The Existential Threat of COVID and What to Do About It – Dr. Joan Borysenko – HPP 53

Joan Borysenko, PhD

Fear is evermore present as we face the reality of the threat that a global virus brings. In today’s episode, Dr. Joan Borysenko, a leader in integrative medicine and New York Times best-selling author, introduces methods of dealing with an imminent threat and discovering interesting ways on how we can face it.

Join us and together we dive deep in understanding the reality of the world we now live in and learn how we can cope with the challenges it will bring towards mental health.

Show Notes:

Dr. Borysenko’s early origins that led to her revolutionary studies in integrative medicine – 03:26
“As a 10 year old, having developed a very serious mental illness and then the briefest way, I became psychotic. It was kicked off by seeing a frightening film and I was hallucinating. And I thought, I can’t be the only one who’s ever had an experience like this, there must be others”

Making meaning out of a global pandemic – 09:19
“You have to make meaning out of it in order to survive. When I think somebody wants to ask me, what’s the soul? My response was, it’s the organ that secretes meaning—Is your meaning something that is growth inducing? Or does your meaning involve blaming yourself, blaming others, or a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. And I’ll say the good part of this is, we know at least a little bit about helping people to become more optimistic”

Social Distancing: Its effects in our social lives today – 19:46
“It’s such a time of both peril and possibility. And social distancing offers both. Everybody naturally has some degree of anxiety because we all have that built in negativity bias that helps us survive, but once you ramp up that negativity bias into a fear with COVID, you need touch more than ever”

Facing a global threat and understanding how it affects human psyche – 25:20
“The good part can be that people who are on different sides politically, religiously, economically, racially, suddenly all come together to face a common threat. Meeting a disaster together brings people together because it erases all those lines”

Communicating with loved ones during difficult times – 30:58
“This makes grief incredibly complicated. There has to be some sort of rituals. Even a Zoom ritual is some help”

Trauma in relation to COVID and breaking ground despite the threat – 37:26
“Well, it’s about having a good connection with yourself. It’s about being able to give and receive and have a loving kind connection with others. And at a spiritual level, It’s about feeling a connection with something larger than yourself”

How trauma can be a positive force in life – 43:06
“As people begin to go through it, you do hear that. It’s like this was bitter medicine and I would never trade it. It has made me who I am”

The existential reality of life – 46:40
“And as I was sitting with my husband, there’s something about the immediate reality of the death of a loved one that breaks through the complacency we have. In our grief, where I touched deeply into the existential terror of death”

Being human: The experience of reality – 52:30
“Nonetheless, there’s more time for self reflection and for noticing, where is my mind now? Where is it going? What are the things that I daydream about, the things that I fear?”

The purpose of life – 54:40
“Everyone of those has revealed Love. For me, the nature of this universe is love and kindness itself which seems so ridiculous to people, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, people die, people are hungry, people suffer, it’s so, so very difficult. And I do believe that in the end it’s all about love”

Full Episode Transcript


people, pandemic, meaning, touch, social distancing, rituals, conversation, trauma, connection, story, life, thought, hear, grief, happening, kinds, feel, existential terror, experience, grieve


Dr. Joan Borysenko, Keith Kurlander, Dr. Will Van Derveer


Dr. Joan Borysenko 00:06

For me, the whole nature of this universe is loving kindness itself, which seems so ridiculous to people. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s so so very difficult. And I do believe that in the end, it’s all about love.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 00:28

Thank you for joining us for the higher practice podcast. I’m Dr. Will Van Derveer, with Keith Kurlander. And this is the podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health. Hello, everyone. We are very excited about this episode with one of the best known elders and leaders in integrative medicine. Dr. Joan Borysenko we really I enjoyed speaking with Joan and hearing her advice for us during this time of COVID-19 and the stressors that we’re all feeling at this time, Dr. Borysenko shares a number of very specific tips and recommendations for how to cope with the massive stress that everyone’s experiencing at this time. And she shares a bit about the journey of the healer, which is something that we feel is very important for practitioners to hear about and reflect on for ourselves personally. Dr. Joan Borysenko is a distinguished pioneer in integrative medicine, and is a world renowned expert in the mind body connection. Her work has been foundational in an international healthcare revolution that recognizes the role of meaning and the spiritual dimensions of life as an integral part of health and healing. Eloquent and inspiring in settings that range from hospitals to hospices, from theatres to conference venues, from boardrooms to houses of worship, she is a credible bridge between faith and reason. Her brilliance humor and authenticity, in combination with the latest research, make her a compelling and inspiring speaker and writer. Let’s welcome Dr. Joan Borysenko to the show.


Keith Kurlander 02:20

Hi, Dr. Borysenko. Thanks for being on the show.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 02:23

Hey, Keith, it’s great to see you. And Will, it’s wonderful to see you too. And always a privilege to talk with you two.


