Joseph Campbell put it in these words. If you’re going through hell, ask yourself what am I to learn from this experience. When you say to people, “What are you experiencing?”, if you have 100 cancer patients in the room you’ll get 85 different answers. And they range from “a gift”, “wake-up call”, “blessing”, “new beginning”, where people have redirected their lives because of their mortality, to others who say “failure”, “roadblock”, “confusion”, “draining”. So I say, if you have any negative words, think about what else in your life fits those words, and let’s eliminate them. Let’s see what happens.
I was visiting a doctor friend who’s a neurologist. The nurse came in and said keep your voices down, there’s a lady in the next room who’s had a severe migraine for two weeks. I went in and I said to her, what does the pain feel like? “Oh, it’s pressure.” So I worked with her on the pressure in her life and then I went out and sat down again with my friend. The nurse came out and said, “Her headache’s gone. It’s her marriage. She’s going home now.” When she understood where it was coming from, saw the cause, then the result was changed.
Years ago I began to go out lecturing and I’d see people in the audience that I thought were dead, that hadn’t returned to their office visits. And I would go down into the audience when I was done speaking, and I would say hey, how come you didn’t die? They always had a story about changes in their life where in a sense the curse became a blessing.
One patient of mine refused all treatments. I couldn’t cure him. He said, “I don’t have time for your treatment. I’m a landscaper, it’s spring, I’m going to go make the world beautiful. So when I die I leave a beautiful world.” The only reason I saw him again was six years after I thought he had died, he came in to say he had a hernia from lifting boulders in his landscape business. He became my teacher about how beautiful the world was. And he was contributing beauty and not worrying about dying.
I don’t want to wage a war against cancer. When you are waging a war you empower the enemy. But if you look at “How can I heal my life, how can I find peace”, then your internal chemistry changes. This is not a miracle. All living things have the potential to heal built into them. But human beings have it hardest because of our emotions, our thinking, our intellect. Bacteria isn’t worried about the credit card bill. Nor is the tree. You cut off a branch, it doesn’t lead to death. It heals. And so all these creatures are able to do amazing things, and we have that potential too. But [we need] to have faith, to have that still pond, quiet mind — there’s no turbulence, you can see the truth, your reflection, your beauty.
I like the word surrender. Something I struggle with. As the doctor you don’t surrender, you’re fighting the disease, you’re trying to cure everything, make it go away, fix everything. But when you’re willing to surrender – and that doesn’t mean you give up, but it means you stop battling – you live in the moment. You’re living in compassion.
I say to people, think about drawings. If you said, “I’m going to have surgery next week,” and you drew yourself in a black box with nobody in the operating room taking care of you, you’re not going to do well. But if somebody literally drew the surgeon unmasked, uncovered, holding her, love and God and flowers filling the operating room, I wouldn’t worry about that person.
See life as a labour pain. And when you view it in that way and you’re willing to say, “What am I to learn from this?” — when you’re hungry you don’t get upset, you go get something to eat. If you don’t like how you’re feeling, say, “What nourishment do I need to bring into my life?” And go ask for it. That’s survival behavior. So empower yourself. Look at what makes you happy. It’s you choosing your way of contributing love to the world.
For many, Dr. Bernard Siegel—or Bernie, as he prefers to be called—needs no introduction. He has touched many lives all over the Planet. In 1978, he reached a national and then international audience when he began talking about patient empowerment and the choice to live fully and die in peace. As a physician who has cared for and counseled innumerable people whose mortality has been threatened by illness, Bernie embraces a philosophy of living and dying that stands at the forefront of the medical ethics and spiritual issues our society grapples with today.