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Posted By Opening the Heart

As a child growing up in England I heard the expression "What the dickens?" used frequently. For years I was under the mis-apprehension that it obviously had something to do with the famous novelist whose 200th birthday was celebrated this week. Not so! The works 'dickens' is, in fact, a euphemism for 'devil' and it can be found in this sense in the works of Shakespeare. The whole phrase 'what the dickens?' is an antiquated version of the 'WTF?' that is extensively used in social media communications these days.
The mis-apprehension of a connection with Charles Dickens is a perfect example of how our minds can leap to apply our own, often unshakeable blanket of meaning and interpretation over reality. Meandering through life we pick up erroneous ideas and definitions, and then proceed to apply them in generic and inappropriate situations.

In 'David Copperfield' - Chapter 2, titled 'I Observe,' Dickens writes:


"I believe the power of observation in very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty, than to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity for being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood."




Seeing 'with the eyes of a child' is a familiar way of describing what Dickens is talking about here. The Zen tradition speaks of 'beginner's mind,' implying a mind that is uncluttered and unclouded with pre-conceptions, open to seeing things 'as they are.'  In the Christian Gospels Jesus asserts that it is essential to become "as a little child" to "enter the Kingdom." The wisdom traditions of the world  agree that preserving or finding a way back to the innocent clear-seeing nature of early childhood is a pre-requisite of real spiritual development. Growing up in the world inevitably overlays our innocence with layers and layers of socialization and, while some of the results of this are useful and necessary to survival, there is much indoctrination of belief systems and conventions that get in the way of clear perception.
As part of an ongoing search for ways to return to seeing 'with the eyes of a child'  I have begun working a practice stemming from Rick Hanson's wonderful book Buddha's Brain. The practice is called 'Taking in the Good' and my adapted version is described in detail in an earlier post to this blog. In brief, as a regular part of every day set aside time for a 'Taking in the Good' walk. As you walk, keep your eyes open for things that please you. Immediately you notice something, pause, breathe and be with the inner felt sense of the moment of pleasurable connection. Try to avoid labeling, comparison, criticism, skepticism. Stay with the pure connection for 10, 20, 30 seconds. Don't be in a rush. After, offer a silent acknowledgement of gratitude for the experience. Walk on until another thing that pleases you catches your attention. Repeat the sequence as often as you like.
For those who have become disconnected from 'beginner's mind', exercises like these are helpful. Modern research in neuroscience has demonstrated that neural networks can be repaired and restored by regular use of these kind of practices.  The "freshness, gentleness, and capacity for being pleased" Charles Dickens writes of are certainly qualities that I want to maximize in life. I'm working on it.



Posted By Opening the Heart

I'd like to tell you about my men's book club. First, it's all men, but you could probably tell that already. The fact that it's all men is, actually, more interesting to me than the fact that it's a book club. We meet every six weeks or so (depending on the number of pages- I'm probably the slowest reader) at someone's house. We share some trail mix and store bought cookies and diet coke. We talk about the book, and we go home. There are a lot of us, about 16 men, so there are usually 10-12 of us who come for any one week. I've been a part of this group for at least 15 years.

To give you a better flavor of who we are, I'll tell you a true story about our meeting 6 months ago. After the meeting ended, I walked out with my friend, Paul, and I gestured to the two guys walking out ahead of us and I whispered "Paul, do you know the names of those two guys?" He said "I don't have a clue". I said "Paul, they've been coming to book club for at least two years!" He said "Pathetic, isn't it." And we each got in our own car and drove home.

My wife belongs to a women's book club. One Sunday it was held at our house and I was out doing an errand with my daughter, Abby. As we approached our house, I said to her "I want you to notice something when we get home." She didn't notice anything unusual so I helped educate her about the difference between a men's book club and a women's book club. First, there were three cars in front of our house. In other words, Women Carpool! If we have 12 men at a meeting, you will see 12 cars parked out front. Second difference: women dine, men eat trail mix! Each woman brings food - not store-bought - homecooked! Third difference: women may or may not talk about the book! They connect and catch up on each others' lives and their children, and, if time allows, they'll talk about the book.

