Spiritual Aspects of the Healing Arts


Bernie & Barbara Siegel

Spiritual Healing cover

Bernie Siegel’s article originally appeared as a chapter in the above book:


Bernie Siegel, MD, retired from surgical practice as an assistant clinical professor of general and pediatric surgery at Yale in 1989 to speak to patients and their caregivers. He originated Exceptional Cancer Patients, a specific form of individual and group therapy utilizing patients’ drawings, dreams, images, and feelings. The physical, spiritual and psychological benefits that followed led to his desire to make everyone aware of his or her healing potential. He and his wife and coworker, Bobbie, live in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, and have co-authored their five children, books, and articles. [Bobbie - Barbara died in 2018.]

Visit Bernie’s website at: http://www.berniesiegelmd.com.

In an intuitive way, I believe from the time life begins one is aware of the true nature of healing, or the fact that it is not mechanical or remedy oriented. A mother’s touch or kiss, or a doctor’s phone call suddenly brings relief. We begin to become aware of the interplay of psyche and soma.

From the outset one must understand that all healing is scientific. The problem is science’s inability to measure or document what occurs. A typical example is the so-called spontaneous remission of an incurable cancer. I would rather have this spontaneous event retitled “creative or self-induced healing,” or “hard work miracle.” The former title turns aside the health practitioner’s curiosity, since it doesn’t fit his scientific knowledge or his belief system. Solzhenitsyn wrote of self-induced healing in Cancer Ward (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1969):

Kostoglotov…[said]…“we shouldn’t behave like rabbits and put our complete trust in doctors. For instance, I’m reading this book.”

He picked up a large, open book from the window sill. “Abrikososov and Stryukov, Pathological Anatomy, medical school textbook. It says here that the link between the development of tumors and the central nervous system has so far been very little studied. And this link is an amazing thing! It’s written here in so many words.”

He found the place. “It happens rarely, but there are cases of self-induced healing. You see how it’s worded? Not recovery through treatment, but actual healing. See?”

There was a stir throughout the ward. It was as though “self-induced healing” had fluttered out of the great open book like a rainbow-colored butterfly for everyone to see, and they all held up their foreheads and cheeks for its healing touch as it flew past.

“Self-induced,” said Kostoglotov, laying aside his book. He waved his hands, fingers splayed. … “That means that suddenly for some unexplained reason the tumor starts off in the opposite direction! It gets smaller, resolves and finally disappears! See?”

They were all silent, gaping at the fairy tale. That a tumor, one’s own tumor, the destructive tumor which had mangled one’s whole life, should suddenly drain away, dry up and die by itself?

They were all silent, still holding their faces up to the butterfly. It was only the gloomy Podduyev who made his bed creak and, with a hopeless and obstinate expression on his face, croaked out, “I suppose for that you need to have…a clear conscience.”

To understand how to fit spirituality into the healing process or to recognize its place, let me take a step back and describe present medical training.

Young men and women are accepted into medical school based upon their ability to take tests and accumulate knowledge. (Hopefully they also have an interest in people.) They are then taught about disease and its treatment. Little if any time is given to the study of their feelings and how to deal with people.

They are oriented into a failure system, meaning that we fill our time, offices and hospitals with people who don’t do well, and we do more to them if their first treatment fails. We fight disease with the poor patient as the battleground. If a patient does well, we do not see him again, and if he gets well when he is not supposed to, we tell him it isn’t necessary for him to return, or ignore his recovery as being mystical. Any good business would study success, but medicine ignores it. We should be knocking on survivors’ doors saying, “Why didn’t you die when you were supposed to?” We should be teaching the messages all survivors know. By survivors, I mean survivors of disease, concentration camps, tragic life events, or other disasters.

The students become more mechanics than healers. They are taught what to do to people who are sick and little about why people get sick. They are, therefore, given the unspoken role of lifesavers. Again, this sets them up for failure, since everyone ultimately dies. The healthcare provider, therefore, withdraws from the patient so the eventual failures will be less painful. He, therefore, does not become aware of what truly occurs when one lives with disease. He has little contact with the healing process or its absence. The disease can never become a motivator for change in this setting.

I felt very unhappy as a mechanic-lifesaver. I knew from my childhood that there was more to the healing process. I knew doctors were not always right in sentencing people to death. My mother was told not to become pregnant or she would die. A case of hyperthyroidism had her weighing ninety pounds, and an obstetrician thought a pregnancy would be life threatening.

To make a long story short, she found another obstetrician who agreed to work with her if she gained weight. After she gained thirty pounds, she conceived. I was born, and the hyperthyroidism disappeared. It would have been hard for me to not be accepted and loved by my parents after a beginning like that. In any event, this love was a handicap for a doctor, as it didn’t fit into the medical model to which I was exposed.

