An Interview with Jean Shinoda Bolen By Mary NurrieStearns
Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., is a Jungian analyst and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the author of “Goddesses in Everywoman;” she is an internationally renowned lecturer and workshop leader. Her other books include “The Tao of Psychology,” “Gods in Everyman,” “Close to the Bone,” and “Crossing to Avalon.” A fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Bolen has also served as chairperson of the Council of National Affairs of the APA and as a board member of the Ms. Foundation for Women. Dr. Bolen lives in Mill Valley, California.
In order for us to truly live, we have to heal our body mind so that we unfold our whole potential as loving human beings. Jean Shinoda Bolen is a gifted healer of the psyche. The metaphors and love in her books provide a healing context for readers. When we decided to explore healing in this issue, we knew that Dr. Bolen could contribute a depth of understanding about healing, in general and about healing of the psyche, in particular.
Personal Transformation: Let’s begin by discussing the nature of healing.
Jean Shinoda Bolen: What comes to mind are the similarities between healing a broken bone and healing a broken heart. In healing a broken heart, the need is to recover and love again, and the need of a broken bone is for it to become strong enough to support you again. Healing is about the capacity to function again. Something had to happen to get in the way of a natural functioning, whether it is the ability to walk or an ability to love. We come into the world with these capacities. When something goes wrong, people go to physicians or healers of all kinds. I don’t consider myself as healing anyone, any more than I consider the orthopedic surgeon as healing a broken bone. Nature or God or something beyond the physician is the healer. The healer helps clear the way for what is natural to occur. The things in the way are the problems that people come with. One of the tasks in psychological healing is to remove the contaminants. You can’t heal any part of the body when there is an infected foreign object in it, such as a splinter. Psychologically, the contamination is often an attitude that has been imposed on the psyche of the person, either a condemnation, a belittlement, an action that implied that this person is worthless.
So healing is a restoration of functioning, and the process includes removing some type of contamination.
Yes, some contamination or some kind of limitation. Many people who come to see me had a natural growth impeded. Each person has their own seed of what they are supposed to develop into. The strength or the shape of that quality will be distorted, as a plant is affected if it does not receive sunshine, water and good soil. In a healing relationship, the person who provides the environment doesn’t fix the person, but provides the equivalent of a green thumb. We attend to the person just as we attend to a plant. We give it energy and love. We notice whether there is enough food and water. It is natural for a healthy person, psyche, plant or bone to grow if the conditions allow it to happen.
In healing the physical body, many times we do nothing and the natural healing process occurs. While sometimes we need a bone set or something to be surgically removed, often our body heals itself. Is that also true in psychological healing?
Time has a positive effect on most broken hearts. Time heals loss and pain. Though time and nature may heal the wound in the body and the wound in the psyche, sometimes body and psyche grow a layer over a festering wound that becomes toxic to the person. Childhood abuse or grief that is never expressed, or secrets that made you feel like you didn’t deserve to be part of the human race, contain elements that are like a covering over a big infected boil. The body makes an effort to ward it off, yet the infection saps the person until it is opened and drained. A lot of emotional dysfunction needs to have the equivalent of opening the wound and letting it drain so that the person remembers the pain and experiences the feelings of grief and betrayal and shame. The wound is cleansed by the accepting presence of that other person who doesn’t recoil.
How important is desire to heal to the healing process?
It varies a lot. In physical illness the body’s physiology has the capacity to respond in a positive way, to heal itself. The working of a healthy immune system is a natural response of the body to heal itself. If the person’s body and psyche have been depleted over time, if the psyche is depressed and the person feels hopeless or wants to die, the body’s response is affected. There is a psyche-soma connection.
Doesn’t it take a certain amount of willingness to engage these processes, to seek out support, and to undergo potentially uncomfortable experiences that can be aspects of the healing journey?
A more old-fashioned term would be the will to live or the desire to survive. When people are lost in the wilderness or are going through a physical or psychological process, a positive commitment to stay the course does matter. Courage and conviction and desire have something to do with the hope that you can affect your personal fate. Sometimes, that is the missing quality that needs to be sparked before the rest can happen.
That quality can be provided through the presence of someone else. The physician or healer can hold that courage and faith when the person isn’t able to.
