Dr. Joan Borysenko is one of the leading ambassadors of psychoneuoimmunology, or PNI. Along with Dr. Herbert Benson, she co-founded the Mind-Body clinic of Harvard University and is the author of several books, including “Guilt is the Teacher, Love Is The Lesson and “The New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism.”
DiCarlo: Larry Dossey has come up with a model to help explain the evolution of medicine which he terms era 1, era 2, and era 3 medicine. Could you briefly trace the evolution of psychology, where we’ve been, where we are now and where we are going?
Borysenko: Sure. The evolution of psychology began with Freud, who was a neurologist. He certainly began to look into what can be regarded as an era one and era two psychology. Era one psychology would be an understanding of things like neurotransmitters and areas of the brain that have been associated with certain emotions. It’s very, very important. I spent a long time in my own life exploring psychopharmacology, looking at the different structures of the brain and what kind of structures were localized there. We need that knowledge.
The second era of psychology, to borrow from Dossey’s Era two medicine, recognizes the connection between the mind and the body. Oftentimes, psychologists think of the mind as divorced from the body, and what we have begun to realize in psychology is that if you give someone a massage, as a massage therapist will tell you, and touch certain parts of the body, specific memories will suddenly be triggered. We understand now that memories are stored in certain parts of the body and that the emotions are the bridge between the body and the mind.
Era 3 psychology is truly a transpersonal psychology, where we recognize that in addition to one’s own thoughts and one’s own personal history effecting one’s mind and body, that in a certain sense we all effect each other through our thoughts. This has been substantiated in prayer studies. Most of us have no trouble recognizing that our own thoughts effect our body. That’s common knowledge now. What we don’t know, or tend to forget, is that our mind can effect someone else’s body and that their thoughts can effect our body. I think that when a psychologist has the capability of being what we call “naturally therapeutic”, it’s partly because they look at their client, whoever they may be, with a mindset of great respect and love. Through that sense of respect, they bring forth healing. Eric Fromme said that a parent ideally looks at their child with an attitude of hopefulness. He defined hopefulness as a passion for the possible. When a therapist looks at a client with a passion for the possible and knows that there is indeed a Godseed within them that is going to grow, and knows that no person is flawed beyond their capacity to heal, and understands that every wound is a sacred wound in terms of being able to lead the person to a state of greater compassion and wisdom– that attitude alone crosses space and time and leads to healing.
DiCarlo: What have been the triumphs and shortcomings of Western psychology?
Borysenko: I think there have been a lot of triumphs in behavior therapy. I spent years of my life as a behaviorist, looking at operant conditioning ala Skinner. I think that’s very important to understand how people learn, and how that effects people. For example, it’s a very simple concept, like continuous reinforcement. You give a child a reward every time something happens and they always expect that reward. If you do it only once in a while, then they will always expect it. You will never easily extinguish the behavior of looking or waiting for whatever it is they want. So operant conditioning is useful in understanding the reasons why you have to be consistent with a child if you are a parent. If you are not consistent, if every once in a while you give them something that is forbidden, they simply will not learn that they cannot have that thing and it will bug you forever. These are useful concepts and methods which have been the gifts of behavior therapy.
I also think our knowledge of brain structure and behavior is very important. It’s very important to understand where the reward centers of the brain are located, and what neuropeptides are produced in response to emotion. Psychopharmocology is also very important. Prescribed drugs can oftentimes help people to regularize their brain function and emotional response. Many of the psychoactive drugs have been extremely helpful. The whole aspect of psychology that deals with self-awareness has been enormously important. Without self-awareness, how can we ever make a choice? How can we ever have free will? We could go into much more detail, but globally, there is much to be said for psychology as we know it.
On the downside, I think the limitations of psychology has been its reductionist theory. That is, just because we can find brain areas that have to do with emotions, or just because a certain drug can alleviate a certain affliction, to reduce the human being to a stimulus-response system or to certain chemicals in the brain that produce certain responses is inadequate. We are clearly more than that. Some people try to reduce and explain away near death experiences as the trick of dying brain cells starving for oxygen. There is some truth here since research shows that if the right temporal lobe is stimulated, it will give rise to religious thinking. It will also give rise to light experiences–as of course it should. We live in a physical body. Why shouldn’t there be circuitry? But to say that just because there is circuitry there is nothing beyond that–that there is no soul or spirit–is extraordinarily limiting.