Keith Kurlander 02:32

Yeah, for us. Also, we, we always look forward to our conversations, because we always have great conversations, too. Yeah. Well, we you know, this show is obviously we talked to you about this is going to be a bit about COVID and the existential experience and threat we’re all facing and facing mortality in a different way in relationship and all these kinds of topics that people are dealing with right now. I always think It’s great to start with something a little broader about you and and hearing about, you know, you’ve been involved in the mind body integrative medicine, sort of spiritual conversation space, as long as it’s really been popular modern times, you know, for decades now and maybe just say, you know, for five minutes, just a little bit about your story that really took you down this path. Why don’t we start there?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 03:26

Sure. I, I’d be happy to. And the, you know, my signature story that I always tell is just as a 10 year old, having developed a very serious mental illness and then the briefest way, I became psychotic. It was kicked off by seeing a frightening film and I was hallucinating, headhunters and things from the jungle have had been a film set in the jungle and within a few weeks of that I developed OCD, which is a great way to organize anxiety I must say, you can count on your nervous system to do it it has to in order to survive. And the OCD was so overwhelming I had so many rituals to do of a whole variety of things, from reading upside down and backwards to hand washing to mouth scraping to all kinds of things. And it was impossible. I was taken to the best psychiatrists in Boston, but this was a very long time ago. There was nothing available. There was no Klonopin, there was no Prozac. There was no cognitive behavior therapy, there was nothing and it looked like to my parents like I was lost as I was living in a state of terrible terror. When one day I sat And I, I went in the summers to a wonderful camp, which was a Jewish girls camp. And I loved the feeling of being there of being in the Pine Grove and nature with the lake and hearing, you know, for the Sabbath services, the old traditional Hebrew melodies that just like brought me into a whole other world of peace and safety. So about six months into the illness, I decided I was going to set an meditate and pray one word, help if there’s anything there that listens, help. And then I began to think about the camp and I was simply transported was like being in another level the terror completely dissipated. There was this Amazing, amazing sense not only of peace but of knowing and intuition. And my intuition was that it was possible to recover from the illness. And I actually immediately kind of plan formed in my head. I was sitting there, and I started to get this sense of a poem forming and that I should write it down. It was a poem about human life was a poem about light. And I wrote it down, and it was so potent. I knew right away, I said, if I’m frightened, and I just say the poem. Maybe it will take away the fear. And that’s exactly what happened within three or four days of just repeating this poem that connected me to something larger. My bad dreams. went away the hallucinations went away, I went back to school, I went back to camp. And this was in the fifth grade. And this has informed my entire life because I was interested in what can go on. And the spiritual life of people like What was that? Why does Why do people talk about this? And I thought they didn’t tell me in Hebrew school that this other state was available. And I thought, I can’t be the only one who’s ever had an experience like this, there must be others. So in whatever way you can, when you’re 10 years old, and there’s no internet. I scoured the school library in the encyclopedias looking for these kinds of experiences. And that was that was my entree to spirituality. But I was also I’ve been fascinated by the natural world since I was a child, and by, you know, by the body by the brain, we were actually studying the brain in fifth grade when this started. So I became really fascinated by two things. That was how do we construct reality anyhow, through the brain is how do we step down that larger reality into what we see and feel and hear now. And so then, I think like a lot of kids who were ill, I had been in a terrible state of terror. And I wanted to be able to help other people who were mentally ill or terrified. And so, I ended up with this three part interest in spirituality, biology and psychology. And here we are now, roughly 55 years later, after that experience. No and I ended up With a doctorate from Harvard Medical School, initially it was a cancer cell biologist, then retrained as a psychologist, and started one of the first Mind Body clinics with Herbert Benson who had brought meditation to medicine. So there you have it.


Keith Kurlander 09:19

It’s a great story. And, you know, I think, to kick off the conversation, because you’re in such an interesting position of everything you’ve studied and learned and focused on in your life, and we’re talking about COVID today, I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts on how do we make meaning out of such a, you know, massive pandemic illness? How do we make meaning out of illness that is across the globe? And what is a healthy way to tell the story? You know, you said something really interesting, which is, you know, in Hebrew school, you know, this wasn’t told to you certain things are told to you, I just, it just reminded me of it was told to kneel on Hebrew schools about the Holocaust and, and that actually formed a lot of my identity in my life that I had to work through. So I’m just wondering about hearing from you as we kick off the conversation, how do we go about telling the story now and into the future about this pandemic in a way that is healing and not destructive to people?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 10:20