Nowhere in medical school was any time spent discussing why one becomes a doctor.
I practiced medicine for a decade with a heavy heart, trying to fit love and spirituality into my practice. I inquired into other professions for a possible career change until a cancer patient made me aware of the people for whom I was caring. As strange as this may sound, I saw diseases in the waiting room, not people. Once I began to orient my practice to people, my life and my practice changed. Patients came in and said, “Now I can talk to you.” When my belief system changed it was safe for them to talk about the spiritual and mystical events related to their illnesses.

Initially, I sent letters to one hundred patients, inviting them to begin meeting in groups to deal with their lives with an holistic approach. I expected hundreds of responses and had only twelve. I realized that of the people I saw, and see, with chronic or catastrophic illness, about twenty percent are the truly exceptional patients or survivors. This may vary in different living areas, depending on how independent and how used to participating in their own lives they are. The exceptional patient or survivor is willing to take responsibility for his problem.

Four Questions

To learn about the kind of person I was dealing with, I began to ask four simple questions.
(1) Do you want to live to be 100? (A simple question about feeling in control and looking forward to life.) (
2) What does your disease mean to you? (Is it a challenge or a death sentence?)
(3) Why did you need the illness? (What is it providing you with? Nurturing and love, as do our sick days at work?)
(4) What happened in the year or two before you became sick? (This lets the patients know how they participate in an illness by not meeting their own needs. It makes them responsible for change if they wish to accept the responsibility.)

The mechanic would treat the illness and not look at who was sick. The healer/teacher says, “Who are you? Who were you? And what brings you to this point?” We have the opportunity to lead people on new pathways to assist them all with their rebirth.

Illness or pain is a message to change. In an all-inclusive way, I used the phrase, “Everyone has his cancer, either emotional or physical.” From this ground we have the option to either promote change and healing, or see it as a catastrophe or death sentence. I choose the former, and I offer it to my patients.

Since the medical profession is failure-oriented, it tends to say to people, “Don’t ask why you became ill; it will make you feel that it is your fault, that you are a failure.” I say the illness must be seen as a message to redirect your life, and, within this transformation, healing occurs.

I know the power of this transformation and the knowledge our inner voices, intuition, or unconscious minds can provide. For years I ignored it, but I kept getting a powerful personal message to uncover something. As a mechanic, therefore, I went to the barber and had my head shaved. Of course, having a bare head didn’t solve the problem.

Two Teachers

Two teachers helped me. (When you are ready, a teacher will appear.) One was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who, at a workshop, interpreted a spontaneous drawing of mine. It shows a fish out of water (a spiritual symbol) and a mountain covered with snow. (A white crayon utilized to portray snow on an already white piece of paper represents a symbolic cover-up.) What this drawing did was to show me what needed to be uncovered was not my head but my love and spirituality, and then I would no longer feel like a fish out of water.

Prior to meeting Elisabeth, I attended a workshop with Carl and Stephanie Simonton and was told during a guided imagery exercise I would meet an inner guide. The mechanic in me said, “This is all ridiculous.” And yet, in the meditation, along came George. George is a spiritual figure who guides me. Since then I have met other guides who have been seen by mediums. I only see the guides in imagery exercises and sense them around me, but mediums have seen them standing around me at my lectures or workshops. A new world opened up where a mechanic could exist no longer with his old belief system. By bringing this new belief system into my practice, my world and the world of my patients changed. I realized that mind and body communicate by a symbolic language, and consequently I now utilize dreams and drawings as a regular part of my therapeutic and diagnostic approach. Mind, body and spirit are considered as one unit. Being a highly skilled mechanic is important, but true healing occurs only when psyche, soma and spirit are integrated.

When you use this new approach, patients begin to share with you the life events prior to their becoming ill. They realize the illness allows them to say no to demands they would have felt obligated to fulfill. However, when I offer people options for getting well, most prefer the mechanical, “Cut it out, I can get a babysitter” approach, instead of one of changing their lifestyle. They say exercise and meditation may change family routine, and the spouse will be angry.

We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
than climb the cross of the moment and
let our illusions die.
W. H. Auden

The illness gives me a chance to teach people about unconditional love: giving with no expectations because one chooses to give. Discipline and saying no are permitted between two people sharing this love. It is the conditional love upon which most of us are brought up that leads to illness. We never get all the “thank yous” and praise we would like. It is having something to give that restores us and provides us with a reason for living, when what we are giving is unconditional love. Physical handicap or illness does not interfere with the ability to give love. Invariably the love is returned to us without our asking because people see the change and want to be closer to this new found peace.

