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In this episode of Insights at the Edge, my guest is Dr. Jeffrey Rediger. Jeffrey Rediger is a licensed physician, a board-certified psychiatrist, and he also has a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, and he’s the Medical Director of one of the country’s top psychiatric institutions at McLean Hospital. Jeffrey Rediger has spent almost 20 years researching the factors that he found were present in cases that had been labeled cases of spontaneous healing, and he published his findings in a bestselling book called Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing. Jeffrey’s one of those people who can speak many different languages. He can speak the language of science, the language of medicine, the language of theology. Here, I speak to Jeffrey human-to-human in the language of the human heart about what he’s learned that can help all of us, from the courageous research he’s done. Here’s my conversation with Jeffrey Rediger.
Jeffrey, you’ve now been studying and researching the science of spontaneous healing for something like two decades. How did you decide to make this such a focus in your life? Or how were you chosen, if you will? How did events conspire such that this would become such a focus for you?
Jeffrey Rediger: Well, I think the deepest answer is that this started far before 20 years ago. I come from a very rural Midwestern farm family. My dad comes out of the Amish tradition. My parents moved out of the Amish area when I was two years old, but they left outwardly more than inwardly. And so I went to public school during the day, and then at home I was living in a very different worldview than those of my classmates. The worldview of math, science, social studies, and literature is really different than a conservative worldview where the Bible is thought to be sufficient for all knowledge. So, I grew up mostly without TV, without radio, without anything more than suspicious concern about the things I was studying. So, no dancing, no card playing, all those kinds of things. Mom even made a lot of our clothing.
They did a lot of stone-grinding of wheat, so there was some really healthy aspects of that, but it was a very different worldview than those of my classmates. So I was, from a young age, very confused in trying to figure out how you reconcile two really different worldviews that felt like they were competing in terms of how they answered things. And worldviews answered every question from within the worldview by definition, and so it was very difficult to figure that out. I was a challenge for my parents to raise. I was rebellious. I ran away to college eventually, and then just continued to work these struggles and questions out.
That’s what drove me into Seminary at Princeton, trying to do interdisciplinary work in theology and philosophy of science to figure out how you bring two very different worldviews next to each other, the differences between Newtonian and Cartesian science versus modern physics, spirituality and the assumptions of that versus religion. Religion and traditional science have been bitter enemies for centuries, but spirituality and modern physics are very compatible, so that began to provide some pathways for me as well. And then the research that I started with spontaneous remission began 20 years ago, like you said, when a nurse at Mass General came to me with pancreatic cancer and said that she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and wanted some help.
Then she took off for a healing center. She began writing and calling me saying that she was undergoing a healing. She wanted me to look into this more deeply given my dual background in theology and medicine, and I declined because I didn’t think anything likely was going on, but Nikki—I owe her a lot. She was very persistent. She began having people call me from around the country and elsewhere saying that they had medical evidence for their recoveries, and asking if I wanted to hear their stories. Although I continued to say no for a while, the long and short of it is, in 2003, I did begin looking into this and set up some very rigorous research criteria, and it’s been a life-changing professional and personal journey since then.
TS: First of all, that’s a very strong comment that it’s been life changing. How has it been life changing for you, personally?
JR: Well, I think there are a lot of pieces to that. I think, when I look back and realize that my theological training, my medical training, my psychiatric training, all those assumptions, those worldviews, ended up getting turned upside down in the process of listening to these stories over a period of so many years and looking at the medical evidence. I came to believe that a lot of the assumptions of Western culture, as they show up in Western theology, Western medicine, and Western psychiatry, they are valid up to a point, but they had to be reworked and turned upside down in many cases. It ended up with beginning a healing path for me to begin understanding who we are as human beings, who I am as a human being from a really different perspective and lens.
TS: We’re going to talk more about that because I’m very interested in that, but if we go back 20 years, was it risky for you? Like, “Here I am, it’s going to take courage for me to decide. I’m going to take seriously cases of spontaneous remission, spontaneous healing.” And also, why within the medical profession were you one of the first people to say, “This is important. Let’s pay attention.” Why didn’t a bunch of other smart people say, “There’s something here. Let’s pay attention.” Why was that not the norm?
JR: Well, I think the socialization process that one goes through when you enter medical school is a really powerful socialization process. They essentially break you down and rebuild you into someone who views the world through a very particular lens. My viewpoint now is that we’re trained into a very powerful method that in some ways is brilliant, but it also trains you out of common-sense ways of viewing the world. It teaches us to exclude the story of the patient in order to penetrate through to the underlying signs and symptoms of an illness and make the correct diagnosis. That process where you begin to focus on the signs and symptoms of disease goes very deep in medicine, and I believe is both powerful and limiting and we often miss a lot of things by just focusing on the disease process and on the body part.