You know that that’s really a great question, Keith, because when people obviously face illness, particularly illness that you know, has an existential component. You can die from this friends family can die from this, and it brings you face to face with impermanence. You have to make meaning out of it in order to survive. When I think somebody wants to ask me, what’s the soul? My response was, it’s the organ that that secretes meaning. And this is what human beings Do and we make meaning of everything. When things get difficult, for example, what you will see is that fundamentalism of all kinds increases worldwide. Because impermanence is too hard for people to grapple with. We want some sort of certainty. And we will all look for certainty in our own ways. And I think, particularly for people who may have been very traumatized by their life in general, by childhood things you have, there’s been some studies of this larger preponderance of people who will seek meaning and some kind of fundamentalist belief. And the unfortunate part is that many of the meanings stories will really not be good. Like, I remember during the AIDS epidemic, I was running a mind body clinic nd fascinated by the meaning people gave to this terrible epidemic. And the worst meaning is God is punishing me for my sins. And it’s a terrible meaning because the natural corollary of it is when I die, I’ll go and burn in hell forever. And that, of course, does not lead to good mental health outcomes for sure. I mean, that’s so terrifying. It’s It’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. So, when we look at meaning, I think we need to kind of look at a spectrum, that being on the far end of the negative spectrum of meaning in the more positive spectrum. You know, I think about the large literature on stress hardiness, and what stress hardy people will tell themselves In the face of catastrophe is, yep, this is a terrible thing to be happening. But it’s challenge and I can meet the challenge. whatever is necessary, I have it within me. And that’s a story. That’s a very positive one because it bypasses any kind of religious beliefs. And the the agency is there inside. So that I think of that is that’s a great neutral meaning territory. Then you have people who are kind of, you know, they have a larger perspective that includes both their own internal sense of agency. And it includes things like Well, what does this mean, really for the community that I’m in There’s a whole level of meaning to this of people who just look for silver linings like, hey, this pandemic is revealing a lot of the bad cracks in the infrastructure of our humanity, and the infrastructure of our cities, and the infrastructure of our political systems, etc, etc. And while this is terrible, in the long run, we couldn’t keep going the way that we were going. We needed a big shake up so that we could see the fault lines and do something about them. And what happens with a lot of people who think that way, also become activists. So they also have agency, not only the agency of I can do something for me, but I can do something for the whole community. And then, of course, You have the whole levels, so many levels of what’s the spiritual meaning of this? And I’m sure that you like I have listened to many people’s very beautiful levels of meaning that they give to the US, you know, that kind of meaning. I mean, for me, I’m thinking, well, at a very personal level, I understand the idea of impermanence. Everything comes, it’s born, it functions it passes away. And it’s one thing of course, to know that intellectually, and it’s an entirely different thing when what’s passing away is you or people you love or your means of making a living or anything like that. But that spiritual point of view of simply becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and impermanence is also a spiritual point of view. In times like this, I always pull out Pema chodron book, for those listeners who may not know her work, she’s a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and a beautiful writer and thinker. She has a book called comfortable with uncertainty. And it’s 108 kind of very small entries. It’s a small book, and maybe there are a page or page and a half because, as you know, if we’re frightened, the prefrontal cortex, where we’re going to make sense of those things, is out to lunch. In a fearful state, it’s hard to read, it’s hard to make sense of things. So I love her book. I’ve given it to clients for years because it’s short, it can like pick it up anywhere, and there’s always something that will resonate. When you read it, then of course there are all kinds of other wonderful spiritual meanings where people spin the meanings according to who they are. And one big meaning is like hey, Planet Earth was ready for a wake up call. There’s been too much of warfare. There’s been too much inequality and like, this is God or the universe or the whatever you call it, hitting the reset button. And, you know, there’s that there’s a line and a poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore that I like to say to myself, and the line is the pain Oh Master, the pain was so great when you were like tuning myself strings, to think of myself as a musical instrument. And God is tuning the strings. There’s so many levels of meaning. And right away, by the way, by the way that we construct meaning, we can tell a lot just about something called attributional theory. And whether you’re an optimist or pessimist, attributional theory essentially looks at when something happens, we all attribute meaning to it. And is your meaning something that is growth inducing, or does your meaning involve blame yourself, blame others, or a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. And I’ll say the good part of this is, we know at least a little bit about helping people to become more optimistic. So That was a long rant. long answer to a short question


Keith Kurlander 19:06

is a good answer. Thanks for, thanks for that.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 19:10

We could go in so many different directions here. really appreciating your your words about resilience and takes me into thoughts about post traumatic growth and the different ways that the brain shifts with blood flow. I like to kind of track myself in regards to this fundamentalism that you were talking about that, you know, going into black and white thinking and knowing that when that’s happening for me, my amygdala is on fire and my frontal lobes very quiet.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 19:44

Oh, yes.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 19:46

It takes me also into the question about this way that part of what we’re doing right now is social regulation, through technology and issues issue of physical distancing. And I’m curious your thoughts About the opportunity that is actually here and this.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 20:05

