Marc Bekoff says the world’s future turns on ‘Rewilding Our Hearts’

Cover of Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

If you recognize Marc Bekoff’s name then you probably know he’s the scientist who voraciously collects news stories about animal life around the planet—especially research into the psychology and sociology of animals—and then spreads that news through his popular online columns and occasional books. ReadTheSpirit has featured many stories about his work over the years, including this interview about his book Animal Manifesto and this more recent interview about his book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.

Most Bekoff books fill us with so much gee-whiz news about animals that we are eager to share the stories over coffee or dinner with friends—which is precisely Marc’s intention in publishing them.

So, there’s a big difference in tone when you begin reading his latest book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.

This is a short book with a big message. It may remind readers of the work of environmental activist and author James Gustave Speth, who shows up in many forms of media these days, including National Public Radio. Speth is a secularist with little personal interest in religion and yet he closes his eloquent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, with this surprising admission: “I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”

Essentially, that’s the departure point for Bekoff’s new book. How do we kick off the “spiritual and cultural transformation” that Speth and many others say we need to save our planet? Bekoff says we can start simply with daily steps to reconnect our consciousness with all living things on the planet—especially all forms of animal life from pets to the world’s wildest creatures. This expansion of our daily awareness, Bekoff argues, will bring with it a deeper compassion for animals (other humans and also non-human animals). If we can increase the world’s compassion—step by step in one life after another—then we have a chance to save Earth from a host of ecological dangers.

“Rewilding our hearts is about becoming reenchanted with nature,” Bekoff writes in his opening pages. “It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism. … It means thinking of others and allowing their needs and perspectives to influence our own.”

If you think of “wild” as dangerous and predatory, then you are already missing Bekoff’s startlingly hope-filled message. After decades of studying the science of consciousness, psychology and sociology in the world’s animal populations, Bekoff believes strongly that sustainable coexistence really is possible in our world. We don’t have to collapse into an apocalyptic state of savagery because of global warming and other looming ecological disasters. We don’t have to turn the world into a Hunger Games horror story. And in making this claim, Bekoff lines himself up with the likes of Speth and also the teachings of Pope Francis, as well. (You’ll enjoy reading Marc Bekoff’s sidebar to this interview in which he explores Francis’s recent off-the-cuff statement about animals.)

Want something fresh and hopeful, inspiring and also very practical, to read in this New Year of 2015? Order a copy of Rewilding Our Hearts right now. Bekoff closes the book by selling his argument on the basis of his own experience. He has drawn thousands of readers to his work, all around the world, and the reason we keep returning to his columns and books is this: He’s so darned hopeful about our future!

He writes: I have often wondered why I haven’t burned out despite many decades as an activist working for other animals. The reason, I have come to realize, is that I’m constantly rewilding. Every day I connect with nature and the animals around my home, and I hold to the unwavering belief that I’m doing some good in the world. I work really hard on a lot of “ugly stuff,” but I nurture the resilience to keep at it by making sure my life is balanced: I’ve learned how to “get away from it all” for a while and return fully recharged. I believe in what I do, even if there isn’t a gold star at the end of that day. Indeed, I may not live to see the fruits of my labor, but that’s just fine.

Isn’t this an intriguing fellow? Consider inviting friends to read this book and discuss it with you.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Marc Bekoff. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVEW
WITH MARC BEKOFF ABOUT
‘REWILDING OUR HEARTS’

Marc Bekoff and a friend.

Marc Bekoff and a friend.

DAVID: Americans are deeply divided on climate change: whether our climate really is changing, whether human activity is causing it, and whether we should enact legal limits to curb its effects. University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker has reported on these divisions in his OurValues project. What’s your sense, Marc, of why we are so divided on an issue that most scientists tell us is settled by the data?

MARC: Mainly, a lot of people are unaware of the science. Americans lead very busy lives and don’t have time to follow the latest news in science.

We also have this incredible ability to look at something that is staring us in the face, actually impacting our senses, and we deny that it’s there either because we don’t want to believe it’s there—or we don’t believe the data. Some political groups have complicated the problem by telling people that this is a political issue. It’s not. It’s really a-political.

My new book is really an attempt to get people to reconnect with themselves, slow down, pay attention to what is happening and realize these challenges we are facing really are a-political. We’re all affected by this. We can’t put reality aside simply because we heard this from a Right-Winger or that from a Left-Winger.

DAVID: Your central point—that we need to “rewild” or reconnect ourselves with the larger natural world—suggests that we have lost that connection.

‘THIS IS EASY TO DO …’

MARC: We become unwilded due to education and lifestyle and the busy kinds of lives we lead. What I’m trying to show people is that it’s good for them and good for the world to become reconnected and re-enchanted with nature and other animals.

I stress in the book that this is easy to do. You don’t have to be so rich that you can fund an entire movement. Even if you live in New York City, you can rewild in the middle of Central Park as I’ve done just going into the park, for example, and watching the squirrels and the birds. My message in this book is multilayered, but we can start to rewild our hearts with simple steps that reconnect us to nature and other animals.

DAVID: When I read your book, I thought of the work in recent years by E.O. Wilson and James Gustave Speth. Let me use Speth as an example—he’s certainly not a religious leader and in fact he is a secularist in his personal life. Yet, Speth says: Science is not enough. We’ve got to change hearts.

MARC: When I say that science is not enough, you have to remember that I love science. I’ve spent years studying the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. I write about science all the time. What I mean is that science is not going to make us more compassionate. So, rewilding is a personal transition, a spiritual transformation. By rewilding we will encounter feelings that some of us may never have had. It’s those feelings that can reinforce the need to make change and motivate action.

DAVID: This idea of each person doing a little bit each day sounds good, although I’m sure critics will complain it’s too little too late. I think that a lot of our readers from various religious and cultural backgrounds will agree with you. I am continually surprised by news reports that show incremental changes growing into huge movements. National Public Radio recently reported about the trend toward removing the grassy lawns that take so much water in dry regions of the U.S. That started with just a handful of people and now it’s transforming millions of acres and is saving lots of water.

‘HOW OFTEN DO YOU GO OUT FOR A WALK?’

MARC: That’s right. Maybe more people will realize that a green lawn is nice but it’s too costly in the resources it takes to sustain that. Many people around the world still love ivory jewelry—so we still need to reach a point where people realize that the price of ivory’s beauty is the slaughter of elephants as a species.

The problem is that we treat our own homes better than we treat the earth as a home. What I’m talking about is the process of coming to realize that the earth is our home.

Ask yourself: How often do you go out for a walk? How often do you look at the plants and animals where you live?

Those are very small ways you can begin this process. Set a little time aside at lunch for a walk. If you’ve got a dog, take your dog along as your companion and pay attention to what interests the dog as you walk. (He laughs.) If you don’t have a dog, then take your cat! Seriously, some people do walk their cats. Try it!

There are lots of small changes you can make right now: Do you have an errand you need to run this week? If it’s less than a mile away, try walking. I keep a backpack always ready with anything I might need for a walk or a ride on my bike. Plan ahead and make it easy to spend time outside.

