As I reviewed in my last blog about Harvard physician and Princeton seminarian Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv and his book CURED: The Life Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing, Dr. Rediger and I share in common an interest in researching people who have better than usual health outcomes- or what Jeff calls “health outliers,” otherwise known as “spontaneous remissions.”
Jeff and I will be co-facilitating in our ongoing Healing With The Muse community on September 20, so if you feel inspired to learn from Jeff and I regarding what we’ve learned in our area of shared study, please join us!
A Post-2020 Disclaimer
In preparation for that, I wanted to share with you all some of the notes I took after re-reading Jeff’s book, although I’m sure he’ll do a much better job of telling you in his own words when we teach together! Right out of the gate, I’ll make a disclaimer through the lens of our post-2020 awareness, which is that Jeff and I are both aware that some of the interventions health outliers applied are the result of certain unearned privileges- and that’s not fair. Not everyone can afford to eat a healthy organic diet or quit their job and go on an extended pilgrimage or pay for a trauma therapist or faith healer or even afford to leave a toxic marriage. While we’ve both interviewed people who lacked certain privileges, it’s also true that becoming a health outlier may be a sign of a certain amount of privilege, and that sucks. We’re also aware that some in the wellness and yoga world have distorted some of these teachings about immune-boosting to resist public health measures or justifying not getting vaccinated against Covid as if engaging in behaviors that might make one more likely to be a health outlier means you’re not vulnerable to Covid and can’t spread it to those who might be more vulnerable- which is simply not true. The best way to boost your immune system so it can resist Covid is to get vaccinated- AND engage in all these health-inducing behaviors as well! These recommendations are not meant to be an alternative to whatever conventional medicine might be able to offer, but an adjunct, for those who conventional medicine has failed to help.
With that disclaimer, let me share with you some of my notes.
CURED Tip #1 Activate The Relaxation Response
As I described in detail in my book Mind Over Medicine, one of the keys to mind-body-spirit medicine in general and the field of psychoneuroimmunology specifically relies on making lifestyle changes aimed at creating nervous system regulation, flipping the nervous system from disease-inducing “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system stress responses or “freeze” dorsal vagal parasympathetic responses to the homeostatic healing state of the ventral vagal parasympathetic “relaxation response.” Meditation, prayer, making art, ritual, and being in nature can activate the relaxation response, but even more importantly, making lifestyle changes that take you out of retraumatizing situations that activate the stress responses are essential to maximizing your chances of being a health outlier.
Those with radical remissions were often VERY proactive. These healings were not usually “spontaneous.” They got treatment for longstanding traumas. They freed themselves from toxic jobs that required them to sell their soul or tolerate abusive bosses. They left or set very strong boundaries with poisonous relationships. They quit making excuses and finally went after fulfilling the dream they had long put off. They opened their hearts and engaged in radical forgiveness over grudges they had long held, which were festering in their nervous systems. They sought out spiritual counseling, engaged in intensive spiritual practice, and put their heart and soul into healing spiritual disconnection. They went all out to create a relaxation response-inducing life their bodies would love, living fully, loving well, and their efforts paid off in ways that can be measured.
New research on telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of your DNA strands that shorten with age, suggests that we have some control over how long our telomeres are. It’s no surprise then that those whose bodies live in relaxation response the majority of the time have nice long telomeres and those whose nervous systems are chronically in stress response develop short, frayed telomeres that damage both your health span and your life span. While we tend to glorify stress, even bragging about it as if stress means “I’m a busy, productive person making my mark on the world,” physiologically speaking, stress means premature disease, disability, and death, whereas relaxation equals a higher chance of reversing disease.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do intense things and still have good health. It’s all about how you perceive your situation. Two people in the same situation may have entirely different physiological responses to the same life event, depending on whether they see it as growth-inducing and feel gratitude for the initiation or whether they feel like a helpless victim at the mercy of a hostile universe. This is not about “spiritual bypassing” or emotional repression, artificially putting a silver lining on traumatic experiences that cause real suffering, or applying positive psychology principles and denying your authentic experience when you feel like shit. It’s about moving through those emotions authentically and vulnerably and then moving beyond them, rather than getting stuck in disease-inducing ways.