The other limiting tendency of psychology is to look at people more in terms of what’s wrong with them–their pathology–rather than in terms of their potential. Psychologists seem quick to categorize and say, “what is wrong with a person’s character?” or “what is wrong with this person’s behavior?”, rather than saying, “Oh, is there a difficulty or a wound here, that for this person, has particular relevance to the way that they become whole, and the way that they become creative, and the way the way that they awaken their inner intuition and capacity to love.”
DiCarlo: The transpersonal movement, the so called 4th force in psychology, proposes that in addition to physical body, mind and emotions, there is a aspect of being some would refer to as the soul or spirit, which plays a vital role in human existence. How would you define the term “transpersonal”?
Borysenko: I would define the term transpersonal as actually what is most deeply personal on one aspect, and also what binds us together with everybody else. It goes beyond the limit of the individual. In one sense, I would say that what is beyond the person or “transpersonal,” is that one mind that all people are part of. When the great quantum physicist Erwin Shroedinger was asked how many minds he thought existed in the universe, he laughed and said, “if the sum total of the number of minds could be counted, there would be just one.” If you look into the esoteric core– the spiritual core of all religious traditions– then you also find there is the discussion of one divine mind, of which we are all a part. Part of that divine mind dwells within each human being as some sort of essence or core.
If for example, you were a mystical Jew, you might call that core the “shekhinah” the indwelling feminine presence of God. If you were a Buddhist, you would call it the Rigpa, or your own true nature. If you were a mystical Christian, like Mster Eckhart, you would call it the Godseed that dwells within. There has been a name for it in any tradition. In the Hindu tradition it might be called the Atman, which becomes one with the Brahman or the larger mind. It’s certainly been talked about in psychological circles as well. Jung had a concept of the Self with the big “S” and that’s the same thing. So did Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis who was a contemporary of Freud and Jung. We find in modern-day psychopathology, that in the most abused members of our society, this creative, immortal aspect of self, the part of the one mind that dwells within you has also been described by people with Multiple Personality Disorder when they are hypnotically regressed to see when each of their alter personalities was formed in response to trauma. Regardless of their religious orientation or their lack thereof, a certain personality can be found within each multiple which says, “I have been with this person from before the time when they were in the body and I will remain with them when their body dies.” It makes statements that sound like lines from the Upanishads, the hindu holy scriptures. It frequently describes itself as a conduit for a greater wisdom or divine love. That part was originally described by a psychiatrist Ralph Allison, who called it the inner self helper, because when he could connect with that part of a person, it would tell him exactly what was needed for the therapy to proceed and for healing to occur. It’s like an inner physician, or inner wisdom that many people I think, simply think of as their intuition or their creativity.
DiCarlo: Could you contrast your own experience of the lower self with the core self. What do each feel like?
Borysenko: Well, for me, when I am in that core or essential self, I feel spacious. I am not prone at that point to judge anybody or anything. My heart and mind are both open, which makes me a lot more perceptive as a scientist and psychologist. It makes me happy. My whole body feels relaxed, at ease, at peace. I feel a sense of unity with something greater than myself. A feeling of connectedness. For me, that experience always brings forth a tremendous sense of gratitude. The recognition that life is a tremendous mystery and a tremendous gift and that we are most fortunate to be living it.
I think everybody probably has that experience several times a day, but it might pass by very, very quickly and we just don’t notice it. It happens every time you become present in the moment. Maybe it happens when you are looking out your window at the rising sun and for a moment you forget your fears and concerns and obligations, and are fully present to the rising sun. Perhaps it happens when you are around small children. There are so many moments when a child will just erupt with such laughter or such joy that you will just find yourself pulled into the moment. That’s when you are in touch with that essential core.
The rest of the time it’s easy to tell when we are in touch with the persona or the ego. That’s when we feel closed down in some way. That’s when we are judging. That’s when we don’t feel spacious. That’s when we feel worried by something or are fearful.
DiCarlo: Do you feel that at this time in our collective history, it’s important that we come into a recognition of this aspect of ourselves?
Borysenko: Not only is it important, it is inevitable. This part of ourselves is being spoken of in so many different ways. Take for example, the people who have near death experiences and who talk about experiencing some purity within themselves, some wisdom within themselves. They come back and interest other people. What is this all about? What is this light experience within us?
