Resilience & Rites of Passage: Dr. Joan Borysenko Talks About Transformation

Resilience & Rites of Passage:
Pioneer in Integrative Medicine, Dr. Joan Borysenko, Talks About Transformation
by Elissa Melaragno


Dr. Joan Borysenko is a world-renowned expert in the mind/body connection. Her work has been foundational in an international healthcare revolution that recognizes the role of meaning and the spiritual dimensions of life as an integral part of health and healing. In the early 1980s, Dr. Borysenko co-founded a mind/body clinic with Dr. Herbert Benson and Dr. Ilan Kutz, became licensed as a psychologist, and was appointed as an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of the New York Times best seller Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, which sold over 400,000 copies, and 13 other publications. She is the Founding Partner of Mind/Body Health Sciences, LLC, located in Boulder, Colorado, and the Director of The Claritas Institute Interspiritual Mentor Training Program.

Elissa Melaragno (EM): Joan, thank you for being with me here today at Kripalu.   

Joan Borysekno (JB): You’re welcome, Kripalu is a great place to be.

EM: It is. It’s a great gift to talk with you again. I just read your book that you wrote back in 2009 on resilience, It’s Not the End of the World. How would you describe resilience?

JB: I think I might describe it a little bit differently than most people. Resilience is usually described as bouncing back from adversity. But I don’t think it’s bouncing back to who you were before at all. I think it’s a transformation to a new you, with strengths and capacities that you can only develop by facing hard times. So, to me, resilience and positive transformation through facing difficult experiences are one in the same.

EM: That puts a new light on how you were transformed. You went from being a cellular biologist to working in behavioral medicine. Can you tell us a little bit of that story?

JB: Absolutely, I was doing cancer research and teaching at Tufts Medical School in Boston. I had a very well-funded lab, and enjoyed research, and yet I felt an inner emptiness; there was no “people component” to my work. I wasn’t about to leave a secure position, and then something transformational happened. 

That something, unfortunately, was the death of my father. He developed leukemia, but he died because the medical system was not configured to pay attention to him. They put him on a drug that created a manic psychosis in him. It was like a stranger had moved into his skin. Nobody would listen to us. At one point, they took him off of the drug to do a surgery, and, within a few days’ time, he came into his right mind. It was absolutely thrilling. My God, our hearts were just so joyful to have him back. 

After about a week, we realized that his new-found peace came from the fact that he had made the decision that he was not willing to continue on that drug once he came back to himself. He waited until my mother had fallen asleep one night, and he jumped out of their high-rise condo window to his death. His suicide was shocking for the whole family, but it was guilt inducing for me. I felt that I had the medical background and that I was the one who should’ve been able to keep him safe. He died on my watch. 

The loss and my guilt provoked a lot of depression, sadness, grief, and soul searching. In some ways, parts of my world ended with his death. I went into an in-between time where I was no longer the person I was and I was not yet the person I was going to be. Later on, I began to think that if I could possibly save even one other family from what had happened to us it would give meaning to his death. Eventually, I was able to pull off a complete career switch. I re-trained as a psychologist and started to work with people who were chronically ill. 

That in-between time I mentioned between my dad’s death and my new career helping people with chronic and life-threatening illnesses is called liminal space. It’s the place between what is no longer and what is yet to be. I think of it as sacred space—a place of becoming—but it’s dangerous as well. Some people never come out of this transitional time of facing ordeals and entering the unknown. My father committed suicide in that space. I was fortunate to find a way to work through it, and I came out of the liminal phase into the next phase of the transformation process, which is called the return. 

When one reaches the return phase, it is as a different person in many ways. I have witnessed people return from every kind of trauma, heartbreak, and medical condition enriched in wisdom with gifts of insight and new skills to give back to their families and communities. These people have been my teachers. 

EM: This transformation for you sounds about as frightening as any kind of trauma and recovery can be. In your book, one action you recommend is to mobilize resilient thinking; in other words, using whatever is at your disposal to improvise solutions. Is that what changing your career path was for you?

JB: Well, yeah, it took a lot of improvisation. I had to think about how I could make a living, and I had a real felt sense that helping people with life-threatening or chronic illnesses was my life’s purpose. So, I had a strong intention. 

Actually, the realization that resilient people are good improvisers came from an article by Diane Coutu that I read in Harvard Business Review. She reviewed the field of resilience and wrote that resilient companies work the same way as resilient individuals. They improvise. There’s a French word, bricolage, that means to make something out of nothing. The article and the word reminded me of Viktor Frankl, who talked about resilience in concentration camp survivors, explaining the importance of improvisation. A prisoner might pick up little bits of string and wire, for example, and then, when their shoelaces broke, they could improvise a shoelace. The ability to use whatever was at hand to stay alive is one of the skills that helped resilient prisoners to survive. 

