The excerpt is entitled “The Gates of Paradise: Shamanic Memories from an Indian Visionary,” and is availabe online in Parabola Summer 2022 Edition with the theme of Ancestors. It is currently available online, but the whole issue is worth reading, with an articles on P. L. Travers, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and many different topics on the theme of Ancestors.
The article also features two of Joseph Rael’s paintings, “Sage Woman becomes visible to – bless “the People,” and “Crystal Chamber,” which I’ll include below.
We are very happy that this book is getting some notice as it is an autobiography of Joseph’s life specifically aimed at passing on wisdom to the next generation, how fitting that it is in the Ancestors issue of Parabola: The Search for Meaning. The book was also recognized as a winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People.
It is a great honor to receive the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People – Grades 7-12 – for our most recent book Becoming Who You Are: Beautiful Painted Arrow’s Life & Lessons for Children Ages 10-100! This is an annual book award put on by the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey.
Paterson, is of course, home to the poet/doctor William Carlos Williams and the great beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
I visited Paterson in July 2017 when I was in New Jersey for work. I bought a copy of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and read it by the Great Falls of the Passaic River. If you can’t make it to Paterson in person, there is always the Jim Jarmusch film, “Paterson,” about a poet bus driver named Paterson.
“What do I do? I listen to the water falling. (No sound of it here but with the wind!) This is my entire occupation.” (William Carlos Williams, Paterson, p. 46).
Thank you to The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College for this award!
“Healing is a very simple thing – all you do is stop separating things – on whatever level the separation is occuring. Whether it is you viewing your body as separate from your mind or your spirit being separate from your mind, or you viewing yourself as separate from nature.” (David Kopacz)
I agree with Marianela – that whenever we talk – we could go on for 3 days! Such an interesting and heart-warming conversation! You can watch the video of the interview here.
Our next book has released! Becoming Who You Are: Beautiful Painted Arrow’s Life & Lessons for Children ages 10-100 is 130 pages of Joseph’s lessons for the people of the Earth. The book has 43 art works by Joseph and 14 photographs. We decided on the “ages 10-100” because we’ve also thought about writing a book for younger children. Also, this is our first book for children and it was challenging to bridge Joseph’s ideas and create a story that kids of all ages could enjoy.
Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) was born on the Southern Ute Reservation in 1935 and grew up at Picuris Pueblo in New Mexico. Joseph’s life took him across the country and around the world. After a vision in 1983, he built a Sound Peace Chamber, and then worked on building over 60 chambers around the world — leading to recognition by the United Nations for his work for world peace. Through his friend and co-author, David Kopacz MD, Joseph shares his life and lessons for people, young and old, growing through the transition from childhood into adulthood.
Joseph says that when he was sent to the Santa Fe Indian boarding school, they were trying to make American kids out of Indian kids, in this book, Joseph tells us, “I am trying to make Indian kids out of American kids.” Joseph passes on his wisdom and artwork to the next generations who will inherit the many problems that we have created in breaking the medicine wheel. Joseph tells us, “Let’s not leave the next generations in so much mystery about the physical and spiritual worlds. Let’s educate them from the beginning about the way of the shaman.” We are already born with everything we need, we just need to make sure that as we grow up, we don’t forget who we are.
Here are the generous endorsements we’ve received for the book:
In Becoming Who You Are, David Kopacz & Beautiful Painted Arrow (Joseph Rael), a Tiwa elder, have presented a series of marvelous stories for teenagers and young adults about how to become a human being. This is timely wisdom from Native America, and Joseph’s past, for an age in which the guidance is confusing and truth is optional. The stories help readers sort through the possibilities for who they will become, while learning about and valuing culture & diversity. They describe Joseph’s lessons learned from boarding school, World War II, Pueblo Ceremonies, life on the reservation, and the process of creating sound chambers on guidance from spirits. I heartily recommend it for readers of all ages. We all need the wisdom that David & Joseph offer us.