As Jeff describes, the degree of agency and autonomy you feel regarding stressful situations has everything to do with how you perceive those situations. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that instead of getting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the result of traumatic situations, some resilient people experience post-traumatic GROWTH in ways that can make them more likely to have exceptional health outcomes. So perception is everything when it comes to your physiology. To some degree, stressful experiences are unavoidable when you’re incarnate in a human body, and painful events inevitably cause painful feelings. We can’t avoid the inevitable, but we can be proactive about changing the things that are within our control, and then when difficult events inevitably arise, we can lean in, rising to the challenge and remind ourselves, “I’m growing here.”
CURED Tip #2 Love Heals
Just as stress responses create the hormonal cocktail of disease, love induces a margarita of healing hormones like oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Some people worry when they hear that love heals because they don’t have a partner, a tight-knit family, a roommate, or a close circle of friends, and they fear that this means there’s no hope of finding the love that heals. On top of the loneliness, they may already feel, they panic because now they’re scared they could literally die from love depletion.
The good news is that new research by Barbara Frederickson, lead researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggests that from a physiological and biological standpoint, love is more available to you than you might think. In fact, love is all around, if you know how to harvest it. In the compilation of her research in the book Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, she makes the bold claim that we can find “positivity resonance” (aka “love) anywhere there are other humans receptive to sharing these sweet small moments of everyday connection- at the coffee shop, the grocery store, in the schoolyard of the kid’s school, with others in a restaurant or people in your yoga class or church or workplace. Social isolation prevents you from experiencing the benefits of this kind of healing love, but even introverts can learn to be proactive about putting themselves in situations where positivity resonance can be cultivated, enjoyed, and used medicinally. If this sounds hard, it turns out that regular loving-kindness meditation makes it easier to connect, changing the quality of even the simplest social interaction and making it ripe for nourishing moments of love.
Let’s make one thing clear. The kind of biologically measurable effects of love can only really get activated by being together in person, Frederickson says. Social media simply won’t cut it. As loneliness researcher John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago puts it, if we were to build a zoo for the human animal, we would include the instructions “Do not house in isolation.” Sure, we can have emotions that are evoked by text. We can feel what might feel like love from reading a love letter. But Frederickson says they pale in comparison to what we experience physiologically when we look in someone’s eyes and feel love in our hearts, even if only in brief moments of connection with strangers.
The past year and a half has made this very difficult for many of us to get our needs for love and intimacy met in person. It’s also been very difficult for people with developmental trauma to tolerate love and intimacy, especially if they have a certain kind of wound, as I described here (https://lissarankin.com/what-happens-when-a-babys-developmental-need-for-intimate-connection-with-mother-goes-unmet/).
The health outliers Jeff Rediger studied went out of their way to get their love needs met, sometimes in traditional romantic love, but often in simpler ways that induce those fleeting love moments Frederickson discusses.
CURED Tip #3 Healing Trauma
We talked about how love heals. But of course, if you’ve been traumatized in ways that make you assess inappropriate threats in other people or when faced with real intimacy, it will be hard to cultivate such moments of love. Even loving-kindness meditation is unlikely to override a traumatic pattern that shouts to your nervous system, “People are dangerous! Resist love at all costs!” Health outliers were often willing to lean in and get therapy to help them clear old traumas that caused their nervous systems to fire in stress responses in response to bids for connection or other situations that should not be triggering stress responses but do because of past wounds.