I think of bricolage as a kind of mindfulness. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, your field of perception expands so that you can recognize what you do have that could be useful. In my case, as I changed careers, I began looking for the patterns, looking for the openings, looking for the opportunities—that was mindfulness, the starting point for bricolage.

EM: How specifically would you define your life’s purpose?

JB: For me, my life’s purpose is to help people become more resilient, developing their faith in life and in themselves. I try to create a safe place of reflection and ask questions that bring out people’s innate nobility and strengths. I also teach skills of meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, and forgiveness that calm down the fear brain and help people create new meaning from difficult experiences. 

EM: You wrote It’s Not the End of the World in 2009 after the economic crash we all suffered in the United States. Explain that context a little bit.

JB: In 2008, when the stock market crashed, I was directing a school that trained spiritual mentors. We were all together at a retreat, hearing news reports about this crash. I thought, “my god it’s like the world is coming to an end.” Everyone who had money invested for retirement was freaking out. 

I came home from the retreat and read an article about a young stockbroker in his 30s who jumped to his death from an office building. Of course, it reminded me of my father’s death. Death by jumping—it brought up the trauma of his death for me, and how people deal with difficult times. Who survives hardship? Who transforms? Who falls apart? Who gets sick? Commits suicide? Or falls into depression? And what can I do about it? I thought, “I’ll write a book. I’ll write a short book because people who are frightened, sinking, and in liminal space are not going to read a tome.” My idea was to keep it simple, short, helpful, and to the point. 

EM: Well, I think it’s wonderfully written. You have outlined concise steps of actions andpractices to bring the body, mind, and soul together, and you talk about the scientific background of these things. Given that it has been seven years since you wrote it, is there anything you would say a little differently now?

JB: Well, brain science has exploded in those intervening seven years. The brain science on resilience is pretty fascinating. It turns out the brain in a resilient person has about 30 times more activity in the left pre-frontal cortex, where reason and emotions come together, than the brain of a person who is not resilient. 

Many researchers, including Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who has quite a large neuroscience lab, have been interested in how people make a left shift; that is, get more activity over in that part of the brain. And one of the things they have discovered, and I’m sure there’s much more to be discovered, is that virtually any kind of meditation helps to create a left shift. Both mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy create a left shift. 

When you develop awareness of what your thinking is like and then learn to witness your thoughts without believing the upsetting things you might be telling yourself—it creates a left shift. This is part of how mindfulness creates emotional intelligence and peace of mind.

Other practices like exercise, chi-gong, yoga, meditative movement, and breath work also create a left shift. I’m not yet sure whether the research has been done on music, but if I were to make a hypothesis, I would suggest that music also creates a left shift. Meditative practices like yoga also cause the release of gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA drips down into the amygdala where it inhibits the fear neurons from firing, thereby intervening in the fear cycle. Typically, if the amygdala is triggered in fear, we cannot be resilient. We call this triggering an amygdala highjack. GABA interrupts the fear cycle and the hijacking, putting our thinking brain back in the driver’s seat.

EM: How does this all relate to stress reduction and burnout?

JB: Well, a certain amount of stress is good because there’s something called the Yerkes-Dodson Formula, which says that as stress increases so does creativity, efficiency, wellbeing, and flow. But it also says that when stress gets to be too much, creativity and wellbeing and efficiency go into decline, and then we burn out. So, there’s a sweet spot in stress reduction. 

Here at Kripalu, I am doing a workshop called “Getting Your Groove Back,” and almost the entire group has come because they feel burned out. But burnout doesn’t set in all at once. It’s important to recognize the early signs and symptoms so you can nip it in the bud. We need to develop more awareness of when we’re too stressed and about to go over the edge. 

One of the early signs of burnout for me is when I feel like a refrigerator that has been unplugged, no longer humming along but exhausted.
— Dr. Joan Borysenko

One of the early signs of burnout for me is when I feel like a refrigerator that has been unplugged, no longer humming along but exhausted. So, for me burnout starts with a feeling of emotional exhaustion or fragility. Then I start feeling irritable and empty with nothing left to give. I’m just all used up. There are also physical signs of burnout: having trouble sleeping, fatigue, aches and pains. The worst part for me is a loss of interest in my clients and my work. A lot of times burnout and depression are confused. Burnout looks a lot like depression because in burnout you lose your motivation and your connection to creativity and to life. The things that used to give you joy leave you cold. Some people think they need antidepressant medications, but often the cure is in finding a different balance in your life. 

EM: And what do you do to help yourself?

