Jon Berenson

  1. Completing the Circle Cover

    Completing the Circle

    38 Stories of Mindful Connection

    Every story in this book is true and was the result of my work with patients in my office for 45 years, or with participants at an Opening the Heart workshop which I have led for 36 years. I have changed the names, ages and circumstances of all the people involved in these stories in an attempt to protect their confidentiality. The Heart workshop originally started in 1976 at a place called Spring Hill in Ashby, Massachusetts by Dr. Robert Gass. When Spring Hill closed its' doors in 1998, the workshop continued, primarily at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York and at Kripalu Institute for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

  2. A Careful Weeder

    For me, the skilled weeder holds a special place of honor

    One morning when I walked my dog, Fenway, I felt it in the air: the more moderate air temperature of forty degrees, the sun coming up over the tree line later in the morning, the cardinals and robins chirping and looping through the air. I know, I know, this sounds like the delusions of an over-hardened native New Englander mistaking a temporary mild weather front from a true change of seasons in early February. But I did feel it. And because I did, I started looking at the tired, overgrown gardens on my walk, imagining turning the ground over in two months, clearing out the old and dead, making room for the new life that would come.

    I'm a weeder by nature. I was hard-wired and designed to sit in a part of a garden and hand pick weeds so the rightful inheritors could take their place. I can remember doing this since I was a boy, always feeling things aligning properly when a patch had been cleared. If you're a careful and serious weeder, this is not so easy as it may look. You need to know weeds and how they sometimes deceive by looking like new sprouts of flowers or plants. You have to know how to pick the weed out, going deep, getting the whole root so it doesn't grow back. And you should really know what to do with the weed so it will help in the compost to fertilize new oriental lilies, hibiscus, astilbe or rose bush.

    I did my apprenticeship with my dad who, himself, was a master weeder. Whenever the family was running around packing things up for a family outing, I knew where my dad would be waiting for us. He would be sitting on the front lawn quietly removing every dandelion, one at a time, with his forked, yellow-handled tool, making a mound of the pulled weeds. When my dad died, I remember searching in the garage for the only thing I really wanted- the yellowhandled weed remover, and then finding a place for it on the shelf of my own garage.

    Becoming a weeder was not just a way of finding a place of serenity and renewal for me. Yes, I love sitting in the sun in a garden and taking my time to make an area clean and healthy. Yes, I do really get a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from seeing something look and grow healthy

    But I have been humbled and grateful to have learned that weeding had also become my profession. In my therapy practice, working with patients, I sit and try to help them clear their own weeds. I've come to accept that they need to identify which are the weeds and which the plants. They have to have the temperament, or courage, to want to remove them and they have to know how to go deep enough to remove the root. They have to be able to use discernment to tell the difference between a weed and a growing sprout that may, if they're patient, grow into something beautiful and unique. They have to, in a real sense, become careful and skilled gardeners themselves. I think when I am helpful, it's because I can support them to know when it's time to pull and when it's time to wait. Years ago, I had been working with a woman for four years who had been continuously traumatized by sexual abuse when she was a little girl. One day in therapy, she said to me, "It's time, Jon.... It's time to confront the man who did this." I said, "Please don't." She asked why. I told her not to confront him unless she was prepared to have him deny that it had ever happened. She cried, nodded and waited for six months until she was ready.

    I sometimes think that in our culture the weeder does not hold a particular place of honor. Maybe weeding seems too slow or too primitive for our fast lives. But I know when I sit in a garden with my father's hand tool, that weeding is a good and a worthwhile way to spend one's life.

  3. Praying in the Circle

    Sitting in a circle for the purpose of healing can be a holy experience.

    A few years ago, I took an early morning walk east along Horseneck Beach in Westport. I was heading toward a nature preserve at the end of the beach. As I walked, I watched the ospreys hunting for fish while the terns hovered and then dove for a small herring. If you had asked me why I had gotten up so early or what I was looking for on that walk, I doubt I could have told you- but I know now what it was. I was looking for serenity and quiet. I was looking for a house of prayer. And I found it.

    As I crossed the small island, I took in the beauty: ocean, early morning, sun reaching the top of the tree line, scrub oak, the delicate smell of wild primrose in bloom. I was heading toward the dunes and the ocean. As I ascended the dune, I could see more and more of the ocean. As I reached the top of the dune and began the descent, I froze. My heart stopped and the breath went out of me. There on the beach were 10 great blue herons, all facing the offshore wind coming from the ocean. They were roughly arranged in a skewed circle. They must have been praying because this was a holy place I had come to. I know in some religions you need at least 10 people to make a congregation for the prayer service to happen. I just watched, and then, silently, one of them said "Amen", and they all took off together, flying over the water.

    Without any signal or word, they all turned right and flew right over me and I could hear the "whoosh" of their great wings. The "whoosh", even then, I remember as the sound one's blood makes when it pumps back into the heart. When we are fully inside a moment of awe, the blood pumps, the senses come fully awake, time dissolves.