Of course, trauma can also lead to disease by activating chronic repetitive stress responses in the body, so it’s a double edge sword- or rather, doubly valuable to treat traumas as a way to improve your chances of being a health outlier. And remember, we all have trauma. While you may have an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score of zero (find out yours here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean), everyone has what Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein calls “The Trauma of Everyday Life”. While loads of data link a high ACE score to both pediatric and adult-onset disease, the impact of developmental traumas on health has been less rigorously studied. Asha Clinton, PhD, a therapist and founder of Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT), posits that developmental trauma can be even more traumatic and potentially disease-inducing than ACE’s. Because people with developmental trauma (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/expressive-trauma-integration/201808/what-is-developmental-trauma) don’t necessarily have obvious ACE’s- like childhood sexual abuse or growing up in a house with an addict- they may feel bewildered by how hard life can feel, not understanding that their traumas may be more insidious and possibly even more damaging than growing up in a war zone. We need to normalize trauma, rather than stigmatize it. And if we want our health spans to equal our life spans- and we want those life spans to be as long as possible- it’s worth getting intensive psychotherapy with one of many cutting edge modalities- and yes, I get that it’s a luxury and it’s hard to find a cutting edge trauma therapist, and I hate that is how things are and we’re actively working on solving that health equity dilemma at Heal At Last.
CURED Tip #4 Seek Out A Master Healer
While some of the cases of spontaneous healing he studied never got near a faith healer, some sought out faith healers like the physician and healer Dr. Issam Nemeh, who Jeff met when they both appeared on an episode of The Dr. Oz Show. Although he is a medical doctor, Dr. Nemeh does not do surgery or prescribe drugs. Instead, he lays hands on people like Patricia Kaine, MD, the medical doctor who was given the lethal diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which was cured after her visits to see Dr. Nemeh. Did faith heal her? Was Dr. Nemeh a channel for Divine healing energy, as many believed? I understand why Jeff keeps his academic credibility solid by refusing to take a solid stand on what he believes or make any attempt to explain the many cases of spontaneous healing stemming from Dr. Nemeh’s office in Cleveland. I didn’t dare to tread anywhere near this territory in my treatment of similar material in my research for Mind Over Medicine, in part because I was too baffled to know how to address the issue and in part because I was afraid I’d wind up on Quackwatch.com or, even worse, I’d lose the trust of those I most wanted to reach- my fellow doctors, the ones with the power to help raise awareness of this research in ways that might actually save lives with their patients.
In my situation, it felt a bit dodgy to just skirt the issue entirely, so I respect Jeff for daring to take a stab at examining the issue, even though he fails to give us any insight into what he actually thinks, feels, or believes about faith healing or energy healing. I don’t fault him for this, but I have been privy to private conversations with Jeff, and the gist of those conversations has been his humble confession, the words doctors are typically reluctant to admit- “Hell if I know.”
What he does disclose publicly in CURED is that he had a bad back before he traveled to Cleveland to visit Dr. Nemeh. He didn’t tell Dr. Nemeh about his bad back. Dr. Nemeh simply looked at him and said, “You’ve got a back problem.” The healer took a “look” at his back and assessed that something was out of alignment. Then he prayed briefly and put his hands on Jeff’s back. Jeff reported, “When he placed his hands on my back, it suddenly felt very warm and pliable as rubbers. He moved something into place- or it felt like he did- and the pain was gone. For the rest of the day, I kept expecting it to return, but it never did. Years later, it still hasn’t.”
Fortunately for us, Jeff didn’t run screaming in the other direction, the way some doctors might. Instead, he decided to research Dr. Nemeh’s patients in a methodical manner, using his rigorous standards, reviewing medical records, and collating the findings with the stories of people who claim to have been cured by whatever “energy” Dr. Nemeh “channels.” Their stories, which are detailed in Jeff’s book CURED, are worth examining, especially if you don’t believe faith healing is “real.”