TS: Yes. Did you feel like you were stepping out on a limb? Here you’ve got—I don’t know if I can track it all—a PhD, you have an MDM, you’ve got all these degrees, and you decide, “I’m going to dedicate myself and dedicate research to studying spontaneous remission.” Were you nervous that this was going to come back and embarrass you?
JR: Very much so. Yeah, I was very slow to write a book and become public about this because I was concerned about what my colleagues would think. I’m sorry to say I was more reticent to be public about this than one would wish, because you want the truth to be what guides one’s path.
JR: I was on this very intense, personal journey. This is kind of an empirical theology for me because I was looking for so many years. I read so many books in so many scientific articles searching for the truth, trying to plumb the bottom of theology, philosophy of science, psychiatry, medicine, and these stories of remarkable recovery when it was thought to be impossible for these individuals to have recovered from the illnesses they had—these were truly incurable diseases with indisputable medical evidence and indisputable evidence for accurate diagnosis. That became a more accurate guide for me in empirical theology because it wasn’t just an opinion that was worked out with all the different flaws of theology or science, which has its own epistemological biases and that sort of thing.
This was a very personal journey to figure out what was true, and I was very concerned about becoming public about it, and I’d actually made a promise I would never write anything unless it absolutely had to be said; and also, there are so many things that are written out there that are opinions, and, when you really get to the bottom of it, they’re not as valid or reliable as one would wish. So, I didn’t want to be part of that noise. It was only with the pressure of my responsibility to be a steward of the knowledge I’ve worked so hard to obtain—that’s what finally prompted me to write about it and take the hits as they come.
TS: OK. I’m sure our listeners are on the edge of their seat, as I was, when I was reading your book Cured. They want to know what all this research actually revealed. And we’re going to get there, listeners, in a moment. But first just tell us how you structured your research of spontaneous healing so that it would be defendable?
JR: That’s a really important question because most of the time when scientists and physicians have looked at these cases of spontaneous remission, doctors will collect the facts but they never ask questions. So, whether one’s working as a scientist or one is working as a doctor in a clinic or hospital, what’s shocking is how absent the curiosity is. For example, these cases happen far more frequently than is reported in the scientific literature and there’s a lot of issues with that, but it’s shocking how, in all these 19 or 20 years that I’ve been researching this, not a single person that I’ve spoken with has ever had a doctor become curious about how they got better in the context of recovering from an incurable illness.
The good doctors say, “Well, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it, because it’s working.” Those other doctors will get angry and defensive and don’t want to know more and they’ll get angry if the person’s not following their directions, even though they’re getting better. So, there’s that side. But then on the other side, you’ve got more the New Age crowd or the people who are more open to miracles or spiritual healing, but they tend to not collect the medical evidence. You’ve got this chasm that exists that has not been bridged historically, and what’s true is that once you begin to investigate these cases, it’s complicated. The stories do tend to disappear with further examination.
With more inquiry, when you start asking for the test results, when you look to determine how carefully the diagnosis was made, it is absolutely true that the problems begin to occur and stories fade. So, to depend upon the criteria of making sure that this is a genuinely incurable illness is number one. Number two: that it was an indisputably accurate diagnosis. And number three: that there’s not some other factor that could have explained the recovery such as an experimental medication or something like that. Those three criteria require such a level of rigor that most cases disappear, but the ones you’re left with leave you with really big questions. And those are the ones I was able to drive the factors of recovery from.
TS: How many cases like this, that have those criteria that you just mentioned, how many cases did you study and really look into?
JR: I’ve had many cases come to me over the last 20 years. I only went very deeply into something like 120 or 124, because it takes a long time to go into each case at this level. It’s very different than a pharmaceutical study, for example. I needed to make sure it was a genuinely incurable illness. I needed to make sure that it was an accurate diagnosis, and so I had to both collect the objective data and then do a deep inquiry, a qualitative interview with the individual to see what the factors were and that sort of thing. It’s a lot of hours with each case to do that.
TS: All right, let’s get right to it. What do we know for sure? What did you come out of these 124 cases with and say, “OK, I’m ready now to write a book, a book called Cured, because there are some patterns here that we have to name”?
JR: This was a slow evolution in my own thinking because, as a doctor, we are taught to look at every disease on its own and we tend to think that every treatment pathway, every pathway of cure or healing is unique to that specific illness. There’s some value to that, but what we don’t do in medicine is look beyond the body parts to the underlying patterns and factors that are more universal across many illnesses, and it turns out that there are these factors. I liken modern medicine to a long line of ambulances at the bottom of a tall cliff, and these ambulances are really good at picking us up and whisking us off to the hospital or the clinic and putting us back together. There’s a lot of brilliance in that, frankly, but what would it be like if we put a guardrail at the top of the cliff instead so that people didn’t fall off in the first place? That’s a really different kind of medicine.