Also, if people are connected to that part of themselves, then that is one way that healing will occur within our community and within our world. Our individual communities are going to have violence to the extent that we fear one another, to the extent that we judge one another and to the extent that we are unforgiving. There are going to be difficulties of every sort, from schools that are not nurturing our children, to corporations which take advantage of the public, to the war machine which is ever active. I think the hope of the world is truly in recognizing this oldest, oldest spiritual principle that exists within each of us. Then, you end up with a whole different paradigm and way of viewing the world. This world view is exemplified by the Dali Lama and how he felt about the holocaust in Tibet. He wasn’t in the old paradigm of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. Instead, he practiced a form of loving kindness and compassion towards the Chinese. Every time he thinks of them, he tries to think of their pain and what he returns to them is his peace and blessing. We could stop war instantly–instantly–if people could do that.
DiCarlo: In your work you talk about the three stages of courage: willful, psychological, and spiritual. Could you explain their significance?
Borysenko: Sure. First of all, it’s very important to have some sense of courage if we are to effectively deal with life. Without courage, when faced with difficulty we would just fold. But there are three stages, three types of courage. In “Fire in The Soul” I talked about my mom who had quite a bit of willful courage. That is, she could rise to any occasion, and do whatever needed to be done next. She could just “keep on truck’n” and go through it without looking forward, and without looking back, and without necessarily enquiring into the meaning of anything. She just said, “this is where I am right now, this is what I am supposed to do, and I’ll do it no matter what.” That will take you pretty far in life, but you can get a little bit further if you enlarge the idea of courage beyond the plain old will to keep on going.
Psychological courage, the second type of courage, comes from self-awareness. For example, there is a book out there that essentially says, feel the fear but do it anyway. Oftentimes, that’s what we have to do in this life. You can do that through either through willful courage–“feel the fear and do it anyway”–or through psychological courage, where you enquire into the origins of that fear. You look and see what the fear has to teach you. Through that, you become a lot wiser and your heart tends to open. You develop compassion. And so that’s a broader form of courage.
The third type of courage, spiritual courage, comes from having a higher perspective on the whole situation. From a psychological point of view, we can look at who copes well when under duress and we say they are stress hardy. They are optimistic. They look at change as a challenge. But when we look at it from an even a broader view of spirituality, that’s when we reach a whole new level of transformation. I want to borrow a line from Ram Dass, who once said, “we have a choice in either viewing ourselves as human beings who might have an occasional spiritual experience or viewing ourselves as spiritual beings who happen to be having a human experience.” That is the viewpoint of spiritual courage. It reveals itself when you have contemplated the meaning of life, and have come to the point where you recognize that no matter how difficult, no matter how painful, no matter how non-sensical something may seem to be, that there is a higher form of meaning involved. It is the faith that though our perceptions may be clouded, on another level of experience, things make sense and that the universe is a friendly place.
DiCarlo: The pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow was noted for his emphasis upon our higher possibilities and potential as opposed to the prevailing fixation within the psychological profession on emotional and mental illness that you mentioned earlier. The people whom he studied were able to bring out and express their latent potential and wholeness and he referred to as being “self-actualizing.” Many understand a self-actualizer as being a better performing human being, displaying a multitude of talents and abilities. Is there more to the story?
Borysenko: It’s interesting…I think we have to be very, very careful when we talk about self-actualization because everybody has a slightly different idea about what a truly creative human being is. For me, a truly creative human being is one who has gotten some sense of what their unique gift is and is using that gift. The gifts vary. The gift of one self-actualizing person may be that they are extremely nurturing and their gift is to mother. Sometimes in this particular society we look at someone who has made the choice to mother and we say, “Oh my, poor thing. She hasn’t actualized her potential–shes just being a mother.” So I think one of the first things we have to do is take the blinders off our eyes and let people be who they are and to recognize that self-actualization has to do with being who you are. It’s not about being a perfect person in some way. One self-actualized person may in fact be highly creative in one area, and yet still have blindspots in another. They are not “perfect”. What they are able to do is say, “I see I have this blindspot or that blindspot. I’ll try to deal with it as well as I can, but it is part of who I am at this time.” So I would say that a self-actualized person has a degree of self-awareness and has become spacious enough that they can accept the pairs of opposites that they are. They can accept that they are great in some areas, but maybe not so great in others, and that’s OK.
DiCarlo: So they would to some degree be in touch with their inner core?
Borysenko: Oh, yes. Without being in touch with your inner core at some level, you don’t have enough of a feeling of spaciousness to become who you are.
DiCarlo: I suppose that the opposite of being whole and self-actualizing is to be fragmented…When we say someone is fragmented, what do we mean?