Yep. You know, it is, It’s such a time Will of both peril and possibility. And social distancing offers both. And let me speak a word about the peril in terms of connection and then the possibility also in terms of connection, even in, quote, social isolation or distancing. I’d say that the hardest thing about social distancing comes from people who are living by themselves. That’s the most vulnerable population, particularly people living by themselves who don’t have a pet because that means their touch deprived and touch. Essentially, we co regulate each other’s nervous system. You know, in part by tone of voice, the look on the face with the mirror neurons do we project a feeling of being safe or unsafe, that makes other people feel safe or unsafe? That part we can get via zoom or you know, some other platform where we see one another, but we can’t get touch. And the sense of touch is so important. You too probably are aware there’s a whole spate of experiments where, for example, they sent people into a library and the librarian when giving them a book would either like touch them, like in passing, nothing that you’d even notice most of the people didn’t even notice they’ve been touched. But those who had been touched, reported a much better experience. I think. library, then those who had not been touched, even if it was subliminal. And then there were studies like when the waitress brought a bill in a restaurant or the waiter, you know, they were like allies in psychological experiments. And again, if, if you were brushed in some way by them, if it was touched, you left a bigger tip. Never underestimate the effects of touch, think about premature babies or failure to thrive and babies who are neglected. We have to have touch in order for our nervous system to mature. And it’s the main the main way in which we help each other co regulate. No, it’s a frightening world. It’s a scary world. Everybody naturally has some degree of anxiety because we all have that built in negativity bias that helps us survive, but once you ramp up that negativity bias into a fear with COVID, you need touch more than ever. And that’s why we were talking together before it started and just mentioning that there is not a puppy available in the whole United States of America, because people need to relate they need, they need to touch. So that being said, the good part which I have heard from numerous friends and clients, the good part of social distancing is that at least some set subset of the population is communicating more than ever, with friends and family. We’re certainly finding that I see my grandchildren live at a distance all of them one in one of them’s in Costa Rica, and I find myself now Reading bedtime stories to this little one in Costa Rica. And it’s been wonderful from that point of view. It’s like we have to like somebody will say, hey, let’s have zoom cocktail. And we’ll have to say, well, we must consult our schedules. And of course, that part of connectedness is really wonderful. It’s actually increased. And I think we’re all wondering, once we’re kind of all released from our lockdown and feel comfortable going out. To what extent will that kind of connection remain as something we keep? Or will people go back to usual this we don’t know. But I think we’ve learned a lot about the power and importance of social connections. during these times and, you know, human ingenuity is fantastic, right away, people think of all kinds of different ways to connect to have birthday parties to have conferences to, to do all those things we would have thought you could never do unless you’re in person.


Keith Kurlander 25:20

Yeah, I am wondering about taking this conversation now to something you started on, which is about the existential threat. And I’m really curious about your thoughts and what happens to the human psyche, often, I mean, obviously, there are a lot of things. It’s very personal. But I’m more of a collective level when we have global wars or we have global pandemics, you know, things that threaten humanity and a more global level what what starts happening, what do you perceive starts happening and more of the collective psyche that people have to face and maybe some tips on how to how to relate to that?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 25:58

Well, you know, I have to say probably if I had been in Rome, or northern Italy, during this pandemic, I would have something different to say. Because there, the existential threat was so absolutely great. You know, as great as that was in New York City, this would apply to people there too, in the epicenter. It’s very different from those of us, for example, in countries where there’s not much virus or I live in New Mexico, there’s very little for a few cases in our state. So I’m gonna say it’s very different depending on who you are and where you are in this pandemic. But right at the epicenter, it makes me think, again, saying there’s a range of response the good parts About facing a pandemic together, which unfortunately we have not seen in this country. The good part can be that people who are on different sides politically, religiously, economically, racially, suddenly all come together to face a common threat when there was that really difficult but elegant experiment in psychology, I think it was Zimbardo who who did this, who set up a color war at a camp and you know, camps of color wars anyhow. But it got so out of hand that you had campers. They weren’t talking to each other. They were I mean, it was horrifying. And so they staged an emergency. They tipped over a water tanker and said the camp now has no water the truck As you know, gone over, and unless we all get together and write that water truck are not going to have any water. And so that’s what happened. All the campers had to get together. And it brought them together. Not all of them by the way, there was some horse, pretty testy. But largely meeting a disaster together brings people together because it erases all those lines. I like I like to quote, a book title from a book that came out during the AIDS epidemic. I don’t remember the author, but the title was no time for nonsense. And I think that’s a good way to look at it. It’s like, forget it. all this other stuff is meaningless. We’ve got to work together. I used to think it might be a good thing. If invaders from Mars actually landed, and the entire Earth had to get together and do something about that maybe it would bring us all together, then there have been theories for years, that maybe something would happen. And suddenly the whole planet would have some equivalent to the near death experience and there would be a sudden change of consciousness and the whole and none of that is actually happening. And what I’m sorry to say is, at least in many places, it’s just caused more divisiveness, particularly in this country because we do not have a unified approach to dealing with the virus. There’s definitely been a partisan split and that’s not helpful. As I said, I wasn’t in Italy. Don’t know how it was but a nursing some hope that it may be a little less partisan, but I really I don’t know. But you know, I will say this, thank god this virus turned out not to be as lethal as something like SARS, SARS had a death rate of 10%. That would have been quite different. Because thanks to social distancing, I think we’ve been able to really flatten flatten the curve in a very good way. And that’s excellent. And of course, you know, now the concern is people are thinking, Oh, not a big problem. But, you know, for many people, it is a very big problem. There are still many people who are dying, who may die, and many, many people who are grieving


Dr. Will Van Derveer 30:58

in regards to the grieving within the continued impact of social distancing, how would you How would you? I’m just thinking about people I know who have lost loved ones during this time and who haven’t been able to travel or even have a funeral. What would you say to folks who are, who have lost loved ones during this time where maybe ritual that we would ordinarily have to try and move the grief is unavailable to us, at least at the moment?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 31:29