The people I studied did fall off the cliff, and it was thought to be impossible that they could ever climb back up to the top of the cliff, but these individuals were able to find a way to do so. What I’ve come to believe over time is that when you understand that 85% of the illnesses from which people suffer in United States and Western countries are lifestyle illnesses. All the major killers are lifestyle illnesses. Heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, autoimmune illness, most cancers, these are lifestyle diseases and if it’s our lifestyles that get us into this health problem, then lifestyle changes can begin to reverse that in significant ways. So, these people who I study, who are able to construct these ladders to get back up to the top of a cliff—now I’m not saying this is easy work—they are like the super athletes, the pro athletes of our world, and they do things in a way that are very different than what we are taught to do by our doctors and by our hospitals and clinics. In traditional medicine, we reduce everything around the mean. We say, “This is what the average person does. This is how long the average person lives with this particular diagnosis of cancer,” for example. Well, the people I study are the ones that are screened out by the data. They’re the ones who are doing things really differently and they’re the ones who don’t fit around the mean. So, these factors are really important in terms of understanding what the possibilities are, but it means doing things really differently.
TS: Right. And you have four, you call them, pillars of health that you write about in Cured, these four factors. And I want to really go into the final one that you talk about in quite some depth, but maybe you could just introduce all four briefly, these four factors that you found.
JR: Yes, and the fourth one is the biggest one and the most difficult to understand, but the most important one. My publisher said that he believes Cured will have a long life because, he said, “Forty books will be published on nutrition this year, but,” he said, “nobody’s ever argued that if you want to heal at the deepest level, you need to heal your identity.” That’s the one I’m glad you want to get to because I think that’s the one we really need to talk about today. Others have talked about nutrition. Others have spoken about the importance of healing our immune systems. That’s a big one, too, especially in the time of COVID. It’s shocking to me that as a country, we are the sickest country on earth with COVID and we cannot get a national discussion going about what it means to heal the immune systems. The third pillar is healing our stress response. And then the fourth one is healing our identity. So, yes, we can start with nutrition if you would like.
TS: Yes, I’d love to just get you ready for this. This is the cliff notes, Jeffrey. Just a few sentences on the three that I do think we hear about from a lot of different people who are well versed in health. The healing your identity, the reason I want to really go into depth about that is that I’ve known people, and I’m sure you have, too, who have eaten all the right food and they’ve done all the right things with their stress response and relaxation and meditation, and worked on healing their immune system, and they seem to die anyway.
TS: It makes me think that you’re pointing to something in this fourth factor about healing our identity that’s really the deep end of the pool that we need to talk about. But with these other three factors that your research revealed, just give us the brief, most important things we need to know.
JR: Yes. The first pillar is nutrition, and it’s a big topic in itself. There are so many fad diets, so many discussions about what supplements to take and that sort of thing. The truth is, the trifecta of nutrition researchers—and how that interacts with the recommendations that are given to lobbyists in government and how that interacts with the doctors who sign off on certain results—that trifecta is science, but it’s also spin science because there’s often a business agenda. So, it’s very confusing for the listener to know what is true, genuine nutrition. And you put that in the context of another complicating factor, which is that we all have different microbiomes. We all come from different ancestries, different parts of the world, and we all are different ages, and so we have different developmental nutritional needs.
You put all those factors together and it’s understandable why even doctors and nutritionists often had a lot of misinformation that they’ve learned along the way about nutrition. What I learned as a doctor was completely upside down in our nutrition training as a physician. We were taught that in the United States people do not have malnutrition, they have overnutrition because we eat too much and we have obesity as a result, and that’s the problem. It turns out that there’s a ton of malnutrition in the United States for most of us in a lot of ways, and that’s what’s driving a lot of the diseases and the health conditions that are such a problem in the weakened immune systems.
We come from different parts of the world. The people I studied all had very different diets on the surface, but, underneath, what they figured out in their path to recovery was unique to them but had a lot of common factors. Most of the people I studied sharply cut down on sugar, for example. Over 100 years ago the average person in the United States consumed four pounds of sugar a year. No big deal. The average American now consumes 154 pounds of sugar a year. Our bodies were not made to keep up with that kind of load. Sugar is highly inflammatory. When we have a high load of sugar coursing through our arteries, those little sharp sugar granules make these little cuts in the inside of our arteries that then prompt an inflammatory response, and so our immune system gets pulled in in healing that inflammation.
All these brilliant cells and cell subtypes rush to the sites of these injuries and begin creating a scar. A high sugar load, day in and day out, year after year, creates all these scars on top of scars and you end up with what’s called atherosclerosis. We used to think that’s a cholesterol problem. Well, no, it’s a lot more than a cholesterol problem. It’s an inflammation problem. It’s a chronic inflammation that’s created by things like a really high sugar load or the refined flours, the enriched flours that are in so many of our breads and that sort of thing, which is basically like sugar because it’s so refined. The Supreme Court of Ireland recently determined that Subway, the fast-food Subway chain, could now no longer tax their bread and call it bread because the sugar content, independent of the enriched flour content, the sugar content is so high that it can no longer be taxed as bread.