That is a major quality determining the effectiveness of a physician or psychotherapist. Of course, at certain places in the journey, the patient is going to get discouraged. The hope that something can be effective has a major effect on the psyche and in turn on the body. Andrew Weil described the power of doctors to encourage people or to hex them. What the person in authority says about the likelihood of your recovery makes an enormous difference to most people. Bernie Siegel speaks about exceptional patients, the ones who say, “I am not going to let authority tell me what my fate is going to be; I have something to do with my own fate.” Exceptional patients have a survival quality that people have who make it through difficult situations.
They have the capacity to stay connected with courage and faith.
It also makes a tremendous difference whether or not you are supported on that journey. People who run marathons talk about running into the wall, that place where it seems too painful to keep on going, and yet you only have a couple more miles to go. Knowledge about the wall helps, being aware that this is a natural part of the journey. During labor, women know that the most painful part is just before the baby comes out. Fortunately for most women, the process is beyond will power. The baby is going to come out. The marathon racer facing more pain can give up and say “I quit.” There isn’t an instinct that is going to deliver the runner to the end of the line. That is true of the physical and psychological healing journey most of the time. The body can pull the person through, in spite of the person, sometimes. But most of the time, giving up and feeling hopeless affects what the body will do. People who believe in them and love them who say whatever helps that person keep on keeping on, for as long as it takes to make it to this particular destination, make a large difference.
Does fear accompany chronic or potentially fatal conditions and does addressing fear turn the tide in healing?
It varies a great deal. Some people don’t feel much fear under circumstances where most others would. There is a psychological type who deals with what is in the present and doesn’t have the intuition, imagination or worrywart element that anticipates the worst. The more you get out of the present moment and into the dire-what-can-happen-next, the more you are not present to deal with what is right now. Feeling overwhelmed by fear of what is coming is a real problem across the board. A person who has stage fright may avoid giving the performance that would allow them to really express some major gift, for example.
In your book “Close to the Bone,” you talked about the impact of potentially terminal illnesses. It seemed that people who came through those illnesses faced the fears of death and loss such that fear no longer had the power it can have over those of us who haven’t faced a potentially terminal illness. Does something happen in that process that changes people’s relationship with fear, rendering it less powerful?
There is a considerable range of responses to approaching death. A great number of people who approach death do come to some sense of peace about it being a transition. Sometimes, people live a lot longer than expected because they are not ready to cross over yet. Will keeps them on this side until something shifts. Often, something is going on with people who take a long time, when doctors expect they wouldn’t be around long. Great spiritual and psychological work is done in the last phase of the body being alive.
In that sense, death is a time of healing.
The period before dying can be an enormous time of healing for people who felt they were not loved as infants and children, if they die with people around who love them. If they grew up with a sense people liked them only if they were productive or attractive, to find at the end of life when they aren’t productive or attractive and are helpless that they are loved heals something that goes back to the beginning of their lives. Also, people who realize they are going to die soon make amends, forgive others and try to heal relationships that have been estranged.
Jane Wheelwright, a Jungian analyst, wrote a book, Death of a Woman, about 20 years ago. She describes an analysis that took place over the last year or so of a woman’s life. The dying woman was relatively young. The question is why anyone would want to do an analysis if they know they are dying. Jane went to her house for sessions after the woman was no longer able to come to Jane’s office. It was clear that she was working on deep psychological issues and that her psyche was engaged in resolving things until the end. I believe that we are spiritual beings on a human path and that we come into life as a stage where things can be encountered. There is a relevancy to doing this kind of work up until the very end.
You mentioned that forgiveness is an aspect of deep psychological or spiritual healing. Talk about forgiveness as an aspect of healing.
Forgiveness and compassion are essential elements in psychological healing, although the profession of psychiatry and psychology rarely uses these words. When you go into the painful places, in childhood and adulthood, where you were disappointed or betrayed or incested, and express it to someone who receives it compassionately, you begin to be compassionate with yourself. Most people who have been treated badly have an attitude toward themselves which is not compassionate. It is as if a part of the person holds onto the misguided notion that if she were treated badly, she must have deserved it, or something irrational like that. When you tell your story and it is received with compassion and understanding for you the sufferer, you start to shift your own attitude towards yourself as you realize you didn’t deserve this, but it happened. In talking, you begin to understand who these people were, what was happening and what their limitations were. That awareness leads to compassion and forgiveness.
