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Posted By Opening the Heart

Photo: Mike Berenson

Whenever I go go Kriplalu to help lead an Opening the Heart workshop, I usually settle things in my room, check out the workshop space, get an iced drink in the cafeteria and then wander around the building a bit to take in the peaceful vibration of this retreat center that's so familiar to me. But I always find myself transfixed on the stairway landing looking at one inspiring saying framed on the wall. It's always the same for me: it's as if an invisible net emerges from the words and holds me still while the words penetrate the heart: "Be Kind- For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

My mind fast forwards several hours to what I will likely share with the circle of participants at the end of the Friday night session: "The reason I come back to this workshop over and over again is to see the transformation in the circle from Friday night to Sunday." My belief is that when we look around that circle at the start of the workshop and we see difference as we look into another's eyes, what we experience is separation. And as the weekend unfolds, and the descent begins and the masks are bravely removed, increasingly, when we look into those same eyes, we see no difference and what we experience is only compassion.

Hafiz, the 14th century Sufi poet, describes this experience in his "Wonderful Game" and the game "goes like this: We hold hands and look into each other's eyes and scan each other's face. Then I say 'Now tell me a difference you see between us'. And you might respond "Hafiz, your nose is ten times bigger than mine.' And I would say 'Yes, my dear, almost ten times'. But let's keep playing. Let's go deeper, Go deeper.... For if we do... even God will not be able to tell us apart."

There's a story about a father who takes his two young sons to a very crowded waiting room of a busy pediatric group practice and the young boys are running around the waiting room, unresponsive to the father's efforts to control them. Some of the other patients become annoyed and, eventually, one woman said to the father "Can't you control your own sons!?" The father looked at her sadly and said "I'm so sorry. Their mother died yesterday and I have not known how to console them".

When we're able to go deeper and see beneath the surface forms that people show in order to make it through a day; if we are ever priveleged to know the great battle of people who are buying stamps in front of us at the post office or selling us a pair of pants at the department store- if we are ever able to really know how many times they have been brought to their knees and resurrected themselves- if we really had a lived experience of the journey of loss and pain of the brother or sister standing next to us on the bus, then all we would experience would be kindness and understanding. With Love and Respect, Jon


Posted By Opening the Heart

A number of years ago a woman in her early 30's, "Barbara" came to an Opening the Heart workshop for the first time. On Friday night, sitting in a chair facing the whole group, she told the following story in a flat, emotionless voice: She woke up one morning to find that her husband of 5 years had died in the night of a massive heart attack- 4 months before the birth of their first child. When the baby was 6 months old, he died of crib death, and Barbara entered a dark landscape of paralytic grief for almost 5 years before coming to the Heart workshop. I would like to tell you that the workshop was a deeply healing, emotionally cathartic experience but I don't know that that was true. But on Sunday, at the Closing Circle, Barbara cried one tear, the only emotion I had seen in working with her the whole weekend, and then she said she now knew what she had to do to move forward....

Two weeks ago, in Kennesumma, a small seaside town in northeastern Japan, a man, almost 70, wandered dazed through the wreckage of what had been his home. He'd been a barber. He lost his business, his wife and three children. When a reporter asked him how he was going to start over, he said "I think it's too late for me. I'm too old. I've lost too much... But I will try...."

In mid March 1959 as evening descended on Lhasa, Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, accompanied by a very few trusted protectors, disguised themselves as soldiers, slipped out of the royal palace, past the Chinese camp and onto a rough trading route headed toward India and freedom almost 100 miles away. It had been10 years of brutal repression, murder, torture and broken promises by the Chinese on the peaceful and beautiful country of Tibet. Within 24 hours of the Dalai Lama escaping, the Chinese bombed the palace, destroying the Dalai Lama's home, ancestral treasures, and killing thousands of innocent Tibetans. For 52 years His Holiness has watched from his government in exile in Dharmsala, India as the Chinese have destroyed monestaries .and tortured "imperialist reactionaries". He watches with a broken heart as his country and his culture have been "reintegrated into the Motherland". At the end of Martin Scorcese's movie "Kundun" about the Dalai Lama's life, the screen shows two written lines that read "The Dalai Lama has never been back to Tibet. He hopes to return one day". In all these years, this great man has never stopped embracing nonviolence and compassion as the only way to heal suffering in the world.