    Some time ago, I wrote a book with my son called Sitting in the Circle. It's a series of essays about the inspiration I've received from my patients in my therapy office and from the work that participants do at a weekend-long Opening the Heart workshop. There is something archetypal and powerful about sitting in a circle at the beginning of each workshop session, in a community of brothers and sisters who have come together for the purpose of healing emotional wounds.

    The more I thought about it this past year, the more I realized that much more than sitting happens in the circle. For me it is a holy pilgrimage. It is a kind of prayer service that happens in the circle. The service starts with the yearning.

    I call it "showing up." There's a prayer that says "With all my heart have I gone out to seek You, and in the going out, found You coming toward me." The yearning is the core of the answer to the call. It is the echo of the prayer for yearning. So in doing the work during a workshop, in making the descent and the ascent, we bring the passion for healing, the cry of the heart, the scream, the pounding of a pillow, the tear.

    I saw one woman at a workshop looking into her partner's eyes across from her, and for the first time since her husband died suddenly in their bed seven years ago, she cried. And the whoosh of the heart revived her back from a seven year paralysis. I saw a man, again in lines work, kill a priest who had sexually abused this man for four years when he was a little boy. And whoosh, blood flowed to parts of the body that had been dead for decades.

    A good, juicy prayer service brings us home, to a place where there's more peace and serenity, more compassion and self love. This kind of big transformation happens again and again within a sacred circle of people who are praying as if their life depends on it. Because, honestly, it does.

  4. Banpop

    To be able to give loving nurturance, without ever having received it, is an amazing achievement.

    "We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize the first one ends." ~ A patient of mine

    I used to see Sam in my therapy practice once a week for a long time. Now he calls me once every year or two, leaving me a message that he just wants to "check in and shoot the shit." Sam came in with his five year old granddaughter, Louisa. He introduced me as a friend and he led her into my office with a loving, reassuring presence. He asked her to tell me what they were going to do that day. Louisa, cute as a precious button, put her finger to her mouth, looked up at the ceiling and said slowly "Mu-se-um, and the ocean and go for a hike." Sam smiled again and said to me "Not only pretty, but very smart!" He spoke to her in an adult voice and treated her with constant love and respect. He reassured her that he wanted to talk with me for a while and that they would go whenever she wanted. She smiled and said "Thank you Banpop." Sam explained that when Louisa was born, his son asked Sam what he wanted to be called when this new Being of Light was old enough to talk. He told his son "Let her choose my name." So when she was about two, she started calling him 'Banpop', and it stuck

    Sam brought me up to date on his life. His son, once in big trouble with drugs, was now clean for four years, was working, and was in a solid relationship. Sam's own relationship of twelve years was a hard one and he said, "It may be that we go our own ways..... I've learned, from you, that I can only do what I can do. I can only save myself."

    Sam is about my age, in his late 60's. He grew up in a very physically abusive home, beaten frequently by a father who was alcoholic and had never had a chance to learn how to be a loving father. Sam became a marine at eighteen and went to Vietnam for three tours where he saw very bad things that, still, at times, haunt him. He is in great shape, handsome, active and he has bright eyes and a warm smile.

    He looked at Louisa, then back at me and said "You know, Jon, the worst thing that can happen to a person is for them to lose their childhood." I said "Sam, I am so proud of you for being able to give something you never got." I asked if I could read him a poem by Mary Oliver called The Journey. He smiled.

    "One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices kept shouting their bad advice... 'Mend my life!' But you didn't stop... though it was a wild night and the road full of fallen branches, you left the voices behind... determined to do the only thing you could do- determined to save the only life you could save."

    Tears were falling down Sam's face. Louisa looked at him and said "Why are you crying Banpop?" "Sometimes people cry because they're happy, Honey."

    I have come to understand that Sam's "check-ins" are about telling me that he has left those voices behind and now lives in a more loving and kinder way that has changed family tradition. He can leave a different legacy than the one he received. Oh, and I do believe he also comes for the hug before he goes back out into the world.

  5. Completing the Circle

    Reflecting on the circle of my own life cycle.

    ...And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~ T.S. Eliot

    So I turn around and know that I will soon begin my seventh decade. Yes, they're all true- all the cliches- like "it seems just such a short while ago" I was swimming through my father's legs in the ocean at Nantasket Beach; or "It really has gone by so fast." And now I'm a grandfather of two of the most delightful dancing Beings of Light: Ivy, eighteen months and Marlowe, two and a half years. Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with stories about how cute or incredibly bright they are. When people my age that I haven't seen for a while, learn I'm a grandfather, almost every time they say "Isn't it just the best!" Well, just between you and me, no, it isn't the best. It's great, yes, but the best? No. What's the best, for me, is watching my son and daughter each parent their little girl.

