Dr. Joe Dispenza is many things: an internationally recognized lecturer on the role and function of the human brain, a noted consultant on the film What the Bleep do We Know, a chiropractor and an author. He is also a spectacular example of what Dr. Bernie Siegel terms the “bad patient” – one who takes responsibility and control over their own healing, questions their doctors and refuses to accept recommended treatment without first exploring all other options.
At age twenty-three, Dispenza was provided with only two potential outcomes by his medical advisors: either agree to have eight to twelve-inch steel rods surgically implanted in his back and live ever after in a state of constant pain, or refuse the surgery and run the risk of never walking again. After he had been hit by a car while participating in the bicycle portion of a triathlon, his extensive spinal injuries required immediate attention. All of his doctors agreed that surgery was his only choice.
But Dispenza was not ready to sign away control over his recovery. As a chiropractor with a thriving practice, he had extensively studied the spine and had a deep understanding of how it worked. Perhaps more importantly, he had trained his mind for years through prolonged sessions of yoga and martial arts. He possessed a formidable will and an audacious spirit that was unswayed by medical authority, no matter how irrefutable it seemed.
He had four days to make up his mind. He was told if he waited any longer, as part of its own healing process the body would begin to lay down strings of calcium within the bone and the surgeons would have to navigate around it, meaning they would have to surgically open up his chest as well as his back. Yet Dispenza took his time; he weighed his options, gathered information, and in the end decided to forego the surgery. It was a radical decision, and it worked. After ten and a half weeks of intensive inner work and physical therapy, he began walking, returned to his practice and has been seeing patients ever since. Twenty-five years later, we asked him to reflect back on how the experience changed his life.
SC: As a patient, even knowing everything that you knew at the time, how tempting was it to go along with your doctors, who were all saying essentially the same thing?
JD: When you’re faced with trauma, often you’re so stunned and knocked out of balance that you want some type of immediate relief from the physical and emotional discomfort. You want someone to take responsibility for your condition so that you can actually give your power away, or relax into somebody else’s control. So for four experts to give the same prognosis and treatment, there was a part of me that was questioning if it was the right choice. But there was another part of me that was educated. It just happened to be about the spine, which I knew a lot about; I think if I was attending a patient, I would probably have had to consider recommending surgery as well. But this was me, and I couldn’t just rush into it.
I was trying to make a decision by using the educated, intellectual mind but at the same time trusting in my heart, in what I felt. In the end, I wanted to know.
So because I was actually educated enough at the time to explore other possibilities, most of the surgeons got really frustrated with me because I was going to take my time and begin to ask questions that they may or may not know the answers to.
The Medical Director at Scripps Hospital was the Man. He was handsome, salt and pepper hair, polished and fit. Everybody was just moving around him. He had a kind of picturesque, Marcus Welby credibility going. And that’s what you’re facing. You’re not facing him, you’re facing a bombardment of unconscious and subconscious representations through the media and through stories that he stands for. There was a part of me that was fearless enough to face off with him. Not fearless in the sense of arrogance, but really inquisitive about my state. So you face off with a huge façade of some of the things you don’t even know you’re conditioned to.
SC: Time really was of the essence, because they were telling you that if things went longer than four days, the calcification around your spine would complicate the operation.
JD: I took four days to gather information, not make a decision, sit down, consult with some friends, take moments to think for myself, bring another doctor in, ask another question and see if they viewed it differently. I didn’t sleep a lot, just took my time in making a decision within that period. I didn’t want to feel rushed.
SC: What was the role of your friends, in the whole process and in the decision especially?
JD: The number one role of my friends was emotional support. They knew that I was pretty strong willed at the time and they basically gathered to be there for whatever I needed. However, when it came down to the decision, only one of them actually stood on my side because he had the same principles and the same vision that I did. You get to see how alone you are when it comes down to a critical choice. You literally experience a sense of complete disassociation. I’m so glad I made the choice that I did.
You want someone to take responsibility for your condition so that you can actually give your power away, or relax into somebody else’s control.