―LEWIS MEHL-MADRONA MD, PhD
Psychiatry Residency Training Director, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center Executive Director, Coyote Institute Associate Professor of Family Medicine, University of New England Author, Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Narrative Medicine, and Healing the Mind through the Power of Story
Becoming Who You Are is a remarkable narrative that does not fall into prescribed categories—sharing Native American insights in an engaging and charming manner, always speaking to never down to kids as the rightful heirs to our planet. Joseph Rael and David Kopacz are healers and carriers of timeless wisdom working tirelessly for the betterment of life. They convey the becoming of being in lucid text combining autobiography, literature, ecology, spirituality, travelogue, history, magic and wisdom illuminated with beautiful art. Grounded, with shining optimism, this book meanders purposefully like a pure river sourced from a perennial spring of wisdom and will surely motivate kids to fall in love with the earth and—their own selves. In our ravaged age, the book reminds us of interconnectedness and that all that we need is—here—sacred and real—listen!
―USHA AKELLA MSt Co-founder of Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poets’ Collective, Poet and Author, “I Thought a Thought,” Ek An English Musical on the life of Shirdi Sai Baba, The Way of the Storm: An English Musical on the life of Meera Bai, I Will Not Bear You Sons, The Waiting, and A Face that Does Not Bear the Footprints of the World
This story of two very different men with common visions, may serve as a guide for all who seek to continually learn about themselves through the lenses of their own history and the cultures of those around us.
―SHUYUN DAVID LO MD
Psychiatrist, University of California Santa Cruz Student Health Center
Becoming Who You Are: Beautiful Painted Arrow’s Life and Lessons for Children by Joseph E. Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and David Kopacz MD is a book that shows us there are other important ways to teach that can speak to us all. Through storytelling, Beautiful Painted Arrow lays out many of life’s core values. We learn that the Tiwa word for God is Wah-Mah-Chi, which is also everything, and is the core to the love of learning which is the secret to being human. This lovely book is written for children, but the authors freely admit that it was written for those in the middle between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, so it really applies to us all.
―BRADFORD FELKER MD
Psychiatrist, Seattle VA, Professor University of Washington, Captain United States Navy Reserve
As I read Becoming Who You Are, I envisioned myself sitting at the feet of an elder, asking him, “Tell me the story of your life―share your wisdom with me so that I may live it and one day share it with others.” Coming from years and years of Joseph’s sage wisdom and insights, this book is a beautiful invitation to not only learn, but also create your own story—through art, music, writing, reading—or however the spirit moves you.
―MAGDALINE DeSOUSA Author, The Forgotten Mourners: Sibling Survivors of Suicide, What’s Real, Mama?, What’s Brave, Mama?, and coming soon, What’s Wrong With My Family? Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home
The inspiring story and wise words of the elder, Beautiful Painted Arrow (Joseph Rael), speak to the heart of the child within all of us. His life’s journey and teachings give us hope for a better world, one where we live in peace and harmony with our fellow humans and the natural world.
—TWIN SISTERS, JANE LISTER REIS & MARGIE LISTER MUENZER co-authors of the children’s books, Si’ahl and the Council of Animals: A Story of Our Changing Climate for Children and Their Parents; Si’ahl & Friends Coloring and Activity Book; and Margie’s Nature’s Gifts: A Poetry Coloring Book.
Jonathan McFarland, President of Doctor as Humanist, and I recently had the honor of presenting at the University of Washington Nature & Health conference on Thursday, October 14th, 2021. Our overall talk was Nature, Medical Humanities, and Medical Activism. Jonathan presented on Nature & Medical Humanities and I presented on Nature & Medical Activism. Here is the powerpoint from my talk.
We’ve got a great line up of speakers and round table panelists, including Bob Lawrence, one of the founders of Physicians for Human Rights and Center for a Livable Future Professor Emeritus in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the founding director of the Center for a Livable Future; Rachel Corby, author of ReWild Yourself: Becoming Nature; Julia Corbett, author of Out of the Woods: Seeing the Nature in the Everyday; Lewis Mehl-Madrona, author of Coyote Medicine and Narrative Medicine; Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees can Help You Find Health & Happiness, amongst many others. Link to the program.
