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Dr. Bernie Siegel on Healthier Living
Bernie Siegel, M.D., is one of the world’s foremost physicians, authors, motivational speakers and advocates for individuals facing the challenges of chronic illness. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he attended Colgate University and Cornell University Medical College, where he graduated with honors. He underwent surgical training at Yale New Haven Hospital, West Haven Veterans Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. In 1989, he retired from the practice of general and pediatric surgery to travel around the world, speaking to patients and their caregivers. He went on to publish nine books, including Love, Medicine & Miracles: Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience With Exceptional Patients, How to Live between Office Visits: A Guide to Life, Love and Health and his most recent parenting book, Love, Magic & Mud Pies: Raising Your Kids to Feel Loved, Be Kind, and Make a Difference. In this interview, Siegel talks about the spiritual and emotional aspects of living healthier.
What’s your definition of “living healthier?”
It has nothing to do with body; it’s all about state of mind. Look at Helen Keller—was she healthy? A quadriplegic—is he healthy? It’s about the person and his or her attitude toward life. Animals and children understand this: They’re here to love and be loved and teach us a few things. They’re not living a role. When you live an authentic life, you’re healthy.
What prevents people from being authentic and being healthier?
Parenting is the number one health issue today, then the education system and religion. If you grow up loved, the likelihood is that you’ll be less self-destructive. When you grow up with empowering messages, it’s a different approach versus hearing “There’s something wrong with you” or “I’m embarrassed by you.” When you grow up with love, you care about and for yourself.
Information doesn’t help anybody, unless you have inspiration and desire. If you’re a drug addict or alcoholic, you’re not stupid—you know it’s not good for you. What’s missing is inspiration, love and self-esteem.
What’s the biggest cause of the obesity epidemic?
Obesity is an addiction. People want to feel good so they eat. They think, “I’ll reward myself because my parents never did.” This has gotten worse because of what’s happened to families and connections. What keeps us alive is connection and we’re losing this through television sets and automated phones with no human being on the other end. When you get so disconnected, it’s hard to be healthy. Years ago, kids were in the street playing games. You had family around you. You did things. Now everything is mechanized and depersonalized. If people feel loved, they’ll eat healthy food, exercise, move and do things together.
When someone comes to you with a serious health challenge, what’s the first thing you do?
My first statement is always “How may I help you?” not “How can I treat you? What are your complaints? Do your eyes hurt? What diseases did your father/mother have?” Most doctors, when they’re done seeing their patients, never ask, “How can I help? What’s bothering you? What are you experiencing?” If it’s just clinical, it never helps them. There’s an ad in The New England Journal of Medicine where a guy says, “I’m stressed. I couldn’t cope. I went to the doctor and said ‘You have to help me,’ so he prescribed an antidepressant. Now my life is better.” This is an ad! How about putting in “Why are you stressed?” What if my family was killed in airplane crash? Would you prescribe an antidepressant?
If you say “What are you experiencing,” the answer is always about their life and what got them sick. What’s draining, sucking and blocking them? You must get them back into their feelings and who they are. I want you to reclaim your life.
In order to start living healthier, what three specific things would you tell people to do?
1. Improve self-esteem and self-acceptance. When people have that, they’ll naturally seek out the information that’s good for them.
2. Move. Get some exercise.
3. Let out the child in you. Develop a child-like sense of humor. Don’t be so serious and don’t grow up. I tell people to grow down, not grow up.
What do people worry about as they try to live a healthier life?
Most people feel they’re doing it wrong; they think they’re a failure and they have guilt and blame. Remember, you are a blank canvas. You are a work in progress. If you have a day when you don’t do everything right, then forgive yourself. When I wrote my books, I was amazed to get letters that said, “You said in your book to do imagery four times a day and I only did it three times a day; now I feel worse.” It amazed me that guilt was so intrinsic for so many people. So I tend to not say, “Eat this; do this.” If they can develop self-esteem and self-worth, they’ll go figure out how to eat and exercise. The more work you give people, the tougher it is for them.
You are a blank canvas. You can change it tomorrow. It’s all about rehearsing and practicing. How much practicing and rehearsing you do will determine how quickly you will get there.
What are some specific steps people can take to develop their self-esteem and self-worth?
You can literally put your baby pictures around the house. Also, put mirrors around your house. Don’t hide: love and accept yourself.
Put mottos and messages around the house. For example, I painted a photo of my parents and I walk pass it every day. It keeps me focused. Beneath it is a sign that says, “Enjoy yourself; it’s later than you think.” Every time I walk by, I’m getting a treatment.
Another way is to act as if you’re your grandparents. By the time we’re grandparents, we’re more accepting and loving. Treat yourself like a loving grandparent.
What beliefs support you during times of change?
I see life as a labor pain. Change is about rebirthing yourself. God is redirecting you. A curse can become a blessing. You can say, “I have cancer” or “My wife left me and let’s see what comes of it. I’m not afraid of it.”
If you ask “What got you through difficult, life-threatening times?” to people who overcame addictions, had cancer or fought in a war, their answers will all sound alike. They talk about not judging people, not making excuses and doing the difficult, correct thing instead of the easy, wrong thing. It’s how you’re going to survive: You form a community, you work together and you survive. These lessons are out there; go out and learn them before a life-threatening situation occurs.
What advice would you give someone who wants to make a change?
Build your life out of the bricks of love. The bricks are held together through humor, which will get you through the most difficult times. Remember, change is inevitable. I often say, “Either change your life or your attitude—one or the other.” Either stay in the same situation and decide to love and be happy, or change the situation. How do you know when to change or be more loving? If a relationship is affecting your health in a negative way, eliminate it from your life. Leave and love the people from a distance. But if it’s not affecting your health, then bring love into the situation and see what’s done. Love is an incredible weapon.
For more information about Dr. Bernie Siegel, visit www.berniesiegelmd.com.