Borysenko: When somebody is fragmented it means that they have become identified with one aspect of themselves and have closed off other aspects. Much like an individual with multiple personality disorder has different alters or personalities, we all have different subpersonalities. This is the theory called Psychosynthesis, created by the Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli. For example, many people have the subpersonality called the victim. They grew up in an abusive home or an alcoholic home and they might have a variety of subpersonalities. There might be the hero, or the mother or the teacher. All are different aspects of themselves, and they go from subpersonality to subpersonality rather unthinkingly. Somebody who is used to being in a victim subpersonality most of the time and doesn’t have much conscious awareness of it, will tend to associate–because it is behaviorally familiar–with other victims who then support one another in their sorrows. Or a person might associate with the subpersonality of being an aggressor, because they are used to that. Or if they are used to being victimized, they may associate or marry people whom they can rescue because that is their best way to get out of that victim sense of self.
When this happens, other aspects of a person are blocked from awareness because the person has become so identified with one aspect, one fragment of themselves. So this is what we would call being fragmented. A person who is aware of their different subpersonalities, aware that “yes, I have all of this within me” is more spacious. So when this comes up, instead of necessarily feeling like a victim, they can see the old feelings and that part of themselves might rise to the occasion but they can also make the choice to respond from a larger aspect of self and not fall back into the same holes. So a person who is integrated has far more choice. They are more flexible and they are more creative. To the extent that they have become more whole, they will tend to respond to people and situations with more kindness and love.
DiCarlo: Would this integrated person, this whole person, be balanced in mind, body and spirit?
Borysenko: Well, in balance generally, but I think we can also go overboard with this because there’s a sense that once you are “on the road to self-actualizing” you are going to be an idealized human being who is not going to fall into periods of depression, jealousy, anger or anything else. I think people need to give up these limiting ideas up and realize that these so-called negative states are all part and parcel of being human. But as you begin to recognize these negative emotional states sooner, you begin to realize that you have some choice. All emotions that come up in someway serve the realization of our wholeness. But you must be willing to pay attention, accept the message and not get stuck there. So wholeness, once again, is not about perfection. Its about awareness and choice.
DiCarlo: You state in your book that the number one affliction of those of us in American Society is a sense of unworthiness, which perhaps causes us to disconnect with this inner core that you speak of. Why is low self-esteem so prevailent on our society?
Borysenko: To discover the reason for this prevailing sense of unworthiness, you need look no further than the media. From the time we are children, we are sold a bill of goods about what it is to be a worthy person in our society and it has everything to do with money and looks. Most people don’t have that much money and they don’t look like models. You can see this preoccupation begin to take root as little children, when little girls five and six years old begin to look in the mirror and say, “I’m too fat” or “my nose is too big”. What a sad thing to measure our value and worth as human beings by. We have a very injurious society that sets people up for a good deal of self-judgement. We have a very injurious society in terms of defining the value of a life well lived. If we could define the value of a life well lived in terms of a person who develops some compassion, caring and a strong community–a community of people who help one another–and if we determined that a truly fine human being is one who has let go of judgements, and helps others, self-esteem would be a lot higher because these are qualities that a person can choose to cultivate.
Our sense of low self-esteem and unworthiness can also be traced to some old, European ideas about how children were supposed to be raised. Most of us in this country are still heir to the old type of child-rearing that says, “a child should be seen and not heard” or “adults know best.” Every time a parent, with an authoritarian point of view, raises a child, self-esteem will be low because the child never quite measures up. In some way you are being told what’s wrong instead of what’s right. There has been a great deal written about changing modes of child-rearing. That has everything to do with self-esteem. The more authoritarian the parent, the lower the self-esteem of the child.
DiCarlo: Do the roots of our unworthiness also trace back to traumas that may have been suffered during this lifetime or others?
Borysenko: Sure, it has to do with lots of different things. In “Guilt is The Teacher, Love is the Lesson” which was my second book, I discussed child development, self-esteem and experiences of shame–whether we were shamed by a parent or shamed by a teacher or shamed by peers–at length. It turns out that shame is the master emotion, and that as soon as you feel shame, which is the feeling that you are so unworthy that you wish a hole would open up in the ground and swallow you, it brings with it other negative emotions. Shame is the master emotion.
Kids who have had very shameful experiences carry the wounds of those throughout their whole lifetime. Oftentimes they are associated with school experiences, where an unthinking teacher shamed a kid in front of their peers. Some people who have had parochial school education may have had many positive experiences, but many people are beginning to step forward and say, “Gee, I was beaten by the nuns.” One little girl I know peed on the floor in front of the other students when she was shamed by a nun. She never got over the experience.