Well, you know, first of all, for, for all those people, my heart goes out to them as as yours does. Who ever thought that we would be unable to be with loved ones who are dying because we weren’t let into the hospital. This This makes grief incredibly complicated. And as he said, our usual rituals for Dealing with grief. You know you can’t have a wake. You can’t have the celebrations of people’s lives, which involve a lot of touching a lot of hugging, a lot of visiting a lot of food. I think about the Jewish mourning rituals that go on for 11 months actually, after the dash, and they you know, they begin with sitting Shiva for a week where people are coming there are special prayers. Food is brought. Mirrors are covered. And there’s something to it you feel at one with all the people who’ve ever lost a loved one. And you’re comforted, co regulated, fed, nurtured, cried with this is so difficult, so difficult for people So there have to be some sort of rituals. Even a zoom ritual is some help. You know, the first zoom call after we were all locked down that I had was for the birthday of a physician, friend of ours. And his wife had gotten together her family, many of whom are in Israel, his family from the United States. For a regular birthday situation, you never would have had all of that family. And we went around the group there must have been maybe 25 people. And everybody had a chance to tell a story about why they loved Bruce, the birthday boy. And we all said, My God, that was like going to a memorial service before you’re dead. should all do this, you know, we should hear, hear about people’s love what they see in us, why they admire us what we mean to them. So I think it’s very important, at least, to have that kind of a ritual which could happen over zoom. And for people and be grief. Grief is so difficult. I cannot imagine somebody who lives alone and is grieving a loved one, especially somebody that they could not see in the hospital as they were dying. There’s going to be an already is a tremendous amount of PTSD in people who have lost loved ones that we all really need to recognize and then together as a community, I would hope find very specific Ways to introduce rituals to help them grieve. I haven’t, you know, had that come up with a client yet, but many times in the past, just helping people grieve that there is fortunately, some good resources about that, but I have found that, as you said, well ritual is important. And just helping people create ritual, doing imagery exercises, having belongings doing of the deceased person pictures, doing writing exercises, it’s a very important, but you also have now as a secondary problem, and that is so many people already have got unresolved trauma issues. And when you add just the stress of the pandemic, let alone grief over the death of a loved one to pre existing trauma, it’s a very difficult situation


Dr. Will Van Derveer 36:06

Well, appreciating the the message that I’m hearing from you that, you know, we can sort of draw on the traditions or the the rituals that we that we knew or that held us are covered. But this might be a time where we really need to bring creativity to adapt, or maybe even event rituals, new rituals are supposed to and our loved ones to make sense of the grief.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 36:35

Absolutely. Such a difficult time such a tender time for people. And, you know, I don’t want people to underestimate the fact that 100,000 people as of the time of this podcast, have died. That’s a lot of people. And it’s going to be even more painful during this difficult called time. So we will it’s an opportunity Will to think about what can we do here, and it will help people if we can come up with some new grief rituals. It will help anybody who’s grieving. So maybe we can, you know, that’s one. That’s a great opportunity. Now I have to go think about this.


Keith Kurlander 37:26

You know, that’s what I’ve really been focusing on what is the opportunity right now and you and Will, we’re talking about trauma related to the loss and the stress. And I’m really curious about the opportunity of reframing the conversation around trauma right now and how there’s so much stigmatization still about this word, and PTSD and trauma, and it seems like trauma is a part of life. And I like to sort of frame it as it’s it’s really the more significant experiences we’ve had that we weren’t able to process essentially. And we have these unprocessed experiences that we’re still now challenged by with COVID, which is a lot of health care workers and people who are losing people are having experiences that they’re not able to process in the moment. And it can create this term we call trauma. We can frame it as dissociation from the moment or however we frame it. But I’m really curious about how do we reframe this whole word and concept that in my mind, it can lead to something beautiful if we have the right framework on it. Just curious about that conversation right now with trauma and COVID. And what’s a really good framework? We could we can offer people here?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 38:49

You know, I think about it in terms of just our conversation about social distancing. And it’s about connection and I Think about, okay, what is a good definition of mental health? Well, it’s about having a good connection with yourself. It’s about being able to give and receive and have a loving kind connection with others. And it is spiritual level. It’s about feeling a connection with something larger than yourself something that feels like, well, it feels wise and compassionate. I’ll leave that there. So it’s all about connection. And that’s where spirituality and mental health come together as we’re hopefully having experiences on this planet that lead us to deeper levels of connection. And what wakes us up generally, to connection on the one hand, things like beauty, good attachment, all of these things. But the other category of experiences that wakes us up to connection is when we lose connection. And so as you were saying, Keith trauma well can be framed as dissociation, whatever it is, it’s something that holds on to us, so that we’re no longer in contact with the present moment. And if we can’t be present, we’re not in connection with ourselves as well as we might be or with other people, or with that larger spiritual sense of connection. And so, if you look at trauma, well, it’s like, this is great. This is an invitation. This is a piece of life experience, which you haven’t yet integrated, which feels disconnecting. And that’s an invitation to reconnect. And I think that’s it. frame of reference. That is helpful. And it’s true. And then you think about oh, my goodness, you said it very well you have to integrate these experiences. And I’ve certainly appreciated Dan Siegel’s work on okay, how do we integrate the brain upstairs brain as he says, the downstairs brain, the right brain, the left brain, the past the future. And a big part of that is narrative integration. How are we telling the story of our life? Is there a different way to tell the story of your life? I mean, if you tell the story of your life, and it’s one trauma after another, you will have a very unhappy brain and feel disconnected on multiple levels. But if you look instead at Okay, is there some string That I called on for this, what got me through to this point, then you begin to hang your story on the thread of resilience instead of the thread of deficiency. That makes all the difference. Because when our any life story, so many different threads run through it, you know, we could all tell our story, I don’t know an infinite number of different ways. And what I found very helpful clinically through the years is to help people find a positive thread. Sometimes I call it a thread of grace, that it’s like all my, all these difficult things happened. And underneath it all was some loving instruction or impulse that we’ve experienced this and it’s it’s actually brought us along further on the path of connection.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 43:01

