For more than four decades, Joan Borysenko has been residing at the intersection of science, spirituality, and psychology. The author of more than a dozen books on spiritual and physical wellness, including the best-seller Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, she leads and facilitates workshops on managing stress and enhancing our inner lives. She spoke with Spirituality & Health about the value of kindness, the interconnectedness of the health of people and the planet, and authenticity in middle age.
What are your spiritual roots?
My mother was culturally Jewish. The idea of a loving universe was entirely ridiculous to her. My father thought the idea of a white guy in the clouds was ridiculous, but Emerson and Thoreau spoke to him deeply. I attended a summer camp where we’d celebrate the Sabbath in a pine grove by a lake, and I could smell the sweetness of the earth and water and watch the sun as it set. For me, a very big part of spiritual experience is language and music. I loved the old melodies of ancient Hebrew prayers. It wasn’t any particular religious dogma that spoke to me. To be carried away on the wings of that music out in nature—that opened my heart and mind.
How do you view the connection between the health of the planet and the physical health of humanity?
I’ve been deeply conditioned by the indigenous worldview to understand that the earth is our mother, the womb of our life. When you affect the womb in which you develop, whether it’s the physical womb of your mother or the womb of the earth itself, you can expect problems with the health of the offspring.
Think of farming practices, the amount of pesticides used, and the effect of those pesticides on our health, on our immunity, on our susceptibility to cancer. These are potential causes of everything from Alzheimer’s to autism. Think about how it is that we treat animals and the effect of that on our food. Factory-farm-raised meat is terrible for the animals, terrible for our health, terrible for the planet, terrible for the climate, terrible for everything. The way we grow our food is so important, and everything is so interconnected.
I was [recently] reading a report, and it said the window for us to impact climate change has practically closed. By 2040, nothing that we do will have enough effect to avert major disaster. That’s huge! We’re talking about the sixth great species extinction on our planet, and this one is man-made. Global warming could wipe all of us out. The only bright side I see as possible in this very difficult time is that as disasters happen, people forget some of their petty differences, and they work together toward solutions.
What impact does negative self-talk, such as criticizing our bodies and ability, so common with women, have on our health?
I really, truly think this is the great soul wound of Western culture: self-hatred and negative self-talk. There’s a famous anecdote about the Dalai Lama meeting with a group of about 40 Western psychologists, and someone asked him a question about self-hatred. Even though his English is quite good, he didn’t get it. Self-hatred didn’t make sense to him.
In general, we are conditioned in this culture to judgment and comparison, always comparing ourselves to other people. That’s what gives rise to such negative self-talk. We have this great wound of unworthiness, the wound of self-hatred, the feeling that, somehow or other, we have to beat the competition and we have to prove ourselves in something to be worthy. That’s a big, big problem. No matter what our spiritual roots are, if we can start to practice kindness toward ourselves, it would go a very long way.
You write about a new stage of authenticity in midlife for women aged 42 to 63. What is unique about this time, and how can we make the most of it?
In A Woman’s Book of Life: The Biology, Psychology, and Spirituality of the Feminine Life Cycle, I looked at the life cycle in seven-year stages and life in quadrants. The first three cycles, from birth to age 21, I think of as the spring years, where you’re facing east, the new part of life: childhood and young adulthood. Then I think about the south, the summer of your life: ages 21 to about 42. The western years are the three cycles that take you from being 42 to roughly 63. The northern years of wisdom are from age 63 for as long as you live.
When you get to be a west-facing woman, you’re undergoing some very profound biological changes. Those changes include the premenopausal and menopausal years. There’s no question our hormones relate to our wisdom. When you’re menstruating, you kind of have an alternating current of wisdom. When you become menopausal, it’s a DC current; the wisdom is on all of the time. [For menopausal women,] what happens in terms of authenticity is that you really begin to know and understand things at a deeper level. You’re faced more clearly with those parts of you that cover over your wisdom. So, for example, if you’ve been a people pleaser and a doormat all your life, suddenly you begin to recognize, You know what? That’s really holding me back. And I’m sick of being that way.
It’s a time when a lot of women enter healing work of one sort or another. They go to therapy or take up meditation because the urge for authenticity shows itself. It’s the time when your weaknesses and your troubles turn out to be doorways to your awakening. If you do your inner work, by the time you come out in your 60s into being a woman of the north, some of the clouds that cover up the sun within your heart have passed away.
Originally published as "On Spirituality, Sustainability, and the Great Soul Wound" in Spirituality & Health's special issue Sustainable You.