Dr. Joan Borysenko is one of the leading ambassadors of psychoneuoimmunology, or PNI. Along with Dr. Herbert Benson, she co-founded the Mind-Body clinic of Harvard University and is the author of several books, including "Guilt is the Teacher, Love Is The Lesson and "The New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism."
DiCarlo: Larry Dossey has come up with a model to help explain the evolution of medicine which he terms era 1, era 2, and era 3 medicine. Could you briefly trace the evolution of psychology, where we've been, where we are now and where we are going?
Borysenko: Sure. The evolution of psychology began with Freud, who was a neurologist. He certainly began to look into what can be regarded as an era one and era two psychology. Era one psychology would be an understanding of things like neurotransmitters and areas of the brain that have been associated with certain emotions. It's very, very important. I spent a long time in my own life exploring psychopharmacology, looking at the different structures of the brain and what kind of structures were localized there. We need that knowledge.
The second era of psychology, to borrow from Dossey's Era two medicine, recognizes the connection between the mind and the body. Oftentimes, psychologists think of the mind as divorced from the body, and what we have begun to realize in psychology is that if you give someone a massage, as a massage therapist will tell you, and touch certain parts of the body, specific memories will suddenly be triggered. We understand now that memories are stored in certain parts of the body and that the emotions are the bridge between the body and the mind.
Era 3 psychology is truly a transpersonal psychology, where we recognize that in addition to one's own thoughts and one's own personal history effecting one's mind and body, that in a certain sense we all effect each other through our thoughts. This has been substantiated in prayer studies. Most of us have no trouble recognizing that our own thoughts effect our body. That's common knowledge now. What we don't know, or tend to forget, is that our mind can effect someone else's body and that their thoughts can effect our body. I think that when a psychologist has the capability of being what we call "naturally therapeutic", it's partly because they look at their client, whoever they may be, with a mindset of great respect and love. Through that sense of respect, they bring forth healing. Eric Fromme said that a parent ideally looks at their child with an attitude of hopefulness. He defined hopefulness as a passion for the possible. When a therapist looks at a client with a passion for the possible and knows that there is indeed a Godseed within them that is going to grow, and knows that no person is flawed beyond their capacity to heal, and understands that every wound is a sacred wound in terms of being able to lead the person to a state of greater compassion and wisdom-- that attitude alone crosses space and time and leads to healing.
DiCarlo: What have been the triumphs and shortcomings of Western psychology?
Borysenko: I think there have been a lot of triumphs in behavior therapy. I spent years of my life as a behaviorist, looking at operant conditioning ala Skinner. I think that's very important to understand how people learn, and how that effects people. For example, it's a very simple concept, like continuous reinforcement. You give a child a reward every time something happens and they always expect that reward. If you do it only once in a while, then they will always expect it. You will never easily extinguish the behavior of looking or waiting for whatever it is they want. So operant conditioning is useful in understanding the reasons why you have to be consistent with a child if you are a parent. If you are not consistent, if every once in a while you give them something that is forbidden, they simply will not learn that they cannot have that thing and it will bug you forever. These are useful concepts and methods which have been the gifts of behavior therapy.
I also think our knowledge of brain structure and behavior is very important. It's very important to understand where the reward centers of the brain are located, and what neuropeptides are produced in response to emotion. Psychopharmocology is also very important. Prescribed drugs can oftentimes help people to regularize their brain function and emotional response. Many of the psychoactive drugs have been extremely helpful. The whole aspect of psychology that deals with self-awareness has been enormously important. Without self-awareness, how can we ever make a choice? How can we ever have free will? We could go into much more detail, but globally, there is much to be said for psychology as we know it.
On the downside, I think the limitations of psychology has been its reductionist theory. That is, just because we can find brain areas that have to do with emotions, or just because a certain drug can alleviate a certain affliction, to reduce the human being to a stimulus-response system or to certain chemicals in the brain that produce certain responses is inadequate. We are clearly more than that. Some people try to reduce and explain away near death experiences as the trick of dying brain cells starving for oxygen. There is some truth here since research shows that if the right temporal lobe is stimulated, it will give rise to religious thinking. It will also give rise to light experiences--as of course it should. We live in a physical body. Why shouldn't there be circuitry? But to say that just because there is circuitry there is nothing beyond that--that there is no soul or spirit--is extraordinarily limiting.
The other limiting tendency of psychology is to look at people more in terms of what's wrong with them--their pathology--rather than in terms of their potential. Psychologists seem quick to categorize and say, "what is wrong with a person's character?" or "what is wrong with this person's behavior?", rather than saying, "Oh, is there a difficulty or a wound here, that for this person, has particular relevance to the way that they become whole, and the way that they become creative, and the way the way that they awaken their inner intuition and capacity to love."