I’m not against technology. I use my computer and iPhone a lot. But I also take time to set them aside during the day.

WATCHING THE SQUIRRELS

DAVID: As I read your book, I thought of something my son Benjamin started a year or so ago. He put a bird-identification book and a pad of paper near the big window at the back of our house and he challenged us to write down which birds we spotted right in our back yard. Very simple. Our backyard is quite small—but we’re now much more aware of the diversity of birds out there.

MARC: Yes, I love that idea! I’m writing it down right now so I can share that idea with others. As I’m thinking about that, you could also start a list of the kinds of flowers you can spot in your regular walk through your neighborhood. Or, here’s another one: If you regularly pass a stream or river, make a note each day about the water level and the state of the stream—make a list of plants you see growing there each year.

The whole point of this is to learn about the many cycles going on around us all the time. If you live in an apartment in New York City, go watch the animals in Central Park. I do that.

One day I was in Central Park, watching some squirrels and this family came upon me and the mother asked what I was doing.

I said, “I’m watching squirrels.”

And the mother said, “But they’re just squirrels!”

And I said, “No they interrelate to each other. They play. Their families relate to each other.”

And what happened? The mother’s children very quickly got enchanted with this idea and began paying attention to the squirrels.

BIOPHILIC CITIES

DAVID: There’s a lot more readers will discover in this book. Let me just take one example from the middle of the book: Biophilic Cities, in other words cities that are friendly to a diversity of natural life. First, you cite a study by cognitive researchers on the beneficial effects of simply living near a park; they document lower levels of “mental distress” if you happen to live near a park.

Then, you give examples of projects that some people are undertaking right now to make their cities more “biophilic.” The goal, you explain, is to make sure that our urban landscapes “include more natural areas and take practical measures to protect wildlife from human impacts.”

MARC: This plays off the idea that biophilia is in our genes—we’re born with an attraction to nature. We need to make our cities more attractive to people, to be more like Mother Nature. Again, I’m calling attention to practical ways we can make changes where we live and then it will be easier to “rewild” ourselves and feel an even greater connection to the other animals and the flora around us.

There are so many things that can be done. We need to stop building buildings that mask sounds or that set up reflections so that animals are unable to navigate properly. We keep building too many buildings that cause birds to crash. We lose a lot of animals every day because of the thoughtless way we build skyscrapers.

DAVID: Some cities are getting this right—and attracting residents who care about these things. You mention projects in Vancouver, Chicago and Amsterdam.

MARC: Look at Amsterdam. The city actually has corridors where it’s easy for birds and animals to move through the city and also for people to sit down and appreciate nature. Central Park in New York is a good example, too.

DAVID: Readers who are curious about the ideas you are describing don’t have to simply take your word for it. Like your earlier books, you devote a lot of space—almost 30 pages—to detailed notes so your readers can find out more information about the many topics you cover. You list books, web sites and specific articles.

MARC: Thank you for mentioning that. I’m really proud of the fact that as a scientist, I write about topics that most scientists don’t write about. I’m very careful in noting my sources. People may criticize the idea of rewilding—and critics may say it’s a little bit of a fluffy idea—but I’ve never been criticized for my science. I’m absolutely solid on my scientific sources and I always cite those sources. I want people to know that my claims are credible and it’s important for them to be able to follow my notes if they want to read further.

DAVID: You’re hoping readers will be moved to action, right?

MARC: Yes, rewilding is possible. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s a personal journey. It’s contagious. I like to think of “rewilding” as a meme that will spread.

If someone gets involved in rewilding and, because this feels good to them, they wind up doing something great for the world—then so be it. I’m happy.

DAVID: Let me close with a question about Pope Francis’s recent off-hand comment that our pets may one day be in heaven with us. He isn’t the first Catholic leader to say such a thing, of course. Pope John Paul II made some similar comments, but the fact is: Most people around the world thought it was a surprising thing to hear from the pope. That story went viral. What do you think? Is the pope rewilding?

MARC: I’ll have to think about that. Let me write something about this, after I’ve studied it more.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsNatural World

The Robert J. Wicks interview on restoring ‘Perspective’

Cover of Perspective by Dr Robert J Wicks

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Millions of souls are in trauma this week. Headlines are heralding: Deadly fighting in the Middle East, Ukrainian troops battling separatists, a mass shooting in another American community, militias killing innocents in Africa. And, next week? Tragically, the headlines will replace these locations with others.

Here is help: Psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks is known around the world for helping to restore lives traumatized by such conflicts. He has served in the wake of massive tragedies, such as conflicts that swept across Rwanda and Cambodia. He regularly helps aid workers, medical professionals as well as men and women serving in the U.S. military.

But, this week, as we prepared the text of this interview about his new book, Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm, the author Debra Darvick reminded us of a fresh viewpoint on his work. In her review of the new book, Debra writes from the perspective of a nearly overwhelmed young mother in a typical American home, crying out: “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Alas! Perspective is more elusive than ever. In 2014, most of us assume that our powerful global media network allows us to look into any event anywhere. Not too many years ago, Americans were hard pressed to find any news reports out of Africa. Today, Americans can tap on our smartphones to zoom into Africa and—in just one example—we can choose from hundreds of news reports on the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

But our access to information is not the same as … perspective. In fact, psychologist Dr. David Myers writes this week that many of our daily choices about who we choose to associate with can wind up contributing to a loss of perspective. Myers’ column examines tragic divisions within Islam—but the four principles he outlines can help all of us bridge divisions.

In this time of crisis, we need new perspectives. This summer, Dr. Robert J. Wicks is holding out his hand and offering a small volume that shows a girl on the cover standing on a shoreline. Look at the book’s cover for a moment. Is that girl enjoying a vacation? Or, is she contemplating suicide? Is she a rich American teenager at her family’s summer home? Or, is she a refugee dreaming of a ship that might carry her away and save her life?

What you see in that book’s cover is all a matter of … perspective. In this new volume, Wicks isn’t playing games with readers. This book is built like a Craftsman Tool Chest, inviting you to pull out the drawers packed with the particular kinds of tools you need right now.

In her review of the new book, Debra Davick also writes, “Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors—Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Dr. Robert J. Wicks. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. ROBERT J. WICKS
ON ‘PERSPECTIVE’

DAVID: This new book brings together new insights in many fields of research—from psychology and therapy to spiritual direction—on effective ways to survive after we pass through life’s inevitable waves of suffering. I’m going to describe it as a toolbox of ideas for rediscovering a fresh, healthy and hopeful perspective on living. How is that as a summary?

Dr Robert J Wicks author of PerspectiveROBERT: Good! That’s exactly what I wanted to do with this book. The core point in the book is that it’s not the amount of darkness in the world, in your country or your family or even within your own life—it’s how we stand in the darkness. How we view something can be the pearl of great price. There are people in the world who have so little and yet they are able to focus on the world in such a way that fulfills them, and also puts them in a position to share freely with others without expecting anything in return.

DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve covered the ongoing research into Americans’ growing sense of “necessities.” The list of what we think we must have for a happy life has grown extensively over the past half a century. Your book points out that the solution to restoring a healthy perspective doesn’t involve wealth. You can’t buy “perspective.”