Jeff isn’t the only one curious about Dr. Nemeh. In a series of TV shows, Dr. Oz interviewed Dr. Nemeh, Jeff, and many of the patients who claimed to be cured after visiting Dr. Nemeh. (You can Google search to watch the YouTube clips if you’re curious.) His chapter on faith healers also includes a rigorous assessment of the scientific studies examining the power of prayer. Prayer has been studied extensively, but the results are messy and unclear and possibly impossible to study with the limitations of the scientific method, given the ineffable nature of consciousness and the variations that cannot be measured in prayers and those who pray. For example, are all prayers created equal? Does God listen more to some people than others? Have some practiced focusing their consciousness with the intention to heal the way monks spend 100,000 meditating? We know from fMRI studies that a beginning meditator is not meditating as “effectively” as an experienced monk. So what about prayer? Science doesn’t lend itself to measuring whose prayers are strong” and whose are “weak,” so it’s not easy to measure its efficacy with traditional science. Maybe Dr. Nemeh is better at prayer than the people in my mother’s church who regularly put their attention on those on the church’s prayer list. How would you determine that with the limitations of science?
Limitations aside, many people believe prayer and meditation-both giving it and receiving it- helped them become health outliers. Dr. Patricia Kaine’s story is a must-read, as is Matt Ireland’s, who had a radical remission from glioblastoma multiforme while spending a great deal of time in the “current” room of meditators in a healing center in Brazil. This leads us to the next commonality Jeff found among health outliers.
CURED Tip #5 Journey On An Immune-Boosting Pilgrimage
While he doesn’t take a stand on whether faith healing was actually happening there, Jeff did travel twice to a healing center in Abadiânia, Brazil, where scandal, trauma, and serial rape convictions have since taken the spiritualist faith healer João Teixeira de Faria, better known as “John of God,” out of his seat at the center of the Casa de dom Inacio Loyola. Jeff traveled there because, like Dr. Nemeh’s office in Cleveland, Abadiânia seemed to host a hotbed of cases of spontaneous healing. In fact, pilgrimages to places where healing seems to be concentrated appeared as a theme in some health outliers. Jeff theorized, as have I and others before us, that such healing centers may activate the immune system in a variety of ways- through diet, group meditation, shared positive belief, and other factors that might serve as what scientists call “mega-placebo.” Steering clear of potentially triggering or skeptic-baiting territory by failing to hypothesize whether the healer himself- whether he’s corrupt or not- might be facilitating some of the spontaneous healings, Jeff stays in the safe zone of explaining the spontaneous healings that seem to happen at the Casa as resulting from immune boosting.
While I suspect the explanation may not be as simple as the food, meditations, positive belief, and relaxation-response inducing environment of healing centers, I do agree that “preparing the soil” for immune-boosting seems to be a big part of what makes people more receptive to better than average health outcomes. In other words, diseases like cancer or infection do not appear in otherwise healthy people. The body’s immune system has to be weakened to such a degree that cancer or infection can overcome the body’s natural resistance against disease and take hold. So it makes sense that reversing cancer or infection would require the opposite of immune weakening. Anything that bolsters the immune system might help cure it.
CURED Tip #6 Positive Belief
Jeff’s chapter on the power of placebo unpacks the impact of belief on health through the lens of the science of placebo and nocebo phenomena. My book Mind Over Medicine examines the placebo and nocebo storytelling and data extensively and suggests that if we believe we are incurable, cure becomes less likely, and if we put at least a crack in that belief, we increase the possibility of cure. Changing your beliefs is no small thing, especially when it’s trauma that causes those disease-inducing beliefs to begin with.
Psychotherapists have been wrestling with the challenge of helping traumatized individuals change and clear core negative beliefs, so there’s no magic bullet for curing negative beliefs. But cutting edge energy psychology trauma treatments like AIT and EFT are showing promise in clearing beliefs not just cognitively (like cognitive behavior therapy -CBT- which is limited in its efficacy) but energetically. Examining your beliefs about your health and what’s possible for you, not just in your body but in your life, can shift things in unexpected and surprising ways. Unlike many law of attraction practitioners, I do not believe you can think yourself well or think yourself sick. It’s far more nuanced than that, and I simply don’t think you can change trauma-induced beliefs by bullying yourself into trying to believe things you just don’t, as with affirmations or other self-gaslighting techniques.
But even reading one case of spontaneous healing in someone who has the same diagnosis as you might shatter your belief that your disease is “incurable,” which is why the case studies in Jeff’s book can be so illuminating. The truth is that every person who struggles with illness is, in statistician language, and “N of 1,” meaning that you’re the only YOU, and your healing journey- and prognosis- is unique.