    I think that when any one of us is born, that life begins an arc, a journey, if you will. That beginning marks the start of a circle. Any arc, mathematicians tell us, eventually comes back to itself, completing a circle. And my belief is that there is something hopeful, redemptive even, about a circle being completed. It's both quite simple and beautiful.

    I watched my daughter, Abby, one evening giving Marlowe her dinner. Marlowe is smart, beautiful and loving. At this particular dinner time she was also exhausted. Some parents call it "breakdown time". She finished eating what she wanted and then decided she wanted something else that was not on the dinner menu, so she, understandably, began a tantrum. Watching Abby hold her ground in a loving and skillful way was amazing: "Lovey, throwing food is not okay! Just say 'All done' and we can go take a warm bath. Do you want to give Bunny or Baby a bath, too?" Abby never lost her cool, never yelled, kept to her reasonable limits and held the love between them.

    On another day, I was reading outside and twenty feet away I was aware of my son, Ari, lying in the grass doing something quietly with Ivy for at least a half hour. I didn't want to interrupt, but I was intrigued, so I quietly went over and saw my son dropping different size pebbles into a bowl of water: "Listen to the sound of the bigger stones as they plop into the water, Ivy." Then he would imitate the sound for her by popping his finger from his mouth. Ivy smiled, reached into the bowl and picked out a stone and dropped it in the bowl again and again. He was teaching her a quiet, mindful meditation about sound and love.

    Please don't get me wrong. I am not meaning to pat ourselves on the back for having taught Good Parenting. Neither of these examples is something I ever did when our kids were little. I'm also very aware that, as a parent, the arc of our children's lives always depends, to some extent, on luck and the grace of God. The great choices our kids made for life partners matters a lot, too. Jess, my son in law, Lily my daughter in law, are beautiful people and loving, skillful parents.

    I guess I'm just, in a self reflective moment, in the arc of my own life, expressing tremendous gratitude for all the blessings I have been given, and, as I think about the next cycle of life circles, I feel happy about the kind of parents that Ivy and Marlowe may one day be.

  6. Missing the Trops

    How to stop a stream of negative thoughts to avoid reacting from a triggered place.

    In Fenway Park there's a men's room right across from the ramp leading out into the stands near home plate. The men's room is diagonally across from the hot pretzels ($5, with mustard) and the sausage sandwiches with onions and peppers ($7.50). This particular men's room has 74 urinals with no partitions. Yes, as a matter of fact, I did count them, while I was waiting in line to use one. That's right, every single one was taken. I know this may be more information than you needed on men's rooms, but, be patient- I am aiming higher. So, I took my turn, and the guy on my left turns to me and says "trops". I was so startled at this breach of etiquette, I could only say "What!?", because, in fact, I had no idea what he was communicating by "trops". He repeated: "trops". Still shaken and trying to collect myself and wanting to end this unwanted exchange, I said "Yup!"

    He continued: "The 'troughs'- I miss the troughs they used to have here." Inside, I tried to breathe and remind myself that this whole unpleasant exchange would be over in a whiz, but I had to consciously keep from calling an attendant to come and take away the man at urinal #54. In other words, I'd been triggered.... By what, I asked myself

    Well, for one, men's public urinal etiquette has been established for thousands of years. You stand in front of the urinal. You may look down or straight ahead, but never to the left or right. And you never, ever, speak to anyone while urinating. I don't know that these rules have ever been written down and I do not find anything on an internet search of "Men's public urinal etiquette." Nonetheless, the understanding of these rules, I believe, goes back to the Babylonians who had porcelain troughs and, at least for the patrician class, there would have been a designated place to stand at the trough. In other words, there's a lot of weight behind these expectations of how to behave under these circumstances....

    Okay, so maybe the triggering was also connected to a bit of homophobia. Phobia means fear, and I think it is fear that is at the root of almost all triggered behavior. What I say to my patients in my office in regard to behavior in relationships is that there are two rules: 1) Never speak or act from a reactive, triggered place because there will never, ever, be a good harvest; 2) See Rule #1.

    So how do you not react from a triggered place? It is from this triggered place that we are absolutely convinced of the 'rightness' of our position. The word 'rightness' is very close, etymologically, to the word 'righteousness'. One important thing I have tried to practice for many years is that when I recognize the physiological signs of triggering, or 'an arrow going in', I try to breathe. When I feel startled, surprised, fearful, angry, hurt, these feelings will be experienced in the body, and one response to those feelings is to gasp, or stop breathing. When I am able to take a breath, I increase my chances of being able to take a second breath. And if I can do that, then I am putting some distance between the stimulus and the response. And with that distance, comes an increased possibility of making a conscious response, rather than a reflexive one.

    So, what this meant on that night at Fenway was that, instead of saying something hostile or angry, or making a scene by calling for an attendant, I could breathe, zip up and leave- a reasonable stream of thought, yes?