is a distinguished pioneer in integrative medicine, a world-renowned expert in the mind-body connection, and a New York Times
best-selling author. We recently caught up with her to talk about what led her to craft a unique career poised at the intersection of writing and healing.
1440: How did your experience in healthcare lead to an interest in story, writing, and memoir? Joan:
During the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s I was running a mind-body clinic at one of the Harvard teaching hospitals in Boston. The HIV virus hadn't been discovered yet, and no one knew why gay men were literally dying in droves from a mysterious immunodeficiency syndrome. So I started a mind-body program for these men.
The most heartrending stories I heard were about faith. We all have stories about who we are, why we're here, and what the purpose of life is all about. The most toxic existential stories I heard were about faith. They went something like this: "The church told me it was wrong to be gay, and I couldn't believe that. So I left my childhood religion behind. Then my friends began to die, and now I'm dying. So maybe the church was right. Maybe God is punishing us for our sins."
The natural corollary of that belief is that you're on your way to hell.
That is the most toxic kind of story that a human being can believe. And the entire drama plays out in the theater of our body.
Story—whether the theme is love or fear—is central to well-being, health, and happiness.
The final chapter of my first book, Minding the Body, Mending a Mind
, a New York Times
best seller that came out in 1987, ended with a chapter about a young lawyer who died of AIDS, but discovered the mystery of love and deep faith in the process. His experience made me want to write more books about how we heal, transform, and become fully human in the process of dealing with illness, trauma, and life's difficulties. I've written or co-written 16 more books in the years since.
1440: Who did you want to be in the world when you were a young girl? Joan:
When I was 10, I had a psychotic episode. I lived in a state of abject terror for several months, hallucinating headhunters who I thought were going to kill my family. I believed that since I was the only one who could see them, it was my responsibility to hold them off through a series of complex rituals. I was taken to a couple of psychiatrists, but 60 or so years ago they weren't of any help.
Finally, one day I sat down and brought to mind the sacred silence in the pine grove where we had sabbath services at summer camp. As I chanted to myself, and entered that space, peace replaced terror, and I saw the Light for the first time. It was biblical—like the "peace that passeth understanding." Insight arose and I knew not only that I could recover from the mental illness, I knew exactly how to do it.
A poem spontaneously arose in my mind, and I wrote it down.
It's called "The Light," and it's all about how the Light is always with you even in dark times when you cannot see it. It's a poem about faith. Instead of doing the rituals, I recited the poem to myself, and within three days the headhunters went away. In the aftermath of that experience I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up.
I wanted to be a psychologist and help people who were scared.
I wanted to know how to get back to the Light and help others have that experience. And (we were studying the brain in the fifth grade at the time) I wanted to know what could happen in a human brain to create both love and fear.
That has been my life's work.
1440: How often do you write and what does your personal writing practice look like? Joan:
If I'm working on a book, I put aside blocks of time and write for six to eight hours a day. I'll often write an entire book as a stream of consciousness, no editing. While most of that first draft will end up in what I call a clip file, there are always a few scattered diamonds in the mud.
These come from a place deeper than the conscious mind.
I wash them off, and they become the seed crystals around which the book organically takes shape. This is also how I teach writing.
1440: Do you have a favorite element of daily life that feeds your creativity? Joan:
Coffee. French press to be precise. I take it to the sunroom and watch the birds greet the dawn. In the summer months, I take it outside. Nature, silence, and morning are my inspiration.
Then, when I'm not running for a plane, a short meditation and a reading–often from one of my own books, a daily reader entitled Pocketful of Miracles
Silencing the self-referential, self-critical mind leaves room for inspiration to surface.
And sometimes that's a big order!
1440: You talk about a thread of grace running through life. What is grace to you? How do you experience grace? Joan:
When my mother died, my son Justin and I went into the Light with her.
We had what's a called an empathic death experience.
I had a vision of being a pregnant mother, and also the child being born. One consciousness in two bodies. I laughed at the time, thinking "Wow. God (or Ultimate Reality) is a case of multiple personality disorder! There's actually only one of us here."
What followed was a love so tender, piercing, and intelligent that there are no words to describe its power.
The power of creation. When mom died, the room was literally filled with light. Justin and I both saw it. Light and form together. "That's Grandma's last gift," Justin wept softly and with awe. "She's holding open the door to eternity so that we can have a glimpse." The bottom line is that both of us saw that life runs deeper than surface appearances. The hard times I had with my mother were what taught me how to love and to forgive. What an experience it was to share with my 20-year-old son.