Medicine and Spirituality


Dr. Hart:         

Shalom. My name is Dr. Seymour Hart. I graduated from a very prestigious medical school in Europe, and I practice in the area of integrative medicine, functional medicine, holistic healthcare, and also aesthetic medicine. And this is how I became interested in the legal work of Michael H. Cohen. Today I’m interviewing him not only about medicine, but also about his views about health in general, and also with respect to spirituality and religion.

What got you interested in medicine, health, and what is it about death?

You said today that this was a topic that you wish to address. Not the most joyous for people, nonetheless you mentioned that it was important to you. So let’s talk a little bit about this concept and why it’s so important to your overall view of healthcare and wellness, and what it means to you as a healthcare lawyer and personally.


When I was a college student, I became very interested in the works of Carlos Castaneda, who wrote about, of course, sorcery, magic, spirituality in the South American, Native American traditions, and I remembered him saying that death is an ally. Death is always over your shoulder. And so I was quite influenced by this. I started reading books about ritual use of peyote and people having near-death experiences and altered states of consciousness, and one thing led to another. I was a very impressionable college student, so while I was doing my concentration in political science and taking a course on international law, and thinking that I might go into government or politics, my parents had always encouraged a political pathway, I was also reading all of this literature about spirituality, about visions, about shamanic quests and about dying and death, and about what death had to teach us about life.

One of the things that really impressed me as I was reading these different works was the positions the authors maintained that, not only does death make life meaningful, but death is really not a cessation of human experience, it is simply a continuation of human experience in another dimension, another realm of being, another translation of human reality, another way for the soul to pass through existence, maybe not in an embodied way, but certainly in a way that has meaning and is relevant to us. And not only that, but a way that we can access.

Now I had a conservative bent, and so I did not do any mind-altering drugs, and actually I’m grateful for that because when I have experiences today, mystical experiences, very personal experiences, I don’t attribute them to anything biochemical that I might have triggered during college, so while I was offered the opportunity to go on an acid trip, and some people might say, “Gosh, you know, you really should have. It would blow your mind, man. Do it,” I’m glad I didn’t because in my own mind there’s an authenticity to my own experience and I don’t feel like it’s induced by the residue of any drug.  Of course, I’m not denying that those substances can be very useful when used in a ceremonial way, and I’ve certainly been to my share of sweat lodges and been in rooms full of incense and done chanting, and I find all those practices really powerful.

One of the things that happened, actually, right before I got to college, is I had the opportunity to do an internship or get a summer job at Wayne State University Medical School, where my mom held a faculty appointment as a medical school professor. During that time I snuck into an unlocked room, and it turned out to be a room full of cadavers that were being prepared for dissection in the gross anatomy class. And so something I was confronted with, the very real reality of people, bodies, without animation. I couldn’t make any sense of this. I mean, it was just completely shocking.

I tried to talk about it with my dad. He didn’t really know how to address it. I think we don’t really teach parents to talk to their kids about something like this, and even years later I would search within my own home traditions within Judaism, and I had to go to a book called Jewish Views of the Afterlife, which compares Talmudic and other Jewish wisdom about the afterlife with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I found that book extremely interesting and revelatory and relevant and very well-researched and well-written. And there it is. The stages of post-dying of the spirit are mapped out by these disparate traditions in very parallel ways, and those accounts were consistent with what I was also learning in my study of energy healing many years later.

Because my teacher, Barbara Brennan, always said, “Look, humans continue and they have seven layers of the aura, at least, in her system, or human energy fields. She liked to make it sound scientific. And the body is the densest part of human experience, but there are also thoughts and beliefs and other systems and other bodies. And when we die we’re no longer in the physical body, and some of the other gross layers of the energy field dissolved, but these other luminous aspects of our being persist, and in fact carry the soul memory and the karma from age to age, and then eventually fashion a new body.

So, you don’t have to buy all of that. I’m not going into incredible depth, simply to say that it was hard for me to find the maps in a synagogue because this all comes out of mystical Judaism, contemplative Judaism, other aspects of our tradition that are in Rabbinic Judaism and yet didn’t necessarily rise to the foreground.

At any rate, there I was, staring at these cadavers at age 16 and I couldn’t fathom it. It was utterly shocking and I think at that point it solidified my quest, even though outwardly I was on this career trajectory to the Senate, if you will, which didn’t manifest because of certain other things that happened in college. I realized that that wasn’t my path, that was not what I wanted. I would do my public service in a different way. But nonetheless I was trying to reckon with that and wrestle with it, even at that borderland zone between high school and college.