JB: Well, sometimes it takes a little time to get out of denial because like many people I just try to push on through. But I’ve learned it’s most important to take a break as soon as I can. The break is the first aid. Can I unplug for a weekend? Can I go away some place and actually take a vacation? The point of doing that is to nourish my body; get out, exercise, breathe fresh air, eat good food that I don’t have to cook myself, hopefully. But there is a deeper point to unplugging. When I’m away from day-to-day responsibilities, I can reflect. It’s the inner reflection, I think, that has been the most important to me. That encourages me to change my story and my behavior to make room for life. 

The importance of reflection is also why I think it’s so important to talk with other people, whether it’s a spiritual director or a mentor or a coach or a therapist or good friends. I encourage people to get quiet and talk to somebody because, oftentimes, the answers come to you when you’re being listened to. 

EM: Earlier in this “Getting Back Your Groove” seminar, you had us do a process where we asked each other some very poignant questions in pairs. You mentioned that you and your husband often do this activity with each other. What are some of those questions? Does this help you both get back on center with each other?

JB: Well, it does, and its not just the questions, it’s the quality of the listening that’s important. The questions that we worked with in the workshop are great questions if you’re starting to feel burned out. The first question is: “What really enlivens you?” The second question is: “What drains you?” And the third question is: “What does your soul really long for?” Now, normally, if someone were to be sitting with you, the person who is listening would feel like they should really say something wise, give you some good advice, and tell you about all the times they felt just the same way. And that kind of response, while empathetic, cuts off your reflective process. 

The activity of silent listening serves a deeper process of inquiry where, as you’re answering the question, the person to whom you are talking is just listening, saying nothing, just present, just listening, and amazing things come out as maybe you lapse into silence, and another wave of insights comes out. So, yes, from time to time my husband and I will do this. Sometimes, because he notices when I’m feeling a little burned out or snarky, he’ll say, “Come sit with me and tell me what are you feeling.” And that’s his invitation for me to sit, get quiet, go inside myself, and actually tell him. He will just listen. Of course, he’s a man, so after he’s finished listening, he’ll give me advice. 

EM: And how do you respond to advice?

JB: The trouble with advice, as you well know, is that it can be lovely and necessary and terrific, but it’s a different process because it doesn’t invite the going deeper. It moves you outward into action. Both listening and advice are wonderful at the right times.

EM: Moving to a slightly different topic, I was intrigued in the workshop when you brought up the idea of rites of passage. It really fascinated me because it made me think of so many indigenous cultures that have kept up celebrations of rites of passage, especially around adolescence for girls and boys. Can we talk about that a little bit more, both about the history of rites of passage and what such practices mean to you in your work? 

JB: Yes, I got interested in rites of passage because of a professor of mine who said to me, “What if somebody who came in with AIDS or with cancer or who is thinking of themselves as a victim—someone who is obviously in grief and lamentation—could see their situation a little bit differently? What if they could see it as an initiation, a rite of passage, or see themselves as a pilgrim in the journey of the soul? This journey has been mapped for us, and you don’t have to look any further than indigenous rites of passage to see what the map looks like.” 

My professor was David McClelland, a psychologist at Harvard. He told me to take a look at the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner, who was studying the manhood rituals of the Ndembu tribe in Zambia. In their ritual, the boy would be taken from his mother’s hut. That’s the first phase of a rite of passage: separation. The boy would then be taken out into the wilderness to face a whole lot of ordeals for a year. Men would visit the boy from time to time, and various challenges and ordeals would ensue. At the end of a year, there would be re-entrance into society. In this phase, called return, the boy is gone. He returns as a man. The in-between phase, the liminal phase of wandering in the wilderness facing ordeals and finding strengths, is comparable to Jesus’ 40 days in the desert or Moses and the Israelites wandering for 40 years between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. It’s that unknown phase of wandering that fascinates me. 

At one point, when I was deep in the work of training spiritual mentors, I had occasion to be with Father Thomas Keating. He gave a wonderful teaching to our class about the liminal time, the unknown territory where the magic happens. He said, “Life is a journey into the unknown, and if you think you know where you’re going, you’re on the wrong road.” And that’s very interesting because we, at least as Americans, like to know what’s going to happen next. We like safety and security, and yet that’s not where the soul grows best. We do need some safety—we need trust, we need attachment, and we need a basis. But then we need to be thrown out into the wilderness from time to time to have some ordeals and to develop different depths. 

Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of important rituals that were constructed to bring us deeper into the goodness of our souls. And where real ritual is lacking, we may improvise injurious ones. For example, there’s so much written about inner-city boys, who have plenty of rituals in gangs, including terrible blood rituals. Brutal initiations—for instance killing someone—bond them within their groups and create a sense of belonging. 

