Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and an expert in the mind/body connection. In the early 1980s, Borysenko cofounded Harvard’s first mind/body medical clinic. Her first book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, became a New York Times bestseller soon after it was published in 1987 by Addison-Wesley. Ever since, her life’s work has been focused on how a combination of brain science and spirituality (including mysticism) can help us to heal. Here, Borysenko talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about tools we can use to regain our center and remain resilient even in the most challenging of circumstances.

Katy Koontz: More than a decade ago, you began writing about developing resilience, a topic that seems especially timely today when everything appears so out-of-control crazy. What sparked your interest in resilience?

Joan Borysenko: At a personal level, the untimely death of my father catalyzed a powerful interest in resilience. I was a young cancer researcher at Tufts Medical School in Boston in the mid-1970s when my dad died as a result of leukemia. But it wasn’t the illness that killed him. It was giving up hope in the face of a treatment that caused serious mental problems. Apparently, he saw no way out but suicide—he jumped out a window. As a result, I decided to leave the laboratory, retrain as a psychologist, and help people with cancer and their families develop resilience in the face of serious health challenges. I finally wrote a book about resilience after the stock market crashed in 2008 and there was widespread panic and economic uncertainty. Do you remember when that happened?

KK: I do indeed.   

JB: I read an article back then that rocked me to my core about a promising young stockbroker in New York who, like my dad, ended his life by jumping out a window. That synchronicity led me to write a book titled It’s Not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change [Hay House, 2009]. For many years before that I’d run a stress disorders clinic, an AIDS clinic, and a cancer clinic in the behavioral medicine division at two of the Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals. My patients taught me so much about developing resilience when survival is seriously threatened.

Resilience often involves what psychologists now call post-traumatic growth; that is, existential challenge can be a powerful time of self-discovery, an opportunity to embody new strengths because you’ve been unceremoniously ejected from your comfort zone. Business consultant Diane Coutu wrote a 2002 article in the Harvard Business Review that discusses three universal secrets of resilience that I view as seminal to surviving and thriving in uncertain times.

The first secret is having a resolute acceptance of reality. You can’t go into denial or wishful thinking. You have to say, “This is what’s actually happening. How can I respond most skillfully to this challenge here and now?” The second secret is having a deep belief that life is meaningful. That’s a spiritual belief. The third secret is an uncanny ability to improvise and make the most of what you’ve got. These three seminal attitudes bridge psychology and spirituality in a practical, attainable way.

KK: You teach that change is an important opportunity to shed the limitations of the lower self and to be reborn to the higher self. Can you say more about that?

JB: Shortly after I married my husband Gordon Dveirin [Ed.D.] in 2004, we became interested in the nature of change and its relation to spiritual growth. So we decided to write a book together, Saying Yes to Change: Essential Wisdom for Your Journey [Hay House, 2006].

We were fascinated with stories of spiritual transformation as the promise of change that repeats itself in stories from every era. These change stories are all variants of the archetypal hero’s journey described by Joseph Campbell. The journey of change, which is the journey from the lower self or conditioned mind to the higher self, is one we can all experience individually and are currently experiencing as a nation and as a planet.

Listening in with … Joan Borysenko: Cultivating Resilience by Katy Koontz—A portrait of Joan Borysenko, a white woman with short silver hair wearing a black top and dangling silver earrings

The journey has three parts. Some calamity separates you from the world you once knew and sets you adrift in the unknown. You wander in liminal space—that uncharted territory between what is no more and what is yet to be. Finally, you return to the world transformed with wisdom to share with your community.

Gordon and I were inspired by the writings of St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish Catholic mystic who coined the phrase dark night of the soul. He described it as an ego death when everything you’ve hoped for and believed in is suddenly broken open and you feel as though you’ve lost your connection to the Divine. From that lowest of low points can come a spiritual rebirth from the ego or lower self to the higher self.