Many of my patients who are physically quite ill, some near death, wonder why they still have so many visitors. I explain to them that their spirit is very much alive and that “terminal” is a state of mind. Their spirit and love attract others because the others see life, not death, and therefore are comfortable in their presence.

In 1926 Elida Evans, in her book entitled A Psychological Study of Cancer, said, “Cancer is a symbol, as most illness is, of something going wrong in the patient’s life, a warning to him to take another road.” Those who take this new road find a new life, exceed expectations and sometimes are cured of incurable illness. The new lifestyle is the goal, not physical well-being. The latter is the traditional medical approach.

Physician as a Spiritual Teacher

The physician can be a spiritual leader and help people be reborn. These same patients are not upset with you for not healing them physically, but they actually thank you for the new life and ability to love. They feel this way because you indeed have made them eternal in the only way possible.

The secret to being eternal is love. Thornton Wilder said, “And we ourselves shall be loved for a while and then forgotten, but the love will have been enough, even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the dead, and the bridge is love.” It can be said in another way: to die, but not to perish, that is eternity. Love teaches us how not to perish.

There is eternal life through love, yet part of the reason physicians have no need to deal with this problem is that unconsciously they believe doctors don’t get sick or die. (This is an unconscious reason for many to become doctors, but it is never addressed during medical training. There is a massive denial that keeps them from feeling what their patients feel and, therefore, from needing to face illness and death. For those who face these problems, the physician has little advice. When I asked God what to do when confronted with a patient with a serious illness whom I could help, or God could heal, he said, “Render unto the doctor what is the doctor’s and unto God what is God’s.”

One patient, when confronted with a dismal future leading to the grave, asked her doctor (who made the prognosis), “But what can I do?” He replied, “You only have a hope and a prayer.” She asked, “How do I hope and pray?” And he said, “I don’t know, that’s not my line of work.” With my help she has learned to hope and pray. She has transcended her physical illness and her fears, and now she goes to her doctor to bring him life and love. He, incidentally, has become very busy making notes about her exceptional course.

Doctor’s invulnerability is one aspect of the problem, and another is what I have labeled the “war and peace” aspect of medicine. The doctor sees God as coming in only when he feels helpless or hopeless, an unfortunate loss of the spiritual component of healing. Spirituality should not be relegated to “helpless” cases, because it provides exceptional results, and has cured the medically incurable.

Where can spirituality fit into a war on disease? How does the greatest healing power in the universe adjust to killing? Can healing occur in this environment? Listen to the language of medicine’s war on illness: we kill, insult, assault, blast, and poison you and your body. All these are words with which doctors are comfortable. Tests have shown that eighty percent of all people are not comfortable killing, unless they have to kill to save the lives of loved ones. Neither are we comfortable in killing disease, since it is a part of us. There is only a small percentage of patients who are comfortable being aggressive toward something residing within.

The disease should be seen as a part of a personal growth process. We can use our white blood cells to consume the disease (nourish themselves on the disease) and we can grow psychologically because of the disease. This process then creates immune system changes that can lead us to healing and new life.

I believe diseases are a response to loss, and I have often thought of the comparison to a salamander. Salamanders, incidentally, have few cancers, but do have the ability to regenerate, and we have the opposite potential.

If a salamander has a loss, it grows a new part. If we have a loss, we grow cancer or generate a disease. As one of my patients said, “I grew it to fill the emptiness inside of me.”

If a salamander has an extensive cancer and its tail is cut off, a new tail grows, and the cancer returns to normal cells. By instructing my patients to grow, I hope to stop the growth within them, restore them to normal and open a pathway to physical, mental and spiritual health.

My therapeutic goal has more to do with peace of mind than physical healing. Why? Because that is the stuff of which miracles are made. W. C. Ellerbroek, former surgeon and now psychiatrist, feels that cancer miracles occur only when people are moribund, or practically so. That is when they give up the despair, and the healing process begins. (He has over five dozen well documented cases at last communication.) How sad to wait until one is almost dead to resolve conflict.

I try to teach this message to my patients. Live with a sense of time limitation. Decide things based upon the value of your time. Say what needs to be said, resolve conflicts, and share openly the love you feel. What happens then?