So, why am I telling you about my men's book club? Maybe, because I just returned this past weekend from leading an Opening the Heart workshop at Omega in Rhinebeck, N.Y. where the men were outnumbered by the women 4 to 1. Sometimes it's 2:1, sometimes 3:1- 4:1 is not unusual. And I give these men so much credit for showing up and doing this work. I think it's fairly easy in our culture for a man to be a warrior- but not so easy to be a loving warrior. And I think about all the men who would never, ever, come to a Heart Workshop- and who might always prefer trail mix to a connection over a home-cooked meal,- and who will always drive home alone.

With Love and Respect, Jon

Posted By Opening the Heart

For as long as I can remember I have loved poetry and the power that words have to evoke deep feelings. Archibald Macleish said that a poem “should not mean, but be” and Kabir said the same thing 500 years earlier when he said that you should feel a poem in the “thump of the chest”. These poets, men and women for the past 2000 years, have written these words, this divine, or sacred poetry that pass all the evolved neuro-cerebral connections and go straight to the heart like an arrow to release the pain, sadness and ecstacy that bind us in our humanity. Through their words, they give us a glimpse of the Kingdom that they experienced.
Kabir, a 15th century Sufi poet said that when, for “fifteen seconds”, he heard the words of his master, Shams, it made him a disciple for life.
I believe that poetry, words, can open the heart instantly, heal us, open us to grief long-buried and change our very souls. Lao-Tzu, 2000 years ago tells us that “each separate being in the universe returns to the common source”. Jelaluddin Rumi wrote that “the clear bead at the center changes everything.” Kabir: “Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.”

The 17th century Zen poet Bunan wrote “Die while you’re still alive and be absolutely dead. Then do whatever you want: it’s all good.” And Kabir, again, tells us to “Wake up! Wake up! You have been sleeping for millions of years. Why not wake up this morning.”

All of these great beings on up through Walt Whitman, Rilke, Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver have been lovingly tapping us on the shoulder to remind us that beyond every wound, every doubt, every fear, that we are loved beyond measure - that we are blessed. May we open our hearts to one another and come to the knowledge of our true self.

“A poet is someone
Who can pour Light into a spoon,

Then raise it
To nourish 
Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.”


With Love and Respect,



Posted By Opening the Heart

Witnessing the singing Haitians onTV news broadcasts prompts reflection on the nature of gratitude. In spite of everything - all the losses - these wonderful people celebrate being alive - even in appaling conditions - with songs of thanks.


Did you know that the cultivation of gratitude is possible? Not only that, it has also been proven that actively practicing gratitude contributes to a happier and healthier life. In a recently published book, 'The Compassionate Instinct - the Science of Human Goodness', Robert A. Emmons PhD describes research carried out at the University of Miami. The research model was remarkably simple. For 10 weeks participants in the program were asked to keep a daily journal. One group wrote about daily events and interactions for which they felt gratitude. A second group wrote about events and interactions which hassled and irritated them. A third group could write about anything. After 10 weeks the first group "felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other groups..... Those in the gratitude condition reported fewer health complaints.......and significantly more time exercising than those in the hassles condition"

Dr Emmons' fascinating and informative article about this study is called 'Paying it Forward' and is available at the highly recommended Greater Good Magazine web site.

Reading it today and then watching the celebrating Haitians on the news are reminders for which I am grateful. In fact I'm going to begin a gratitude journal right now and report back in 10 weeks time. My entry for today will be:

Today I am grateful for

1) the city workers who shovelled snow from the sidewalk outside my door.

2) blueberries

3) the cheerful volunteers I worked with today

4) the technology that enables me to write this blog post

5) the mute button on my tv remote that silences the wall to wall campaign commercials here in Massachusetts


Please join me. Lets all try this. Just 5 thank yous every day.