ROBERT: There are three illusory pathways in life. One is that we need “more.” Frequently, when people feel they need more, they go out and get more—but then they simply feel they need even more. It’s an illusory pathway.

Others may think they need something “different,” but once they get that different thing—it quickly begins to feel the same. Still others wait for “perfect” to come along. And while they are waiting for this illusory perfection, they allow life to pass them by.

Rather than those three dead ends, I ask people to look at what they already have and how they can access it even more. In doing that, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get something more or something different or something better than what they have right now, but I am saying that the real question for each of us is: How do we access what we already have in ways that will deepen our lives?

DAVID: You describe many kinds of trauma in your book: death of a loved one, cancer, destructive storms, financial disaster, war, abuse and chronic pain. As I finished your book, I understood you to be saying: Some form of serious suffering will come to each of us and, broadly speaking, whatever you are suffering—there are some general principles that can keep our minds and spirits clear and functioning in healthy, hopeful ways.

ROBERT: Yes. What happens is that we think of life as acute. We’re facing one difficult thing right now and we want to solve that problem in front of us. If we face that problem, we may be able to solve it, and then we think that we’re fine. That’s if we think of life as acute.

But spirituality and now psychology remind us that life is chronic. We will always have peaks and valleys, some higher and some lower. It’s what we do with the chronic ups and downs that defines our lives.

When I think of this, I think of the contemplative Thomas Merton who one day was passing a room where he saw an old monk. Merton went in and asked how he was doing.

The old monk said, “I feel awful! I may be losing my faith.”

Merton smiled at the old fellow and said, “Courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.”

We need patience and that’s not really sold to people today. We need perseverance and we need courage. Those three elements come not just out of the air, but out of discipline. This comes from things like carefully planning to take alone time, which is one of the examples I write about in the book.

‘THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE’

DAVID: I love that Merton story and this message you’re describing is summarized on the opening page of your book, where you first mention this metaphor of “a pearl of great price.” Let me read a few lines from that page:

“When someone gains or regains a healthy sense of perspective, it feels like pure magic. The person sees more clearly and experiences greater freedom. Unforeseen possibility surfaces. New peace and joy are seeded.

“The situation hasn’t changed. Unwanted occurrences aren’t denied or minimized: Instead, they are faced and explored differently—not with unrealistic expectations or the projection of blame, harshness, or self-recrimination, but with a sense of intrigue. There is a realization that whatever ‘darkness,’ suffering, confusion, or potentially addictive attraction may be present in the moment, it is not the end of the story. It is not the last word.

“And so, having the passion and tools to continually seek out a healthier perspective is not simply a good idea. No, it is much more than that. It is actually a determining factor as to how life can be enjoyed more completely and shared more fully every minute of one’s day. Having a healthy perspective is tantamount to possessing the psychological pearl of great price.”

I think millions of Americans could find help through your new book. That especially includes Americans who have served in the armed forces—or have veterans in their families.

‘A LOT OF GHOSTS IN THIS ROOM’

ROBERT: That’s one of the major audiences for this book. I work in an ongoing way with the military. I was a Marine Corps officer myself. I recently got back from a speaking tour on four bases in England where we have stationed some U.S. Air Force personnel. I also spoke to members of NATO and to some of the people who are involved in the troubles in Africa. When I speak to these groups, it’s clear that they have gone through a lot of both acute and chronic suffering. That’s true for their families, as well. When our military personnel are deployed overseas with their families, we need to remember that we are deploying a whole family.

I remember before one speaking engagement, a colonel pulled me aside and said, “Be careful as you talk. There are a lot of ghosts in this room with us.”

One thing that has struck me: I am overwhelmed by the sense of generosity and gratitude from the military people I work with. They have a sense that, when their military service is ending, they want to integrate that service they have been providing into new ways of paying back society. I’m so glad that the president and others are encouraging Americans to hire veterans. When you hire a vet, you’re hiring experience and depth of personality.

‘WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO THINK’

DAVID: I want to ask you about a major theme in the book—to give readers of this interview a sense of the kinds of topics they’ll explore with you in these pages. I was most impressed with your section on “mindfulness.” There’s hardly a more over-used word in spirituality, these days. Yet your book does a great job of defining it in solid ways. One conclusion you draw that may surprise readers: Mindfulness is not religion.

ROBERT: No, it’s not. It’s an attitude that we almost take for granted. We assume that we’re attentive and aware in our lives—but, for most of us, that’s not true. I had the privilege of speaking to some members of the U.S. Congress and their chiefs of staff. A senator talked about the greatest challenge facing Congress today: “We don’t have enough time to think,” he said.

Mindfulness is an attitude that’s really worth trying. We have to carefully think about and find ways to take a breath each day. Maybe that’s in the shower, during a walk at lunch, in a visit to the library. This is essential, especially if you’re involved in intense work. Most people don’t stop to think about how contaminated they are every day and they’re not planning for ways to deal with that contamination.

‘YOU NEED TO DECONTAMINATE’

Wash Your Hands sign in South Korea 2013

U.S. service personnel can’t miss this sign! The huge plywood reminder was set up at Camp Baldwin in South Korea before meals. Photo by Elisandro Diaz, released for public use.

DAVID: I am struck by that word “contamination” and I think it’s a helpful word for readers to consider. So, please talk a little more about how you use that word.

ROBERT: What happens is that, during each day, we encounter a lot of thoughts, emotions and actions in our life that have a negative side to them. We can begin to feel helplessness, doubt, anger, fear, shame—a sense that there is no meaning in life. When we experience these negative thoughts, actions and emotions around us, each day, we need to do something about it so that we don’t remain stuck in them ourselves. If we do, we will carry them around with us and contaminate others.

Think about the sign in a restaurant’s washroom: “All employees must wash their hands.” Those signs hang in hospitals, too, reminding us to sanitize our hands throughout the day.

I like to take that kind of medical metaphor and apply it to the psychological and spiritual. Stop and think about how you go home after a full day of work. Think about this if you’re a caregiver—especially if you’re someone caught in the sandwich generation caring for both your children and your parents. Before you reach home after a hard day, you need to decontaminate. We need to reflect objectively on the peaks and valleys of the day and subjectively on how we reacted to those experiences. Without taking time for reflection, we just move on with our lives and we carry contamination with us as we go.

For me, mindfulness, alone time, time in reflection—these are ways to decontaminate ourselves. When I have intense interactions in my day, I always build time into my schedule so that I don’t take carry these experiences on to the next person I encounter.

‘LOVE IS REALLY AT THE HEART OF LIFE’

DAVID: Compassion is a major theme that runs throughout your book. I want to point this out to readers, because loads of popular books on spirituality and psychology are selling skills that claim to provide a selfish kind of success. Look around and you’ll see book after book promising that you’ll “win” or “make money” or achieve “success” through the techniques the author is hawking.

You’re aiming at a different goal: Compassion.

ROBERT: I believe that people lose their sense of balance, a key element in perspective, if we don’t have a sense of true compassion: giving to others and expecting nothing in return. We might call it a sense of mitzvah.