SC: In taking your time, it sounds like you were kind of waiting for something. What were you waiting for?
JD: I wanted to make a choice that felt right to me. So the thought of surgery, the thought of getting the back parts of my spine cut off, going through that process and putting in stainless steel rods, I just couldn’t actually believe it. One day I spent four hours living in the decision that I was going to have the surgery, and it was utter torture for me. Then I spent four hours living in the decision that I wasn’t going to have the surgery, and that felt better. But then you weigh that against this sound medical history and advice, research and experience, and it gets to be a little bit of a toss up.
I was trying to make a decision by using the educated, intellectual mind but at the same time trusting in my heart, in what I felt. In the end, I wanted to know. When the last surgeon spoke with me and I started asking him questions, I saw that he was basically doing his best and he understood it very differently than I did. The moment I disagreed with a couple of things that he said, it clicked for me. That was it. I was clear that I wanted to leave the hospital, I didn’t want to talk to anyone any longer, and I didn’t want to see the staff psychiatrist. I knew what I was doing and I was willing to take the chance.
SC: Having made the decision, it seems like you never looked back.
JD: I never did. I remember leaving the hospital really happy. The nurses and the surgeons were all shaking their heads, like “This guy is crazy.” I believed in a very simple principle, that the power that made the body heals the body. I honestly, absolutely accepted it. I wanted to connect with it and give it a template, give it a very clear message, and get out of the way and let it do what it did best. I went from 1,000 miles an hour in my life to zero, and so I had all the time in the world to actually do it. It was a great opportunity for me to really change my life, in many ways.
You get to see how alone you are when it comes down to a critical choice. You literally experience a sense of complete disassociation.
SC: What was your understanding at the time of visualization and how it works?
JD: I always believed in human potential, and I always believed in that innate intelligence. I had some great experiences in doing hypnosis, so I knew the power of the subconscious mind. I remember saying to one of my friends that I didn’t want to let a thought go by that I didn’t want to experience.
That was when I started to take on some of the fear that you have after you make the choice and you say, “What in the heck did I do?” The first couple of days were really challenging, because I was all over the place. After a period of time, my friends were saying, “You have to sell your practice.” I said, “If I sell my practice, that means I’m not going to walk again. I can’t do that.”
I think it was more than just visualization. I saw it as a very specific desire or template I wanted to empower, and it happened to be something that I knew a lot about. Working on seeing the spine and rebuilding it got easier and easier. What once took me two hours wound up taking me forty minutes, because it got really familiar. I got it wired. Then I would start thinking about watching the sunset, and using the toilet, running on the beach again. I think that was a fundamental part of the healing as well.
SC: How did your experience change you as a healer?
JD: The first thing, without a doubt, was that I experienced first hand my own mortality. I was humbled by it. I became a lot more sensitive. The second thing was that I understood pain pretty well. I had a lot more compassion for people who were or are in pain. I’ll say to somebody to stay off their feet for two days, and they’ll say, “I can’t do that.” I was face down for ten and a half weeks, and I know exactly what those days are like. Through experience, I have developed some trust around the unseen and the power that exists in every human being.
Through experience, I have developed some trust around the unseen and the power that exists in every human being.
SC: Has anything changed about the way you view the whole time period around your accident, twenty-five years later?
JD: I very rarely think of it. I don’t really talk about it much. It was a point in my life where I had to slow down enough to ask some bigger questions. I asked those questions, and it opened my mind up to the life I live today, the beliefs that I currently have and the experiences that I’ve had in the last twenty-five years. I don’t know that I would have had them, had I not had that experience. Unfortunately, usually it’s trauma that wakes us up to decide that we can’t go on with business as usual. I can look back and say with clarity that the life I was headed for was not the life that I had probably negotiated on some level to have. So I see it as a blessing.
Dr. Joe Dispenza is the author of Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind and can be seen in the DVD’s The Art of Change, Evolve Your Brain, What the Bleep do we Know, and The Moses Code. For more information visit http://drjoedispenza.com/