So, sugar is in so many of our foods. Sugar is in the salmon I went to buy at Whole Foods recently. It’s in the sauces that we buy for our spaghetti. It’s in a lot of canned foods. I had quite a journey just becoming more aware of how much sugar was in the different foods and beginning to eliminate that. Beginning to eliminate the enriched refined grains—maybe the bold print of the bread says “whole wheat,” but if you read the ingredients it’s actually enriched grain, which is basically a type of sugar, almost. The people I studied mostly eliminated sugars and refined flours. Eighty-eight percent eliminated most animal products, but not entirely. Some people followed a more keto diet, but most people became markedly more plant based. That’s some of the factors.
TS: OK. Let’s keep going because there’s so much I want to talk about.
JR: OK. One thing I should say about food is because there’s so many reasons, it’s not just about the food. Some people did not change their diet at all and still got better. Roseto, Pennsylvania, is a case we could talk about where people were eating lots of lard, smoking cigars and drinking alcohol, and yet they had a really low rate of heart disease, but they were also spending so much time sitting on their porches, talking to each other, sharing love. You know, food is love and I think it’s not just about the food. Food is never just about food, but food is love. Food is community. Food is how we connect with others.
There’s a lot to what food is for each of us that’s often unexamined and it’s a very worthy place to understand. I tell people, “If you’re going to make nutritional changes, try to focus on the nutrition you are giving yourself, not on what you are giving up, because that makes the psychological piece of this easier.” So, food’s a big topic, but it’s not just about the food. It’s also about how we relate ourselves to the food.
TS: All right. Let’s move on to a second factor you describe in the science of spontaneous healing. Healing your immune system.
JR: Yes. So, from my standpoint, it’s so important that we begin having a conversation about this in a time when in the United States we take far more medications than any other country, and yet we have the weakest immune system and the highest rate of COVID, and there’s a lot of issues with this. It turns out that a person doesn’t have a blood pressure problem, a heart problem, a diabetes problem, a autoimmune problem, or a cancer problem. At a more fundamental level we have a chronic inflammation problem and if you want to heal the chronic inflammation in your body, then we need to help people heal our immune systems because it’s the immune cells that are out of whack and are attacking the body that they are sworn to protect.
An immune system isn’t just what keeps out the bacteria or the viruses or the pathogens in our lives. It’s the immune system that’s related to keeping us healthy from getting heart disease or getting diabetes or getting cancer. These are all autoimmune illnesses where the immune cells have gotten confused. Autoimmune means attacking the body. Autoimmune diabetes, autoimmune heart disease, these are where the immune system has gotten misdirected into inflammation, into attacking the body instead of what it’s trying to protect the body from, if that makes sense.
TS: Yes. I think what I’m trying to understand is, so one of those people fell off the cliff. I’m building the ladder to get back up, and I want to heal my immune system. What am I doing?
JR: Yes. There’s a lot to that. Let me tell you a little story how this works. Louis Pasteur, he helped us identify bacteria. He then taught that the problem is the pathogen. If you eliminate the bacteria, if you eliminate the virus, then you’ve solved the immune problem. But his colleagues were arguing, “No, that’s not the problem.” Claude Bernard, for example, said to him, “Listen, if you got a pile of trash sitting in your kitchen floor, is it better to just keep waving the flies away? Or is it better to just remove the trash?” So he said, “We are surrounded by millions of bacteria and viruses inside and outside of our bodies, 24 hours a day, and those pathogens only become an invader when something in our immune system or in our microbiome breaks down. That’s when they can become invaders.”
He says getting sick is not because of a pathogen; getting sick is because there’s been a breakdown that allows the pathogen to get in. So that’s a really different way of thinking. I believe we need both understandings, but not just Pasteur’s understandings. We need to understand the pathogen can be a problem, so antibiotics, antivirals, vaccines are really important in the proper context, but they don’t treat the deeper underlying issues and they can weaken the underlying issue if we don’t also understand that we need to be strengthening our microbiomes. Claude Bernard said, “Listen.” In front of his classroom, he took a glass of cholera. Cholera was a big part of the plague back in those days, and he drank the cholera, and he said, “I know how to take care of my inner terrain,” what we now call the microbiome. He said, “Because I know how to do that, I’m not going to get sick.” And he didn’t.
Louis Pasteur on his deathbed admitted that the terrain is everything. The pathogen is nothing. We need to have this dual understanding where we also not only take care of the pathogen, but we also take care of healing our microbiomes, healing our broken-down immune systems, and that comes through healthy nutrition, getting dense nutrition into our body instead of all the empty calories that cause weight gain but weaken us. We need to spend time with people we love so that we can get out of the fight-or-flight that is putting us into a state where our immune system is chronically stressed and not able to function properly.
We know that when we secrete a lot of stress hormones, the immune cells, our brilliant immune cells get bathed in these toxic chemicals at such a high level that it causes them to misfire and to begin to fight the body instead of fight the pathogen, for example. So, getting adequate relaxation, getting adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, spending time with people that we love, those kinds of things can help relax our immune system and help it function correctly and accurately.