Even a lot of people who we consider to be religious aren’t really using their prayer time to be alone with God; they’re using the time to be alone with themselves or to try to get something for themselves from God. They lose the realization that they’re part of something much bigger.

Without balance in our lives, we run the danger of hedonism that masquerades as social justice. We think: I deserve this! I should get this!

A lot of publishers today aren’t interested in books that are about serving or helping the other person. They think that people will only buy books to help themselves feel better—or books that will tell them how to go out and get more. Thinking of the other person becomes a counter-cultural message. That’s why I appreciate publishing this book with Oxford, because they’re open to counter-cultural ideas like this.

When we become narcissistic and egocentric, we fail to see that a spirit of humility is key to gaining a healthy perspective. I emphasize this because, when you take knowledge and add humility, you get wisdom. And when you take that very wisdom and add compassion, it becomes love. And, love is really at the heart of life.

People who have love at the heart of their lives can maintain a healthy perspective no matter what is going on around them.

CARE TO READ MORE?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

The Mitch Horowitz interview on ‘One Simple Idea’ (Positive Thinking)

One Simple Idea by Mitch Horowitz cover

Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.

“The power of positive thinking” surrounds us so completely that most of us don’t recognize this idea as an American innovation in spirituality and psychology—or what Mitch Horowitz calls a “genuine and still-unfolding Reformation of the modern search for meaning.”

The message is everywhere we look from Disney’s “Wish upon a star,” to Reagan’s “Nothing is impossible,” Obama’s “Yes, we can,” Nike’s “Just do it.” This idea is the rocket fuel that has launched a host of celebrity brands: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Joel Osteen and many more.

So, it’s startling to realize: This idea that our thoughts can produce a better life is actually a concept developed by a crazy-quilt of men and women over the past two centuries. About 180 years ago, a man named Phineas Quimby—a talented watchmaker in Belfast, Maine—jumped from engineering time pieces to spreading European ideas that the mind can control the body’s inner mechanisms. Never heard of Phineas Quimby until this moment? In his book, Mitch argues that this absolutely fascinating man—all but forgotten today—was as influential as other major religious founders: the John Wesleys and John Smiths and Mary Baker Eddys of American religious life.

As Mitch puts it in his book, this idea of “positive thinking” was the product of “a determinedly modern” group of American men and women. “These experimenters, sometimes working together and other times in private, resolved to determine whether some mental force—divine, psychological or otherwise—exerts an invisible pull on a person’s daily life. Was there, they wondered, a ‘mind-power’ that could be harnessed to manifest outcomes?”

Welcome to Mitch Horowitz’s grand 278-page tour of this odd assortment of pioneers, prophets—and profiteers as well—who gave us one of the central pillars of American culture today: the power of positive thinking.

Who is Mitch Horowitz? He’s the head of the Tarcher-Penguin publishing house, where he produces some of the most important books on America’s and Europe’s great spiritual teachers. (Last year, we interviewed one of Tarcher’s top authors, religious historian Gary Lachman, when Tarcher published his new biography of interfaith pioneer Madame Blavatsky.) We also highly recommend Mitch’s own earlier book (currently published by Bantam), Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.

Want to see Mitch’s video? He produced a 5-minute introduction to his new book. Well worth watching!

Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Mitch about his latest book (published by Crown), One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MITCH HOROWITZ ON
‘ONE SIMPLE IDEA’

Mitch Horowitz author of One Simple Idea

Mitch Horowitz as he worked on his video promoting ‘One Simple Idea.’ Photo by Shannon Taggart, used by permission.

DAVID: In One Simple Idea, you invite readers to explore the largely untold history of the idea that screams at us from the magazine racks, every day, as we check out at the grocery store. You’re talking about the foundational idea behind celebrity coaches such as Oprah, Joel Osteen, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, right?

MITCH: Absolutely. They all are a part of this movement that I explore in the book. This idea of “the power of positive thinking” has touched every aspect of therapeutic and religious life in this country. It forms the operating instructions for every expression of self help and everything in medicine that seeks to probe a mind-body connection or the newer research that seeks to explore the placebo responses in life and health. This movement has reshaped our advertising and our political language. You can’t understand the story of how America formed itself over the past two centuries if you don’t understand the growth of this idea.

Just think for a moment about how slogans from this movement have reshaped American politics. We’ve seen the triumph of this idea in politics over the last several decades. Ronald Reagan used this so frequently: “Nothing is impossible.” People may not realize this, but if you look back: Dwight Eisenhower didn’t sound this way. Richard Nixon didn’t sound this way. Lyndon Johnson didn’t talk about the war on poverty in this way. The tenets of positive thinking changed the way presidents were expected to talk and Reagan demonstrated this so persuasively that Obama’s slogan, “Yes we can,” picked it up from him and took it further and touched people all across the nation. Remember that George H.W. Bush complained that he couldn’t get a handle on “the vision thing”—and it cost him a second term.

AN AMERICAN INNOVATION:
‘POSITIVE THINKING’

DAVID:  Your book points out, of course, that there are many mind-power threads in global culture. Some forms of this theme show up in Asian culture and, more than two centuries ago, a very specific form of the idea was spread in Europe by Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), Americans didn’t invent the idea of a mind-body connection. However, as you show us in your book, Americans took the notion that mind and body are connected, codified it with a new set of assumptions and enshrined it in our culture to an extent the world had never seen before.

MITCH: Yes, of course. There is an international component to this. There are mind-body ideas in other world cultures. And there also was a vast therapeutic movement that arose in the 19th century, involving a lot of European innovations in understanding the mind. This all rested on the idea of a practical shift in human perception and the belief that you can objectively alter your experience of life going forward.

In his era, Mesmer was very good at arriving at an early very rough estimation of the unconscious mind. He didn’t possess a vocabulary that today we would consider “correct.” For example, he talked about “animal magnetism” and he had other ideas we dismiss today. But Mesmer did do enough in his work so that others could leap into this field and build something more concrete.

What Americans built from this is distinctive and Americans have done a very good job of dispersing our positivity gospel to the rest of the world. But there are other related movements in other parts of the world.

DAVID: One example of a European thinker, in your book, is Victor Frankl, who we recently profiled.

MITCH: Frankl is an example of a 20th-century European philosopher who wrote in a related area. Frankl was forced to live through some of the most catastrophic conditions imaginable. He emerged from the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust with the idea that humans, even in the most depleted of conditions, can find some sense of meaning. One could argue that it’s unfair of me to identify Frankl as connected to the “positive thinking” movement, but we can see him as a distant branch of this movement. It shows how far this positive-thinking project ran.

DAVID: Let’s go back to the beginning, for a moment. Some of our sharp readers may do the historical math in what we’ve already said in today’s interview and they will realize that Mesmer died long before Phineas Quimby jumped from designing watches to designing mind-body connections. So, here’s the link with Mesmer: Quimby attended a program by a traveling “mesmerist”—this was a couple of decades after Mesmer himself was dead—and this brilliant Maine watchmaker was so convinced by what he heard that he pretty much dropped his previous life to leap full force into a new line of work.