One of my hospitalized patients told me she felt like dying. I said, “That’s all right, but please share this feeling with your children and your parents. They don’t know how badly you feel.” I came back after the weekend to see her, and she looked wonderful. She had on make-up, a suit and her wig. I said, “What happened?” She answered, “I told my children how I felt. I told my parents how I felt, and then I felt so good I didn’t want to die.” She was discharged from the hospital. I have seen other patients who were expected to die resolve their conflicts and be discharged with, as one patient said, “incredible energy.” That is the power of love which resides in each of us. I have watched those who have learned to live leave their bodies. It is a peaceful, pain-free process in which no time is really spent dying. It is a letting go. For this to occur two basic conditions must be met.

The lifesaver/doctor must be instructed when to stop, and loved ones must give permission to the individual with the illness to fight or not. Finally, those with the illness are given permission to die when they no longer feel they are “living.” Their survivors share their love and grief and the knowledge that they will be able to go on because of the shared love. This allows the life and death decision to be made by the individual, free from the “don’t die” messages we often give each other. If we give “don’t die” messages, death becomes a failure, something that must occur in secret when the loved ones and lifesavers are not present.

This then allows the individual the choice not only of a time to die but also of people with whom the event is shared. It allows them to see their loved one take one breath and die.

Being present at such a death makes one aware that it is a transition. The spirit leaves the body, the cocoon, and moves on. Scientists will describe this as the parasympathetic nervous system slowing and stopping bodily functions, but it doesn’t look scientific, it looks spiritual when you are there.

We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of our exploring
will be to arrive where we started from
and know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot

Just as Solzhenitsyn, in his book Cancer Ward, sees spontaneous healing as a rainbow-colored butterfly, so his unconscious knows that to heal, one must deal with one’s life spectrum (the rainbow), shed the cocoon, and become a new person (a butterfly) with a “clear conscience,” as Podduyef says in the book.

This spontaneous change can more easily occur when we open to God’s healing energy. Once a patient of mine returned to the office free of an incurable cancer and said, “I left my troubles to God.” I now had a therapy to share with others.

However, if God said to you, “Be happy!” what would most of us do? We would ask for an exception in our case. Why? Because if God only knew our life and troubles, he wouldn’t ask us to be happy; he would allow us to be victims and an exception to his rule of happiness.

Creating a Healing Environment

If one conceives of God as intelligent love and light, and if one opens to this light, true healing of mind, body and spirit can occur. My fantasy is that someday our nuclear physicists will become our theologians when they discover this ultimate source of intelligent, loving energy. A new specialty of theological physics will then exist.

I have long felt the absence of God from our hospitals. Notice the absence of signs of spirituality in a hospital not run by a religious order. One of my associates, Richard Selzer, a surgeon and writer, shares my feeling eloquently in his short story “Absence of Windows.” He states, “I very much fear that, having bricked up our windows, we have lost more than the breeze; we have severed a celestial connection.” In this article he was discussing the removal of the windows from the operating room.

How do we reestablish this connection? Obviously not by bringing windows back, but by creating a healing, spiritual environment. I personally use music as a way of reestablishing this connection. Since biblical times this quality of music has been known. It creates a mental state conductive to healing, as well as a greater awareness of the true nature of healing and our common source.

It is my belief that music creates a healing rhythm within the body, a harmony of all parts. I believe dreams and drawings reveal the symbolism of this rhythm. Healthy organs have their natural vibration based upon their molecular structure.

Disease changes this rhythm; disharmony occurs, and it registers in the mind. To convert this to mental awareness, symbols are used. If we pay attention to these symbolic messages we can diagnose disease at an earlier stage and hopefully, learn to send healing messages or symbols back to the body. Historically, Carl Jung diagnosed physical illness based upon patients’ dreams. And I have been able to do so with dreams or drawings. Frequently the patients are already aware of the dream contents and meaning, and are simply sharing it with me. My patients’ dreams and drawings reveal our common or collective unconscious, our common origin, our shared beginning with all men, and so the source of healing is of the same origin for us all.

What are the changes that create this environment conductive to healing?: The introduction of laughter, music, love, forgiveness and acceptance — all coming after a release of resentment, conflict and despair. Every cell in the body is then involved in the healing process. When we laugh, every cell laughs. When we love, our immune system feels the most vibrant, live message it can receive, and it fights for our life. I say choose this course not in an attempt to try to live forever, but because of the beauty it brings to your life. It is God’s work. If you choose to love you are a success. You will have days when you will disappoint yourself for not loving enough, but forgive and go on. It is the pilgrimage that is important and what we encounter along the way; not the necessity of reaching “sainthood,” but striving toward it.

Emmett Fox has said:
“There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer; no disease that enough love will not heal; no door that enough love will not open; no gulf that enough love will not bridge; no wall that enough love will not throw down; no sin that enough love will not redeem.…
It makes no difference how deeply seated may be the trouble; how hopeless the outlook; how muddled the tangle; how great the mistake. A sufficient realization of love will dissolve it all. If only you could love enough you would be the happiest and most powerful being in the world.”

To me the last sentence is the key. Some of us may feel like failures if we don’t accomplish everything he suggests, but it is the exceptional person who chooses to attempt it and knows how hard it is. Yet it is this difficulty that allows us through sharp pain to help each other. The person who chooses to be the family failure or life’s victim is no help to others. He is always dying. Lovers are always living and feeling. Rilke has said, “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.”

To choose love is to bring into effect the spiritual healing force and source of life. I choose to live by Teilhard de Chardin’s words: “Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world man will have discovered fire.”

One could go on quoting the great men of history referring to the power of love and not convince anyone. I say to all of you, believe and see the change that occurs in your lives, or spend a lifetime being convinced and never seeing.

Science teaches us to see in order to believe, and the spirit says believe and you will see. I know the latter to be true.

Life After Life

In my early years of practice, patients didn’t share either their healing or out-of-body and life-after-life experiences, and I wondered if any of this was true. When I changed my patients changed. Of course it was my change. Now they were free to share with a believer. A blind patient seeing as he watched his own resuscitation—an amputee being whole again and describing the beauty of where we are all going. Many of my patients have shared these incredibly moving and beautiful experiences that again remove fear and fill their lives with love. Their bodies being God’s gifts, they use them to the fullest before choosing to move on.

One patient of mine, a physician, was naturally very scientific and found it all hard to believe. When I asked him one day in the hospital, when he was quite ill, if he were ready to die, he said, “Considering the alternative, no.” Three months after his death, a student came to interview me and gave me a card containing a message. She said she had been at a healing circle and told everyone she was going to interview me the following day. The medium present asked if there were a message for Dr. Siegel, and she wrote out the message she received on the card. The card said, “To Bernie from Frank, love and peace. If I had known it were this easy, I’d have bought the package a long time ago, I wouldn’t have resisted so much.” The language on the card was Frank’s way of referring to my teachings. He had never “bought the package.”

To be handed this note helped me to believe. I only ask others to be open to this in their own lives and to see what occurs. Let this intuitive guiding force lead you on the correct path. I instruct my students that when they are on this path they will know; elevator doors will open without your pushing the button, and people will appear whom you plan to call.

One stops judging what I call “spiritual flat tires,” which are those events that delay you in order for you to meet someone you wouldn’t have met if you had not had the “flat tire” event. I ask you to believe and see what occurs in your life. Live with a sense of time limitation, and, because of it, feel comfortable to say no—without guilt. Love, be selfless, childlike, and see the love returned to you.


I can say that my initial attempt to help twelve of my patients (disciples), in our first “exceptional cancer patient” group, has led me to receive love from several continents. I have had the opportunity to love and heal so many more, including medical students and physicians, who are opening to this new light all because I wanted to give something to the world.

I would like to continue to share with all of you, but space obviously limits the number of anecdotes and metaphors that can be included. Let me close with two quotes by Carl Jung, whose work I consider one of my greatest resources. “Your picture of God or your idea of immortality is atrophied, consequently your psychic metabolism is out of gear.” And, “Every problem therefore, brings the possibility of a widening of consciousness, but also the necessity of saying goodbye to childlike unconsciousness and trust in nature.”

It is time for medicine to get its psychic metabolism in gear and cast aside the guilt caused by leaving the Garden of Eden (trust in nature). We must become a success-oriented healing discipline using the patient’s illness as the “ticket of admission.” Then, not mechanics but healers and teachers will redirect their lives on a healing pathway. You might ask me why I am still a surgeon. I still see my mechanical skills as a way of buying time for the healing process to happen. I know I can operate on patients and see them have less pain and fewer complications when we are a healing team, utilizing faith in ourselves, our treatment and our spiritual faith. Despite all that has been said up to this point, as a surgeon my feet remain on the ground. Patients do have complications and do die, but in the process I still have something to offer them. The mechanic would be at a loss and would probably desert them.

In closing, let me share a few words from a traditional Indian saying that sums up my message. “When you were born, you cried and the whole world rejoiced. Live such a life that when you die, the whole world cries and you rejoice.” To accomplish this requires only a short time. As long as one is alive it can be accomplished; change can occur. Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, has said, “Here is a test to find if your mission on earth is finished. If you’re alive it isn’t.” Many children who die give the gift of love to their parents and it lasts them a lifetime. Others choose a lifetime of hate because of a similar loss. I can only ask, as the Bible does, for you to choose life.

If I am not for myself, who will be?

If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
Martin Buber

Online Reading

Bob’s Best Books