View the interview online at Nexus.
THE NEXUS INTERVIEW
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.
A body-mind revolutionary’s remarkable journey
An interview with Ravi Dykema
With the publication of the best-selling Minding the Body, Mending the Mind in 1987, Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. firmly established herself as a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine. Trained as both a medical scientist and psychologist, she received her doctorate from the Harvard Medical School, where she also completed three post-doctoral fellowships.
Using this impressive background, she went on to start Mind-Body clinical programs at two Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals, using her classic medical training as a foundation for a deeper body of work--one that encompasses psychoneuroimmunology, relationship-centered healing, women’s health, religion and interspirituality. With these programs, and her classic book, she began a career as one of the most respected voices in the field of mind-body medicine.
Borysenko is also a former instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, and is the author of 12 books, including Inner Peace for Busy People, and her latest, with Gordon Dveirin, Your Soul’s Compass: What Is Spiritual Guidance?
Dr. Borysenko is also author of numerous audiocassette programs; and a monthly column, “Staying Centered,” which appears in Prevention magazine. Co-founder of the Claritas Institute for Interspiritual Inquiry, she directs the Interspiritual Mentor Training Program (IMTP), a two-year certificate course in spiritual direction. Here, she speaks with stunning depth, perception and sometimes painful personal wisdom about the mind-body connection, interspirituality and the elusive quest for inner peace.
RD: Your book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, was published in 1987, and it was groundbreaking at the time. How has the field of integrative medicine changed over the 20 years since you wrote it? How did you get involved in the study of mind/body medicine?
JB: At the time I was writing the book, I was a cancer cell biologist and had recently become interested in meditation.
I was exploring the work of Carl and Stephanie Simonton, who worked with imagination and visualization, and I’d had a background in psychology.When I graduated Bryn Mawr College in 1967, I had the good fortune to work with a young cardiologist at Harvard Medical School whose name was Herbert Benson, and I started some of the first biofeedback studies with him. He became interested in the physiology of meditation. And that’s how it all started.
RD: Did he study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?
JB: He didn’t actually study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but was studying Transcendental Meditation (TM). This was in the 1960s and early 1970s when the Maharishi’s work was very popular. There were people on all the college campuses using TM, and some students at Harvard came to him and said, “We know your interest is in blood pressure, and we’ve noticed that people who have meditated for several months, who previously had high blood pressure, have lowered it through the meditation practice. Maybe you want to study it.” That’s how he got into it.
RD: Let’s go back to your story. You were describing the resistance to anything integrative, because it was considered heresy that the mind had any effect on immunity. How and when did that change?
The first thing Dr. Benson studied was TM, with a physiologist, Keith Wallace; together they coined a term “the relaxation response,” the opposite of the body’s flight-or-fight response. In 1975, he went on to write the book The Relaxation Response, and looked at how a variety of different cultures, from secular to religious, had ways in which they could turn off the inner dialogue and become present, thus eliciting this relaxation response. That was the beginning of our whole field of mind-body medicine. I worked with him for 20 years, and I think we were a big influence on one another over those years.
RD: How has the field of mind-body medicine, or integrative medicine, evolved since then?
JB: When I first worked with Benson in 1967, the very idea that the mind could affect the body was scientific heresy. The idea that biofeedback could give us conscious control over what we thought of as an unconscious function was big news. That was 40 years ago; now, it’s not big news at all. Now you open up Time Magazine or USA Today, and there are basic biofeedback machines for sale, or devices enabling you to monitor your breathing to lower your blood pressure. We all take this for granted now, but then it was big news. Then came the field that I was interested in for a number of years, because my basic training is in cellular biology. For 25 years, I was married to Miroslav Borysenko, who was an immunologist, and we did research together looking at the effect of our minds on our immune systems. That, again, was medical heresy. People said “What do you mean, what you think, or your emotions, could affect the body’s immune system?” It seemed like that was just beyond the scope of possibility.
RD: But even if there was a connection between mind and immunity, weren’t people saying that it didn’t matter, because people wouldn’t be able to relax or change their thoughts anyway?