While the belief that healing is possible seems to impact healing, Jeff and I both bumped into cases that could not be explained away by positive belief. Like the case of Stephen Dunphe, who left Jeff with a “This changes everything” moment. Stephen walked into Jeff’s hospital in 2011 with back pain, which turned out to be caused by a bone marrow tumor in his spine diagnosed as multiple myeloma, an incurable and usually fatal cancer of the white blood cells that usually leaves people dead within five years (with conventional treatment, that is.) Doctors recommended surgery to relieve the tumor burden, not as a cure, but for symptom relief. But first, he needed an MRI pre-operatively.
What changed everything for Jeff is that while Stephen was inside the MRI machine, he experienced an altered state of consciousness and felt like the machine was filling with first a trickle, then a flood of water. He didn’t panic. He figured the machine was broken and they would rescue him soon, but they didn’t. Instead, he just remained calm and seemed to be okay fully immersed underwater. He was, after all, a scuba diver. Jeff interrupted him as he told the story. Nobody else in the room saw any water. “So, it sounds like you were hallucinating. Or in some kind of altered state,” Jeff said, seeking clarity. But Stephen would wave him off with a dismissive hand. “Yeah, yeah, sure.” For Stephen, this experience was entirely real, and a benevolent presence accompanied him through the journey into the MRI machine.
The trippy part is that the MRI taken while Stephen had an experience of being underwater showed that the tumor had disappeared. It had only been a week since the previous scan revealed a life-threatening-sized tumor. The surgery was canceled, and doctors, nurses, and students flooded Stephen’s room to peer at Stephen as if he was a zoo animal, a spectacle of spontaneous healing nobody could believe.
CURED Tip #7 Radical Diet Changes
Similar to what Kelly Turner found in her Radical Remission research, Jeff and I have both found that many health outliers, but not all, radically changed their diets to include more nutrient-dense foods, incorporating more fresh veggies and fruits and often eliminating inflammation-inducing foods or other foods agreed upon to be harmful to human bodies, such as processed foods, sugar, and foods loaded with chemicals. Some people have reported extraordinary results from a raw, vegan diet. Others swear by Paleo and say that veganism leaves them far too weak. Some have tried a rigidly keto diet. Most agree that nutrient density is more important than exactly what you do or don’t eat. So many modern humans are literally malnourished, even if they’re eating 4000 calories per day. While no single disease-fighting diet seemed to apply, he resonated with the simple dietary advice of Michael Pollan. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Detox cleanses seem to help many, but not all. For some, cleansing can be a cover for eating disorders. For others, it’s just what the doctor ordered to reset the system so the body can better absorb nutrient-dense foods. If you choose to cleanse, make sure it’s a nutritional cleanse- green juices, veggie or bone broths, vegan soups, raw vegetables, and such. Fasting without nutrition for extended periods of time has never been scientifically proven to improve your chances of being a health outlier. That said, always come back to trusting your intuition and eating (or not eating) intuitively.
CURED Tip #8 Reduce Inflammation
Jeff found that health outliers, particularly those with autoimmune conditions like Juniper Stein’s ankylosing spondylitis, took measures to “shut down the disease superhighway”- the body’s own over-stimulated immune system, also known as “inflammation.” In her case, this included aggressive yoga, Rolfing, microdosing cannabis, an anti-inflammatory diet, and radical lifestyle changes aimed at stress reduction. We know that inflammation creates the soil that promotes disease, and we know from good science that trauma causes inflammation (https://www.ptsd.va.gov/publications/rq_docs/V29N4.pdf), which creates the breeding ground for almost every kind of illness, as reviewed in this Harvard magazine article.
While acute inflammation is a necessary part of the healing process after you’ve been injured and your body is trying to heal itself, inflammation bumped into overdrive does the opposite. Chronic inflammation can be caused by untreated acute inflammation, an unhealthy diet, emotional stress, environmental toxins, smoking, alcohol, and a variety of other vague causes. However, left to flourish, chronic inflammation causes the conditions for other diseases to blossom, especially hard-to-treat autoimmune conditions and allergies.
