Dr. Noshene Ranjbar knows firsthand what Iran’s citizens are up against. Born in Iran, she was two when the Islamic Revolution exploded around her. She knows what it’s like to live in a society where women and minorities are seen as threats to be controlled–or worthless killed. And with her glowing face and loving smile, while she may not strike you as a general, that is how she seems to me. Dr. Noshene is a peaceful general, helping to train an army of healers, through her work in mind-body medicine.
October 26 marked the 40th day since the death of Mahsa Amini, killed while in custody by Iran’s “morality police,” and her spirit continues to mobilize Iranians across the country and people around the world with their heartcries of “Women, Life, Freedom.”
The question for all of us is: How can we end these cycles of violence – and heal our battered souls? What is the remedy so critically needed, not only in dictatorships, but in increasingly fragile democracies?
I spoke with Dr. Noshene, who works as an integrative psychiatrist based at the University of Arizona, Tucson, for insights and ways to take action.
Andréana Elise Lefton: How are Iran’s protests impacting you, personally?
Noshene Ranjbar: I feel the heat in my body. The urgency of this moment.
As an Iranian-American, I have relatives in Iran who were shot, attacked, arrested, blindfolded, and/or beaten during the recent protests. I have dear friends who have been imprisoned for months – some in solitary confinement – for no other crime than speaking up for their basic human rights.
The level of consciousness in Iranian society is the highest it’s been in decades. Men are finally seeing that if women are freed, everyone’s life will be better. Some men are beginning to heal their own trauma, which is the only way these cycles of oppression will end.
In the words of one of my friends and colleagues in Iran: “In a patriarchy, men and women are all victims. Hard to tell who carries the heavier burden.”
AE: I sense how deep this cuts for you.
NR: When I hear "Baraye" [Shervin Ajipour’s protest song] and he sings, “It’s for the innocent, forbidden dogs,” I get goosebumps and start crying.
As a child in the Islamic Republic, I was afraid of dogs. They were considered dirty, bad. I didn’t learn the language of nature, the wild: Be real, do what you want, express what you need. Instead, I was taught: Don’t wear colorful clothes. Cover your entire body. Don’t attract attention or express your emotions.
My fear was based on having to fit into this little box. Otherwise, you’re not a good girl; you’re not worthy of God’s love or society’s approval.
AE: How can our deepest wounds lead to our most profound healing?
NR: It’s about reconnecting and reclaiming all the parts of ourselves, especially the parts we’ve learned to reject, bury, or feel ashamed of.
I was a very anxious, scared child. Not only did I grow up during the Islamic Revolution [in 1979] and the [1980-88] Iran-Iraq War, but my parents divorced when I was two. My mom died when I was twelve. That same year, I moved to the United States, by myself.
In my late 20s, all that unhealed trauma caught up with me. My life force was diminishing. I wanted to end it all. It was during this extremely vulnerable time that something miraculous happened. In the hospital for a third time, I had a personal experience that snapped me back into my body. I began to sob, then laugh. Within 24 hours, I was myself again.
Getting my first dog – a playful black lab named Keemia, which means “alchemy” in Arabic and Persian – was a huge part of my long-term healing. She connected me with that wild, expressive part of my nature that was so denied me, as a child.
Another part of my miracle is still unfolding, which is my work in mind-body medicine.
AE: What exactly is mind-body medicine?
NR: It’s a healing revolution. In my opinion, it’s the biggest opportunity to heal our planet.
Mind-body medicine teaches us techniques that have been passed down for thousands of years by ancient cultures, bringing together arts, humanities, science, and spirituality. Things like meditation, movement, biofeedback, mindful eating, and ceremony.
In Western medicine, you go to a therapist for mental issues, a gastroenterologist for stomach issues, and an oncologist if you have cancer. Mind-body medicine is all about integrating these systems. It’s also about connecting with our emotional and spiritual truth.
Interestingly, there’s now ample scientific evidence to support these practices, from boosting our immune system to improving chronic pain, mood, and energy levels.
AE: What happens when we’re not integrated, internally?
NR: Well, everything starts to break down. In ourselves, and in society. As [American priest and writer] Richard Rohr says, pain that’s not transformed is transmitted.
Just look at Iran – and America for that matter. Personal trauma leads to disease, mental health crises, and dissonance in our relationships, politics, and beliefs. That in turn, leads to an “us versus them” mentality, which fosters conflict and domination.
Really, your well being is my well being.
AE: How is mind-body medicine making a difference in Iran, as well as Ukraine, Gaza, and other conflict zones?
NR: At The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, we’ve created a relatively simple and scalable program that has exponential impact, including for people in crisis and in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters.
For eight to 12 weekly sessions, a group of 10 people come together, with a trained facilitator. Within this safe container, they learn and practice techniques like breathwork, imagery, creative self-expression, and heart sharing.
Basically, it’s about being human together – often in dehumanizing circumstances. Laughing, crying, supporting and learning from each other. It’s about people finding their voices, connecting across boundaries, and having a shared language, based on innerwork.
Another friend and therapist in Iran, who's helping people cope with fresh traumas every day there, told me: “This government seeks to divide us. People are pitted against each other. Families are fighting over their beliefs. Marriages are breaking up. Mind-body groups give us a way to see each other, and love each other, beyond these divisions.”
AE: How many healers are being trained?
NR: At least 50 or 60 facilitators have been trained in Iran alone. Many have gone on to facilitate groups of 20, 30, or even 100 other people.
Thousands more are being trained in the US and other countries. And they’re training others, expanding the ripples of healing even further.
What’s really beautiful is that everyone involved in these groups receives as much as they’re giving – which is a missing piece in a lot of social justice advocacy and healthcare. Too often, the healers just get burned out. But in mind-body work, we learn how to rest, breathe, care for ourselves, and be supported by others.
I've been so touched by the flood of positive reports sent to me by my colleagues in Iran, like this one from a mind-body facilitator and therapist: “In the midst of all of this chaos, the mind-body group enables us to create something better from our anger–to build ourselves and our world anew. We need these spaces. Now more than ever.”
AE: What’s your advice to us, at this critical moment?
NR: Listen to your body. Connect with Mother Earth. Find your own sense of wholeness. Support your local community. And support our Iranian sisters and brothers.
Here are five ways to get involved right now:
Sign and share this petition, supported by over 7,000 members of the North American Healthcare Community.
Become a facilitator and attend the next 5-day Professional Training.
Join the Iran Empowerment and Trauma Support Facebook Campaign which directly supports the people of Iran.
Learn mind-body techniques and discover how to transform your own trauma.
The Revolution is happening. And not just in Iran. Everywhere. It’s for people of all colors and genders. For our children. For the animals. For the planet. But first we must commit to healing ourselves.
Dr. Noshene Ranjbar is a Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health Leader. She is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, and Director of the Integrative Psychiatry Program. She also serves as faculty at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, Integrative Psychiatry Institute, and The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, Washington, DC.
Andréana Elise Lefton is an author and educator, with a focus on women’s voices, justice, and healing the human spirit. Her book Circle the Bones with Shining is available at major booksellers. Read more at andreana-elise.com.