JB: That indeed was a factor in the scientific community’s lack of acceptance. For example, when Dean Ornish’s program came out for reversing coronary artery disease through yoga, diet, relaxation and social support, the most common thing we heard was “Well, that may be so, but how will people find the motivation to do all those things?” There’s certainly
some truth there. We know more now about health than we ever have before. We understand the effects of exercise on mood, health and longevity. We understand what a healthy diet is. Yet Americans are more obese and sedentary than ever before in our history. So you have to ask the question “Why don’t we do what we know is good for us?”
For me, the cutting edge of integrative medicine is exactly that question. My own sense is it’s because we’re so alienated and entitled. What the research shows is that in spite of increased material wealth, we are more depressed than we were at the turn of the century, and we’re depressed younger. Part of the reason for that seems to be that we’re so isolated, alienated and entitled. Unless that is addressed, we’ll just keep getting more and more anxious and depressed as a culture, and certainly more time-starved. That does not bode well for people taking good care of themselves.
RD: What do you mean by “entitled?”
JB: People think that they should have whatever they want. There is a cult of individualism in this country, that “me first” mentality, or even the idea that “My own happiness is more important than the happiness of the whole.” In mind/body research, we find that particular attitude leads to great unhappiness. Altruism and caring for others is what makes us feel happy, and medical science is catching up with this. The Dalai Lama calls it “wise selfishness.” If you really want to be good to yourself, take care of other people.
JB: The whole field of psycho-neuroimmunology began to emerge, and we began to understand much more about the brain, much more about neuropeptides. We understand that there are cells within the nervous system that secrete hormones, and that those can affect any cell in the body that has a receptor site for them. So an emotion you experience can affect your skin, or your heart. People have known that intuitively, but it’s very different to really understand, from a scientific perspective, what those connections are and how they operate. We live in a society where science has become the god, so it’s fascinating—and helpful to the acceptance of the mind-body connection—that much of it can be scientifically validated.
One of the most interesting scientific threads is that which links stress, anxiety, obesity and poor diet all to the same thing--the increased secretion of what are called pro-inflammatory cytokines. Those pro-inflammatory cytokines are the compounds in the body that lead to a variety of physical ills, from the frailty that accompanies aging to Alzheimer’s disease to decreased immunity to heart disease. For example, pro-inflammatory cytokines lead to increased secretions of C-reactive protein, which is a pretty good predictive indicator of heart disease in healthy males. So we’re beginning to see what the mechanisms are--but still we have the problems. We’re getting more stressed as a culture, not less stressed.
RD: Even though we know so much now about the connection between the mind and the body, and we have scientific validation for much of it, do you think that knowledge is really being incorporated into the field of medicine.
JB: I don’t think it is being incorporated or integrated into the medical system. For the most part, when I speak at hospitals,
nurses and social workers are the ones who come. Physicians think they don’t have time for it; they’re busy with more technical details. And I think there’s still some fear amongst physicians, which is founded in some fact, that people will over-simplify their conditions and their treatment.
Even though we know the mind affects the body, the fear is that people will forget that many other things affect your body as well, like what you eat, whether you smoke, whether you exercise, what your genetics are, what the toxic load from the environment is. The fear is that some people may think positively and reduce stress, but still keep their bad habits. Then they’ll end up with a bad case of new-age guilt, because they’ll get sick, and then they’ll say “It was wrong thinking. I attracted this to myself with the law of attraction,” which is the latest iteration of new-age guilt. That’s a very valid concern; that’s what blocks a lot of physicians, because they rightly believe there needs to be a balanced approach to minding the body and mending the mind as part of a larger integrative approach to health.
RD: In the early days of your career, you were speaking mainly about medical research, the cutting edge of
psycho-neuro-immunology. Now your work is incorporating spiritual aspects of health. How did you make that transition?
JB: The spiritual aspects are what got me interested in mind-body medicine in the beginning. You’re asking a question that I’m frequently asked: how did a scientist end up interested in spirituality? But I was interested in spirituality from the time that I was small, because I had a spontaneous remission from a very serious mental illness as a 10-year-old. This spontaneous remission involved prayer and an experience of cosmic consciousness that I had as a result of the prayer. Here’s the short version of what happened: at 10, I had a sudden psychotic episode. I began to hallucinate, to have dreams at night, mostly of shamanic and jungle themes: snakes, headhunters, things like that. The trouble is that, when I woke up from the dream, I could still see them in the house, but behind a kind of thin veil, ready to manifest. The belief system that accompanied this was that they would kill my family unless I did something to prevent it, and I was the only one who could see it.