So what reduces chronic inflammation? Eliminating and treating what causes it and helping restore the body to homeostasis- things like an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise, yoga, weight loss if you’re obese, giving up bad habits like smoking and drinking, healing trauma, and engaging in stress reduction behaviors and lifestyle changes.
CURED Tip #9 Healing Your Identity
Throughout the time I read his book, Jeff and I texted and spoke on the phone as I reflected on parts I was reading. When I got to the Healing Your Identity chapter, Jeff confessed that this was what he believed was most responsible for spontaneous healings, that health outliers invariably wrote a whole new story of who they are in the world and what is possible for their lives. Their old, limited stories shattered, sometimes in one fell swoop of insight and expanded consciousness, like they had been wearing a mask that inaccurately represented who they thought they were, and it fell off and smashed into 100 pieces. These health outliers routinely wrote new stories about who they were, more limitless stories, stories that opened entire new universes of possibility.
Dr. Kaine, the one who was healed after seeing Dr. Nemeh, said that she had to “surrender to a new way of seeing and experiencing myself.” Nearly every patient he interviewed confided in Jeff that they sincerely engaged in an intensive process of self-discovery, or self-reassessment, one that helped them align and make possible a path to healing. In essence, they all underwent a hero’s or heroine’s journey of massive transformation. They saw themselves and the world in a fundamentally new light, one that did not cage them in but opened new portals of potential, not just in health but in every aspect of their being.
In the chapter Healing Your Identify, he tells the story of Mirae Bunnell, who grew up in a strict Mormon family and was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease after a lifetime of undiagnosed illness. Then a tumor started growing in her neck while she was finally getting treated for the Lyme. She couldn’t believe her bad luck. Here she had finally been accurately diagnosed and was getting what she hoped would be curative treatment- and now she had what turned out to be cancer. A biopsy revealed metastatic melanoma, a typically fatal cancer that was unresectable because of its location, so doctors started chemotherapy to shrink the tumor enough for a palliative surgery not believed to be capable of curing her. She realized as she faced the likelihood of death that the story she had been telling herself about her life had been so anchored as who she really was. Early on, she had resisted the strict rules of her Mormon family. She had always been kind of the black sheep, running away from home when she was fourteen and getting pregnant at sixteen. She knew she was a rebel, but she didn’t believe she deserved to get punished the way she had been taught she would if she didn’t follow all those commandments.
“Why me?” Mirae said. “Sure, I wanted to do things my own way most of my life. But I’m the nicest person I know. I’m considerate. I’m kind. I put everyone else first. If there was a dead animal on the side of the road, I’d stop and bury it if I could. The world is a better place with me in it. I’m a good person. Why was God doing this to me?” Then she realized, with intense regret, that the story she had been telling herself about who she was was all wrong, and now she was out of time to rewrite it. During the chemo that was meant only to make her tumor resectable, not to cure her, she had a vision that allowed her to see herself clearly for the first time. She had been cast early on as the bad girl, the rebel, but she wasn’t any of those things. She was simply playing the role she had been given in her family, playing out the scapegoat they all needed. She was imperfect, but she was perfectly imperfect- just right, actually. “Whatever those dreams or visions were, they were so healing for me,” she said. “Instead of feeling I had done wrong, I realized I was perfect. Perfectly flawed, perfectly suited to my own human experience.” When we can see ourselves with a new lens and rewrite our stories of self, spontaneous healing just might be a side effect.
When we rewrite our stories, we can interrupt habits of thought and behavior run by the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), the collection of brain structures that make up your identity neurologically, the ruts and highways of neural pathways that are your self of sense on autopilot. When the DMN fires, “you” get rutted in thick grooves and it’s hard to change. But healing trauma or having a spiritual experience that changes the foundation of “you” can rewrite those neural pathways through neuroplasticity, and “you” can fundamentally and neurologically transform, and when you do, you too, like Mirae, might become a health outlier. Mirae’s transformative experience, beautifully detailed in CURED, changed her sense of who she was and allowed her to embark upon a healing journey that led to what seems to be a cure, a case of “spontaneous remission” that got written up as a case study in a medical journal.