You need to let go of the wounds of your childhood in order to grow into your own life. People who dwell on their less than happy childhoods are stuck there. An old energy has a hold on them. They define themselves in terms of what happened in the past, and they haven’t grown in some crucial way. A mature person doesn’t deny the rough spots and the bad things that happened, and in fact, because of it usually has compassion for other people. But a mature person doesn’t feel entitled because of their suffering. They go on. Things happen, they get slighted, somebody does something intrusive or whatever, but it isn’t amplified by the past. It is just what it is. They deal with it and go on.
Fear causes us to miss the present because of the influence of an imaginary future. Here is influence from another direction, from the past which is contaminating to living in the present. Can we facilitate healing so that we feel whole and live in the present? Can we communicate with or be guided by this healing process?
Because I am a Jungian analyst I think in terms of the archetypal. Archetypes are a way of saying that there are elements inherent in us that we come with. One of the things I like about the Jungian psychological framework is that there is an assumption that we each have a center of meaning or an archetypal Self and that we are inherently a species for whom meaning matters. Meaning has to do with why we are here. There is a spiritual or divine element in us and in the universe. Archetypes don’t just exist in us. They are shared with all human beings. Healing involves being in relationship with this archetypal Self, which provides us with a sense of interconnectedness and wholeness. It is in us all. It varies, but most people have an inherent sense that I am here for a reason, my life has some purpose, and I need to discover what it is. That is the individuation journey. One way to define psychological impairment is that depression or anxiety is getting in the way of a person’s sense of having a purpose and of being on course.
How do you define a true healer?
My comments are restricted to what I know, which is about health professionals who are also healers. I think of such people as needing to be skilled and proficient at what they do professionally, and beyond that, have a love for their patients, an attitude of service, and a personal sense of the sacred. Such people are not arrogant. A healer is someone who can help the patient receive the invisible but real energies of healing. There is trust, an infusion of love, an absence of fear.
How do we find a true healer when we need one?
Begin with seeking referrals to someone who is very competent as a physician or therapist, and then ask what he or she is like personally. Go to someone who will treat you as a person who matters. Remember that you are a choice-maker. Trust your intuition. Do the equivalent of shopping around until you feel that you are with someone who is excellent, both as a person and as a professional. If you intend some combination of regular (or allopathic) medicine and complementary (or alternative) regimes, you need a physician who will treat your intentions or experience with respect. Since I believe that healing has to do with love, a healing physician or professional is someone who loves the work and the patients, who cares what happens to them, and who also knows that there is a healer in the patient and a healing energy in the universe.
If someone enters the healing process in an acute condition, they might not be conscious and, at least for a while, they are unable to be an advocate for themselves.
If I or a member of my family were unconscious, seriously injured, had a raging temperature, or massive burns anything of this nature that is acute and needs immediate attention, the best place to be is at the nearest and best general hospital or medical center around. This is what allopathic medicine does best. And mobilize a prayer group as soon as you can.
What are you currently exploring about healing at this point?
I’m working on Goddesses in Older Women: The Third Phase of Our Lives. In a way, it’s “Goddesses in Every woman: The Sequel” or “Goddesses in Every woman Growing Older and Wiser.” I’m describing the archetypes in older women based on goddesses of wisdom, of transitions, of wrath and of laughter and sexuality.
Because of where the culture is in relationship to women and aging, I am happy to see that you are writing a book on growing older. There are not many positive role models or cultural perspectives to prepare baby-boomers to go through that phase.
About forty million baby-boomer generation women will turn fifty or become menopausal, coinciding with a new millennium. There has never been such a potential force for change as this number of women whose lives were influenced by the women’s movement. This is the most empowered and educated significant-sized group of women in history. What the planet and humanity needs is an infusion of the wisdom women have. Maybe it is now or never for us as a species in an ecological system that is Earth. Maybe if individual women in sufficient numbers draw upon personal and collective wisdom and strength, and act to make things better, healing on a community and planetary scale will come about. Because I know that individuals can grow and be transformed, I believe that transformation is possible on this larger scale. In writing Goddesses in Older Women, I will be encouraging older women to become activists, to take stands where they are, to draw upon what they know in their bones, believing that the world changes one person at a time.