Please come join us at The Opening the Heart Workshop March 19 - 21 at Kripalu Institute, Lenox MA


Posted By Opening the Heart

I'd like to recommend a book for those of you who have taken or are considering taking The Opening the Heart Workshop™.


The Transformative Power Of Crisis by Robert M. and Jane Alter.


Along with Robert Gass and Judith Ansara Gass, Robert M. Alter was one of the original leaders of The Opening the Heart Workshop during its residence at Spring Hill in Ashby, Massachusetts.


 The Transformative Power of Crisis details the philosophical, psychological and spiritual themes underlying our work at Opening the Heart in a beautiful and accessible format. It was originally published in 2000 under the title How Long Till My Soul Gets It Right?


Here are some customer recommendations culled from


After reading Robert and Jane Alter's book, cover-to-cover, I discovered a calmness, a peaceful feeling that no other book has ever given to me. In reading, I discovered that I am not alone in the many situations that life has visited upon me, and that there is a window that, when ready, anyone can climb through and find him or herself in a more tranquill place. Thank you, Robert and Jane, for a loving, spiritual, affirming and educational look at reality.


This is one of the most positive, nurturing and enriching books I have read on the subject of fulfilling goals, healing, strengthening relationships and boosting self-confidence. As a counsellor, I am continually searching for quality reading material to recommend, and this book will definitely be on the list.


While the book's title mentions 'crisis', I found that the stories and commentary applied to almost every facet of my life. I was taken aback by Alter's deep and wide understanding of the human condition in general, and I believe this book deserves to reach a broad audience. I don't often find books like this to be inspiring--usually you have to wade through chapters and chapters of muck--but almost every page of this book shone with wisdom.


And a recommendation from Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind


"The Transformative Power of Crisis embodies an earthy wisdom of the mind and soul that speaks to the heart of therapy. Many times in life I have longed for teachers like Robert and Jane Alter who could gently and truly lead me to face myself, while also seeing the divine light that shines through the human predicament. Their humor, wisdom, and vision enlighten every page of this honest guide to the journey of life. " 

Posted By Opening the Heart

Coincidental with our approaching Opening the Heart to Grief Workshop, a dear friend and long time Opening the Heart Workshop colleague - Justin Freed - recently introduced me to Claudine Bing.

Claudine is a well known and respected Boston artist who has published a book documenting her mother’s death and the subsequent journey through grief to healing.


I am left here all alone

An accomplished colorist, Claudine skillfully and thoughtfully manipulates her color choices to express a range of feelings from the dark confusion of loss through the gradual process of regaining the world and its restorative hues and finding her mother’s spirit within herself. Throughout the book, pictures and text fit seamlessly together, beautifully complementing each other as they develop a narrative of the journey of grief.


Claudine Bing Image


Some more images and information about ordering the book can be seen at:


I will bring a copy with me to the workshop.

Posted By Opening the Heart

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach PhD is a superb book. Its recent appearance in my life is one of the delightfully synchronistic events that have begun to accumulate since the beginning my dance with prostate cancer. It jumped off the shelf at my local Barnes and Noble just after I learned of my rising PSA level. “This looks appropriate,” I thought.  Some of the chapter headings spoke directly to me:


The Trance of Unworthiness


Coming Home to Our Body ("Feelings live in the body" is one of the mantras of the  Opening the Heart Workshop™)


Opening Our Heart in the Face of Fear 


The title and these chapter headings were more than enough reason for me to purchase the book. I have not been disappointed. This is the clearest, most helpful guide of how to come back into full connection with our center that I have ever read. It is a brilliant synthesis of Buddhist meditation practice and contemporary psychotherapy.

Over the last weeks the book has been my bedtime and breakfast reading. I have re-read some of the chapters several times - each time allowing the meaning to sink deeper. If there is one book that will support me through my treatment - this is it! I fully recommend it to anyone facing any kind of ‘acceptance challenge’, whether it be self acceptance, acceptance of a disturbing life circumstance, acceptance of a difficult relationship or acceptance of the current state of the world.

Buy it or borrow it soon!