Yeah, it’s oftentimes in my clinical work, it’s probably one of the most gratifying moments in working with a person with trauma when they begin to retell the story as the story of taking a very bitter, some version of taking a very bitter medicine, CAS that caused them to grow and change in ways that they would never trade. So, having experienced the first


Dr. Joan Borysenko 43:28

Yes, certainly, you know, because so much of my clinical work over the years has been with people who are physically ill. That’s been part of it. It’s, you know, you can’t look at someone who’s just got a fresh diagnosis of cancer and say, there will come a moment when you will see that this was a gift that as people begin to go through it, you do hear that well, it’s like this has been a medicine and I would never trade it. It has made me me who I am. And that, that I think we, it’s inspiring to us as clinicians that, like, wow, there’s this great potential to healing. It’s like, okay, the challenge has been here. And we’ve tried to create a safe space and help our clients with that post traumatic growth.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 44:27

Very inspiring. I feel like on some level this conversation is supporting me to, to stay more in revision of the story in my journey here. And I think that it brings up for me as we talk about tools for people, the importance of being with each other in this dialogue about then how do we support each other? How do we challenge each other when we feel that that’s the best way to love the person in the moment and challenge that story?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 44:59

Yeah, I can remember this is simply a personal story of a time that I was in the really in the grips of an old trauma, which had come up and then I was sick at that time. So it reminds me it’s like, oh, my God, here I am, I’m already vulnerable because I’m ill. And then this old trauma has been triggered. I didn’t even realize, you know, it was one of those things intellectually, I knew it happened, but I was very cut off from the emotional part of it. And I remember a dear friend of mine, saying, john, you keep saying things that bring you closer to the edge of a cliff. Is there anything that you could say to yourself, that would bring you back a step away from the edge of that cliff and that was a very kind of way to channel How I was thinking, and instead to say, what could you do to back off from the cliff? I’ve always actually kept that with me. You know, during times when I’m frightened, and my prefrontal cortex has gone out to lunch. And my my amygdala is reading me the fear and panic riot act. I think you’re right at the edge baby. What can you do to take a step back? It really is a great little mindfulness exercise.


Keith Kurlander 46:38

Right? If, yeah, this makes me think about just this whole conversation of connection with people and how so many people don’t have permission in themselves or in their relationships to actually talk about life and the existential reality of life. And that conversation that actually doesn’t happen and in many people’s lives, and then we face this threat of COVID, where mortality is a little more in our face than usual. Yeah. And they still don’t have that permission to have the conversation. And, you know, I’m, I’m fortunate and and for whatever reason, I found the own my own reasons and empowerment to start that conversation very early on, probably in my childhood even. But most of the people around me weren’t having that conversation. I just wonder if you have any thoughts about that of how these moments in time, like war or pandemics, where it really is seems like it’s asking us to have that conversation.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 47:48

I think that’s such a very good point, Keith, this is not a society in which that conversation happens. It’s so different, you know, I’m in Santa Fe, we have a lot of people here who have come from Mexico, we have the Day of the Dead celebration, you know, right around Halloween there. And that culture is so centered on being present being sent to us on life on death. Every little kid understands the reality of death. They are not just on the Day of the Dead, but it’s pervasive the knowledge of this in the culture. It’s so very interesting, the you know, huge cultural differences. Mostly, you know, people generally speaking, do not talk about death. I think about that line from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna asks Arjuna what is what’s the greatest mystery of all? To restart Arjuna Oh yes, a a Krishna asked Arjuna. And then the answer to that is the fact that we will all die, but nobody actually believes it. So like, we know that but we don’t believe it. And your point Keith is, during a pandemic, it becomes a lot more believable. If you haven’t thought of it before. You know, I’m just flashing on a personal experience. I was telling you to that. Our beloved poodle, Milo, who was 10 had multiple medical issues passed away. Thank God he had a beautiful passing just a few days ago. And as I was sitting with my husband, there’s something about the immediate reality of the death of the law. One that breaks through the complacency we have like, Oh, yeah, I know everything dies. But, you know, don’t bother me right now because I’m eating lunch that just breaks through that. And there was a moment of sitting there with my husband Gordy in our grief, where I touch deeply into the, I’d say, existential terror, of of death. When I thought Milo has gone he was here just yesterday. And at some point, it’s going to be you my darling husband who goes or it’s going to be me who goes first. And we’re going to grieve that loss that our beloved is gone. And the power of that was so deep For a moment, the terror was really existential of like, I knew that but I never wanted it to come to the surface and suddenly it comes to the surface and then you have to process it and think, okay, everything really will pass. Everything really is impermanent, one of us will pass and the other one will grieve, and it will be difficult. And we are resilient. We will find a way. But it’s, I mean that that’s the greatest terror of all is existential terror. I mean, that’s what runs our nervous system trying to avoid that terror. And when you’re really bonded with another human being or with an animal, the existential terror of death extends to their death as well. Well, and I think that our whole nervous system is configured to avoid falling into that existential terror because I mean, even for a moment, it’s so deep. So we have a lot of defenses and one of them cases, not talking about it much in this culture.