TS: Yes. And then healing the stress response, the third factor that you identify, seems like it’s connected actually to what we’re talking about right here.
JR: Very much, yes. And so we have to heal our minds and bodies from below with nutrition and that sort of thing, and also we have to heal our stress response because we know both on the basis of clinical evidence and laboratory data, that immune cells function really differently depending on whether they’re getting bathed by the stress hormones of cortisol, norepinephrine, adrenaline. That’s a really different chemical environment than a chemical environment that’s getting bathed by the love molecule of oxytocin, or the serotonin, which is the antidepressant molecule, or dopamine, the pleasure pathway. Those chemicals are not of the fight-or-flight type, and they bathe the immune system in a way that the immune cells wake up. They become vital, they function correctly and accurately, they do what they’re intended to do. That’s something we know really clearly both from laboratory data and clinical evidence.
TS: You’ve been listening to Insights at the Edge. In my own experience it’s easy to lose heart when we look at the divisiveness and what seems like a tremendous amount of unnecessary suffering in the world. How do we create a holding space? A space that invites our own hearts to come forward and one that also welcomes and receives others, particularly people who hold views that are different from our own? This is what teacher and empathic healer, Matt Khan, explores in his new book, All For Love, a book you can pre-order at soundstrue.com or wherever books are sold. And now, back to Insights at the Edge.
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Now it’s really interesting to me, Jeffrey. Here you’ve got these 124 cases and you’re trying to figure out, “How do I map and share with other people all of this information I’ve gathered?” And you created these four categories. I’m sure you spent quite a lot of time really testing, kicking the tire, if you will—“Are these four categories really the right ones?” The first three we’ve talked about, I think most people go, “Yes, in terms of studying health, that makes sense to me.” Now, healing your identity, how did you get to that category? And what do you mean by that, anyway? What does it mean to heal our identity?
JR: Yes, and that’s a big one. I think that’s the one that took me the longest to begin understanding, and the light began to dawn slowly for me from a few different angles. I have been a medical director at McLean Hospital, which is a psychiatric hospital, the oldest psychiatric hospital in the country now for 20 years. And I, for 14 years, have been the chair of Behavioral Health at a large urban medical center. So, for many years I’ve been watching people come into our medical hospitals and into our psychiatric hospitals and I’m starting to realize, “Oh, wow, people are really suffering from stress.” And I began to see these patterns and I began to see how much a person’s psychological or medical illness is significantly impacted at a deep level by their unconscious or conscious beliefs about themselves and the nature of the universe that they live in.
So how we feel about ourselves and the universe at a deep level is a big deal. How much we understand ourselves as having value as a human being and having something special and good that we bring in the world versus someone who feels like they’re not good enough, or that there’s something defective or wrong with who we are, or feeling like the universe is a cold, forbidding place versus feeling that the universe is friendly and that there’s something that’s safe and that we can trust here, that’s on our side. Those are really, really different beliefs. They have a lot to do with helping us form an identity and know our value.
That was going on while I’m working in this medical hospital and in the psychiatric hospital, and at the same time doing this research and realizing how deep these people—when they would talk to me about nutrition, they would talk to me about healing their stress response; that’s all fine and good. But when they really sat up and they got this light in their eyes and they said, “This is what I want to really talk to you about. This is why I’m so grateful for this illness I had.” This is what changed and this is what they wanted to talk about, was the healing of their beliefs and identity. That’s helped me understand how deep this goes. This is a big topic. We can walk around this in all ways.
TS: Yes. I think you made this comment that the people who have gone through spontaneous healing are like terrific athletes. They’re the superstar athletes in the world, and you draw that as an analogy. I can kind of understand the superstar athlete when it comes to something like nutrition. I mean, we hear their extreme kind of commitments and things. What does that mean when it comes to these deeper issues? What kind of investment is the superstar investment, the training in understanding and healing beliefs that might be holding me back?
JR: Yes. There’s a lot of different ways this comes out. Let’s walk into this through what I often will see, for example, in a medical hospital. It’s so common that when a person is diagnosed with cancer, for example, and told they have six months to live, what’s surprising is, I mean, even though the person’s terrified at one level, what’s surprising is how often the person will feel, “Oh, wow. If I’ve only got six months to live, maybe I don’t have to go to law school like Dad’s pushing me to do, or I don’t have to take over the family business if I’ve only got a couple months to live.” And so that realization, that can become a new pathway when a person says, “Wow, if I’ve only got six months to live, I’m not going to go to law school.”