DiCarlo: The transpersonal movement, the so called 4th force in psychology, proposes that in addition to physical body, mind and emotions, there is a aspect of being some would refer to as the soul or spirit, which plays a vital role in human existence. How would you define the term "transpersonal"?
Borysenko: I would define the term transpersonal as actually what is most deeply personal on one aspect, and also what binds us together with everybody else. It goes beyond the limit of the individual. In one sense, I would say that what is beyond the person or "transpersonal," is that one mind that all people are part of. When the great quantum physicist Erwin Shroedinger was asked how many minds he thought existed in the universe, he laughed and said, "if the sum total of the number of minds could be counted, there would be just one." If you look into the esoteric core-- the spiritual core of all religious traditions-- then you also find there is the discussion of one divine mind, of which we are all a part. Part of that divine mind dwells within each human being as some sort of essence or core.
If for example, you were a mystical Jew, you might call that core the "shekhinah" the indwelling feminine presence of God. If you were a Buddhist, you would call it the Rigpa, or your own true nature. If you were a mystical Christian, like Mster Eckhart, you would call it the Godseed that dwells within. There has been a name for it in any tradition. In the Hindu tradition it might be called the Atman, which becomes one with the Brahman or the larger mind. It's certainly been talked about in psychological circles as well. Jung had a concept of the Self with the big "S" and that's the same thing. So did Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis who was a contemporary of Freud and Jung. We find in modern-day psychopathology, that in the most abused members of our society, this creative, immortal aspect of self, the part of the one mind that dwells within you has also been described by people with Multiple Personality Disorder when they are hypnotically regressed to see when each of their alter personalities was formed in response to trauma. Regardless of their religious orientation or their lack thereof, a certain personality can be found within each multiple which says, "I have been with this person from before the time when they were in the body and I will remain with them when their body dies." It makes statements that sound like lines from the Upanishads, the hindu holy scriptures. It frequently describes itself as a conduit for a greater wisdom or divine love. That part was originally described by a psychiatrist Ralph Allison, who called it the inner self helper, because when he could connect with that part of a person, it would tell him exactly what was needed for the therapy to proceed and for healing to occur. It's like an inner physician, or inner wisdom that many people I think, simply think of as their intuition or their creativity.
DiCarlo: Could you contrast your own experience of the lower self with the core self. What do each feel like?
Borysenko: Well, for me, when I am in that core or essential self, I feel spacious. I am not prone at that point to judge anybody or anything. My heart and mind are both open, which makes me a lot more perceptive as a scientist and psychologist. It makes me happy. My whole body feels relaxed, at ease, at peace. I feel a sense of unity with something greater than myself. A feeling of connectedness. For me, that experience always brings forth a tremendous sense of gratitude. The recognition that life is a tremendous mystery and a tremendous gift and that we are most fortunate to be living it.
I think everybody probably has that experience several times a day, but it might pass by very, very quickly and we just don't notice it. It happens every time you become present in the moment. Maybe it happens when you are looking out your window at the rising sun and for a moment you forget your fears and concerns and obligations, and are fully present to the rising sun. Perhaps it happens when you are around small children. There are so many moments when a child will just erupt with such laughter or such joy that you will just find yourself pulled into the moment. That's when you are in touch with that essential core.
The rest of the time it's easy to tell when we are in touch with the persona or the ego. That's when we feel closed down in some way. That's when we are judging. That's when we don't feel spacious. That's when we feel worried by something or are fearful.
DiCarlo: Do you feel that at this time in our collective history, it's important that we come into a recognition of this aspect of ourselves?
Borysenko: Not only is it important, it is inevitable. This part of ourselves is being spoken of in so many different ways. Take for example, the people who have near death experiences and who talk about experiencing some purity within themselves, some wisdom within themselves. They come back and interest other people. What is this all about? What is this light experience within us?
Also, if people are connected to that part of themselves, then that is one way that healing will occur within our community and within our world. Our individual communities are going to have violence to the extent that we fear one another, to the extent that we judge one another and to the extent that we are unforgiving. There are going to be difficulties of every sort, from schools that are not nurturing our children, to corporations which take advantage of the public, to the war machine which is ever active. I think the hope of the world is truly in recognizing this oldest, oldest spiritual principle that exists within each of us. Then, you end up with a whole different paradigm and way of viewing the world. This world view is exemplified by the Dali Lama and how he felt about the holocaust in Tibet. He wasn't in the old paradigm of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth". Instead, he practiced a form of loving kindness and compassion towards the Chinese. Every time he thinks of them, he tries to think of their pain and what he returns to them is his peace and blessing. We could stop war instantly--instantly--if people could do that.