A Virtual Interview with Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD

Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD
Last Modified: March 15, 2004

Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD, is a psychiatrist, Jungian analyst, clinical Professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and the 2002 recipient of Pacific Medical Center Institute for Health and Healing's "Pioneers in Arts, Sciences, and the Soul of Healing Award". She is a feminist and former board member of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the author of The Tao of Psychology (25th Anniversary Edition, 2004), Goddesses in Everywoman (20th Anniversary Edition, 2004), Gods in Everyman, Ring of Power, Crossing to Avalon (10th Anniversary Edition, 2004), Close to the Bone, The Millionth Circle, Goddesses in Older Women and Crones Don't Whine. For more information, see www.jeanbolen.com. When she learned that the latest OncoLink Poetry Project had been inspired by her book Close to the Bone, Dr. Bolen graciously agreed to a virtual interview and answered our questions via email.

Q. How is "life threatening illness ... a crisis for the soul?"

A. Whenever or however that line from health to illness is crossed, we enter this realm of soul. Illness is both soul shaking and soul evoking for the patient and for all others for whom the patient matters. We lose an innocence, we know vulnerability, we are no longer who we were before this event and we will never be the same. We are in uncharted terrain, and there is no turning back. Illness is a profound soul event, and yet this is virtually ignored and unaddressed. Everything seems to be focused on the part of the body that is sick, damaged, failing, or out of control, instead.

A life threatening illness calls to the soul, taps into spiritual resources, and can be an initiation into the soul realm for the patient and for anyone else who is touched by the mystery that accompanies the possibility of death. Our spiritual and religious convictions or the lack of them are called into question. Illness is an ordeal for both body and soul, and a time when healing of both or either can result.

Q. What do you mean by "soul questions?"

A. I believe that in any particular illness as in every individual life, the soul questions are the same: What did we come to do? What did we come to learn? What did we come to heal? What and who did we come to love? What are we here for? Questions to do with the essence of who we are. I believe that illness can be a call to consciousness, a wake up call some would say, that illness involves a descent into the depths and an exposure to what we fear. I have seen how illness can unearth love and reveal strength of character, and know that it is truly an opportunity for soul growth; or not. I believe that stories and myths, dreams and mystical experiences can become more vivid during illnesses, and that integrating soul knowledge from these sources into ordinary life makes life as well as death meaningful.

Q. How can visualizations and affirmations help?

A. The Little Engine that Could is a healing story. If you take the essence of it as medicine, it will help make you well. It has no side effects and is free, but requires do it yourself effort and the magic of imagination. I am talking about the use of visualization and affirmations in getting well. My left brain medical colleagues may roll their eyes at this as gullibility, or be incensed at this as nonsense, as they overlook or don't even consider ways to enhance the healing response of the body. Their authority is intimidating, in their certainty that nothing could be potent unless it is also toxic or invasive. I see this element in allopathic medicine as a "guy thing," with its emphasis on overpowering and conquering disease. Maybe it has to do with being right brain challenged, and thus lacking a sense of approaching illness from a healing perspective. Visualizations and affirmations assume that there is a mind body connection, that what you feel and think and influences getting well or staying sick.

In this children's book, the little engine pulled a load that was bigger than he had ever attempted over a mountain, by saying to himself, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can," and then, as he gained momentum and confidence, "I know I can , I know I can, I know I can, until he was over the hump, and coming down the other side, with "I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could" to the cheers of children.

In The Little Engine That Could, we have a story with an emotional message, pictures to go with the story, and a positive statement that the engine (and the child) says over and over again. Each one of these three elements has something in common with ways people have of mobilizing healing through drawing on physical and psychological resources. Identifying with the story happens emotionally. Without knowing the word "metaphor", the child uses the story of the little engine as a metaphor: which means she knows that she is not an engine and she knows that it is her story. The child makes a connection between the engine's successful effort to make it over the mountain and the particular difficulty she has to overcome.