One of the projects we are doing as part of the symposium is the Tree of Medicine – a photomosaic on the Mosaically site. You can post on Instagram or Twitter with the hash tags: #NatureMed2021 and #DoctorHumanist and we’ll upload your photos into the Tree of Medicine. You can write a few words of why this photo is important to you and how it relates to Nature & Medicine. Here are a few of the photos I’ve posted.
The idea behind this conference is to highlight the many benefits of nature & health while also expanding our idea of being a medical professional to including the health of the Earth. We are in a symbiotic relationship with Nature and cannot exist apart from Nature. In fact, we ourselves are nature, we are made up of nature, our backyards are nature. I’ll be giving a workshop on Saturday 11/13/21 with a focus on Nature is Here, Now. The care of Nature begins with the care of ourselves, the nature of our homes, the nature of our backyard, and breaks down the artificial separations of humans/nature and city/nature. I’ll be joined by a couple of great psychiatry residents I’ve been working with, Eunice Stallman, MD (who has been doing an elective on Narrative Medicine) and Lewis Kerwin, MD (who has been doing an elective on Nature, Health, and Design). We’ll be joined by my friend, photographer and author, John Riggs, author of Clear Cut – The Wages of Dominion. I wrote a review of his book on 5/8/20.
Each of us on the planning committee recorded a short video on the Tree of Medicine project and the Nature & Medicine: Restoring the Balance Between Earth & Health, here’s the link to my video.
This is a reflection piece on the challenge of answering this simple question, asked so many times a day, “How are you doing?” While this is usually asked in passing, the true answer to this question is increasingly complex for health care workers as the pandemic wears on.
We recently took a drive down the Oregon coast and I took a lot of photos of birds, sea, sky, and sand at Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock. A number of birds nest at Haystack Rock, including Tufted Puffins, Murres, Gulls, and Cormorants. I didn’t realize that we had puffins on the Pacific. I had tried to see them in Nova Scotia, without success. I had seen many at a relatively close distance in Iceland, but all the photos turned out slightly blurry, unfortunately. Here we got to where we could see the Tufted Puffins with our naked eye and then I zoomed in and took photos where they landed, somewhat blind. While you can definitely tell they are puffins, they are a bit blurry – so the challenge of getting a clear puffin photo continues! The more serious photographers had tripods and that would likely help. Here is a collage of a few blurry Tufted Puffin photos.
We also saw flocks of pelicans and I was able to get some better photos of these interesting birds. We also saw them diving and catching fish at times.
The beach was wide, the sand soft and good for walking barefoot. I can see why this beach is so popular and I didn’t expect the abundance of seabirds and other shore life. The light was amazing at times, one morning a continuous interplay of cloud and sunshine. I even saw a sun halo one day.
There was, of course, a lot of sealife in the tide pools, starfish and sea anemones.
All in all, a relaxing and invigorating trip! There is nothing like walking barefoot on the sand for hours each day!
This interview was conducted by telephone on 5/28/21, recorded, transcribed, and reviewed by Dr. Lifton.
David R. Kopacz: I’d like to start by thanking you today for your time and tremendous body of work over the years. There are many ways that your work has influenced my work that I’d love to talk about, but I’m going to focus in, today, on the concept of the witnessing professional. I wonder if you could start by talking about this concept of the scholar-activist, the witnessing professional.
Robert Jay Lifton: I came to the idea of the witnessing professional in connection with a companion term of malignant normality. Malignant normality being the imposition on a society of a set of expectations that are highly destructive but are rendered ordinary and legal. Of course, the most grievous and extreme example of malignant normality is in connection with my work on Nazi doctors. In that sense, the German physician at the ramp in Auschwitz and other camps, sending Jews and others to their deaths was functioning in a kind of malignant normality. That is what he was supposed to do. That was his job, so to speak.