CURED Tip #10 Refuse To Be Defined By Your Illness
Health outliers simply did not entangle their identity with their illness. In hospitals, some doctors have a bad habit of abbreviating the way we describe patients as “the colon cancer in Room 221,” something health outliers did not allow or accept. Mirae was not Lyme disease or metastatic melanoma or the product of an overly rigid, identity-confining Mormon upbringing that caused her to rebel. She refused to be defined, to stay limited, as did many other health outliers. People who suffer from illness often feel like they become their illness, that it defines them, but health outliers ripped off the mask of illness to reveal who they really are, even if that meant giving up the ways illness might help or protect them. Taking off masks is risky. Some people feel they need those masks in order to stay safe or get attention or receive financial aid or have a socially acceptable excuse not to achieve a big dream. But sometimes, in ways that cannot be controlled, the mask just falls off- in a flash of insight or in a yoga pose or in a dream or a vision in meditation. Suddenly, you know you are not your illness. You are not the mask people see. You are a limitless Divine being who has journeyed a perfectly imperfect path to wholeness, and in your wholeness, healing might suddenly, unexpectedly, unpredictably, and without your control- just happen.
CURED Tip #11 Healing Your Fear Of Death
Health outliers often expressed that they started getting better right after they gave up resisting death and just decided to live all out for however long they had left. Even if you’re not sick right now, take a moment to reflect on this. If you were no longer resisting your own mortality, and if you weren’t afraid of all the consequences of how your life might need to change if you were to just go for it, as if the end was near, what would need to be different about your life? Would you dare to pull out all the stops and live with gusto?
I kind of did that when my physician father went from diagnosis to death in 3 months from metastatic melanoma. It’s like I had a near-death experience by proxy. I nuked my whole life- quit my job as a doctor, sold my home, liquidated my retirement account so I could buy my freedom, moved from SoCal to NoCal, went to Esalen for the first time of many, and began my own self-healing journey. Yet even now, 14 years after my father died, I am still inspired by this inquiry. If I ask myself- and I ask you- if you were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness right now, what would you change? Where are you holding back? Where are you out of integrity with yourself and your true, limitless, authentic nature? Where have you sold out? Where are you hurting people because of your unhealed trauma? Where are you not optimally nourishing your body? Where are you poisoning it? How might you move or be or stretch yourself differently?
I found the end of the book to be the most inspiring, because from my point of view, living like you might die tomorrow is preventive medicine. I’m not talking about being reckless or careless or inconsiderate of other people’s feelings or financially irresponsible or so narcissistic that you wreck other people in the name of living authentically and being yourself. That’s no way to live a long, happy, healthy life. But if you’re chronically or terminally ill, that’s sometimes what surviving and thriving requires- putting yourself first and taking huge risks that might upset the apple cart in your life and your relationships. Sometimes you’re living a life your body can’t tolerate, and it might take prioritizing taking exceptional care of yourself, maybe for the first time in your life.
But what would it be like if we didn’t wait until we had a terminal illness to live the lives our bodies would love? Where can you up-level this experience of being a soul in a body right now? What is your growth edge? Where would you stretch? What’s keeping you from leaning into living all out right now? What might be possible- for your health, your life purpose, your relationships, your creative output, your sex life, your ability to give and receive love and dream in all ways- if you lived like you were dying- without waiting until the end?
As Jeff rightfully points out, there are zero known cases of spontaneous healing that result in the immortality of the physical body. Death is inevitable, and there’s no way to know when your soul will check out of this Earth School. No amount of doing whatever it takes will lead to immortality, so let go of any blame or shame you might feel if it’s simply your time to become a radiant soul, unlimited by the limitations of being human in a body. You can’t control healing, but you can participate with it, and doing so can be extraordinarily rewarding, even, dare I say, fun.
