Bernie Siegel's book is a prescription for living.

In Siegel's new book, Prescriptions for Living: Inspirational Lessons for a Joyful, Loving Life, he turns to those people who have not faced a catastrophic illness and writes preventative prescriptions to them. He suggests that they ask the same questions he had his cancer patients ask, "What am I here for? What do I want to say, experience and accomplish with the limited time I have left." His intention is to offer another route to wisdom other than a life-threatening illness. Loving oneself and one another is a far more joyful path.

In 1974 Dr. Bernie Siegel was a pediatric and general surgeon at Yale University Medical Center, operating on patients with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. On the outside he looked successful, had a beautiful wife and five wonderful children but was in a lot of emotional pain. He describes how lonely and futile he felt at work, being emotionally distant from his patients, viewing medicine in a mechanical way, as it had been taught him.

"A doctor is in a position to help people when they need it most--to teach them, when they confront their mortality, that many of the lessons learned will be gifts, not problems. He is also in a position to learn a great deal about being human .... He must begin to view patients as people rather than cases..." Siegel says. (intro, page xv).

Torn between leaving medicine altogether and staying within the confines of tradition, Siegel opted for a totally different way of doctoring. He pushed his desk against the wall, shaved his head and told people to call him Bernie, not Dr. Siegel. He recognized that not only did his patients need love and touch, but physicians did as well.

In a chapter entitled "Multiple Personalities," he suggests we find the interesting characters residing within us, exploring and developing them. He himself has excavated a subpersonality called Bernie, has birthed it and develops it. Bernie is the person who has learned to love and care for his patients, and to receive the love and support from living things around him. Bernie is an aspect of Siegel who is willing to relate to situations at hand from his feelings.

Through the emerging compassionate and humorous Bernie, we get to know his wife, Bobbie, his kids, his five grandkids. We get to know his pets and his love of nature. We get to know his younger professional self who was dominated by Dr. Siegel and the humbling and vulnerable circumstances which expanded the surgeon into a writer, who serves by the pen as well as the knife.

Struck one day by something his son had written which he had hanging on his office wall for many years.

He states that he has touched and helped heal hundreds of people through the knife as a surgeon but has touched and helped heal thousands, even millions of people through words as a writer.

What we get in Prescriptions for Living is a distillation of life's lessons in a language and familiarity we can both laugh at and embrace. The book abounds with prescriptions, some hilarious, some serious, all directed to a deeper acceptance of ourselves and others.

Examples of his prescriptions range from letting your body reveal its stored memories and feelings, if not for enlightenment, then for the health of it, to animal healing consisting of a large dose of warm fur and a loving purr.

From what are you afraid of?. Find people who are living successfully with what ever it is you fear and let those people be your teachers to the affliction of self-esteem depletion. Carry your own baby pictures in your wallet. Take them out every day and look at them in admiration.

From what are you trying to embody? Pick out a short list of words for your headstone. Just keep it short and to the point about what was most important in your life to a reminder of two plaques that God keeps above Her desk: "Everything you forget I remember and everything you remember, I forget." And: "Don't feel totally, personally, irrevocably, eternally responsible for everything: that's my job."

Spiritual lessons abound in everyday life, if seen with the eyes that are open to them.

As Siegel relates the lessons he has learned, he tells us that spiritual lessons can be learned from all and any religion. Pull out your sacred texts and begin reading, he suggests. It is all there.

Finding a freedom in this humility, Bernie listens more to others, his patients, his family. He refers to God as a She, opening and welcoming the feminine side of himself. Not resisting it or usurping it, but honoring it, acknowledging it, embracing it and seeing its necessity in growing the whole organism, that is Bernie Siegel.

Two years ago I sent to my brother, who was dying of lung and brain cancer in a small town in Maine, a set of Bernie Siegel's tapes. He was deeply comforted and inspired by Bernie's words in the last days of his life. Now I find myself inspired and comforted by Bernie's openness and humility in sharing his struggle to become more authentic and whole as a professional, as a husband, a father, a grandfather and a person with great concern in preserving the planet.

Bernie has become an elder who caringly encourages others to make a difference on the planet. With an open heart and dedication to all living things, he prescribes to us, oftentimes in hilarious ways, remedies, palliatives and preventatives for life's bruises, breaks and perplexities.

Particularly insightful was the result of a fall he took from a roof, hitting his head on the pavement. Experiencing amnesia, he saw his wife and kids and home with a new perspective and appreciation. After a year of blissful memory loss, he began regaining his memory, remembering the annoying things people did, and started seeing a counselor. The counselor suggested there was another way to experience bliss besides amnesia and that was love. His prescription for love is to read I Corinthians 13, weekly, which brings peace of mind without side effects. "Don't wait for a knock on the head to wake you up!" he says.