Throughout our lives have these kind of experiences and we have got to know how to integrate them. And I don’t think the wholeness of who we are is limited to just this lifetime. Who knows? Every parent will tell you that their child has a personality that they noticed from the time their child was just a few months old. Beyond the nature-nurture controversy–“is it in our genetics or is it in the way we were brought up?”–there are personal differences that go beyond that explanation and which are most likely soul experiences, soul residue. Old patterns that we bring in, whether from past lifetimes, or parallel realities, who knows? That’s all within what I would call the purview of the sacred mystery.
DiCarlo: In a recent conversation with noted Biofeedback researcher, Dr. Elmer Green, he stated that he accepts the yogic description of the real constitution of the human being( ie. etheric, emotional, mental energy fields? In your view, are these energy fields metaphorical or are they real?
Borysenko: I think they are real. They clearly correspond to levels that people, such as the eastern yogis, have noticed in meditation. They have noticed that when they learn to control their energies fields to certain degrees, they develop different abilities, such as the yogic ability to leave the body, or to bi-locate and be present at two different places at once. Elmer Green has studied yogis who can stop their heart, or control blood flow to certain aspects of the body. These yogis are true mind-body researchers in terms of understanding those different aspects of their subtle energy field.
Modern medicine cannot begin to explore that yet because there are no widely accepted measuring instruments that measure subtle energy fields. There have been many attempts to do that, but as of yet the technology simply doesn’t exist. From the point of view of medical science, all we can say is, “there is something to acupuncture which has to do with a system of subtle energy which runs through some tributary-like system that those in the east call meridians. When this energy is effected by acupuncture needles, then certain things happen that we can measure. But we can only say that something is going without saying what. Perhaps in the next decade or two we’ll be able to find out more than that, but right now we simply don’t have the ability.
DiCarlo: I am very struck by your boldness in articulating a world-view that conflicts with that of many people in our society. You touch upon seemingly taboo subjects–the soul, reincarnation, the human energy system, spirit guides and angels. What has been the reaction from those in the mainstream?
Borysenko: It’s a fascinating thing for me to think about. On the one hand, perhaps I don’t meet the mainstream that much. I have the sense that the physicians and psychologists who come to my workshops and speaking engagements are the ones who are more curious. So I don’t know if I can truthfully answer that question other than to say that what we think of as the mainstream is certainly interested in much of these same topics these days. If you look at the best-seller list, you see books which delve into these subjects at the top of the list for a long time. There is certainly a tremendous interest in angels. What a resurgence. There was a cover story on angels in both Time and Newsweek recently. Even though what I am talking about may not be “mainstream” in terms of traditional psychology or traditional medicine, I think that it strikes a chord that most human beings wish to become more aware of.
DiCarlo: How would you react to those skeptical about the multi-dimensional aspects of reality that you describe?
Borysenko: I have very little response to the skeptics. Someone once told me this story that stuck in my mind when I was a medical scientist, and that was, that a battery of scientists can get together and tell you about all the scientific proof for the fact that bananas are bitter. But all you have to do is taste one once to realize that there is this whole other aspect to bananas. I think it’s the same with skeptics. They are not reached by intellectual arguments, but by being touched in some way by the sacred.
That can happen to people in a number of ways. The way that it often happens to people is when their usual, “the way that things are” reality is cracked by coming across a period of crisis or suffering and then having to delve very deeply into the questions, “why me?” “who am I?” and “what’s a life well lived?” That is the time when people often re-think these things. To put it in simple terms, “there aren’t any atheists in foxholes.”
Excerpted from the book Towards A New World View: Conversations At The Leading Edge with Russell E. DiCarlo. The 377-page book features new and inspiring interviews with 27 paradigm pioneers in the fields of medicine, psychology, economics, business, religion, science, education and human potential. Featuring: Willis Harman, Matthew Fox, Joan Boysenko, George Leonard, Gary Zukav, Robert Monroe, Hazel Henderson, Fred Alan Wolf, Peter Senge, Jacquelyn Small, Elmer Green, Larry Dossey, Carolyn Myss, Stan Grof, Rich Tarnas, Marilyn Ferguson, Marsha Sinetar, Dr. Raymond Moody, Stephen Covey and Peter Russell.
Russell E. DiCarlo is a medical writer, author, lecturer and workshop leader who’s focus is on personal transformation, consciousness research and the fields of energy and anti-aging medicine. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Definitive Guide To Anti-Aging Medicine” (1998, Future Medicine Publishing). DiCarlo resides in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Copyright 1996. Epic Publishing. All Rights Reserved.