Making Meaning of Loss and Heartbreak with Dr. Joan Borysenko


Next up in our GaiamTV interview series, we have Harvard-trained medical scientist and New York Times bestelling author Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. Joan is a distinguished pioneer in integrative medicine and a world-renowned expert in the mind/body connection. Here, she speaks with us about loss, resilience, and overcoming adversity.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, Dr. Borysenko. In your interview on GaiamTV you talk about resilience and how to overcome challenge in times of adversity. Can you share a little about the inspiration behind these teachings? What has been your own experience with adversity, loss, and ultimately resilience?

As I discussed on the show, I had a serious mental illness as a 10-year-old that taught me a lot about resilience. At 7 years old, I was already resilient — having run away from overnight camp as a result of bullying, then locked up in the bunk for the next several weeks of the summer and told that my parents would be very angry if they knew what a terrible child I was. As an adult I’ve been through divorce, betrayal, and most recently a wildfire that burned down part of our home, a large outbuilding, much of our land, and many of our neighbor’s homes. As Nietzsche  famously said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 

You’ve written quite a bit about losing your father to cancer and how that has impacted your life’s trajectory. How did that experience influence the way you see science, spirituality, and the relationship between the two?

When my father committed suicide rather than continue with a treatment that made him manic, I was devastated — especially because my mother became so seriously depressed in the aftermath of his death. It is human nature to look for meaning in difficult events — in fact, I think of the human soul as the organ of meaning-making.

My father was not a religious man, but he was deeply influenced by the transcendentalists and nature mystics like Emerson and Thoreau. In fact, he used to challenge me when I came home from Sunday school as a child. “Is God really an old white man with a beard,” he’d ask. “Do you think that airplanes go right through his belly button?” I’d laugh, but then I’d think.

I came to see “God” much as he did — as a highly creative, sentient, and compassionate force of nature. As a young scientist, I did my utmost to identify the characteristics of that living field of energy. I was fascinated with electromagnetic fields and their effect on cancer cells, for instance, and upon healing. It was clear from physics that everything is energy, and that matter is simply energy vibrating at a frequency that gives the appearance of dense material reality. That kindled an interest in intention, prayer, and healing at a distance. And most importantly, it led to an interest in conscious evolution. How can we sensitize ourselves to the patterns of energy that are emergent at any given time and cooperate with them to create the most harmonious future for all beings?

What words of wisdom can you share with someone who might be in the midst of dealing with grief, loss, or heartbreak and having a difficult time finding meaning in the experience? 

Be gentle with yourself and take refuge with good friends. The first stage in healing from a heartbreaking experience is grieving. If you let yourself grieve, then you help yourself move forward honoring what was most precious to you.

Healing from loss or trauma is an inner time, a time for inquiring into the big questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we here? What’s the purpose of human life?

Very few people heal and make meaning alone. We need friends, and sometimes professionals, to act as guides in the territory between what is no longer and what has yet to come. That is the liminal period when we dwell at the threshold of the new, and although it may feel like the new will never dawn, it will. But you can’t hurry it.

Transformation takes time. So I’d say, trust in the process; identify the help and the allies that you need; and let go of friends who want to have a pity party or wave the flag of blame or resentment.

When faced with life’s challenges, why do some people bounce back easily while others stay stuck? Joan Borysenko explains how you can master the important life skill called resilience, sharing her tips for facing reality head-on, mastering improvisation and finding deeper meaning in life.


Watch Dr. Borysenko’s powerful and inspiring interview about cultivating resilience in times of change by signing up for a free 10-day trial with GaiamTV here:

The GaiamTV interview series features in-depth conversations with some of the nation’s top yoga instructors and wellness experts. GaiamTV is a lifestyle media website that features thousands of online videos and yoga classes designed “to nourish your mind, body, and soul.” Check out the other interviews in this series:

The Fire of Transformation with Kia Miller

Rodney Yee on What Makes Yoga Powerful

Jill Miller on Yoga, Weight Loss, & Eating Disorders

Kathryn Budig on Aiming True & The Path of Love

Seane Corn on Detoxing the Mind and Body

How to Cultivate Core Strength with Sadie Nardini

Evolutionary Enlightenment with Andrew Cohen

How Yoga Could Help This Year’s Olympic Athletes

How to Overcome Energetic Constipation and Open Your Heart with Tommy Rosen

10 Keys to Happiness – According to Deepak Chopra

 Integrating Yogic, Martial, and Living Arts – Interview with Budokon-Creator Cameron Shayne

Why Mariel Hemingway Practices Yoga

Photo: The Talent Code