Joan Borysenko was trained at Harvard Medical School, holds a PhD in medical sciences, and is a licensed psychologist. She cofounded the country’s first mind/body clinic at Harvard, has written more than a dozen books, and has lectured extensively about body, mind, and soul. Borysenko will deliver a Mind and Supermind lecture at the Lobero Theatre on Monday, June 1. Her talk is titled “Saying Yes to Change: Following the Wisdom of the Heart .” She spoke to me by phone.
When did you begin to think about how people deal with change?
For the first part of my career I was a cancer cell biologist. Then my beloved father developed cancer. I realized I knew a lot about cancer cells, but I didn’t know anything about people with cancer. They put my father on a drug that created such terrible mood changes that he didn’t want to live anymore. His cells were doing well because of the drug, but he lost his will to live and committed suicide. My mother’s response was to become depressed and be a hermit for the rest of her life. I thought to myself, “Why do some people, when they face change, re-create their lives and come out stronger than before? And why do some people end up like my mother and my father?” I changed course and became licensed as a clinical psychologist.
Why do some people handle change better than others?
What I saw right away was that people who did not do well with change tended to see themselves as victims. I recognized that the most important thing was to get beyond that victim mentality and to see change as a rite of passage, as an initiation. The old world is gone and the new world has not yet come, but what you do during this time of no-longer-but-not-yet can completely change your life and the lives of those around you.
Why should I say yes to change rather than deepening my relationship with what is already present in my life?
Saying yes to change is truly about deepening your relationship to whatever is present in your life. I would say the biggest problem people have is that most of us are not present to life. When we are willing to be present, we deepen our relationship with what is. It means when the river turns we notice and turn with it, because, as the old saying says, if you don’t, you end up on dry land.
How can people face change more effectively?
Resilient people face the facts. They look at things and recognize that there is a choice. You need to face the facts and then be able to calm yourself down. What you also need is essentially a right-brain skill. It’s counterintuitive, but when you are trying to figure out what the right path is and what to do next, you need to give the left brain and all of its logic a bit of a rest and go walking in nature, take some time to be still, to read something inspiring, to meditate. This allows your right brain to see the larger pattern, to synthesize the various possibilities, and then suddenly insights can occur. The most important thing is to be able to notice what’s going on with you. Are you being driven by fear? Do you have a sense that this path feels good? Those kinds of basic skills of mindfulness, of being aware of your body, help you to find the right direction.
You started out as a medical scientist. When did you become interested in matters of the soul and the heart?
It’s the opposite of what most people think. When I was ten I developed a very serious mental illness. I became psychotic. I was hallucinating frightening things. I then developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that helped me manage the psychotic fear. I had a very hard time for several months. I lived in the most primitive landscape of fear and terror that I could possibly imagine. Then one day I did what many people do when life gets really hard even if they’re not religious – and I was not at all religious at that time – I prayed. I had an experience for which I had no context. I can tell you as an adult that it was an experience of cosmic consciousness, where the fear just melted away and suddenly I felt like I was being held by something that was completely beyond words and I was being cared for. I had a flash of insight and knew I could recover from the illness, and I knew exactly how to go about doing that. Within three days, the psychosis and OCD were gone. This left me with some big questions, like, “What is the mind? Is it the brain? Or is consciousness something larger and the brain more like a television that receives a signal from beyond itself?” As a child I said, “This must be whatever people call God.” So you can say this all started when I was ten and that I’ve been doing this for fifty-odd years since then.
Any final thoughts?
Our world is in a very delicate position. What’s different now is the variety of problems and the fact that we are, for better or worse, a global community. We’re at a point where the attitude and actions of each one of us makes a difference to the whole. When enough people bring the wisdom of the heart – the wisdom of compassion – and the wisdom of the head to bear on these problems, I think we can create a shift toward a higher global order and a more resilient global community. Probably the most important thing for our health and happiness is a sense of deep connection with other people: the ability to stop thinking about ourselves and expand our circle of concern to others, maybe even to the whole world.
Joan Borysenko will speak at the Lobero Theatre on Monday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m. To register to attend, call 687-0812 x0 or visit sbcc.edu/adulted.