Keith Kurlander 52:24

No, thank you.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 52:26

Well, as you were talking Joani about not talking about existential threat, I started thinking about how our nervous system automates the experience of reality and each other. We recently had Stan Tatkin on the show and he was explaining how, in conservation of energy, the looking for novelty, that the human being experiences is expensive. And we’re constantly automating what we already think we know so that we can go look for something that we don’t think we know. It’s just such a weird experience to be human, you know, and to be automating our loved ones. Like, I feel like sometimes our physiology is designed to have us be partly present but partly not present.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 53:18

Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, another, I would say, benefit to some people of the pandemic, if you’re already kind of able to notice what goes on in your mind being there are fewer distractions when you’re home, although you can make up lots of distractions. Nonetheless, there’s more time for self reflection, and for noticing and noticing, whereas my mind what, where is it going? What are the things that I daydream about? What are the things that I feel It’s like, in a way, it’s expanded meditation out of a small scale of time to like, suddenly we’re in this little meditative bubble, at least some of us were, you know, we can really notice and then really notice a ha, what are what are my habits of mind? And how do I come back into the moment? And what takes me out of it? And I, you know, I don’t think I’ll ever be in the moment even the majority. Yes.


Keith Kurlander 54:42

Well, as we wrap up, we have a couple more questions here. As we wrap up, I am because this conversation has gotten so intriguingly spiritual for me. I have a I have a question for the three of us. Because I think it’s a very relevant question right now for a lot of human beings. Which is what what’s the point of all this? This life experience? I’m really curious what you have to say. Because a lot of people are probably asking themselves that question right now, what is the point? What is this thing? Right?



Dr. Joan Borysenko 55:14

So we all get a shot at this one?


Keith Kurlander 55:16

We all we all get a shot of this.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 55:20

Good, you go first.


Keith Kurlander 55:22

You want me to go first? Okay. Well, this is my current, you know outside of being a mystery, that’s my current answer, which is, and it’s been my answer for about a year now. So it keeps changing, and obviously it will probably for the rest of my life. My current answer is that love is having an experience of itself. And that’s just all that’s going on here. So that’s my current answer, but very intrigued to hear what each of you have to say.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 55:52

I guess we’ll let Joani go last and. Since she’s our guest today. I tend to think of life as curriculum that I’m enrolled, and I’m learning how to love and how to be loved and how to express love. And sometimes I’m progressing in the curriculum and sometimes I’m being sent back to the grade before.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 56:24

Yes, well, I have to say I concur with the both of you. And, you know, for me, you know a little bit about my history. I’ve always said I have strange brain because I’ve had migraines since I was a kid and I tend to float into different levels of things and have odd and weird and mystical experiences. And every one of those has revealed love, that the for me the whole nature of this universe is love. Kindness itself, which seems so ridiculous to people, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, people die. People are hungry, people suffer. It’s so so very difficult. And I do believe that in the end, it’s all about love. And I do believe although I have no idea what becomes of us, when we lay our body down, I actually do believe that our consciousness continues to evolve, and then eventually we all end up in the same place and that is this no way to express it. It’s ineffable, but it has everything to do with love, and the continual evolution and spread of that love. I wish I had words for this, but I I do Do not. And that has helped me a lot. Because when I look at people, and I look at people who, you know, my brain wants to judge like, Are you kidding? What are you doing? I’m thinking, it’s all part of the curriculum. This is a place of duality. There’s both day and night and good and evil. And without that duality, there would not be growth, it would not be challenge, and in the end, it is all about love. And that, of course, begins with a sense of empathy, of compassion toward others and a compassion toward ourselves. That’s so very, very important. I think they, the curriculum, largely is about kindness. I always come back to this one story of the famous historian of Religion, Houston Smith who died, I think just in this last year, and he was squiring, Aldous Huxley around MIT where Huxley had shown up to give a talk. This is one of my favorite stories. And he had a chance to ask, you know, as a young man, he’s asking the famous Aldous Huxley. What’s it all about? You know, what have you learned in your whole long life exploring states of consciousness? You know, what can I take away from this and Huxley turned to him and they said, Be a little kinder.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 59:41

I love that. Beautiful.