If I go back, even to childhood, my paternal grandfather died when I was a teenager, and I have memories of him being healthy and making a penny disappear and then it would reappear from my ear. He did these magic tricks, he played backgammon, and I think he smoked cigars. I mean, he was a man who loved life. He was very robust and I didn’t know much about this, but he apparently was very skilled and gifted in sales and was able to retire early, and he liked to play golf.  He was just very, very warm. He got me interested in reading. He gave me these really thick books that were his favorites, like … I remember poring through Ivanhoe when I was like 14. I don’t know if I got this one from him, but Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead. Here I am going through these three, four, five, 600-page fiction books.

So I remember my grandfather being healthy and then I remember my dad carrying him to the bed, and he had this thing that was called the ticker, and it made a noise and it was … And then I remember that he died and I cried and I didn’t know where he was. Maybe someone told me that he was in heaven. There was really not a good explanation for what happened. I always felt connected to him. And then years later, my maternal grandfather died. Both in the month of October, so I’m recording this in October. My dad also passed in October, and so the whole male lineage was struck in October.

And I was reminded of this because I was walking around San Diego today and there were these ads for the Day of the Dead which, apparently in the Mexican tradition, is a celebration of the presence of the ancestors. Over the years, the experience of death while, on the human level you can’t bypass the psychological. There’s no doubt I have grief, still, about each of these deaths. Grief is very much a living part of me. And it’s sad, and in other ways the sadness has a sweetness to it because it’s the manifestation of the most incredible love that I’ve ever experienced, you know, the love that I have for my dad and my Zadie and my grandpa, who loved me so much and so nurtured me when I was a young lad and through my whole life.

And they’re still with me. They’re very present, maybe for another episode. They’re very, very present with me each and every day, sometimes in very subtle ways and sometimes in very obvious ways. They come in my dreams and they speak to me and are with me, and there’s no question, like every day is the Day of the Dead. Every day the dead are with us. And what I have read as theory, as exciting myth, if you will, or a possibility, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, is real to me today because I’ve had the good fortune to really dive into that experience.

I’m just remembering, you know … I don’t remember the year that this movie came out … it was called All that Jazz, and in the movie is a choreographer who is dying. He would have these jazzy songs and he would go into these visions, which were partly that his body was failing and he would go off into the other planes. And he would have these visions, and he was like, “Death is in. Death is really jazzy.” And kind of like made a celebration of the fact that somebody was crossing to the other side. That’s the way that my teacher, Barbara Brennan, described dying, that it really is a celebration, the death experience.

In the Talmud, apparently, the Talmud describes death and the separation from the body as gentle as separating a hair from milk. That’s the experience. Now, I haven’t been there. I’ve had a near-death experience that was a wonderful, wonderfully lyrical and beautiful description. It is October. The Day of the Dead is near, and the presence of the male lineage is with me and I feel a mixture of human grief and soaring, triumphant, transcendental celebration in my heart as I experience the closeness of these fathers and fathers of fathers, who are always with me.

Death is a privilege, in my view. Life is a privilege. We’re privileged that we can go through these cycles of incarnation and dis-incarnation. I’m reminded of another memory. I remember I was at Boalt Hall School of Law, my first year at University of California-Berkeley, and I would go into my classes, and we would do this Socratic Method. I had one teacher who would like basically toss a hat and say, “Okay, you’re the plaintiff. Argue this case.” And then he would toss a hat into the room again and say, “You’re the defendant now. Argue this case.” I remember those rooms. The professor would be at the bottom of this pit and the students would be, like a hundred of us in a coliseum style, seated around, going up into the back of the room. It really felt like your voice would just come through from the top of the room, and all the eyes and ears would be on you. You’d have to make a cogent argument.

And I would go from that, and I would go down to Sproul Plaza, where they had jugglers, and I think the Naked Man was there, and the Polka-Dot Man and there were all these interesting people. Then they had the table for the Hare Krishnas, and I remember there was like a crèche, there was like a papier-mâché cow and it was turning its head to a man wielding an ax, and it was saying, “Don’t slaughter me. I’m conscious.” And that was really curious. And these guys were bobbing up and down with their shaved heads and singing and playing the tambourines. They were oh, so happy. And I was a little scared by the whole thing because when I was in high school, we were told that these were cults and you don’t want to be brainwashed, and then people would have to come and deprogram you, so I didn’t get too close. But you know, I did really heed the messages and I picked up a book, which I actually read when my girlfriend at the time was studying for the bar exam. I was reading Easy Journey to Other Planets by Swami … you know, one of the Hare Krishna swamis.

That book, interestingly, it very much reminded me of reading Plato at Columbia in Greek philosophy. He talks about the transmigration of souls. Sure enough, if you go back to the Christian literature before the Nicene era and the church decided there wasn’t going to be a reincarnation, the whole idea that souls kind of move around was very, very common. Then later I did past-life regression and came across the work of Dr. Brian Weiss, who was regressing his patients and … well, past-life regressing them. Not regressing behaviors, but memories of times from other times and places and lives. I always found it quite fascinating.