Giving up a false self sometimes can allow the birth of a new, truer and more authentic self where the person does what the hell they want to do with their lives; that is the birth of a new identity that then becomes the doorway into a new level of possibilities. The obverse of that, with somebody who begins to actually die to an old self, give birth to a more authentic kind of self, that’s the kind of thing that I’ve had the blessing and the opportunity to track in a lot of lives at this point, and I’ve started to realize what a big deal this is. I often tell the story of this woman who really affected my understanding of this. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and told that she was going to die, and she had a very severe form. In the context of her recovery, the kind of changes that she went through in her life were striking. This is a pattern I’ve seen over and over at this point.
She had a husband who I think loved her. He treated her well in some ways, but I think he was also rather tough verbally with her. She had been raised to be this very demure, kind, giving woman. She did a lot for others. She was very gentle and sensitive. In the context of her healing she began to believe that she needed to stop taking care of others to such an exclusion of her own authentic needs and well-being, and so she began to become more comfortable and willing to take up space in the world. Gabor Maté says, “If you don’t know how to say no, your body will eventually say no for you.” I think that is such a deep and brilliant statement.
Dr. Lissa Rankin talks about these issues as well, frequently, very eloquently, this whole idea that if we don’t feel comfortable honoring the dignity and value that we each bring into the world; if we can’t experience what’s right about us and be able to trust that that is such an important piece of what we bring into the world that’s unrepeatable, unique, and what we need and the world needs; then living as if we’re not good enough and feeling that way wears our minds and bodies down after a while. It’s that kind of shift and working on those unconscious and conscious barriers to experiencing unconditional love of the people I’ve studied, that’s what they wake up and want to talk about with me. That’s what gave them the illness as a gift, eventually, if that makes sense.
This woman with the breast cancer, as she began to feel comfortable taking up space in the world, she became more “I’m going to tell you what I really think.” Instead of being this nice, demure lady, she became racier, she became more saucy, she became more assertive, just more comfortable in her own skin. And I think that ruffled some feathers sometimes because she had to teach people differently how to treat her, but she doesn’t have breast cancer anymore. And after seeing these patterns over and over again, I think that’s a really important thing to understand better.
TS: Can you explain to me the mechanism for a moment? So, somebody is now leading with their authenticity and they’re saying, “No, do it yourself. I’m not going to do it for you. I’m just going to say no. Go ahead.” How does that change their body chemistry such that spontaneous healing might be possible?
JR: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think the true answer is that we need a lot more research on this. It’s so multifactorial because it’s not just the secretion of more dopamine and serotonin and less chronic secretion of cortisol and stress hormones, for example. It is that, but it’s also more than that. There’s a lot of factors that go into constructs around conscious beliefs and unconscious beliefs that give us a truly different perception and experience of ourselves in the world. I think it’s just a multifactorial sort of thing that requires an interdisciplinary inquiry. It’s going to take more time to continue mapping some of the stuff out at chemical levels, at cellular levels, and also at psychological and spiritual levels.
TS: Yes. Now, one of the parts of many of our identities is something like, “Underneath it all, if I really tell you the truth, I don’t know if I feel good about myself. I don’t know if I feel worthy. I don’t know if I feel loved.” Something like that. Some wound like that. How have you seen people shift that in the face of a terminal illness? What gets them to shift that?
JR: Yes. I think different things work for different people. I think the pathway is similar, but the ways of working that pathway are—some people are verbal and some people learn by talking and in relationships. Some people learn more through meditation. Some people are able to loosen up their inhibitory cortical structures in their brain through dance, through music, through spiritual rituals of different types. I had a person who said she found hope in her hospital. Left the hospital, returned to art, and she says her art healed her, for example. I think there are different avenues into this and we each need to look and personalize the pathway to our own ways of being in the world and to what feels right for us. What’s right for one person may not be right for the next person with the same illness, for example.
Two people can be sitting next to each other, and their recoveries will depend on different ways of opening up to a more authentic self. But I think history of cultures have always found value in dance and music and religious rituals of different types as, but they need to be experienced as liberating and not as confining. One person can sit in a Catholic mass and feel drawn to the stained-glass windows and uplifted and healed. Another person can be sitting in that same church and in that same mass and will feel the pressure of Catholic guilt, for example, or that they’re not good enough. It has to be a path that feels liberating to the individual, and we all bring different assumptions and a history of experiences with these different modalities to each activity or way of being. We have to pay attention to what works for us.
TS: Okay, Jeffrey, I’m going to ask you a question. I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot, which is, “I know X, Y, Z person”—or, in my case, I know X, Y, Z different individuals, even Sounds True authors, very accomplished people who would say, “I followed all four of these factors. I did deep inner work. I was working with X, Y, Z therapist and shamanic healer, and I had the diet, et cetera.” And this person died anyway. What’s your explanation for that? Or how do you understand that?
JR: Well, I think there’s a few things here and it’s a critical question, that we talk about this. There is a person that’s looked at this with really good research. His name’s Alastair Cunningham. He’s now emeritus at the University of Toronto, and he’s done some excellent, very deep and perceptive research on this. I think his research is so good because he just understands the scientific issues better. He has both a PhD in microbiology and a PhD in psychology. He’s both a cancer survivor and also somebody who’s been running cancer clinics for years, so he understands this from a lot of deeper perspectives than just somebody trained in one perspective who’s never been on both sides of the desk. So, that’s a big issue.