The inspirational stories we hear and believe and apply to ourselves get into the marrow of our bones to influence healing and recovery. The cells of the body respond through peptide receptor sites to true stories of remarkable recoveries and stories that are metaphors for what the body is capable of doing, when we have a positive emotional response to these stories. They are transmitted in ways that we are just learning of as energy or biochemical reactions to activate or inspire the healing response.

Visualization is a mind body technique that a child instinctively does when applying the The Little Engine that Could to some difficulty in her life. As a technique to heal, to reduce pain, or to mobilize their immune system, you can learn to create pictures in your mind that are as simple as the illustrations in children's books. When you visualize a metaphor, the physiology of the body responds. Just as the child sees the illustrations of the train when she identifies with the story, so do patients see the story they are telling their bodies through visualization. The ability to activate the archetype of the child, to suspend logic (and skepticism) and enter the magical world of the inner child for whom metaphor is real makes visualization work for adults.

Q. Would you share your thoughts about how ritual can help?

A. We have an instinct for ritual. Rituals are sources of meaning and support. The diagnosis and onset of treatment is a crisis with physical and spiritual consequences. There are major changes in roles, and there is need for emotional and spiritual sustenance for all concerned. All of which make this medically mandated situation a time when ritual can make a difference to the soul. For example, entering a hospital to undergo a surgical or medical procedure that has life or death consequences is a soul event and rituals that acknowledge this provide psychological and spiritual support that help keep body and soul together through this passage.

Significant rituals that are created rather than traditional, depend upon their potential for symbolic meaning and their capacity to touch emotions, to invoke the sacred. To create a personal ritual, intention and contemplation of doing such a thing is the beginning. If it is to be a creative process and a powerful rite, soul tells you what the ritual is for, and who you want to participate in it. What others have done can serve as the inspiration.

For example: Prior to chemotherapy, my friend Patricia was told that she could expect her hair to fall out, probably in clumps. She had been loaned or given some wigs and hats to try on in anticipation, (shared like outgrown baby things were years before, in what felt like a previous lifetime), which was a practical way of preparing for this. On a whole other, symbolic and spiritual level, she had been wanting to call her friends together for a healing ritual. It was then that she heard of women undergoing "chemo " who cut their hair off or shaved their heads instead of waiting for their hair to fall out. They took control of the situation. Some had made it into a ritual event. She had an immediate Yes! response to the idea.

Many women instinctively cut their hair when they need to be strong, so to see this as a symbolic empowering ritual was one possibility. A Buddhist friend told her that a shaved head in one of the Buddhist traditions symbolized enlightenment, which also made sense. She heard of one woman who was moved to share a friend's ordeal, and another who was moved by the suffering of others, each of whom decided to cut off beautiful, long hair in a symbolic act. On taking vows, nuns in many traditions, cut or shave their heads. It is an act with archetypal significance, that is also very personal and individual. For created rituals to touch deeply, there has to be both an archetypal underpinning and a personal element.

Her ritual was simple, solemn and spontaneous fun. She asked her close women friends to come. A sacred space had been created inside the house, a circle of stones had been laid out, with a candle in the center, for the circle of women who stood, held hands, and invoked spiritual support for what was to be done. She thanked us for coming, for our love and support, and told us why she had decided to do this. Some of us contributed what we knew about the meaning of having the head shaved, and all of us were awed and uncertain about what to expect.

Once done she could not change her mind. What would it be like? What would she look like? There was an energy in the circle now, it was indeed a sacred space, and a transformation we were there to witness had already begun in her. Our friend was seated and we were standing, yet she seemed tall or rather, there was a presence and poise about her that made her seem so. As she related to us later, she felt loved and supported and elated, liberated, and terrified by what she was doing and what was about to happen.

Patricia had asked her adult daughter who had never done anything like this to do it. First her hair was shorn with scissors, and then it was cut to a uniform half inch with an electric razor. Her friends were her mirrors, we reflected what we saw back to her: courage, beauty, and a head with good bones. With her head shaved, she looked like a baby, a Buddhist monk, an elf, like Nefertiti or a new self. There was laughter and relief, it was spiritual and empowering of us all, and it was also "girls doing hair," commenting, laughing, and supporting our newly shorn, brave friend. It was a ritual and a party.


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