I’ll wager that most of our readers have never heard of Quimby until today’s interview—and perhaps they’ll go ahead and buy your book to discover his story. Tell us just a bit more about him.

MITCH: Quimby was the classic American religious experimenter and in some respects was the grandfather of mental healing—the forerunner of positive thinking. He was a clockmaker born in New Hampshire, although he spent most of his life in Maine. He found himself suffering from tuberculosis and he had nowhere to turn, like most Americans in that era, in seeking reasonable medical care. What passed for medicine actually made things worse. Throughout much of the 19th century, health care was dominated by an almost medieval approach to medicine. Physicians still thought it was a good idea to create open wounds to drain liquids from the body. Physicians would try to flush disease out of the body by giving people various toxic substances. At first, Quimby was given a treatment of calomel, a mercury-based toxin, and he wound up suffering from mercury poisoning. The poor man was losing teeth.

Quimby was faced with a crisis of suffering that was made worse at the hands of the professionals who were supposed to be helping him. Then, one day, he took a raucous carriage ride through the countryside and he found that the excitement of this ride improved his spirits and he also found some relief from his symptoms for a while. He began to wonder about this effect. He wrote, “Man’s happiness is in his belief.” He became quite interested in mesmerism and the connections between the mind and body. He began using prayers that today we would call affirmations and visualizations as a healing regimen. He began in the early 1840s treating people with disorders that had resisted medical treatments or had grown worse as a result of medicine. He became the nation’s first mental healer and he continued until his death in 1866.

FROM HISTORY TO TODAY:
‘POSITIVE THINKING’ RESHAPES
POLITICS AND SCIENCE

DAVID: This book is far more than a history lesson. You connect the dots throughout your book with modern figures—for example, Norman Vincent Peale whose Guideposts magazine and website remain a mainstay in American culture two decades after his death.

MITCH: Peale wrote the book that would bring this message into just about every household in America: The Power of Positive Thinking.

DAVID: The book sold millions of copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 weeks in the 1950s! To this day, his magazine, founded just after World War II, reaches millions of readers and the magazine runs some very popular websites, as well. Your book gives us a balanced portrait of Peale, both his spiritual genius and also his tragic limitations. For example, you include Peale’s anti-Catholic bias against John Kennedy. You chart the highs and lows of Peale’s life in that section of the book.

You’ve included a lot in these pages. You look at Reagan’s use of this idea. And you also give us a sampling of recent scientific research, too.

MITCH: At leading institutions like Harvard, research is going on right now—we’re seeing new reports from this work all the time—exploring mind-body connections. But there is this disconnect in the way we understand where these ideas arose, so that’s why I thought this book was so timely. In medical research today, very few people feel any debt in their scientific work to the positive-thinking movement. In its best expressions, this movement did produce early rough estimates of some ideas that science is validating today about the mind and the body.

DAVID: I appreciate your historical balance. You’re not trying to advocate for positive thinking—and you’re not trying to dismiss it. Whether your readers like or dislike positive thinking—you make the case that it’s a movement we all should understand. To borrow your own words: “The whole notion that the mind is causative is the most radical religious and psychological idea of our times.”

We’ve talked already about some of the positive outcomes of the movement. What are some of the mistakes?

MITCH: I think the biggest mistake of the movement is that a lot of men and women in this movement have tried to simplify the power of the mind into something like a big mental law. Many of them have given us their own version of that law. But there is no verification of one great, unified, mental super law. Does that mean that all the insights of the positive thinking movement are wrong? No. I would say it this way: The mind is one “cause” among many.

I think the truth is: We live under many laws. Many forces are at work in the world. We suffer. Things happen that we can’t control. Does the mind have real power in our lives? Research is showing us: Yes, it does. But it’s not the only power. For all of its limitations, though, the positive thinking movement has always been on the edge of redefining humanity’s view of itself. There is real value in understanding this movement.

DAVID: One last thing I want to point out to readers in this interview: If this subject is intriguing, then your book also serves up one of the most impressive “Notes on Sources” sections that I’ve seen in a long time. You give readers a 43-page section that serves as a road-map to learn more about the whole wide range of topics you raise in your book. That Notes section is a great reason to buy this book.

MITCH: I appreciate your noticing that. I wrote those Notes to be read. They’re not a technical afterthought. They’re not tedious, I hope. This is where the reader can go beyond this book. I want people to be able to reach this section of the book and feel as though I’m showing them beneath the floorboards, taking them up in the attic and guiding them toward places they can go to read much more, if they are interested in what they’re discovering.

Want more?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

Mitch Horowitz on the American positive thinking movement

intrigued by Mitch Horowitz’s latest book (published by Crown), One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life? Then, take just 5 minutes and let him explain his thesis to you.

Here is just a little of what he says in this video: “Positive thinking surrounds us. It’s the language that we use in everyday life and it’s the language people use when they’re trying to persuade us of something. And it all comes from one simple idea that bubbled up in American mystical subcultures in the mid 19th century. It was this: Thoughts are causative! When Ronald Reagan, for example, used to say in his speeches, “Nothing is impossible!” that was not the kind of thinking was always used in this country. That was language that came out of the positive thinking movement. When we talk about the importance of having a positive attitude—that way of thinking is new. The notion that you have to be able to foster a diplomatic atmosphere with other people—it seems like it’s always been with us. It hasn’t.”

Click the video screen below for this really intriguing introduction to Mitch’s book. (Don’t see a video screen in your version of this story? Try clicking the headline of this post to re-load it. Or, you also can watch this video directly on YouTube.)

Have you found our interview with Mitch? If you are landing on this video page, first, you’ll also enjoy ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Mitch this week.

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

The Marc Bekoff interview on Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

THE FULL TITLE of Marc Bekoff’s latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation.

In our interview today, Marc admits the first part of the title is to catch the eyes of new readers. Yes, he does address those two topics in his book, but they’re only part of this absolutely marvelous, world-circling voyage into the minds, emotions and values of non-human creatures.

If you haven’t discovered Marc Bekoff’s unique work until today, then you’re in for a real treat!

He has emerged as the world’s leading scientific voice translating the latest research on the psychology of animals—and human-animal relationships—into everyday language for general readers. He writes regularly for Psychology Today magazine. He writes so regularly, in fact, that he has produced more than 500 columns over the past five years. Don’t worry if you’ve missed this treasure-trove, until today. His new book collects the best of those hundreds of columns for readers … just like you.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we’re excited to tell you about this book—so excited, in fact, that in addition to this interview featuring our Editor David Crumm and Marc Bekoff … our colleague Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

Eager to find out more?
Let’s jump right to …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MARC BEKOFF
ON HIS NEW BOOK,
‘WHY DOGS HUMP …’

DAVID: Since we’re a magazine about spiritual and cultural diversity, I have to ask: Isn’t your basic message about the inherent value in animal life something that we’ve seen for centuries in Eastern religions—and, in the West, in the teachings of those Christian leaders who were sensitive to animal life? We all know about St. Francis, of course, but there were other Western Christian voices as well. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous for preaching that animals will be in heaven with us when we leave this world.