RD: It sounds terrifying.
JB: Terrifying doesn’t even begin to cover it. It was a hell state. But I developed a second mental illness to organize the psychosis, and that second mental illness was obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD). I had a whole set of rituals, which grew by leaps and bounds, like having to do all my reading upside down and backwards, and repeat it three times, which makes it very hard to read much. If I failed to do that, or was interrupted, I would start to see this stuff coalesce and manifest and be afraid it would kill my family.
I finally had to drop out of school. This was 52 years ago, in 1955, and there wasn’t Klonopin or Prozac or behavior therapy for OCD. There was pretty much just the hope that maybe I’d outgrow this. So one day I did what I think most people finally do when they realize something in their life is beyond their own control: I prayed. And I had an experience where this total terror gave way to such infinite peace, that Biblical peace that passeth understanding, and such a stillness of mind. That was coupled with an insight that was not intellectual, but was just a deep knowing. It’s hard for me now to try to put words to what I experienced at 10, but I would say it was an insight of the interconnectedness of all things, and a deep knowledge of beneficence. I also had an insight that, in fact, I could recover from the mental illness, and I had a sense of how to go about doing that.
People always say, “I have OCD; can you teach me how to recover?” The answer is “no.” It was very specific to what I was going through. If you read the literature on spontaneous remission, people generally have a story. They say “It wasn’t spontaneous at all. Here’s what happened to me.” This is just my spontaneous remission story: there was something very specific, but it really had to do with an exercise of will, coupled with something that allowed me to remember that beneficence and sense of interconnectedness. I actually got a poem in this experience, and when I would recite the poem, I would feel peace again. Every time I went to do a compulsive ritual, instead of doing the ritual, I disciplined myself to say this poem. In three or four days, both mental illnesses were gone and I could return to school.
RD: How did your parents explain this?
JB: My parents never mentioned it. It was 30 years before anyone in my family ever mentioned it. No one ever said something like, “Well, you know you were crazy just last Tuesday. You seem fine now. Did anything happen?” No one said anything. And I didn’t say anything.
RD: That seems odd.
JB: I think they were afraid if they talked about it, it would come back. But my mother did bring it up, when I was writing
the book. My father was dead, and my mother said, “I knew that something must have happened, but I was afraid to rock the boat.” That was exactly it. I used to listen to them crying themselves to sleep at night. To have a child with a mental illness is terrible; it must have been just as terrible for them as it was for me. Through the years, from time to time, I would think “What was that? Was that a spiritual experience?” I didn’t have any words for it. Yet, at some level, I knew it was a spiritual experience. I’d been to a Jewish camp, and I had had experiences that weren’t as deep, but were somewhat similar, during prayers and chanting. Through the years, I began to explore different religious traditions to see if things like this had been reported before. But back then, there was no Internet; there were only libraries. I was pretty limited in my research capabilities. Like most kids who have an illness, I got interested in it, and started to think my experience could help somebody else. I thought it would be good to know about the brain and behavior. By the time I was at Bryn Mawr College, I was writing papers on the possible neurophysiological correlates of consciousness, and I was really interested in mystic experiences that crossed religious traditions. What was the common core? What was that loss of the sense of separate self? What was that state of union with something larger? Through the years, that became my major preoccupation.
Then, when I was working in a hospital setting in the mind-body clinic, I was seeing people with stress-related disorders. I also ran a cancer clinic, and then I ran an AIDS clinic, which begin in the early 1980s, before the HIV virus had even been isolated. We had mostly young gay men who were well one day, then suddenly started to have strange symptoms. As a result of spending so much time with people who had cancer and AIDS, I was sitting with a lot of people who were trying to harvest meaning from their lives and find meaning in their illness. Sitting with people during the time that they were actually dying, I realized that what comes up for most people at those times were questions about the meaning of life: Who am I? What am I doing here? Am I just this body? Is there something that remains when the body departs? If that’s the case, is there a purpose for human life? What is that purpose? Is there such a thing as having a successful life? Has my life been successful?
For many people, theological beliefs came up, like is there a heaven? Is there a hell? What’s going to happen? Especially at that time with AIDS patients, when the religious fundamentalists were saying “It’s God’s punishment for a bad lifestyle,” these questions really came up. I wasn’t a chaplain, I’m not clergy. I’m trained as a psychologist and a medical scientist. But the most essential questions for people at that time were questions of meaning, spiritual questions.