RJL: Within malignant normality we professionals have the capacity for exposing it, identifying it, and combating it, and that is the development or evolution of the witnessing professional. He or she is witness to the malignance of the claimed normality and not diminishing one’s professional knowledge but actually calling it forth as a means of creating one’s particular witness.
DRK: I wonder, how does this relate to our normal or historical concepts of professionalism, and how professionalism is taught today, in the health professions, with this tight focus on evidence-based medicine and protocols?
RJL: I became interested in the history of what we now call professionalism and the professions and, as you may know, it begins with profession as a profession of faith, of religious faith or commitment to a religious order. Over time, especially as we developed and moved into more of modern society, the idea of a profession became more associated with skills and increasingly technical skills. So, the idea of the professional or the profession became, what I would call technized, and the moral element of it was, in a sense, neglected or denied. In its most extreme form, the technized professional is a kind of hired gun for anybody who will pay him or her for professional knowledge. So, the witnessing professional, then, is a return to the inclusion of an ethical dimension in professional work. If you or I carry out some form of psychiatric or medical healing―that can be seen quite easily as a moral or ethical act. We shouldn’t lose the ethical dimension of being a professional. It is true that sometimes, as a professional, we have to step back and not experience fully another’s pain, or even the pain that we cause others, such as with a surgeon making a delicate operation or even a psychiatrist taking care of a very disturbed patient. But, at the same time we need to maintain, within the concept of the professional, that ethical or moral dimension and our own openness to some of that pain.
DRK: I am very interested in this idea of professionalism―in my writing I have contrasted the disconnection of the technician and the connection of the healer. I think this goes back, in a way, to the art and science of medicine. My first book was called Re-humanizing Medicine because I was concerned that people could develop that capacity―the psychic numbing or the splitting or selective professional numbing, which you write about―and that they would idealize that, and come to think that is what being a professional is: to be disconnected.
RJL: I think what you are referring to is the danger of what I call the technization of professions and considerable psychic numbing on the part of professionals, with diminished capacity or inclination for feeling―and that is dangerous. We see it is dangerous in different ways in every possible profession, I would say. So, in a way, the idea of the witnessing professional is an effort to recall a dimension of ethical involvement and limit psychic numbing on the part of professionals.
DRK: I suppose the difference is in being able to use psychic numbing as a conscious tool or technique rather than unconsciously assuming that identity of disconnection.
In thinking about the witnessing professional, there is often a narrative―and I just finished your autobiography, Witness to an Extreme Century―I’ve been really interested in reading the narratives of medical activists, people who take on this identity as a witnessing professional. The narrative goes, “I was minding my own business and just trying to be a good doctor when [X] happened, and I felt my training wasn’t adequate for [X], this experience in the world.” Is a witnessing professional―is it something that only happens in exceptional situations or is it something we can impart or teach to residents and students?
RJL: Yes, there are two questions there. One about exceptional situations and the other the capacity to teach residents or other young medical or psychological professionals the idea of the witnessing professional. A good example for me is the doctor’s antinuclear movement, which led to the formation of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and perhaps you are referring to that. I have been quite active in it over the years and especially early on. What happened was, there was the capacity of first physicists, and then doctors in general, to recognize that they have something to say about nuclear danger. It began with the idea that doctors would be unable to carry out their traditional tasks in disaster, that is to help the living and provide some kind of healing. I used to talk and say the reason why this doesn’t work is because you’ll probably be dead, and we’ll probably be dead and there will be no medical facilities available for this. It is a recognition that one’s usual training can’t cover the extraordinary revolution in destructive weaponry that we’ve undergone and even the ethics of a particular profession are very inadequate because they would talk about being a kind therapist or bringing the latest knowledge to one’s work as a psychiatrist or physician but that’s not adequate for the problems that confront us. So, there can be these large threats, like nuclear threat, that awaken people to a realization that there needs to be a new, broader ethic that has to do with humanity in general.