So, my question is: In this book, you’re really touching on a universal theme, right?

Marc Bekoff with a friend

Marc Bekoff with a friend. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

MARC: Absolutely. I was at a conference in 2012 at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London and there was a good discussion there about how this relates to Jainism. In my earlier book, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart, I wrote about Buddhism and compassion for animals. There is a strong Buddhist emphasis on compassion for all beings and the unity we share.

I believe: We all are one. I don’t mean that in any frivolous sort of way. What I mean is: We all depend on one another. We all work very hard to have good, social, amicable relationships with one another. We need to be very careful about separating ourselves from other animals.

I’m not bashing humans. I do believe that humans are exceptional. We’re a wonderful species. We do horrific things, yes, but we also do amazing things.

DAVID: Then, the second question is: What you’re reporting in this new book is solid science as well. How do you do that?

MARC: When I write for Psychology Today or in books like this one, I take scientific work that’s being reported around the world and I make the findings digestible to non-researchers. And, I do provide all the references to the scientific work on this, so readers can go deeper if they want to learn more.

DAVID: You’ve got 326 footnotes neatly listed at the end of this book, if readers want to check further into what you’re describing in the chapters. How do you manage to find all of these studies?

MARC: I read widely, but I also have lots of people who are in touch with me constantly, sending me links to new articles and essays being published both in popular and scientific journals. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and my email is so overwhelming that I almost want to shut it down! But don’t misunderstand me when I say that. I love this work! Love it! You can’t go a day or two without finding a new headline about animal behavior, psychology and cognition.

DAVID: Here’s one of your columns that caught my eye—and I wound up telling friends about it: You wrote about rats helping each, motivated by what appears to be a clear sense of empathy. I certainly wouldn’t have expected empathy among rats. But you write that this is consistent with studies of mice and chickens that showed those species were capable of empathy and what you call “pro-social action.” You describe a study that was first reported in the journal Science in which researchers documented untrained laboratory rats trying to free some companions who were restrained—sparked to free them by empathy for those other rats. What floored me was when the researchers tried to keep the rats from paying attention to their restrained companions by giving them an option to go eat chocolate—and the rats still helped each other.

MARC: The pro-social behavior didn’t surprise me—but the chocolate part of their study, that did surprise me a bit. I’ve been studying social animals for decades. People tend to set up these basic boundaries in which they separate us from other animals. They’ll say, “We’re the only animals who show antruism.” And that’s obviously not true. What we’re seeing here are pro-social behaviors among these untrained rats—even when they’re offered chocolate not to do so.

NEW TITLES FOR NEW EXPLORERS

DAVID: When people read your book, they will discover a whole host of careers that—honestly—I knew little about until you explained them to us in your columns. Some of these admittedly are emerging fields, so please give us Marc Bekoff’s thumbnail explanation of each one, OK? And let’s start with Anthrozoology.

MARC: Anthrozoology is basically the scientific study of human-animal relationships. It’s the study of how we interact with other animals. This is broadly interdisciplinary work. You’ll find biologists involved in this kind of research—but you’ll also meet people in university English departments who are working on this, too.

DAVID: OK, next: Ethology.

MARC: Ethology is the study of animal behavior and it’s differentiated from comparative psychology by more of an interest in the ecology and evolution of behavior. People sometimes define ethology as the study of animal behavior by biologists rather than psychologists.

DAVID: Then, Cognitive Ethology.

MARC: Cognitive Ethology is the study of animal minds—asking questions about the evolution and ecology of animal minds. This is being done by a broad spectrum of academics: biologists, psychologists and even philosophers and theologians are involved in this. It’s called cognitive ethology mainly because, in order to fully understand the evolution of mind, cognitive skills and emotional interactions, you have to pay attention to what animals do in the wild. You can study animals in the lab, but that may be quite different than what we would see in the field.

DAVID: One more: Conservation Psychology.

MARC: I think of Conservation Psychology as a branch of Anthrozoology mainly because it deals with human beliefs and attitudes towards other animals and the environment. It’s really growing. Susan D. Clayton at the College of Wooster in Ohio is one of the leading figures in this field. She earlier published a book called, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for NatureThen, she was the editor for the new Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology.

DAVID: Thanks for running through the titles of those emerging fields. We have a lot of readers who are parents, educators and media professionals. Many of our readers may know of young people who are interested in studying an emerging field. If so, there are four of them. Read Marc’s book and you’ll learn about even more types of research.

‘WHY DOGS HUMP AND …’

DAVID: That was pretty heavy-duty science, so let’s tackle the title of your book. Anyone who buys this book hoping to discover “Why Dogs Hump …” well, I think we should warn them. You conclude: We don’t know. There’s no scientific consensus on this behavior.

MARC: We put the phrase on the cover of the book because it’s an attention getter. But there is an important point in that chapter. It’s an important point that I’m trying to make throughout the book: People just assume we know everything about animal behavior—and we don’t. Here’s a behavior that we’ve all seen and people will tell you that they know what causes it. They’ll say it’s sexual. Or, they’ll say it’s a dominance behavior by dogs. But, the research shows neither explanation accounts for this behavior. We don’t know why this happens. There’s so much research needed even on very common behaviors we think we understand. That’s the point I make in that chapter.

DAVID: I’ll admit the phrase is attention getting. And, OK, it’s a valid point: Animal behaviors are greater mysteries than we may assume. One of the eye-opening chapters for me was about jellyfish. I’ve watched jellyfish along the ocean shore and I can’t imagine a less-intelligent creature. They look about as simple as empty plastic bags floating in the water. But you report on research that shows jellyfish are actually interacting with their environment in a more sophisticated way than people ever imagined.

MARC: We’re too mammal-centric in our thinking about the world. In fact, many of us are basically primateocentric—just paying attention to primates. Most humans are interested in big-brained animals, but what we’re learning in science today is that big brains don’t necessarily rule. For example, honey bees have small brains—but, as I write in this book, they can get depressed. They show the same neural psychological changes that we get when we get depressed. What I’m saying is: Keep the door open on what other animals can and cannot do.

DAVID: You argue that many animals are what we, as humans, would call “moral beings.” They are not simply driven by instincts and natural urges. You pose this, from the beginning of the book, as a provocative conclusion you see emerging from all of this research.

MARC: I pose that thought starting with a biological way of looking at this. I use Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity, which means that the differences among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. I like the bumper sticker about animals that says: “If we have something—they have it, too.”

We see lots of examples of animals taking care of other animals in in need. You’ll read about an elephant who was taken care of by other animals in her group. She couldn’t walk without a l imp. She’d been injured for many many years and had a deformed right-rear leg. Other elephants waited for her. The matriarchs in her group made a point of seeing that she was fed. But we see this behavior beyond mothers looking out for others. There are many examples where animals seem to understand clearly that others are in need—and help them.

DAVID: And I’d say we’ve come full circle to the first question in the interview. If animals are moral beings, then Buddhism and Jainism and John Wesley were correct in pointing out that there is an over-arching spiritual connection we share with non-human animals.