After running that mind-body clinic for most of the 1980s, I was really more interested in the spiritual aspects of things. I decided to leave the hospital setting in 1988 so I could train people in not only mind-body medicine, but also more about the spiritual aspects of life and disease. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind had just been published in 1987, so I took off on my own and founded a company called “Mind-Body Health Sciences,” which I still run. The books I’ve written since that time all have this same thread in common, the thread I’ve worked with since I was 10 years old. That thread has three strands: the physical, the psychological and the spiritual.
RD: Many of us have been exploring the human experience and what makes us ill or well through the lens of science. That lens seeks to see what is objectively true. But is there anything objectively true? And is there a basic spiritual experience that homo sapiens have access to that distinguishes us from other animals?
JB: That’s a really important question: is there an essential spirituality? Certainly Ken Wilber has been very interested in that question, as was the late Brother Wayne Teasdale, who was both a Catholic lay monk and a Hindu sannyasin who had been in Bede Griffiths’ Benedictine Monastery in India for several years. Wayne wrote a number of books; one is entitled Monk in the World; another was The Mystic Heart. He defined a field called “interspirituality.”
RD: How does that differ from interfaith?
JB: Interfaith is a comparison of beliefs, dogmas, lenses through which we see the world. If a rabbi and a priest compared
notes, maybe they would find certain essential similarities in what their prophets said or what the commandments
were for living a good life, or the moral precepts. But it’s different from a level of direct experience. Interspirituality aims to explore the common experience. For example, at 10 years old, I had an experience which a Hindu mystic, a Jewish mystic and a Sufi might describe in much the same way. Interspirituality explores not only the common description of that experience
of “no self,” but also recognizes practices that might make it likelier that you would have that experience. Secondly, what does interspirituality mean in terms of how you live your life? Does it favor more compassion? Does it allow you to have more gratitude?
That’s been my focus and interest of late, the field of interspirituality. My husband, Gordon Dveirin, and I just finished
a book called Your Soul’s Compass, which was released this fall by Hay House. The subtitle of the book is “What is spiritual guidance?” The book came about because we noticed that, all across the world, all kinds of people are saying “My political strategy is because God told me so.” This, to me, is an example of faith gone wrong.
RD: How gone wrong?
JB: When people say, for example, that one should go back to a 7th century definition of Islam that has to do with killing infidels, that’s not exactly a compassionate point of view. Or maybe some of Bush’s policies. We have a big confusion, I think, between church and state when it gets down to things like abortion, for example. We have major voting blocks that are religious, and mixing up the political and the religious is difficult. I think people feel that there is some greater form of direction somewhere, some flow toward potential good that we can tap into, but it gets all mixed up in belief systems.
RD: I think many people want some kind of religious compass. They want to feel the wind blowing in a direction
they trust is good, because they are afraid of the other wind they feel, the one ushering in materialism or what you called “entitlement.” Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Islam, Radical Islam or fundamentalism of all kind may be attractive, just because they offer some assurance that there is a wind blowing in the right direction.
JB: Yes, I think that’s right. This reflects a deep longing of the human heart for orientation toward the greater good. All of these things illustrate that same kernel of longing to see how humanity can best express itself. Sometimes it gets derailed by fundamentalism, including secular fundamentalism.
RD: What’s secular fundamentalism?
JB: That would be saying there is no spiritual or moral compass that might truly guide us. It’s really a reductionist belief in science, what Huston Smith might have called “scientism” or feeling that somehow or other, through purely secular means, we’ll arrive at what we need. There’s a great debate, now, amongst scientists. About a year ago, Time magazine had a marvelous cover story on faith versus science. One of the people they interviewed was Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, who faced off against Richard Dawkins, the atheist biologist. There was a wonderful quote from Francis Collins: “Faith is reason plus revelation.” There is some larger intelligence that we can tune in to. I think there are a lot of people who would subscribe to the idea that there may be something that humanity is evolving toward, that it’s not all about the selfish gene but something greater we’re evolving toward. That’s why Gordon and I wanted to write a book asking the questions, “Is there spiritual guidance? If so, what is spiritual guidance?” It’s distinct from religious beliefs of any kind, and yet may have been alluded to in various religious traditions. With that in mind, we set out to interview people with different viewpoints. We started with lineage holders in various religious traditions--for example, Father Thomas Keating and Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi). We set out to assemble a sort of Noah’s Arc of luminaries, a male and a female rabbi, and a male and a female Sufi, Hindus of both genders, and so on. But when it got down to the Catholics, there were no female priests. We interviewed a couple of fabulous Episcopal women priests and asked them a series of questions.