RJL: All this can be taught, to a degree. One reason why the term ethical professional is useful is that it gives one a concept with which to connect one’s work and one can see oneself clearly as remaining a professional, not leaving the professional orbit, but using professional knowledge in a broader context.
So, there can be lots of discussion and teaching and dialogue in relation to exactly this. It is already beginning to take place. You may know of a recent issue of Dædalus, which ordinarily is a highly professionalized journal, but they were able, they decided to devote one issue, which was edited by Nancy Rosenblum (who happens to be my partner), about witnessing professionals in relation to climate. I have an essay [“On Becoming Witnessing Professionals”] in it describing the witnessing professional which is the basis for the ideas of the issue. There always has to be a kind of development and commitment by individual people, and that development and commitment is enhanced by a collective expression of this kind of witnessing professional.
DRK: Thank you, I wasn’t aware of that issue. I will look that up. One thing I was wondering, in trying to teach this, how, how would you go about it? Is it a skill set that people can learn, that we can impart and measure? So much of medical education now is focused on objective learning goals. Or is it like a different dimension, like cultivating the heart and compassion and human connection. In other words, does one go into the work having been trained as a witnessing professional, or does one become a witnessing professional because one is open to human suffering and to look at that human suffering in a broader context than just being held within an individual in front of you in the clinic?
RJL: Well, it can be taught, what you are describing after all, with physicians in particular, is ostensibly a healing profession.
RJL: A healing profession, or a professional who attempts to heal, has to take in pain and share the pain with patients, with others. Once one considers, early on, one’s work to be an ethical enterprise, it’s not too difficult for the witnessing professional to take root. I’ve mentioned in my work, observing very young physicians who were not clear about these matters, had some issues about them, but once they committed themselves to joining the physicians’ anti-nuclear movement, they themselves could evolve, become more articulate, and become more clear about who they were. In a strange way, I, in my own experience, as I think others did too, in the physicians’ anti-nuclear movement, felt myself more a healer than ever before in connection with this commitment. It is bound up with healing, for physicians.
Of course, in my case, I had direct knowledge of the Hiroshima experience of people exposed to the first use an atomic weapon on a human population and what that caused and what that resulted in. I could talk about that, as together with Nagasaki, the only record we have of the human impact of, what is by present standards, a very small bomb. But even outside of what we consider directly healing professions, even professions that have to do with other forms of knowledge, including the humanities, can evoke their knowledge to confront the malignant normality that is put before us.
Of course, I’ve made use of the idea of malignant normality repeatedly and strongly in relation to Trump and Trumpism―it is not a single individual matter, but it is a collective form of behavior which pursues and seeks to render lying and deception and attacks, personal attacks on anyone who questions the “Big Lie,” render this the norm, the malignant normality of our own society and we are at the present time very much in the process of seeking to confront that malignant normality as witnessing professionals in our own society.
DRK: I’m glad you brought this up. You wrote the foreword [“Our Witness to Malignant Normality”] to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess the President. Like many people I was very concerned with, it seemed like many of the things that were happening were the things that happen in fascist or pre-fascist political movements. Dr. Bandy Lee brought that edited volume together, and brought you in for the foreword, and now she has been fired from Yale, ostensibly for violating the American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule. What are some of your thoughts on Bandy Lee’s work, her dismissal and also the warning this sends to professionals to “stay in your lane?”
RJL: Bandy Lee has been an extraordinary leader in speaking out about what I am calling malignant normality and encouraging psychological professionals to do the same. Nobody should be fired in relation to the Goldwater Rule, which is quite confused, and complicated with the resistance on the part of the American Psychiatric Association to a more thoughtful approach to psychiatrists speaking out, which could contain freedom to speak out while not making hands on diagnoses. I haven’t been working with Bandy Lee for several years and although the Goldwater Rule was mentioned by the Yale department, I am in no way clear about the whole Yale situation.