Siegel paraphrases: "It is kind and never envious. It is never boastful, or conceited, or rude; never selfish; not quick to take offense. There is no limit to its faith, its hope and its endurance. If you do not have it you are nothing no matter what else you may know, or do or have."

The lesson of love for all creation is what Bernie is teaching us. Embracing all that life presents to us provides lessons for our transformation, lessons of love. The more we can embrace it and accept it, the more we can apply the prescriptions and open up to the lessons they can teach us. It is not about walking away from our pain and our problems. It is about accepting them and seeing that they are the compost with which we grow.

Next we get to learn a lesson from, of all things, an earthworm. The earthworm is a worthwhile role model. After all, Bernie shares, it eats toxins, digests them and then eliminates a nontoxic material that serves as fertilizer. "Now that is holy shit!" He goes on to say that even though it spends its life caring for the planet, we cannot overburden it. We need to pick up the glass, plastic and metals we throw onto the planet. The earthworm cannot compost that for us. We must turn our toxic materials into useful fertilizer, if we and our planet are to continue. As with psychology, which grew out of pathology and then widened to a systematic approach to the psyche of human beings, dysfunctional and functional, Siegel's newest book shifts from catastrophic circumstances to the non-life-threatening everyday challenges and how to transform those into spiritual experiences.

His chapters consist of "Family, Children, Loving Yourself, Loving Others, Thriving in Bad Times, Surviving in Good Times, Prescriptions for Living," concluding with "My Favorite Recipe."

A friend whose life was going well tells Bernie that when she is faced with indecision she uses a technique that works well for her. She asks herself, "Well, what would Bernie do now?" Ironically, he uses the same technique. He asks himself, "What would Bernie do now?"

Siegel begins with looking to models. He quotes a familiar slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous; in living up to the model you have set for yourself.., they say, Fake it until you make it...

Bernie Siegel's book is a testament to the need for each of us to approach the world from a place of authenticity. That means not making ourselves into the images those around us might demand but to go deeper inside, to a place that has been, is and always will be lovable and acceptable. From that place of sharing love and caring we laughingly replace the old ways.

Many of his metaphors come from nature and animals. His group-pet therapy is hilarious . . . mentioning his feline menagerie, Miracle, a Jewish, black and white, domestic short-haired psychiatrist; Dickens, a graying, long-haired Maine Coon Buddhist who meditates a lot; and Gabrielle, a red Maine Coon Muslim who faces Mecca more often than the group.

"They have shown me that if you persist in expressing your needs, in a loving way, people will feed and care for you," Bernie says. They keep me company when I'm not well and sit on my paperwork when they know I need a break. And they are always ready at bedtime to keep me warm without disturbing the covers."

He speaks about the beautiful New England leaves in the fall, comparing them to people. We spend most of our time as green leaves on the family tree. But like the leaves in the fall, when the autumn of our lives comes, "it empowers us to show our beauty and individuality before we let go of the tree of life." Prescription: "Go look at a flower, a beautiful painting or look in the mirror and ask yourself, 'Who did that?' If you are aware of the precious works of art around you, you will take better care of them and of yourself."

In 1989, Siegel retired from being a physician and turned full time to writing and speaking publicly about mind/body/spirit healing. His wife Bobbie accompanies him on these tours; his children and grandchildren are often present. I was touched by his acknowledgement at the beginning of the book of George Liles for his creative assistance and Victoria Pryor and Megan Newman--"for being my midwives in the birthing of this book. They helped when it hurt the most."

At the end of the book Bernie says he has given us all the prescriptions we need to live a loving life. Reading the words is not the same as experiencing the words. Batteries are not included. We have to provide the batteries. Touch, laughter and loving concern is the energy by which we truly move in the world. We must look within for that energy to follow those prescriptions.

Luckily we live at a time and in a place where there is a cornucopia of avenues on which to learn to excavate the encapsulated personalities, releasing and accessing the hidden energies. Through his stories, humor and teachings we learn to look to our own lives to discover the role model within each of us and become the experts in our lives. You are the expert and know the secret lies in loving, forgiving, believing, accepting and creating. He encourages us to give birth to that facet of ourselves, the sage within us, turning to it daily, like a bell as a reminder, asking of ourselves, "What should I do now?"

I found it hard to put down the book; if anything is missing it is more anecdotes, examples of people and their life's lessons, fleshed out more with his wonderful commentary and guidance. I would like to have heard more of the specific modalities of healing that he used, such as experiences with his therapist. I know there are numerous approaches to acquainting ourselves with hidden interior aspects of our whole being. Some work for some people, some for others. The dictum, "take what you want and leave the rest," is a helpful guide in attending to our unique interiors. Uncovering our personal sage, who knows us best, will lead us to our wholeness. I look forward to more wisdom from Bernie as he pursues his word healing. Meanwhile I will keep Prescriptions for Living next to my bed for a source of inspiration, humor and "delightenment."

ILLUSTRATION (COLOR)

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By Juditte Schwartz

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