Keith Kurlander 59:43

Thank you for entertaining that, be a little kinder a good a good way to go. How can people learn from you any programs they should be aware of right now? How should they connect with you?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 59:57

Yes, you can go to my work. website. And there’s only one little kicker there, you have to know how to spell my name. Thank you guys to have it on the course material, or come and join my Facebook community page. And also what I have going right now is a program that’s kind of my legacy program that I’ve developed with a wonderful colleague of mine. It’s called graceful 360 as in full of grace, two L’s and it’s seasonal three months at a time or just almost at the summer solstice, and the summer version is starting. And it’s a wonderful program because I create a special meditation that matches the bio energies of each month, as the earth energies and nature change through the seasons. There’s a medication and there’s a positive psychology piece, we install one of the 24 character strengths each month. And we call these the graces. It’s like, this month’s Grace is loving kindness and so, their practices around that there’s a monthly ritual. I’ve always thought ritual is a very important way of connecting us to what is really important emergent, was, as we’ve just talked about grief ritual, there’s also a recipe every month that goes with the bio energies an herbal remedy that comes this this. June’s is actually cider vinegar and rose petals. This is an old remedy that stops itching. So this is like a full service Mind Body spiritual herbal thing. Complete with zoom calls once a month, so that’s graceful 360. And, you know, sign up on on my website, you’ll get some emails about it. And then I’m always doing various programs. One of the programs that will come up, probably and not for another three or four months is my online spiritual memoir program, which is what we’ve been talking about looking for the thread of grace within your stories. So lots of ways to stay in touch with me. And then, well, we, you know, we’re thinking about a free gift that we could offer people who’ve seen this podcast, and I thought about lots of different things. And then I settled on a sleep kit and I think so many people are losing sleep. Keep asking that question. So the sleep kit, as again, it’s mind body, spirit and a little herbal in there, too. That really is very effective at helping people find the rest that we all need.


Keith Kurlander 63:17

That’s great. Thank you. Well, we always like to end with one question here that you’ve probably covered some of already. But the question is, if you had a billboard that every human being saw once in their lifetime, and there was a little paragraph on their, a message you could tell them, what would you say to them?


Dr. Joan Borysenko 63:36

I would say, probably be a little kinder, and start with yourself. Be gentle with yourself. And as you feel gentle, that will be a bomb that goes forward and touches everybody else.


Keith Kurlander 63:57

Hey, thanks, Joan. It’s always Such a pleasure to connect with you. So thank you so much for being on the show.


Dr. Joan Borysenko 64:04

Thanks for having me. I just love these opportunities for us to get together and really have conversations that matter. So thank you.


Dr. Will Van Derveer 64:18

Well, that was such an honor and pleasure to have a conversation with Dr. Joan marcinko. About the current stresses we face and social distancing and COVID-19. What we can do about it. If you would like to hear from us about upcoming episodes and other information about integrative psychiatry, please go to email, psychiatry and you can enter your email and we will keep you up to date. And if you really enjoyed this episode, and you would like for other people to be able to more easily find it. Please leave us a review on iTunes. That’s a good way for people to learn about us and what we’re up to. We look forward to connecting with you again on the next episode of The Higher Practice Podcast, where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health.

Joan Borysenko, PhD

This distinguished pioneer in integrative medicine is a world-renowned expert in the mind/body connection. Her work has been foundational in an international health-care revolution that recognizes the role of meaning, and the spiritual dimensions of life, as an integral part of health and healing. Eloquent and inspiring in settings that range from hospitals to hospices, from theaters to conference venues, and from boardrooms to houses of worship, she is a credible bridge between faith and reason. Her brilliance, humor, and authenticity—in combination with the latest research—make her a compelling and inspiring speaker and writer.

After graduating magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College in 1967, Dr. Borysenko earned her doctorate in Medical Sciences from the Harvard Medical School, where she completed post-doctoral training in cancer cell biology. Her first faculty position was at the Tufts University College of Medicine in Boston. But after the death of her father from cancer, she became more interested in the person with the illness than in the disease itself, and returned to Harvard Medical School to complete a second postdoctoral fellowship, this time in the new field of behavioral medicine. Under the tutelage of Herbert Benson, M.D., who first identified the relaxation response and brought meditation into medicine, she was awarded a Medical Foundation Fellowship and completed her third post-doctoral fellowship in psychoneuroimmunology.

In the early 1980’s Dr. Borysenko co-founded a Mind/Body clinic with Dr. Benson and Dr. Ilan Kutz, became licensed as a psychologist, and was appointed instructor in medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Her years of clinical experience and research culminated in the 1987 publication of the New York Times best seller, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, which sold over 400,000 copies. The 20th anniversary edition, newly revised, was published in 2007. Author or co-author of 16 other books and numerous audio and video programs, including the Public Television special Inner Peace for Busy People, she is the Founding Partner of Mind/Body Health Sciences, LLC located in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

To learn more about Dr. Joan Borysenko: