Join Robert as he speaks with another extraordinary guest on this week’s show, Dr. Paul Brenner. Paul has dedicated his career to counseling cancer patients. This has been the work and passion driving his life. He continued to share his unique love and wisdom with patients even as he also learned to live with cancer and profoundly accept limited mobility himself. All the while he has maintained and cultivated a sense of wonder and innocence. For many the word cancer equals fear. His depth of acceptance of his illness is an inspiration. Dr. Brenner speaks eloquently and lovingly about the living of his heart’s dream of becoming a doctor and how it has shaped who he is.
The show encourages us to take a moment to review our childhood. Reflect on things that happened that made you decide what you were going to do, and see if you can remember your dreams. The conversation highlights that success orientation has so often taken over due to our conditioning but encourages reflection on that common longing beyond political parties, beyond countries that are so commonly who we really are in our earlier years if we were fortunate enough not to be exposed to trauma or negligence. This is a loving world when we can go beyond or even see beyond our defenses. We can access that potential by facing fear and opening ourselves up and helping others do the same, even with cancer. Join Robert and Paul as they explore this sense of wonder and help us apply it to our own lives.
Mentioned in this episode
The Global Bridge Foundation
Note: Below, you’ll find timecodes for specific sections of the podcast. To get the most value out of the podcast, I encourage you to listen to the complete episode. However, there are times when you want to skip ahead or repeat a particular section. By clicking on the timecode, you’ll be able to jump to that specific section of the podcast
The Missing Conversation, Episode 57.
Robert Strock: (00:03)
I’m asking you to apply it to yourself. What percentage of you thinks it might make sense to reach out a bit more to your neighbors, to the community, to organizations and give a bit more of yourself to those that are not in your immediate family.
On this podcast, we will propose critical new strategies to address world issues, including homelessness, immigration, amongst several others, and making a connection to how our individual psychology contributes and can help transform the dangers that we face. We will break from traditional thinking, as we look at our challenges from a freer and more independent point of view. Your host, Robert Strock, has had 45 years of experience as a psychotherapist, author, and humanitarian and has developed a unique approach to communication, contemplation and inquiry, born from working on his own challenges.
Robert Strock: (01:00)
A very warm welcome again to The Missing Conversation where we do our damnedest to address the most pressing issues that the world’s facing today and where, where you look for the most practical, inspiring programs, innovative ideas, and people to support a greater chance for survival of our planet. Today, we have a very unusual, inspiring and what I would call low-key guest, meaning he’s sort of understated, who is in a very unique state of mind that all of us will have a chance to join him while he’s also facing serious illness. His attitude is something that we can all learn from, even though he might be the last one to say that his life work has made me proud to have him as a guest and a friend, as he’s such an example of living a solidly psycho-political life. For those of you that have been following our episodes, you’ll understand what I mean by psycho-political. He’s done it by following his own intuition of what he loves and how he loves. I love him. I welcome you, Paul, to our show, and I’d like to say hi and let the audience know a bit more about your background.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (02:28)
Well, thank you, Robert. It’s really a pleasure to be with you.
Robert Strock: (02:32)
So, Paul Brenner became an MD doctor in 1962. That might age him a bit, and used this license in a very broad range of services. He spent 10 years in private practice as an oncologist and gynecologist, and was one of the first three to do that. And then was a medical director of planned parenthood. He then dedicated his life to counseling cancer patients, which was the work and love of his life. That is really joyous and something that only people that have been in that field could deeply comprehend for almost 40 years. Paul continued this unique love and wisdom to the cancer patients. He, he did the last portion of his work with a San Diego research center and clinic, which we’ll hear more about later in the show. He was named San Diego Person of the Year. He did a Ted talk on Epigenetics–how transgenerational experiences impact future generations,
Robert Strock: (03:50)
and for that matter ourselves as well. He wrote eight books. I won’t mention them all. Three of them included “Love made Visible,” “Buddha in the Waiting Room,” and “A Shared Creation.” As you can see, Paul has lived a life that is not the common path or is another one that has lived in the road, less traveled. Paul, thanks so much for being with us. I really appreciate it. Thank you, Robert. Paul is somebody that we’ve had such an unusual connection regarding shorthand of really the essence of psycho-politics and has lived a life so devoted to it. And what I’d like to do is start off giving you the audience a chance again, to hear the essence of psycho-politics and see how it bleeds into our whole show. And it really starts with understanding how natural it is to want to give your love, your heart, you know, your best qualities to yourself and your family, and not really focus so much on the poorest of the poor or the survival of our planet.
Robert Strock: (05:11)
And that that’s really what would be considered normal. Let’s build up a nest egg for us. Let’s make sure our family’s okay. Our loved ones are okay, but what psycho-politics is attempting to say is that’s natural, but if we all do that, we’re gonna be for those of us that have some wealth, we’re gonna be storing trillions and trillions of dollars that is not used to save our planet, is not used to help the poor, not used to help people that are suffering the most and the planet is going to die. And so, psycho-politics is saying with our energy, what percentage do you think you, the listener, don’t just hear this as a distraction. That’s part one of psycho-politics. Part two is basically the same thing, and it relates specifically to money. If you have money, what percentage of your money does it make sense to reach out to other people?
Robert Strock: (06:12)
Now, I’d like to go back to part one, because there’s one other element that I didn’t cover. And that is that the tendency for most of us is when we feel fear or distrust or anger, we project it, let’s say as a country onto another country, we don’t say I’m afraid of the Soviet Union, or I distrust the Soviet union, or I get angry at the Soviet Union, you know, and we, we put it on them and we don’t say I’m having these feelings. And I wanna take a look and make sure these feelings aren’t leading us into war. I wanna make sure that we are optimizing our emotional intelligence. So, we’re not projecting these feelings to other groups, to other political parties, to other organizations, to other corporations that we’re owning it. So, we can have a chance of using the wisest parts of ourselves that recognize we all have fear.
Robert Strock: (07:12)
We all have distrust, we all have anger, and we don’t wanna just project it as we have throughout history and create wars that really are result of not being able to see the commonality between us all. And the third part of psycho-politics is the questioning of how much does it make sense to balance by giving a larger percentage of our energy and our heart to other people beyond our original family, and how much does it make sense to give whatever money we might have a bit of it to other people to help with global warming, to help the poorest of the poor people that are really dying that need support psychologically or other ways like that. And these are questions that in part three of psycho-politics that are, how, what is the balance of energy and money with caring for the most impoverished and hopeless situations in the world and taking care of ourselves at the same time, what is the balance between the world and those that we love? So, Paul I’d like you to just really tell us a bit about the way you were raised and how you got started in your work and just the way you would represent the beginning of your life and how that launched. If you can remember.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (08:43)
Yeah. I can remember. The most interesting thing, and just listening to you, Robert, I have a sense if each of us, those people listening, could just go back to their childhood. I have a sense that we’re born with a blueprint and as a young child, we have this sense of what we would like to do with our lives. And I think we all have it, and just listening to you Robert, I’m just gonna ask the audience if they could just take a second out, go back to where they lived when they were young, think about what their dreams were. I think we have a blueprint, but we lose it. There’s a knowing a child has, of right and wrong, believe it or not. And was there a calling? How were you in school? Who did you help? How would you go through life as a 10-year-old?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (09:58)
Did you enjoy flowers? Did you enjoy planting? Do you enjoy little bugs or frogs or whatever? What, what little items in your childhood set a program? You know, it’s really interesting. Um, when I was a kid, I collected frogs, but then I realized in collecting them and putting them in the same jar, they started to destroy each other. And I realize I can’t do that again. I can’t simply pick up a frog and not be concerned about what their life course is going to be. I know this is ridiculous, but I remember the jar or remember the frogs destroying each other. And I said, I can never do this again. Could you remember picking up a worm, an ant, whatever, or just seeing the magic of ants and their history. And you begin to form your own beliefs as a young child of how you wanna spend it. I told Robert last night, we were talking and I said, my reason or the route that I took to go into medicine started with the death of my best friend. And he was 10 years old and he was playing on a building site and fell.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (11:34)
And when Buddy died, I was so upset. And I remember riding my bike, riding my bike furiously. I didn’t know where I was even going. And then suddenly stopping and looking up and just promising God I’ll name my first child after, after Buddy. And his name was Bernard, and I said, and I’m gonna be a doctor, and I’ll never let people die in life again. And dying in life is a kind of interesting statement. And I grew into that because that’s the child thought that I’m going to protect people, like that’s insane, but we can die in life. We can die in life when we know we have a calling that inner place within our hearts that tells us this is good, that’s not so good. And I want to take the path, not of the greatest resistance, but the least resistance, because I have that in my soul to follow that path, and how not to die in life is not to appreciate life.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (12:56)
Life is the ultimate gift. And how could we assist not only ourselves, but other people in living their dream, what they dreamt about as a child. And yes, we have suppressed many populations. We’re not the best of people, but we have to really look and empower individuals from whether it’s a minority group or majority group. What, what, why you here? What’s that calling? Is it to become famous? Is it to become a musician? Is it to become just a good human being? You have it in you, and I’m asking you to search for it because you know, you had it and you know, there’s a possibility you lost it. So I’m just asking folks, could you just review your childhood things that happened to you that made you decide I’m gonna do that, or I’m not going to do this.
Robert Strock: (14:07)
As you’re speaking, you know, I feel the tearfulness at the innocence and the longing that for me too, was completely natural. But as we both know that even though that was the beginning of a large percentage of lives, the American dream, the nightmares, the success orientation has so often taken over. And so, you bringing it back to the simplicity of ants and frogs and caring about not putting them in the same jar is such a wonderful inclusion of people maybe remembering when they were three, four or five, six-years-old, things that are suppressed. And we both know that that’s in all of our nature, but our conditioning has so covered it in so many ways. But, but to return to that common, longing beyond political parties, beyond countries, that really is, of course, we, of course, we’re here to love and be loved. Of course, we’re here to care, care for everybody. And, and to us that that’s fairly evident. And the key is how do we support, uh, moving in that direction. But before we go there, I’d like you to amplify, you know, that, that your 10-year-old friend, when he died, the fulfillment of that promise, was that something that just stayed with you all the way until you were riveted there?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (15:47)
Stayed with me every day in my life. I have to say that, um, it was the driving force. It, it was, I’m so happy I live. That child of my, at that time, I know I was nine, that I live that child’s dream. And that shaped my life, iIt shaped who I am and, uh, is the most beautiful thing in the world. The innocence, the knowing that each one of us had in our innocence, the calling, whether it’s to be a writer or a musician or whatever, is to be willing to follow the path, the path that really is driving you home. Home is the rest of your life.
Robert Strock: (16:56)
So, I am curious because what you’re speaking to, you know, you’re speaking to the choir. But what would you say to the people that have lost touch with that as being the primary longing in the human being? We know we don’t wanna reinforce guilt. We know what we don’t wanna reinforce denial. So it, I think part of it, I know for me, is that there’s no sacrifice. It’s the ultimate joy. But that can’t easily be heard when that’s not the path you’ve lived and you’re 60 years old. So what do you say to those people?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (17:42)
I’m saying it’s never too late. That’s the whole thing. And I believe every child has had that, has had a dream. I don’t care, even if it’s in a, what was we referred to as a minority group? No, the kid had the dream, did the group suppress it, I suppress it, or was it ever suppressed by people who had doubts and the people who had doubts primarily are the older folks saying, no, I don’t think you could do that; I don’t think that could happen.
Robert Strock: (18:25)
I want you to really share, because you have a extraordinarily unique, multi-decade experience of loving cancer patients. I want you to stay with your experience of how you loved cancer patients, even if it’s so simple, which I know it is at one level. I want you to give that to everybody.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (18:50)
Okay. Cancer patients, the word cancer is fear. The minute we have fear, we shut down. We go into this ball that we call ourself, and we don’t know how to express it because it’s hidden under all this fear. Cancer is like the worst fear that anyone could have and then to sit with these people and then open up the door that’s has to do with fear and allow them to see the light, allow them to see that there isn’t anything in life to fear. If you have someone and your fearful of snakes, then what do you do? You just go and find someone who has a snake or go to the museum, but pick up a snake. And you realize fear is what limits us. Think of your own life. Embrace the fear. So, you could open the door to the truth of reality. And just because you have cancer does not mean you’re going to die. And if you are going to die, is there unfinished business? Is there someone you want to tell, tell them how much you love them, how much you appreciate ’em. Is there a child that you’re not relating to? Can you make that connection? You want to open people up to the fullness of their life.
Robert Strock: (20:32)
Tell me if I’m interpreting you, right? You help people feel the fear, and then you give them a glimpse. That’s a universal glimpse of their love, of their capacity to love and to expand that and to join them in, in that love as much as possible, tweak those words.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (20:53)
Absolutely. That this is a loving world. And we just miss the honesty, the truth of that. We hide from love through fear, and the game of life is can I open myself up? And if I could open myself up, is there the possibility that I could help another human being see their life and the truth of it and the honesty of it that you don’t have to be a doctor. You’re just a person in a street who met somebody, something brought you there, they look like someone you knew, or whatever, you strike up a conversation. And a miracle happens, know where to go. It’s, it’s so true. It’s like ants. I remember my father. I said, I’m so damn bored. And he said, well, go out and look at the ants. I figured go out and look at the ants. And I realized something that sometimes you have two columns of ants and one leaves the column and it goes to the other column. And it’s called trophallaxis; one ant tells the other ant where they’ve been and the other ant tells them where they’re going.
Robert Strock: (22:18)
Yeah. And, and one of the things that I see with you, and this is a hard thing somewhat to say. And another way it’s a very easy thing to say, is that you are so in the experience of love and gratitude, that you don’t even realize how unusual you are. You don’t even realize that you are anything. You’re in the longing so much that you just transfer that. And I don’t know how much your mind even gets involved. I mean, you, you just simply are a transmission for 40–think about it–everyone listening: Imagine 40 years of loving cancer patients, of just transmitting that. And in the simplest of ways, not because of your profession, you’re not proud of being a doctor, you know? Yeah. You’re probably proud to be a doctor, but it’s, it’s a one in a hundred. The key thing is loving and presence and facing what’s in front of you. And you automatically do that without even a self-reflection. I’m trying to get you to reflect on yourself a little bit, but it’s almost impossible to do because you’re so automatically there.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (23:33)
Oh, I don’t know. But it’s, it’s almost being in this room. I’ve been sitting as a result of having cancer myself. Um, I have trouble walking. I could go to the John or something like that but I can’t go much further. And so, I realize I’ve been sitting in this chair, for over eight years, and with the same scope–it’s one room–we live in one room and it’s never boring. It just isn’t, there’s something always connecting either you to what you’re looking at or connecting what you’re looking at to yourself. That everything in life is relationship. We’re always in relationship. How could you make each moment count? And the word that comes up that I finally, I’ve, I thank God is the word, acceptance, is to accept the moment for where it is. Acceptance is love and my mother had a great statement. Paul: “What is, is; what was, was; what will be, will be.” And we use the word love so much it’s almost like a throwaway word. Love you, love you, ove you, love this, love that. But it’s the acceptance of those things that you can change. I can’t change the fact I can’t walk, but I can change how I view life.
Robert Strock: (25:28)
Yeah. Well, what I wanna highlight, really wanna highlight, is that you’re seeing things realistically. You’re seeing your current medical state where you’ve been you’re facing reality, you’re not in denial, and there’s a wonder, there’s a child–a child wonder that is still here. That I think is helpful for those that are younger, which is most of us. And, and to be able to capture a level of love or wonder and acceptance, as you said, acceptance means you’re seeing something and you’re accepting it. You’re not getting caught in resistance. And yet there’s a wonder that comes through in your tone of voice in your eyes. I wish that everyone could see you as I’m seeing you, because, okay, because that wonder, that childlike innocence, is what is fulfillment in life. It is frankly, the fulfillment of expanding that to the world and how easy the world would be.
Robert Strock: (26:35)
If more people could access the uniting wonder, and here you are in its share, in your content, your accepting and you’re in a state of wonder. And, and that is a situation that most people would have a very difficult time comprehending, but it gives a perspective of, we don’t need very much. We need to be inside in in a state of finding our original innocence, finding our original dreams, finding our original wonder, of which you are living it while you are–and I don’t know how you would frame your, your medical situation. I’d be interested. How would you frame your medical situation? Beyond what you’ve said. Do you think you’re seriously ill, very seriously ill. Do you have no idea? What, how would you frame it?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (27:21)
How would I say it? For some reason about 10 years ago, my markers have always been up high since I’ve had, uh, radiation. So the cancer never went away, but suddenly it disappeared. So all the marketers disappeared. So in my last test, I don’t show any evidence of cancer, but the progression of the effect of the cancer on my pelvis, my legs keep getting worse. So it’s kind of interesting. I used to have a terrible pain in my legs, but now, because it’s still progressive from the decay of my pelvis, my legs are numb. The fact that they’re numb is really a bad sign, but for me, it’s a great sign, because I don’t feel pain anymore.
Robert Strock: (28:21)
And what, what, what was the worst diagnosis that you had earlier?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (28:27)
Oh, the worst diagnosis was, there wasn’t a bone in my pelvis that’s not broken. It looks like cement.
Robert Strock: (28:36)
And what about, what about the cancer aspect?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (28:38)
The cancer, the cancer never bothered me. I never . . .
Robert Strock: (28:43)
What, what was the diagnosis though? What was did they tell you?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (28:47)
I had prostate cancer, received radiation. I signed up to be in a control study and everyone in my segment, which we call the arm of a study, everyone failed it. So, I had this full amount of radiation and it had no effect on my cancer. So, I started receiving chemotherapy and hormonal blockade from age 60 to age 80, and at age 80, for some reason, it disappeared. And I can’t tell you why or how.
Robert Strock: (29:26)
If I was an esoteric person, which I’m only one quarter of an esoteric person, I’m three quarters of a dodo who doesn’t know anything. I would say maybe, maybe your wonder, maybe your love was a healing influence, but one way or the other, even if it wasn’t, it’s something that is my aspiration. As I move into my later years. And as the audience knows, I had 10 years of hell, but the wisdom was still there to carry forward and to still do what was possible to bring a caring toward those around me, including myself, and taking good care. And I feel like you’re a more advanced stage of that. And an inspiration for those that can gather, even when we faced our worst fears. And maybe especially when we faced our worst fears, we can find a wonder, a love, a caring, a simplicity, a relationalness. Last night, when I called you on the phone, I heard your grandkids. You were playing games. You sounded like you were five-years-old.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (30:39)
oh my God, I, I don’t know. That life to me is the greatest gift that a human being could have. Um, I have no understanding of death. I have no predictions of how it might be. Um, I don’t even listen to people who think they know, and it doesn’t make that much difference to me, to be super honest. This has just been a great trip. It’s just a great trip. That’s all you could say.
Robert Strock: (31:13)
Yeah. No, I can say one more thing. I can say without you acknowledging yourself, your attitude, the quality of acceptance, the quality of looking at your own projections, the quality of not identifying with them in deep ways anymore. The qualities of coming back to your original wonder and love. Your puppy eyes at, at 89 or whatever you are, are something that everyone hopefully can get a glimpse of. I could move in that direction too, no matter what stage of life I’m in.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (31:54)
Wow. I don’t know. Life, life can be fun. Also at the same time, you’re so aware of the absurdity of life and how we could even possibly hurt another human being is beyond my belief. Um, because the person opposite you is you and people say that it sounds so f’ing good, but it really is true. We find out who we are from the other, we’ll find it out through ourself.
Robert Strock: (32:36)
Yeah. And of course, and maybe not of course, that to have that perspective, again, it comes almost like from your five-year-old and just carried on. But it’s so far away from the normal bandwidth. But the transition to take part of what you’re saying and recognizing that it appears from everything you and I see. Our true nature does carry this capacity to see ourselves, to accept ourselves, to love and to expand beyond ourselves and its utterly fulfilling and there’s no sacrifice.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (33:16)
Right. And, you know, I’m thinking of something else, because yes, I did have this dream of being a doctor, but I also love greenhouses. I would love to go to the florist with my mom and go into that warm greenhouse and sit among the flowers. You know, you could say, I would, oh, you could talk, you’re a doctor, whatever that means. But if I didn’t become a doctor, I would grow flowers. You know, what is the difference between growing flowers or being a doctor? The joy that people get from a bouquet of flowers is healing. The love of plants, the love of life. You know, it has nothing. Yes. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great opportunity, a great education from being relatively someone in another world. I was a dreamer, but I could dream about flowers to this day. And as long as I could see ’em like in this one room, my wife keeps getting on my case because when people come over they kind of congregate by the kitchen. Okay, which is in back of me. But when I sit on the other side of the room, I can’t see life. And if I can’t see life, I don’t know if I’m living.
Robert Strock: (34:51)
Yeah. I hear you. I have 400 flowers on my deck. And, and every morning I wake up from my five sleeping medications because of my transplant, kidney transplant, medications that have made me need those to sleep. And I wake up to my favorite music of all time on my earphones and looking at flowers. And all of us might not be able to buy 400 flowers, I’ve been fortunate to be able to buy 400 flowers, but all of us can find eight flower. All of us can find an ocean. All of us can find a garbage man that has a great attitude that has the spirit that you’re talking about. And I think what you’ve successfully done today is you’ve shared how it doesn’t require having to have a certain occupation. It requires being in touch with your original innocence and, and having that join with whatever reality you’re facing. Face it and then do whatever’s possible to, to just enjoy that original innocence.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (35:58)
You know, I was, I’m thinking about both of us here. Robert and I were in a group together and I didn’t know why I was in that group. I just couldn’t relate to anyone there. It was a group of business people, and I have no sense of business. Zero. But I stayed there for almost 20 years, I think, I don’t know how long. And then, because I’m a slow learner, I realized I wasn’t there to listen to what they were speaking about, but as much is to see the beauty of the human beings who were speaking. And I really felt like an idiot at the end of that, I must admit. Because when I wanted to tell them I’m no longer coming, you know, to any meetings, I realized how I loved every single one of those guys. It had nothing to do with business.
Robert Strock: (37:03)
Yeah. When I was 25, we had a boys’ home, a residential treatment center for teenagers. And the opening line is, we at the family home believe that beyond our defenses, all of us are good . And in a simple way, what I hear is your vision is seeing the good, looking for the good, sponsoring the good automatically, not even through the mind, just instinctually.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (37:33)
Yeah. It’s not looking for the good as much as seeing the good. Yeah. I can’t look for it, but the good sees me, so I could see it. It’s, it’s a relationship with life.
Robert Strock: (37:50)
Yeah. Well, I, I can easily agree in my experience, but when I have people in that particular boy’s home that are constantly saying, fuck you.
Dr. Paul Brenner: (38:01)
Robert Strock: (38:01)
I had to do a little bit of looking. Uh, but, but I appreciate that at your years, you’re just living in that state, seeing the good. And I just wanna ask you, is there any other message that you feel like you would want to convey? Seems like you’ve conveyed a lot. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s nothing else, but if there’s anything else that you wanna convey as a sign off?
Dr. Paul Brenner: (38:26)
No. The only thing that came up was, love those you are with, and it doesn’t have to be a human love life. Life is all there is. And it’s, it’s miraculous. It’s miraculous.
Robert Strock: (38:42)
Yeah. We don’t know how we got here. How amazing. Paul, thank you so much for sharing your life. I love you. Thanks so much, bye-bye.
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