We know how important positive ritual is. In many Native American communities and First Nations people in Canada, the losses of ritual, land, old ways, and ways to make a living have led to a scourge of alcoholism. It only takes one generation for a culture to lose its rituals and for people to fall into depression and substance abuse. But for many indigenous people, the relearning of their own sacred rituals, for example the sacred pipe or praying in a sacred way in a sweat lodge, can be a real help. Rituals connect us to our inherent nobility. I think we all once had these rituals; we were all once indigenous peoples. 

All cultures had their rituals, and I think it’s a very healing thing to bring them back.
— Dr. Joan Borysenko

The first recorded temple in my root tradition, Judaism, was a tent in the wilderness with an altar to the four directions. Where did that all go? All cultures had their rituals, and I think it’s a very healing thing to bring them back. 

In American culture, in general, we don’t have good grieving rituals. In Judaism, we do. There’s a tradition of sitting shiva when someone dies. For a week, mourners gather at the family home to tell stories about the deceased, to pray, to eat, to comfort and be comforted. In religious households mirrors are covered. It used to be that you’d literally rend or tear your garments, but now we wear a black ribbon with a cut in it. After the week of shiva,  prayers for the dead are recited for a period of a year. When the tombstone is unveiled at the end of that time, it marks the the end of the ritual mourning period. Also in Judaism, we have the Bar Mitzvah for boys and the Bat Mitzvah for girls, marking their entrance into the religious life of the community. 

Baby showers and christenings are important secular and Christian rituals. But our children need more ways to mark rites of passage as they age. There was a wonderful woman by the name of Rachel Kessler, a very dear friend, who wrote a book called The Soul of Education. She talked about the various gates into the soul that allow children to become more fully themselves, that allow them to bring their authentic selves into the classroom and to develop their emotional intelligence. It struck me that a big part of her book explored rites of passage, questions like, “Where have you been and what are you being welcomed into?” Kessler was on the forefront of mindfulness in education, as well as bringing completion rituals intochildhood learning and development.

EM: So, having grown up with very little ritual myself, it wasn’t until later years that I started to understand it. And when I think of it now, ritual did become a tool to help me move through some liminal spaces. What are some of our modern rituals, which we can tie in to our own liminal journeys?

JB: Sabbath is a ritual that I’ve loved since I was a child. I learned about it when I went to a Jewish camp—my parents did not celebrate the Sabbath at home. In Judaism, the holiest day of the year is the Sabbath, and it occurs 52 times a year. It is holier than the High Holy Days. The reason for its holiness is that Sabbath is about leaving the ordinary world that we live in behind so that we can move more deeply into communion with God, the reality of the soul, the reality of nature. It is time out of time, and that connection with God, soul, nature, and time gives our souls new juice. It’s said that on the Sabbath you get an extra soul. This is very, very important now, because 24/7 busyness is “the thing.” There’s no collective rhythm of Sabbath in secular culture. 

A very dear friend of mine, Wayne Muller, wrote a book called Sabbath. And he says that without Sabbath that life, for all its savor, “is like music without any rest stops. It’s just noise.” Without a rest stop you lose the rhythm of life. 

In the Jewish tradition, every day begins at night, because in the Bible God created first the night and then the day. So when you see the first three stars in the sky, that’s the new day. So, Sabbath begins on Friday night and ends on Saturday night. There’s a service at the end called Havdalah, which means “separation.” You’re separating yourself from this time out of time where you are immersed in the sacred. You’re going back to ordinary time, and there’s a sadness associated with that because Sabbath immersion is such a sacred beautiful, beautiful time. 

For Christians, Sabbath is a Sunday ritual, and if you’re Muslim then it’s a Friday Sabbath. What Wayne Muller is finding out is that millennials are beginning to realize that 24/7 activity kills creativity. And they’re very, very interested in resurrecting—in their own ways—the ritual of Sabbath. I think we’re hungry for these Sabbath rituals as well as grieving rituals and rituals of celebration. We need to take back the sacred in the rituals that we do keep whatever they are and whatever our orientation is so that we are resourced in our liminal space, when we’re at sea in the great Unknown. 

EM: Yes, that is something to think about, isn’t it? Well, I want to thank you very much for being with me here today on behalf of all of our readers at Anchor. This was a very special conversation.

JB: You’re very welcome. I had a wonderful time. §




Elissa Melaragno (Editor) has been a professional visual artist for thirty years with her works primarily on display as public arts, especially in healthcare settings. Elissa uses her training in spiritual direction and several holistic healing modalities to inform her work as an art instructor. She incorporates creativity, the mandala, and inner exploration as a source of growth, healing, and vocational enrichment into her teaching.