DRK: For myself, I went through this phase of feeling―“this is wrong, somebody should say something, somebody should do something.” I felt that collective psychology overlaps with my professional domain, and, additionally, I’ve also studied the literature outside of psychiatry, on fascism and history and the genocides of the last century. I felt a need to do something, on the one hand, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do. On the other hand, I had a fear of going beyond my profession if I were to speak out and point out similarities in current psychology to past fascist movements―and yet I was also aware of the “by-stander effect,” where people do not act when something is obviously wrong. I worry with Bandy Lee that this is a cautionary tale of―can you go too far as a witnessing professional, or is the ethical and moral right with the individual, even if they end up getting punished by the institutions?
RJL: What you are describing is a very human concern that witnessing professionals experience which has to do with how much one can say from the standpoint of one’s profession and how far one should go in saying it. There is, as you know, an interaction of psychology and politics that is inevitable. I think, in my own work, and there are others who do it a different way, I invoke what I know from professional experience, or what I think I know from professional experience, and bring it forward in relation to what I say publicly. In my case, of course, I’ve studied Hiroshima survivors and Nazi doctors and I’ve seen in the latter, in Nazi doctors, the very opposite of the witnessing professional. What I’ve called the “killing professional.” I think we have to speak out from what we have seen and recognized and then look at what we believe we know, or have learned, as a professional. Of course, in addition to that, we are also citizens who have ethical concerns about political issues. People have to give their own perspectives on this and there is no, how shall I say, there is no perfect model of how to go about it.
RJL: But I think there is an increasing recognition on the part of many professionals that what they are doing and thinking is not enough and there is a hunger among professionals that I have encountered for entertaining or including an ethical or moral perspective in their professional work and I think that is increasingly available to people.
So, yes, I believe that a witnessing professional should have discipline, one should say what one thinks one has learned as a professional, and not just speak randomly, and that’s really what defines the idea of the witnessing professional.
DRK: It feels like there is a sense in many witnessing professionals’ narratives of this being out on a limb by yourself, of not having been prepared by your education or profession, unless you have gone out of the way and read about different people who have taken on roles as witnessing professionals. So, I guess I go back again to this idea of―what would be the ideal way to teach this to medical students and residents and other health professionals?
RJL: I agree, it can and should be taught and should be discussed. You don’t have to have experienced an extreme situation in order to gravitate toward becoming a witnessing professional, after all, as you say, we undergo residency or training procedures of some kind and we experience all kinds of pain and have access to a lot of confusion on the part of both patient and healer. If we can look at a concept such as the witnessing professional that doesn’t automatically solve everything, but at least can provide a beginning in one’s sense of one’s self, one’s own identity as both a professional who is committed to learning, yes even the techniques of the profession, on the one hand, but is also committed to applying one’s professional knowledge in a broader way that enhances human behavior on a larger scale―that’s what the doctors anti-nuclear movement was about, there is also Physicians for Human Rights. These organizations then constitute a banding together of witnessing professionals who are always, or can always be, at the edge of activism.
The teaching that you emphasize, and discussion during residency, and even in medical school before that, I think could be very important. What happens, as you know, is that there is so much to learn in the training procedure that one is overwhelmed with memorization and details and the broader ethical dimension can readily be lost, but if it is considered early, it may never disappear entirely, and becomes part of, at least a possible, direction that starts early in psychological and medical professionals.
DRK: There are the studies that show that idealism goes down during medical student years and residency training and burnout starts to increase. I always wonder if somehow that idealism―maybe we should look at idealism as a precious resource rather than kind of a naïve, friendly fire incident with medical training where it is lost, where we could right from the very beginning come up with ways to help students preserve their idealism as they are learning that tight, technical focus to also be able to broaden out to the bigger picture.
RJL: Yes, what you say about idealism is important because, on the one hand, medical practice can be a business―it is in a way, but there is a certain element of idealism even a small one, that is likely to go into anyone’s decision to become a physician or a healer. As you say, it is readily lost in the training procedure which is demanding and dominates everything. If one can reconnect with the idealism, the earlier idealism, even a small element of it, that was a factor in that choice of profession, that could inform the witnessing professional.