Of course, some people say you don’t want to spend too much time there because you want to pay attention to this life and, you know, we have real physical, emotional, economic and spiritual needs and fulfillment in this lifetime in relationships. But yeah, Hare Krishnas, they had their day. Everyone has their influence, I suppose. Even as I was listening to the voices of Cardozo and the other great justices, Justice Brennan, the Great Dissenter, and Blackstone and all the other legal jurists, I had these other voices coming through from ancient lands, telling me about souls, giving me other ideas, so it was all there.

Dr. Hart:         

Michael, how do you see death and dying in your work on law and healing and medicine? What connections can you draw for us in that zone?


Well, Dr. Hart, I think obviously understanding and honoring spirituality is very important in medicine, as in all of healthcare. Of course, it’s part of the healing arts, especially as you get more into, say, Reiki and different kinds of energy healing, where the connections are very overt. In medicine sometimes they’re more subtle. Even in very conventional medicine, we talk about a good bedside manner, we talk about rapport, and we talk about empathy, so that’s deeply ingrained in the Hippocratic Oath and in the ethical ideal of beneficence. Doctors obviously go into medicine for a reason. It’s a path of service, it’s a path of caring.

What has happened historically is that, in the ancient days, the shaman used to be both the doctor the religious guide, and those roles are now separated, in that we have a separation of science and religion. There’s some debate as to whether the two are oppositional or, as the Dalai Lama likes to say, they’re actually very congruent. Certainly, if you look at books that became popular, like the Tao of Physics and Bernie Siegel and Deepak Chopra and that whole lineage … Certainly, even if you go to more recent examples like Jon Kabat-Zinn and MBSR and how mindfulness is being incorporated into all sorts of clinician training and spirituality is part of everything.

You know, obviously in hospice work and when patients are ill, it’s important to connect with them, because sometimes things might not be moved on a physiological, biochemical pathway or lower level, yet there might be some healing of the heart, or there might be something that is really important to the person from another dimension, a more emotional dimension, a more spiritual dimension let’s say, and that involves atonement, at-one-ment, reconciliation. Even in scientific literature that there are some very important things that people have to say to their loved ones, like “I love you” or “I’m sorry, forgive me.” You know, these are very important life tasks.

So I’m not going to get on the podium here because the literature is out there. Other people have done the work. I would just say that, clearly, spirituality is part of medicine and we can’t dissociate any more. We can’t pretend that … you know, they we’re so scientific and so holy about being scientific that we have to divorce our minds from our hearts, divorce our brains from the rest of the body and present that there’s absolutely no connection.

Spirituality is the lingua franca of humanity. That’s simply the way that it is. I mean, to be human is to speak about our spirit, to speak to ultimate reality. I think to do less runs a lot of risks, so it’s vital. It’s vital to medicine. I started my career in the trajectory of alternative medicine, complementary medicine, and integrative medicine. I started out as a professor, law school professor, teaching healthcare law, writing about bioethics. One of the first pieces that I wrote was called Tort of Bioethics of Compassion, and I went through the basic bioethical values, including non-maleficence, beneficence, autonomy and justice. Then, I concluded by saying that beyond the bioethics of compassion is compassion itself.

I think that this really was my professional and personal journey, which was to, in a way, move out of law, see law as trying to do what some people in medicine were trying to do, which was to be only logical, to be only rational. To be a Spock. To be the Vulcan side of Spock, and it’s unrealistic. So, for a while I left law and I became a healer. I was still teaching law, but my identity was really not as a lawyer, and I was like Jonah in the belly of the whale. I was required to back to Nineveh and speak to the people. I was required to do that integration. I was asked and demanded that I be back in society, that I pick up my, not gavel, but sword, I suppose, like Arjuna. You know, I couldn’t leave the battlefield.

So I went back in, I practiced law, opened my own firm, have grown a law firm, and here we are. It’s the integration of spiritual dimensions of humanity and physical dimensions of humanity, and the law I see as mediating the two, the law kind of standing in between saying, “Here’s what you must do, here’s what you must not do, here’s what you can do,” and also using the law to express, channel, provide a container and support for the fullest expression of humanity, the fullest expression of being human, which includes both scientific medicine and spirituality, and then integrating those two, titrating those two, synthesizing those two, in a way that’s deeply personal and yet at the same time archetypical and communal as well.

Dr. Hart:         

Shalom. I want to thank you for being on the show. Very, very interesting insights into medicine, law and spirituality. Let me say for our audience that you can find more episodes at or visit online at Thank you so much and Shalom, everybody.

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