When the ego is shattered, Gordon and I observed that one of three things happens: breakthrough, breakdown, or holding steady. Breakthrough results in an expanded sense of connection to self, others, nature, and a higher source of love and wisdom—a deeper, more vibrant reality. The opposite is breakdown—coming apart and falling into despair. Sliding into hopelessness—like my dad and that young stockbroker—is often accompanied by illness or suicide. The middle way is learning to cope more skillfully and carrying on without necessarily having a major shift in consciousness. 

The most important factor that offsets stress and facilitates breakthrough is the presence of other people who care about and support you. Our nervous systems coregulate with one another, calming down when offered signals of safety and comfort. Think about what happens when somebody gives you a genuine hug. You calm down because your nervous systems are linked. Your higher self, your center, can then emerge like the sun from behind clouds of stress and worry.

The miracle is that when I am in my higher self, it brings out your higher self, and as the word namaste connotes, we are one. We become entrained in a higher frequency that is contagious. I uplift you. You uplift me and others you encounter. Together we reweave the invisible net of souls that sustains our world.

KK: Is this what you were referring to when you wrote that healing yourself is a powerful act of service for the world? 

JB: Yes, exactly. The world is in a tender place—that space between no longer and not yet. But there is always hope for a breakthrough. The old passes away and the new emerges. That’s how the universe works. And it can be a rough ride! Being resilient doesn’t mean the end of fear. Being brave means feeling the fear and doing your best anyway. We’re human. When we’re threatened, the fight-or-flight response kicks in automatically. All mammals are hardwired to look for danger. For humans, seeing the good is precious and transitory, but seeing or imagining the bad is obligatory. All human beings have this so-called negativity bias. If we didn’t, our ancestors would not have lived long enough to give birth to us.

Our world is noisy, panicky, and progressively more overwrought. That can entrain your nervous system to a hysterical pitch when your higher self isn’t easy to connect with. When we’re triggered, our prefrontal cortex (the rational mind) goes offline and the amygdala (the alarm circuit) takes over. That is a time to do nothing, make no decisions. It’s best just to recognize that you are in a triggered state and so can’t effectively determine your next best step.

A simple tool that helps me keep my center is self-reflection—witnessing my state. I think of a scale from 1-100 where 1 is my most contracted, fearful, and separate self and 100 is my most expanded higher self. We all experience moving through this continuum. Just noticing where we are and naming how we feel—angry, scared, depressed—helps us calm down. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel, M.D., calls this simple tool of naming negative emotions, “Name it to tame it.”

KK: Are there other tools that help us come back to our higher selves?

JB: I really love the work of psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., author of Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness [Harmony, 2018], who writes about installing the good. Every day beautiful things happen. The sun rises. A stranger smiles at you. A bud flowers. Your pet loves on you. If you stop and mindfully take in the good with all your senses—the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations—and savor that for 15 seconds or so, your brain makes new neural networks that counter the negativity bias.

Some 30 years back, before we had the neuroscience research capacities that we have today, I started to do a practice suggested by Brother David Steindl-Rast, whose website [] is a treasure. He suggests looking for those little moments of good each day, and before bed choosing one to rerun in all its glory, savoring it with all your senses. It sure beats rerunning your anxieties. Those practices are key to building and maintaining resilience.

The miracle is that when I am in my higher self, it brings out your higher self, and as the word namaste connotes, we are one. We become entrained in a higher frequency that is contagious. I uplift you. You uplift me and others you encounter. Together we reweave the invisible net of souls that sustains our world.

KK: Did it surprise you when your first book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, became a New York Times bestseller? 

JB: I was completely shocked. Mind/body medicine was a hard sell back then in the scientific community, so I was delighted that the general public was on board. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s intuitive, right? How does your mouth water at the thought of a good meal if the mind isn’t affecting the body? 

KK: What do you think our next step in understanding mind/body medicine will be?

JB: If I were still a researcher, I’d want to study lucid dreaming, which is when you wake up inside a dream and realize that you are dreaming while you are still physically asleep. The lucid state feels realer than real and gives you an infinite amount of freedom. You can face and overcome fears, gain tremendous insights, and even change physical function. I love to fly when I’m lucid and to merge with the blissful reality of the divine light.

Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D., was the person who first popularized lucid dreaming. He was able to alleviate his back pain as part of his practice. While reading one of his books in the 1980s, I had a seminal lucid dream. In it I was practicing yoga and entered deeply into an asana that I was practicing in waking life. When I awakened from the dream, I was able to get into the asana much more deeply. That dream made me wonder about the physical potential of the lucid state. Might it help regulate the immune system? Even mobilize it against cancer or alleviate autoimmune disease? Of course, these would be very difficult studies to pull off as they would involve teaching large numbers of people to become oneironauts—travelers in the dream space.

KK: That’s a fascinating idea.

JB: Lucid dreaming might not yet be ready for prime time in a research sense, but practicing other forms of active imagination definitely causes physiological changes including better athletic performance and a variety of improvements in physical function. Guided imagery, for example, can reduce anxiety and pain, regulate immunity, and enhance wound healing.

Yet the power of imagination is a two-edged sword—it can heal and it can also harm.

For example, stereotypes are societal beliefs—shared acts of imagination—that profoundly impact our emotional and physical well-being. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a renowned Harvard psychologist, has done decades of groundbreaking research on how our beliefs and what we imagine affect our health. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility [Ballantine Books, 2009], she describes taking a group of older men to a monastery in New Hampshire for a week and having them imagine being 20 years younger. They watched VCR tapes from that time and read newspapers from that year and discussed what was happening then. At the end of the week the men looked and acted much younger. There were improvements in mobility and other parameters of health.

Yale professor of epidemiology Becca Levy, Ph.D., has also conducted decades of research showing that many health problems attributed to aging are actually created by holding negative age beliefs. Holding positive beliefs, and like the Langer study, reimagining times when you were in your most vital self—emotionally, physically, or spiritually—can help change your brain, your health, and your life.

KK: In 2021, you updated and revised your 1994 book, Pocketful of Miracles: Prayers, Meditations, and Affirmations to Nurture Your Spirit Every Day of the Year (Warner Books). Can spiritual practices like the ones you describe in this book help achieve similar results?

JB: The basic miracle Pocketful of Miracles refers to is just what we’ve been talking about. It’s the shift out of the fear-based ego into that sense of timeless wisdom and deep connection with our higher self. Once you’re in that state, infinite possibilities exist. I don’t think that success is defined by how long your body lasts but how you have developed in terms of love, compassion, and presence in this lifetime.

KK: What new projects do you have lined up?

JB: I really love teaching online with my soul friend and business partner Gilah Rosner, Ph.D. We’ve developed a series of six-session programs called The Gifts of Spiritual Memoir where we write to gain perspective on our life’s journey. Together we make spiritual sense of our lives and celebrate who we have become through all the joys, sorrows, missteps, and epiphanies that make us fully human.

We also offer an in-depth seasonal program, Pocketful of Blessings, based on Pocketful of Miracles. It’s my best set of simple, powerful, and effective sacred practices, meditations, and tools to grow inner strength delivered to your inbox every week, starting on each solstice and equinox. Nature and the perennial philosophy of awakening are powerful teachers.

Then there are our Dharma of Aging programs. Aging gracefully is a delicate dance involving mindful acceptance, loving self-reflection, and effective tools to develop resilience and optimism along with a whole lot of humor! Sharing the journey with like-minded others is the best tool for living a life of meaning, purpose, and joy in these crazy times of breakdown and breakthrough. I am so grateful that through these programs, I continue to grow and to offer the legacy of a 50-year career in spirituality, health, and healing.

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is a New York Times best-selling author of 17 books dealing with the spiritual and scientific aspects of the mind/body connection. She offers interactive online classes that provide powerful evidence-based tools, loving companionship, and spiritual community for our sacred journeys. Borysenko’s extensive online library of articles covers health, wellness, spirituality, and inspiration. Visit

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

About the Author

Katy Koontz is the editor in chief of Unity Magazine.


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