I think it’s important that we talk about this because, first of all, there’s so much we don’t know yet. There’s so much of this terrain that’s not even been mapped, and so if we get a bunch of researchers on this that go deep into these, 20 years from now we’ll have a better understanding than we do now, and we’ll be able to answer that question with more granularity and detail. But I think the other piece of it is, what you see over and over are, one can do all the right things. We can do the right thing with nutrition. We can do what we can to heal our stress response, but we’re just, as a culture, we’re just not even ankle-deep here in terms of understanding the kinds of trauma that’s often hidden in a person’s life and that we haven’t even begun to understand.
That’s a big topic. But understanding the traumas that begin to affect us and cause us to think that we’re not good enough at some level, and the way those can become not only conscious beliefs but also an unconscious perception of ourselves, that’s a big deal. So that’s a second answer to this. The third answer, though, is that we all die at some point, and we all have different trajectories around that. Sometimes the point is not always to recover from every illness. It’s not something that the soul always wants. I think that the soul is on its own timeline. It’s different for every individual, and I think, from a spiritual perspective, what I suspect might be true is that when the soul accomplishes the task it came here to recover or to accomplish, that task is done.
We’re talking about something that’s big and amorphous, and I don’t have the best answers to, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. I don’t want to see people imposing yet another judgment on themselves because they didn’t recover from an illness. We all die at some point, and it’s the judgments that kill us, in my mind. And yet another judgment is yet another burden, and recovery comes with lightening burdens rather than creating more burdens.
TS: Yes. You said that the hidden traumas that many of us have can then even have unconscious factors. Can you say more about that and how that specifically relates to a difficulty in recovering from an illness?
JR: Yes. I see this all the time in both medical and psychiatric illnesses. For example, I tell the story in Cured about a woman who came into the emergency with chest pain. There is concern she was having a heart attack. She was admitted, went through a few days of testing and her cardiac numbers and indices were all normal, and so they had her see me as a psychiatrist. And something that had not been asked or even explored at all by her earlier doctors during that hospitalization, I just came in and I just asked her, “So, have you had anything stressful in your life recently?” And she said, “Well, yeah, the day before I came into the hospital, my husband announced he was leaving the marriage and moving to Florida.” And she’d been with him since she was 15 years old. She’d never dated anyone else.
She was a beautiful Catholic woman at age 64, and just before she came into the hospital her husband told her he was leaving for Florida and leaving the marriage. Now, she was a rigorous Catholic. It made no sense to her that the devastating loss of her marriage could be playing a role in her heart attack, and her doctors hadn’t asked if there’s anything stressful in her life recently, as that’s typically not asked. But I was concerned that what I diagnosed as a panic attack that felt like a heart attack was actually a traumatic response of her body and her mind to the loss of her marriage. So, I was really concerned about her. I wanted her to get some help to process the trauma of this in her life. And age 64, Catholic, working class, she wasn’t sure that psychotherapy was really the right kind of fit for her, and it’s not the right fit for everybody, but I wanted her to have some pathway to begin to come to terms with what she was dealing with.
She was back in the emergency room a month later, again with chest pain, but this time she had atrial fibrillation, which is a very dangerous heart rhythm. I can’t prove that her atrial fibrillation was caused by basically a broken heart in terms of that shock of her husband leaving the marriage, but I’ve seen this kind of thing over and over and over again that I have come to believe that there’s a deep impact of the stresses and the traumas in our life on what eventuates in the physical body. And the research is becoming crystal clear about that. It’s a fairly new line of inquiry in the last 20 years, but it’s becoming very clear that our minds and bodies do keep the score and they tell the story for those who have the ears to listen. It’s tragic that we don’t pay attention to the stresses and traumas that are creating the minds and bodies that we live with.
TS: One of the sentences in your book Cured that really got my attention had to do with maybe spontaneous healing is not as spontaneous as we think it is. Maybe it’s not actually spontaneous. I wonder if you can say more about that.
JR: Well, it’s kind of funny and bizarre that in med school we’re taught that spontaneous remission is a fluke with no medical or scientific value. The word “spontaneous” in this context means without cause, and so how unscientific of an attitude can you have in med school if we just assume that unexpected recoveries are just flukes that have no medical or scientific value? The truth is, I’ve been studying spontaneous remission now for 20 years. There’s a cause for everything. Everything has a cause. We just made an assumption there’s no cause, it’s just a fluke, but all of these “flukes” do have causes and there’s patterns to these recoveries.