MARC: Yes, this gets back to that Buddhist notion that there’s an umbrella of compassion, a unity. People may say to me: Why do you care about aninals? You should care about humans! Well, I do care about humans and it’s true of a lot of people who work with animals. But, the reverse is not always true. A lot of pepole who care about other people don’t always display compassion to other animals. I want to encourage more of that.
DAVID: I’m going to conclude our interview by recommending that people also read our 2010 interview, when you and I talked about your book, called, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint. I began that interview by telling readers that your overall goal is “to win people over with the pure good-hearted logic about scientific and ethical positions.” Once again, today, you’ve made that eloquent point. We’ll talk again when your next book is published.

WANT MORE ON HUMAN-ANIMAL RELATIONSHIPS?

ReadTheSpirit publishes two popular books with stories about human-animal relationships: You can learn more about Conversations with My Old Dog and The Spiritual Wanderer in our bookstore.

AND, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsNatural World

Review: Don’t miss ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

WHERE TO SEE ‘THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK’—Visit PBS’s webpage for this documentary to learn more about its background and viewing options. PBS provides links to local listings. Since this is a well-researched documentary, the PBS website also offers educational resources. There’s even a step-by-step curriculum for science teachers to reproduce some of the then-groundbreaking lab techniques used by New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner and his staff.

You also could opt to purchase the DVD from Amazon, titled American Experience: Poisoner’s Handbook. Eventually the film will reach Netflix. Your local library may choose to stock a copy.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Why should people of faith care about a bone-chilling documentary on the early history of forensic sciences in criminal investigations? Why should you help us to highly recommend this PBS American Experience debut to your friends, small group, congregation and community?

First, we all should promote this film because it’s flat-out fascinating. The two-hour documentary takes us back to the dawn of real-life CSI—the birth of modern homicide investigation and the spawn of thousands of hours of prime-time TV dramas. So, the first reason to see this PBS offering is: You’ll enjoy it!

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and his chief toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and, at left, is his chief toxicologist Dr. Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

Second, by the end of this two hours, the real pioneering triumph of the film’s two main characters will become crystal clear: They proved to New York City and then to the entire nation that government must play a crucial role in scientifically investigating the vast array of potentially poisonous substances coming into our world—and protecting all of us, including the most vulnerable, from dangerous vultures. Most religious groups around the world hold human rights—caring for and protecting the vulnerable—as a sacred mission. The Poisoner’s Handbook is the true story of two men who fought against almost impossible odds to establish the government’s role in the science-based protection of public health.

Given the wall-to-wall prime-time status of CSI-style shows, you’ll be startled to discover that—before the arrival Dr. Charles Norris and his right-hand researcher Dr. Alexander Gettler—poisoners regularly got away with murder. There was no way to catch them. In 1922, 237 men and women died of fatal gunshots in New York City, but researchers believe nearly 1,000 died of poisoning!

The producers of this documentary have organized the two hours like a series of mini-CSI tales—all true stories. They begin with this new scientific team’s most puzzling early case, the 1922 death of an elderly couple in what appeared to be “a locked-door mystery.” I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing what they found.

Just as in the TV dramas, there’s even a recurring character, a woman accused multiple times over the years of what amounted to serial murders. And, yes, just like the TV series today, these early scientists head into the laboratory over and over again. Sometimes, they must devise new tests. Occasionally, they must exhume a body and look more deeply into the human remains.

In the second half of the film, Norris and Gettler tackle huge public-health issues. Viewing this in 2014, you’re likely to be startled by the official government position on what amounts to massive crimes against vulnerable people. Officials in New York City and Washington D.C. felt that these threats weren’t a part of their responsibilities, until Norris and Gettler joined the campaign to change their minds.

You’ll have a whole lot to talk about after watching The Poisoner’s Handbook. Bravo to PBS and The American Experience for kicking off 2014 with such a landmark film.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Great With GroupsMovies and TVPeacemaking

The Bernie S. Siegel interview on ‘The Art of Healing’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Dr. Bernie Siegel stands in a rare circle of pioneers who still are guiding today’s army of spirituality-and-health advocates. So, it’s big news that Bernie’s latest book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing is available in time for holiday shopping. If you already own some of his books, then today’s interview will underline the unique nature of this new book. Among other things: Hey, it’s fun! This new book is packed with lots of material about Bernie’s long-standing work on visualization, symbols, drawings—and good humor.

Ancient inspiration: The faith-and-health connection stretches back thousands of years to the founders of the world’s great faiths and to the physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim leaders were pioneers in founding hospitals. The first major Islamic hospital was established in 707 in Syria—with Christian assistance. In Europe by the later Middle Ages, Christian religious orders drew on both ancient Roman and newer Islamic ideas to establish their own hospitals. Flash forward to 18th-century America and Shakers were among the many new religious movements to connect health and religion. By the late 19th century, advocates like Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were changing the way all Americans thought about food, faith and health.

A new wave of scholars: It should have come as no surprise, in the late 1970s, when famous journalist Norman Cousins dropped the first of his bombshell books about the importance of what amounted to spiritual awareness, coupled with nutrition, in combating serious medical problems. Among Cousins’ famous words of advice? Teach yourself to laugh! And, in Bernie Siegel’s new book, there’s a whole section on that discipline of humor. (Care to read more right now? Our weekly WeAreCaregivers section has an excerpt of Bernie’s chapter on laughter.)

Of course, Cousins was greeted with skepticism—and even scorn from some critics who felt the brilliant Editor of The Saturday Review had lost his mind. What those critics didn’t understand was the ancient connections under-girding Cousins’ insights—and the growing circle of spiritual pioneers among serious scientists. By the 1980s, Harvard’s Dr. Robert Coles was publishing landmark studies of the moral and spiritual lives of children, complete with interpretive drawings—much as Bernie Siegel recommends to readers in a fresh way in this new book. Soon, Dr. Larry Dossey was writing about the relationship between faith and wellness, as well. In 1986, Bernie Siegel risked his own career by publishing his most important volume, Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients.

One key distinction in this new wave of scholars—including books by Coles, Dossey and Bernie Siegel—is that these experts are not selling any specific religious creed. They’re not “faith healers.” In fact, all of them, including Bernie Siegel, warn that some religious doctrines may actually be barriers to healing.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. BERNIE SIEGEL, MD,
ON ‘THE ART OF HEALING’

DAVID CRUMM: There are a lot of faith healers out there and I want to clearly distinguish your work, for our readers, as standing in a long tradition of serious, scientifically based inquiries into the healing power of spiritual disciplines. So—before we get to the fun stuff—let’s start with your critique of some religious leaders. For example, you’re outspoken in criticizing various popes from the 1800s to today for, all too often, condemning the newest medical advances out of hand. In your view, there is too much of a conservative backlash against scientific developments—coupled with an unfortunate tendency to say that suffering is the will of God.

Dr Bernie S Siegel MD author of The Art of HealingDR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Let me use an interview with Billy Graham as an example. I remember this because his response was so striking to me. He was asked, “Does God want me to have cancer?” And Billy Graham’s first words were, “Not necessarily.”

