The Mind-Body Link

A Discussion with Dr. David Simon of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing

By Loolwa Khazzoom

Health and wellness coach and journalist Loolwa Khazzoom traveled to San Diego to speak with David Simon, MD—co-founder, CEO, and medical director of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing—about the concepts in his new book, Free to Love, Free to Heal (Chopra Center Press, 2009). In it, he addresses the connection between emotions and physical health. In this conversation, Simon shares his thoughts about the multidimensional aspects of healing and how massage therapists can support clients in their journey to wellness.

Loolwa Khazzoom: In your own words, what is Free to Love, Free to Heal about?

David Simon: The book is about authentic healing. My experience as a physician, for over three decades, has been that in most interactions between a patient and a doctor, we barely have enough time to address the symptoms that bring patients to us in the first place. When we create more safety, time, and space, we come to see that underlying almost every problem facing a patient is a story. If we access that story, reveal that story, and realize that we can start writing a new chapter for that story, genuine healing and transformation begin.

LK: I liked how, in your book, you write that the reason we say “feelings” is because we “feel” emotions physically in our body; emotions live there. I also liked how you talked about various methods for cleansing the emotional state. Please talk about why we need to do the cleansing on many different levels—physical, spiritual, communal, etc. How does each piece contribute to the experience of health and well-being?

DS: We are multidimensional beings. The medical model says we’re basically a bag of biochemicals, but we know there are various dimensions to who we are. We have environments; we have relationships; we have jobs; we have physical bodies; we have emotional bodies; we have psychologies; we have spirits.

Traditionally, going back thousands of years, healers were comfortable addressing these various levels of a person’s life. This book is going back to the roots of healing, the roots of medicine—exploring the level of multidimensionality where a person is struggling, seeing how we can facilitate greater integration between all the parts of that individual.

LK: In your book, you discuss the multidimensional root of illness and the multidimensional path to healing that illness. Do you feel that there is a place where it would be appropriate for a practitioner to take the initiative and say, “It seems that what is going on really needs more of a Western medical diagnosis and more aggressive treatment,” or, “It seems that it might be useful for you to explore the possibility of some psychotherapy, so that you can get the emotions out,” or something to that effect. Do you feel that it is appropriate and/or useful for the massage therapist to initiate this conversation? If so, what do you recommend as the way to go about doing it?

DS: Clearly if clients are having emotional experiences in massage, it is appropriate for practitioners to say, “Maybe you’re carrying some residue, some emotional pain from the past, and maybe in addition to getting this bodywork, it might be useful to look at that.” I think if massage therapists are going to approach the matter in this way, they need to already have an established relationship with practitioners in other fields—such as counselors with a holistic mind-body perspective.

Once that referral network is established, it makes complete sense to say, in a very invitational and compassionate way, “It seems that through massage, we’re accessing some emotional pain. If you’re interested, a friend of mine is a therapist who is holistically oriented. Maybe a session with her can help you get some greater clarity in that area.” In addition to having that relationship established, I also advise first receiving guidance and coaching from that therapist, regarding how to broach the subject. You don’t want to open up something and not be there to help process it.

LK: You talked about staying grounded and holding a loving, compassionate space. What are some tips you have for massage practitioners who find that they internally judge or blame the client? How do massage therapists keep those responses in check and return to this place of compassion and love?

DS: When something in other people brings up something in healers, conscious healers look at the experience as an opportunity to learn more about themselves. If massage therapists find themselves uncomfortable or critical when clients express emotion, it’s a great opportunity for the therapists to do their own work. Start journaling, “What is this bringing up for me?” Recognize that there is a lot of projection and counter-projection between the therapist and the client. Whenever an external event triggers something, conscious healers immediately use the experience as an opportunity to say, “That’s something that maybe I wasn’t seeing so clearly in myself. How do I resolve my own emotions, so that I can get back to that place of compassionate detachment?”

LK: Even for people who have done a lot of work on emotional release, there’s still something valuable in your book. There are new angles, new ways of thinking about things, new questions to ask. You mentioned that at the Chopra Center, there are sessions where people are able to do emotional release work in community, and you talked about the transformational power of those single experiences. Do you feel that a one-time experience can totally change someone’s life, or do you feel that emotional healing is a lifetime journey?

DS: I think that life is a spiral. We deal with something, and at the time when we’ve dealt with it we think, “Oh, I’ve got that down.” Then we have some more experiences, and we come back around and realize, “Oh, there’s some other layer there that I didn’t look at last time. I’m able to access it in a different place.” I think that’s what makes life so mysterious and magnificent.

There are certain books that I read maybe once a year, maybe once every other year. Every time I read them, I think to myself, “I never saw that the last time I read it,” because I wasn’t really ready or open at the time, or I didn’t yet have my own life experience to resonate with what was being said.

LK: In your book, it sounded as if you were saying that emotional distress is pretty much at the root of all illnesses, that if we look long enough and hard enough, we’ll find it. I want to hear more about that because, from my perspective, emotional distress is just one component. It may be a huge component for some people; it may be a small component for other people. But I see it as just one thing on the palette. What are your thoughts?