These people are doing really similar things that they found by trial and error on their own, and the fact that we don’t have curiosity about it, that we don’t investigate this, that is such an unscientific attitude that I just want to call out the profession and say, “We need to be doing this differently.” We’re taught in med school that these are all flukes and that they’re rare. They’re not rare. They just aren’t talked about, and they’re not recorded, and they’re not published in journals, and doctors are afraid to publish because they don’t want to get made fun of by their peers. There’s all these other [inaudible] that are not scientific, and we just need to be clear about what’s going on here.
TS: Well, and with your analogy with superstar athletes, I don’t know that much about superstar athletes, but from what I’ve read, it seems like their training is such a big, important piece of it, their commitment, their mindset. I mean, there’s a lot of different factors that go into it. It’s not like they’re spontaneously the Olympic star when you talk to them and you learn about the sacrifices they made and what they did.
JR: Yes. Right.
TS: I mean, there’s a lot there.
JR: There’s a lot there.
TS: Here we have different medical professionals who don’t want to give people false hope.
TS: I’m bringing this up because I know someone who’s working through an autoimmune condition and her medical professional recently told her, “This is never going to change. This is never going to change.” I heard myself in conversation saying, “I don’t accept that. Blah, blah, blah.” And I thought, “I don’t even know enough if I can be saying that, but I’m uncomfortable hearing the doctor doesn’t want to give the person false hope.” What do you think about that?
JR: Yes. I think it’s a really important thing to talk about. I think what’s good is that, as a physician, we are taught to not give false hope, and that’s important. There’s a place for that, but you have to understand the context out of which we say that. We are trained on the basis of scientific studies that again regress everything around the mean, around what’s average. And certainly, it’s true that if I were diagnosed with a certain illness, I would want to know what the average person does. I’d want to know what the length of life for an average person with this particular incurable illness is, or this lifestyle illness is. But I would also want to know what the superstars of health and well-being are doing. I mean, the people I study are really the flagships of health and well-being.
They’re the ones that have really figured something out and they’ve worked really hard at this, in the same way that Tom Brady or Ms. Williams in tennis do things really differently than the weekend warrior. They take things to a whole different level. I’m not ever going to be Tom Brady or Serena Williams, but I can learn a lot from looking at what they do. And if I do 15 percent of what they do, that would have a massive impact on these lifestyle illnesses that every day in modern medicine and psychiatry, we treat as incurable even though they’re not. So it’s really helpful if we apply just a fraction of what these superstars of health and well-being have figured out, we would see a massive reduction in suffering and begin seeing a massive reduction in the severity of the illnesses from which so many people suffer.
TS: Here, as we’re coming to a conclusion, Jeffrey, in the beginning you talked about how devoting yourself to this research over the past 20 years has changed you. I wonder specifically when it comes to the deeper dimensions of how you view yourself, your own way of being with a healthy sense of identity, if you will. How have you been changed through this research?
JR: Yes. There’s a lot of pieces to that. At one level I realized in retrospect that even though I studied theology at a deep level in seminary, I was taught that the physical body is the primary data of who we are; the physical body is who we are, and the soul is this amorphous, difficult-to-understand piece of us. I came to understand in the process of this that I don’t think that we are fundamentally our physical body. Our physical bodies are important, but I think our physical bodies are an expression or a metaphor for something that a deeper soul or deeper self is trying to learn. I think it really is true that the body does keep the score. The body does tell the story for those of us who have the ears to listen. There’s that level. I began to understand that our body is kind of a mask.
Our illnesses are kind of this mask that both reveal and conceal this deeper level of the authentic self. There’s that figure-ground reversal that occurred for me. There’s this other level, though, of what it means to begin healing a lot of my own false beliefs. So, coming out of a culture that was very violent, a family that was very violent, very fear-based family, and also a religious structure that believes—I mean, in the Amish you follow your spiritual path by leaving the larger culture, and you separate yourself from the culture because the culture is bad and evil and something to fear. There are a lot of beliefs and perceptions and interpretations of experience that one has to heal in the context of not locating badness or evil outside of oneself in the larger culture.
And so to begin realizing that the light and dark cut through every human heart and that we have to come to terms with that and not project our fears or our beliefs on others and begin facing our own shadows, begin facing and healing our own false beliefs so that we can wake up to the dignity and value, the unrepeatable goodness that each of us brings into the world. That’s been a very important journey, not only for those I study and not only for those who I see and take care of in medical and psychiatric hospitals, but also in my own life. And so to wake up to that dignity and value in a way that one can experience that and not just cognitively, but in my own heart, that’s been a huge piece of what I’ve taken from these stories that I’ve been so privileged to understand.
TS: Well, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge and honor your unrepeatable goodness. I feel your heart of service in the work that you’re doing and the courage to use your position and your mental prowess and capacity to really serve so many of us with the research and the writing that you’ve done. So, thank you. Thank you so much.
JR: Thank you.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Jeffrey Rediger. He is the author of the book Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing. Thanks for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at Resources.Soundstrue.com\Podcast. That’s, Resources.Soundstrue.com\Podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app, and if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I absolutely love getting your feedback and being connected. Sounds True: waking up the world.