What we were looking for was to find out if, regardless of a person’s religious conditioning, there existed some common ground in spiritual guidance. We hoped that these people who were steeped in various traditions, who by and large had lived a contemplative life, might be able to tell us about some essential spiritual thing that was independent of belief. Most of them suggested that the only way you can follow spiritual guidance is to know that you can’t know, because these are not things that come from the mind, that there’s a way of knowing that’s more direct and immediate that we would call “heart wisdom.” But it has to do more with being present in the moment and really being observant, noticing what’s the truth of the moment.
One of the people we interviewed was A. Hameed Ali who writes under the pen name of A.H. Almaas, founder of the Diamond Approach to self-realization. He said what’s necessary to becoming a lover of the truth is to be freshly aware of the moment as it emerges, to be aware of what are the forces that are operating in that moment. I think it was Rabbi Rami Shapiro who defined guidance as an awareness of the forces that are offered in the moment, sensing the grain of the moment, like the grain of the wood, so that you can move with it and contribute to it, rather than going against the grain. We convened a strange and fascinating kind of conversation, where we were the hub of the wheel, so we got to speak to all 27 people. And then it’s been a great privilege, and also kind of daunting, to think “Oh, boy, we have to report now on this conversation.”
RD: From your interviews, did you find a common theme?
JB: One common theme that emerged was the idea of discernment. How do we align ourselves with a larger intelligence?
How can we tell whether, in fact, we’re responding to a larger intelligence or to our own ego-conditioning biases, wishful thinking or even craziness. The dirty-tricks department of the mind has millions of ways to rationalize what the ego wants, making it appear as spiritual guidance.
Another common theme was that we really need one another. We need communities
based on inquiry that together can dwell in the questions: what would the highest good be in an individual situation, or in a community situation? I think Reb Zalman spoke most eloquently on this. He says, it’s called “togethering.”
The Buddhists would say we need a sangha, a spiritual community. In the end, all of these people said things that were quite similar.
There were many descriptions of this idea of spiritual guidance. One was the idea of compassion. If you want to discern whether something is spiritually guided or not, kindness and compassion is a good measure of your moral compass
pointing in the right direction.
RD: So an absence of compassion would be a big red flag, that maybe what someone is calling “spiritual guidance” may actually be ego-driven.
JB: Yes, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s not so simple: for example, is war moral or not moral, if the greater good is being served? One of our questions was “Would you share your personal experiences of spiritual guidance?” Some of these sages would describe the kind of experience I had when I was 10, where the revelation was so immediate and fresh that there was just no question that it was guidance; it had a revelatory quality to it.
RD: Was there something in that experience that speaks to the idea that there is some sort of essential spirituality?
JB: Yes, and I have seen this in a variety of religious and spiritual traditions. Part of an essential spirituality is continuing to develop the capacity to live your life fearlessly. Even with the experience I had as a 10-year-old of this extraordinary
beneficent reality just underneath the surface of terror, I’m far from interior freedom. I’m a slave of my conditioning,
as we all are. What I think all of the traditions have in common is a recognition of that--that we are, in fact, enslaved by our past experience, and we need to continue to work on freeing ourselves from that.
The whole point is not to fear at all, and yet, we live in a fearsome place. That’s the great paradox. Someone once asked Albert Einstein something like, “What’s the most important question we have to contemplate as human beings?” His answer was “Is the universe a friendly place?” But whether you view the universe as impersonal and unfriendly, or as personal and friendly, there are ways to free yourself so you’re not responding fearfully, and therefore can manifest more love in your own life. Working through the reality of fear is very important.
I can only speak from my own experience. I’ve had a lot of mystical experiences through the years--experiences of non-dual awareness, a near-death experience, experiences of divine light and lucid dream states and things like that. For me, the bottom line is there is always a stunning sense of love, that the whole drama and all its fearsomeness evaporates, and what’s left underneath it is an exquisite fabric of love, for which there are simply no words.