RJL: Or, to put it another way, if one has the concept of the witnessing professional that one has discussed early on in training, there is a place to recover and extend one’s idealism that is available in one’s mind because it has been placed there, as at least a possibility, early in one’s medical or psychological life.
So, yes, in that way, the teaching of it, the discussion of it early would be very beneficial and students are very sensitive, as you know, and they are very responsive to what they perceive as authenticity and equally critical of what they perceive as less than authentic, the inauthentic. So, if the discussion is initiated with some sense of authenticity, coming from the experience of the initiator of the discussion, if he or she can tell about experiences that cry out for an element of idealism or of moral or ethical behavior in the professional, that will be responded to by students given their sensitivity and capacity to differentiate between what seems authentic to them or not.
DRK: I wonder whether we should institute practices, like some type of idealism practice and some type of suffering practice? A practice of being able to hold on to these ideals and recapture or regenerate them if they are lost. And a practice of being able to accept and embrace the suffering inherent in our professions and our work with people who are suffering and to be able to have a framework to metabolize and grow from that suffering―to turn the suffering into commitment to action in the world or re-dedication.
RJL: Yes, in recent work I have been talking about issues of death anxiety and death guilt and what I call an animating relationship to guilt or an animating relationship to death anxiety. These are forms of suffering which people we treat, or try to help, undergo and which we, ourselves, are hardly immune to and the animating relationship is the capacity to transform death anxiety or mea culpa guilt into what I call the anxiety of responsibility. The responsibility toward something in the way of healing or life-affirming behavior or contribution to the human future. So, these are very real matters. I think they are immediate and practical, but they are also very much aspects of what we call idealism.
DRK: I developed this idea of a counter-curriculum of re-humanization in medical school. I developed it in myself, by being connected to arts and poetry and literature and meditation, from a feeling that I needed to somehow push back against the ever-present scientific curriculum, to save some part of myself that was more than just memorizing biochemistry. I know you have written about the comparison between totalitarian thought reform and psychoanalytic training and I wonder if what is needed in medical education is some emphasis on this ability to be able to resist the brainwashing of technicism or thought reform of becoming an uncaring or unfeeling physician.
RJL: Well, there is a lot of pressure in medical training in the direction of psychic numbing, starting with the introduction to the cadaver. And I think that another way of saying what I think you are suggesting is that medical training involves diminution of feeling in the service of learning techniques.
Now, there is a reaction, getting to psychoanalysis―I’ve been in touch with some psychoanalytic groups in the last few years and there is a considerable movement away from the direction of totalism that I described which can inhabit psychoanalytic training, (which I myself partly underwent and then left). The American Psychoanalytic Association invited me to give their plenary address in 2020 and published it―a paper that specifically confronted thought reform and totalism. I talked about, in that plenary address, the imposition of ideas in a systematic way: criticism, self-criticism, and confession―which characterized Chinese thought reform and I talked about ways of avoiding this kind of totalism and combating it. The fact that I was invited to do so by the leading American Psychoanalytic Association suggests that they too are hungry for ethical directions. That doesn’t mean that much of medical or psychoanalytic training can still be questioned, but it does mean that there is a hunger for this broadening direction that I summarize in the form of witnessing professionals. I also talk about what I call the Protean style or capacity for individual change and transformation and that being associated with our tendency toward symbolism, not just one thing equals another, pen equal penis, or something like that, but rather a whole symbolizing tradition in philosophy and psychology, within which we must recreate everything we encounter, in order to take in anything at all. We are symbolizers, in that sense, and that opens us toward what I call a Protean Self or multiple Self. We have that capacity for combatting controls of the mind and we are also vulnerable to such a kind of process to a degree, but we also have inclinations within us toward rejecting it and opposing it―we can go either way.
You can learn more about Robert Jay Lifton & his work at his website and his latest book, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry is a summary of some of his most important books. This interview is also published at The-POV and is reprinted with permission.