DS: I agree. I see women every day at the Chopra Center who, out of the blue, get breast cancer. You can create a story around it, and I think there’s a value of helping to heal emotions around some of these more serious physical diseases, but I would never want someone to say, “Oh the reason I got stomach cancer is because I have an emotional unresolved issue.” I think there’s a whole spectrum, and a healthy response is not to try to fit everything into one box, but to really identify where in this person’s life, in all these dimensions, we will get the greatest reward for the investment of our attention.

LK: I appreciate that in your book you said that even if people do discover there are emotional roots of illness, it does not mean that the illness is their fault. You advise them to stay away from the place of blame. I have seen people in the healing movement who get so excited about the mind-body connection that they do go to a place of blame, a place of, “It’s your fault. It’s your karma. It’s your bad luck.” I think that instead, people need to say, “What can I do to help this person? How can I access my compassion?”

DS: Having been a physician for nearly 40 years now, I just think humility should be the dominating mind-set. We don’t understand most of what’s going on, and no matter how healthy and balanced we seem to be, at some point, none of us gets out of here alive. We’re all going to experience that progressive dysfunction that comes through the natural aging process.

I think we just have to have that deep, underlying humility. When you think that you know so clearly what is wrong with someone else, it’s probably time to stop worrying about that other person and look at yourself. I love this quote by Vaclav Havel: “Keep the company of those who seek the truth. Run from those who have found it.” When someone knows exactly what is wrong with you and what you need to do to fix yourself, that’s the time to find another friend.

LK: I see an interdependent relationship between a person with a health condition and that person’s health-care practitioners, family, friends, community, and larger society. Within that interdependent relationship, there’s the personal piece of, “What can I do for myself—regardless of what’s going on, regardless of how our medical system is functioning, regardless of my situation with family, money, friends, or whatever. What can I do for myself, to maximize my health and wellness?”

Then there’s the social activist and personal empowerment piece of, “OK, now I’m going to look around and see what needs to change in the world and how I can be an agent of that change with my own talents and skill sets.”

Lastly, there is the piece for the people who are not ill. As I know from different periods throughout my healing journey, those of us with health conditions can end up so tapped out, so exhausted, from just trying to survive. Often, those around us will say, “Well you should do X, Y, and Z.” But I think those who are not ill instead need to say, “What can I do to support you?” For friends, it can be questions like, “Can I do a grocery run for you? Can I send a text message saying, ‘I love you, stay strong’?”

For massage therapists and other health-care practitioners, the questions can be about how they can be more loving. When I have had health-care practitioners who genuinely cared about me, their very care in and of itself was healing. I knew they were playing on my team, and that knowledge was like an injection of energy and strength. In your book, you validated that experience—talking about the power and absolute necessity of love as part of the healing process.

DS: Compassion is a very powerful force. Most people, however, are so involved in their own day-to-day stuff that it’s difficult for them to look out and see that other people are struggling. We wish other people could automatically figure things out and give us what we need, without our having to ask. “If you really loved me, you’d know what I need,” that kind of thing. But most people are consumed by their own issues, too filled up with their own stuff to think about what someone else needs.

So if someone has a chronic illness, I recommend that person take the time to inform people in their lives what exactly would help them. Lay it out explicitly: “These are the things that would really help me get through my day a little easier.” Maybe it’s just a phone call or a text message. Maybe it’s being brought dinner once a week. Perhaps it’s getting help finding referrals to good physicians. Sometimes it’s, “Send me a book that you’ve read or a video that you think I’d find enjoyable.”

LK: On the health-care front, where do you feel the conversation needs to go between doctors and patients, between health-care providers and consumers, and among health-care providers within their own circle?

DS: One of the reasons that doctors tend to get arrogant about having the authority to make decisions for other people is that in our early training as medical students, a lot of the patients we see are not capable of making their own choices. They are coming in unconscious, with major injuries, or in the midst of requiring major surgeries. So doctors learn really early on that we make decisions for people who have no ability to make their own choices. I think that mind-set begins to extend into the realm of working with people who are fully capable of making their own choices.

I think that physicians have to realize the value of forming partnerships with their patients. I love thinking of my patients as my partners. First of all, it doesn’t put all of the responsibility on me to cure people. It puts me in the role of teacher-educator. I think this partnership is what ultimately leads to much greater success in healing. Even in the very process of helping the person to realize that, to some degree, his or her own choices have an influence on the outcome, we already begin the healing journey.

I think that the best voice to transform health care is that of people who have gone through their own personal journey of healing—who can speak from experience and teach others, saying, “These are the steps that can heal our health-care system,” which right now is really a disease-care system.

I think the change has to happen on multiple levels—personal, political, and social. On the personal level, I think every one of us knows what we can do for ourselves to be healthier. We know we should eat healthier, exercise regularly, manage our stress levels better, and get to bed earlier. We know we should stop using so many alcohol, drugs, and tobacco products. We should get along better with each other.

On the political and social level, I believe it’s all about collective consciousness. Those we called leaders are really followers. I think we have to get to the place where the people who make policy are inundated with the experiences of people who, on their own, have discovered that an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. When we are supported in taking better care of ourselves, we will reduce our need for invasive, intrusive medical care down the road.


For more information on Dr. David Simon and Free to Love, Free to Heal, visit


Loolwa Khazzoom is the director of Dancing with Pain, a mind-body media and education company, through which she facilitates workshops on and blogs about natural pain relief. For more information, visit