DAVID: To be fair to Billy, he tells people that they need to take care of their bodies. He tells people that they should pray and follow a doctor’s advice—and he does both of those things himself. But your basic point is on target: Billy has strongly emphasized the importance of praying to God for healing—and he isn’t as clear as you are about the need to seek out the best in medical care.

BERNIE: Well, when Billy Graham was asked that question and the first words out of his mouth were, “Not necessarily,” I thought: That’s wrong! The answer should have been a clear, “No.” He should have said, “No, God doesn’t want you to have cancer.” In that interview, he went on to tell people that sometimes God uses disease to wake us up. And, that’s encouraging people to have that old guilt response to illness—the blame response. To me, that’s not what good religion should be telling people. We need to start by telling people that God built healing potential into everything. We need to say clearly: Disease is not a punishment.

DAVID: You’re right. There still is an over-emphasis on guilt and blame in many of the common religious responses to illness.

BERNIE: I look back to Maimonides, who gave us a lot of good advice. Here’s an example: Let’s say you go to your house of worship and, when the services are over, you walk into the parking lot—but you can’t find your car keys. Does that mean God wants you to walk home? No, most people don’t believe that. They go back and search everywhere for their keys. Well, Maimonides said the same thing about healing: “If you’ve lost your health—look for it.”

BERNIE SIEGEL: ‘MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE’

DAVID: You’ve explained that your study of religion and spirituality is not aimed at conversion or preaching—but is a part of your broad scientific inquiry into connections that can help people.

BERNIE: I always say I live by my experience, not by beliefs. I keep learning. I have studied religion to help understand the lives and the experiences of my patients. A sentence that changed my life was when a patient said to me: “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That got me started on this whole process of helping people learn how to live.

This is practical. I call this whole process: looking for common themes. If I discover something that’s helpful to a person, and then I encounter this same thing in someone else’s writings—perhaps in a novel or in the Bible or in some other writings—then I can see a larger connection. I am continually observing the world, continually reading, too. And in novels, plays, books, and images people are putting out into the world all of these things that they have observed about the world. When we can make connections in what we are observing, then we can begin to realize truths that are being spoken to us.

DAVID: When you and writers like Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey began publicizing these ideas, there were lots of detractors. Now, there’s a lot of research about the role of emotions and relationships in healing. In other words—today, you’re on what seems to be more solid ground with readers. Is that fair to say?

BERNIE: Years ago, remember, nobody thought that a support group could possibly help anyone. Now, we know that support groups truly do help people. Relationships benefit our health. Yes, there now is a lot of good research behind this. We’ve studied a lot of things that, when I started, nobody was advocating. For example, we know that, for many people, even having a dog in the house can positively affect your health.

We now have studies that show how loneliness affects genes and the control of our immune functions. So, we now know that loneliness is a factor in disease. When we begin making connections, it may not be science at that point—but we can do research over time and some of the connections we make may become science.

I talk about making the invisible visible. Years ago, Ernest Holmes wrote about this.

Here’s an example: From the Bible, we know that God speaks in dreams and images. Today, many people know that there is value in using images, including drawings and dreams, to learn more about what are bodies are saying to us. You may think that your body can’t speak to you—but it actually can speak to you when you go to bed at night and you dream. Your body can create many images for you. We know that, in this process, colors may have meaning. Images have meaning. One thing I love about this new book is that I was able to reproduce so many full-color drawings in the middle of the book. You can really see what I’m talking about in that section of the book on patients’ drawings.

BERNIE SIEGEL: DRAWINGS OF ‘INNER WISDOM’

DAVID: In your career as a pediatric surgeon, you often used techniques that I associate with Dr. Robert Coles and others—giving children a pack of crayons and asking them to draw pictures for you.

BERNIE: Drawings can reveal the truth for that person. I did a lot of children’s surgery and, yes, a child would say a lot to me through these pictures. We’ve got 70 full-color pictures in the book and I explain them. One thing I would ask a child is: Will you draw your home? Will you draw your family? One of the pictures in the book was drawn by a child with cancer. She draws this long sofa and her family is sitting there with arms wrapped around each other. We can see that there’s another space on the sofa—there’s room for the girl, but instead she’s drawn sitting on a chair, separate from her family. This child is saying, “I don’t get enough time with my family.”

I showed this drawing to her family and that made a big difference. They told me later: “Thank you for your help with that drawing, because we devoted a lot more time to her.” Using drawings often let me get in touch with inner wisdom. We have an intuitive, unconscious awareness of what we need, but often we’re not able to express it. This girl’s drawing told her family something very important about their relationship.

BERNIE SIEGEL: ‘LAUGH OUT LOUD’

DAVID: You’ve got a whole section of your book called Laugh Out Loud. I think it’s one of the best portions of the book—in fact, it’s a good reason to buy this new book even if you’ve got other Bernie Siegel books already on the shelf. I really like the way you explain the importance of laughter and good humor in general. And, you point out that this isn’t just a matter of good intentions—this really can lead to improved health.

BERNIE: This is not beyond science. There is chemistry behind what happens within a person during laughter. When people are battling a disease, laughter helps.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines from that chapter in which you salute Norman Cousins: “In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins wrote a fascinating account of his self-induced healing-by-laughter from a diagnosed condition, ankylosing spondylitis. When his doctor gave him a 1-in-500 chance of recovery, Cousins checked himself into a hotel, watched Candid Camera tapes, and laughed, day after day. Choosing to use humor as his medicine, rather than react to his fear and do nothing, is the sign of an optimist—a survivor.”

BERNIE: I have made laughter a part of my therapy as a doctor for a long time. Imagine doing surgery on children every week, which was my specialty. I found that laughter was very distracting. When you laugh, you can’t be afraid. I did this in lots of ways. I would play nursery rhymes in the operating room and the whole room would relax because everybody in the room would regress as we listened.

DAVID: This kind of pioneering work you have pursued for so many years—it took a lot of courage. You and Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey—everyone in this field—weathered a lot of criticism along the way. But it’s a basic part of your own spiritual orientation that pushes you onward, right?

BERNIE: Here’s a workshop question I’ve used through the years: I ask people, “If you could be God for a day, why would you want to be God?” And some people will say: So I can do this. Or, so I can fix that. But the ultimate response? The best answer to my workshop question? It’s when people say: “So I can understand: Why?” That’s the ultimate question we need to keep asking: “Why?” That comes from the Baal Shem Tov and many other great spiritual teachers. We are here to live and learn—to keep asking: “Why?”

I just keep working with people and learning—and that’s why I like the word “potential.” We mentioned Ernest Holmes before and this comes through in his writing, as well. He asked the question in The Science of Mind: “What if Jesus was the only normal person who ever lived?” Of course, Holmes had to be smiling when he wrote that. He was writing about potential. We need to be helping people to reach their potential. We know that, when we give the human body the message that we really do want to live—that we want to restore injury and live—the results are amazing.

It’s so important to remember: When you’ve lost your health—keep looking for it.

Care to read more?

In our WeAreCaregivers section, this week, we’ve got a short excerpt from Bernie Siegel’s chapter ‘Laugh Out Loud.’ You’re sure to enjoy it!

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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