Although he doesn’t say so explicitly in the book, Jeff and I have had many private conversations about spiritual surrender as it relates to health outliers, and he said that healing the fear of death was how he included that aspect of healing. While being proactive about doing everything you can in order to optimize your health outcome can be a valid strategy if cure is your goal, for some people, doing is the problem, not the solution. Sometimes being is the necessary medicine, and to be fully present with what is, you have to surrender to what is, giving yourself to something larger than yourself, trusting life, giving up the doer-ship of control, and letting go of thinking you can control life. If you’re someone who has been able to use discipline to get everything you’ve ever wanted in life, getting sick may feel maddening in the same way high achieving women may experience a breakdown when they suddenly realize that no amount of doer-ship can make you pregnant, not even expensive fertility treatments. If you think sheer discipline and force can make you achieve success as a health outlier, you might have all kinds of painful emotions if you do everything “right” and discover that your attempt to achieve cure like an Olympian would achieve a gold medal did not work. At the deepest spiritual level, this can be a profound moment, one that, while painful, can be an opportunity for a catalytic spiritual experience, one that could facilitate real transformation.
CURED Tip #12 Burn Your Boat
Jeff concludes with a challenge and a metaphor- to burn your boat. In other words, if you’re going for it on a self-healing journey, you’ll be tempted to backpedal, to get back in your boat and row away from the island that you’re destined to journey towards, rather than going all in. But if you have enough self-awareness and you’ve healed enough trauma to know what your boats are- the way you back away from a challenge or give yourself a hall pass from following through on the transformations you know you need to make- then you can burn those boats and know that it’s healing or bust. Only when you remove all other options will you have the motivation to stick to your commitments to yourself enough to change the grooves in your DMN in a way that makes real transformation possible, thereby improving your chance of being a health outlier. In Radical Remission, Kelly Turner found that a fighting spirit was a common trait of radical remission survivors, and Jeff had a similar conclusion. Taking charge of your health and being proactive about doing something is often just what the doctor ordered. This is where discipline comes in. After all, outliers in other areas- athletics, science, innovation, music, art- all employed a level of sometimes nearly superhuman discipline. Watch an Olympic athlete or a virtuoso cellist, and you’ll see that this level of talent doesn’t just happen. These people burned their boats. They didn’t settle for any less than the very best they could give to what they committed themselves to achieving.
I’ve argued with Jeff privately about the “burn your boat” issue. From an Internal Family Systems (IFS) lens, that sounds like bullying the parts that might want to row away from the island, and rather than burning your boat and scaring the crap out of parts that might resist healing, I think it works better if we find the “exiles” (vulnerable, wounded inner parts) who those resistant parts might be protecting- and heal their trauma, rather than letting drill sergeant parts bully them. But that’s just me… (We’ll be talking about this issue for sure in Healing With The Muse when we teach together on September 20, so be sure to join us so we can hash this out. Join here.
A Practice Of Self-Inquiry
While Jeff’s book is not a self-help book in that it doesn’t include “how-to” practices, it does conclude with a list of questions for self-inquiry that I’ll include here for your personal practice.
- What are my triggers? In what situations or circumstances do I struggle the most to stick to my guns? Can I avoid these or prepare better for them?
- What is the vision I have for my life- something so inspiring, I would sacrifice immediate pleasure to attain it? What will help me to achieve that? What might prevent it?
- Who can I trust to counsel me in this situation? Who can I call who’ll support instead of undermining me?
- What “reward” can I give myself for following through? Make it meaningful and immediate. Contact with someone you care about? Play a favorite song? Something that makes you feel great.
- What will help me understand my value and worth and see the importance and goodness that I bring into the world?
- Why did I decide to make this change in my life? Remember your reasons. Recall your vision of the life, the healthy body, you really want. Let yourself feel it.
If you’d like to dig deeper into what Jeff and I have learned, join us for Healing With The Muse on September 20 for more of what we’ve both learned since this book was published.
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