It moves me in a very deep place to witness people who seem to have been stripped of everything and yet they just don't let go of their faith and their love. Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem "Kindness" says that before you can know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.: Roger Housden wrote that when we know that sorrow "as a lived experience", then it is that very pain and suffering that connect us to what's deepest and best in every one of us.

With Love and Respect, Jon


Posted By Opening the Heart

So, I've been thinking a lot about wounds and all the many applications, or 'apps' as they say now, that that word has to the body and the spirit. This is just something I do - to take a word and play with it, invite it in, live with it. I do it alphabetically and, when, after months or years, I get to 'Z', I start over. It's just my offbeat mind's lifelong affair with words. Many months ago it was the word 'ice': ice that forms around the edges of a human heart when one is forgotten; ice that envelops and crushes Shakleton's ship, the Endurance, in Antarctica in 1915 and then the ice that literally carried the 28 surviving crewmen on a life and death journey of 16 months; ice in my glass that reflects a warm November sun as I sit at the little outdoor cafe downstairs from my office.

And then as I look up from my ice I see him walking, slowly, past me, again- a small man with a beard, walking with a cane in his right hand, moving his right leg forward, then dragging his left leg behind. He always carries a shopping bag hung from his right arm. His left arm looks crooked and lifeless. And he has a big pronounced wound on the side of his head running from his hairline down to his cheek. I've seen him many times walking in the square where my office is. I've actually tried to position myself to cross his path so that I could smile or say hi - but he never looks up. His head is bent down and his eyes are set 6 feet ahead of him on the ground, as if every bit of energy is focused on finishing the journey without any more distraction or challenge than he's already facing.

I make up stories about him. Stroke? Maybe the wound is from a car accident leaving him paralyzed on the left side. Why doesn't he use a motorized wheelchair? Maybe he's proud or maybe he doesn't want to lose the little mobility that remains to him. Why doesn't someone help him with his errand? Does he have a family? What a courageous man - or maybe stubborn or bitter. A wound that dramatically altered the landscape of his life - that suddenly changed the arc of his unfolding...

I have a friend, Carolyn, my age, whose son, David, died three years ago at age 25 from congenital heart defects he'd had from birth. He had graduated Princeton and had decided two years before his death that maybe the fault lines underneath him might just be stable enough to risk getting into a serious relationship with a girl. But the fault lines gave way. It was a warm sunny Ocober day at the gravesite. A lot of beautiful words, a lot of tears. Usually, some people take a shovelful of dirt and place it on the lowered coffin, and then leave. But this day, because so many people were there, everyone shoveled, until the grave was filled- and then I saw something that will stay in my memory always. Carolyn stood on the fresh gravesite, got down on her hands and knees and smoothed the ground for David's final resting place.

When I see Carolyn since then, I don't see the visible wound, but I see it's effect. There are more gray hairs, more lines in her face, a sadness that is soul deep. Her wound also effects the way she walks. Her walk is more hunched, less brave, less confident.

So as I think about wounds on this warm, sunny day, I think that there are visible wounds and there are wounds that are seen by close friends and then there are wounds that often are unseen by anyone. I think that we may never really know how another has suffered and, perhaps, all we can do is offer a little more patience and kindness to whoever may cross our path.

With Love and Respect, Jon




Posted By Opening the Heart

 Deteriorating Compassion Disorder (DCD): A soul condition leaving one feeling disconnected from others, spiritually alone and emotionally empty. Symptoms often include irritability; anger; procrastination; not laughing very much; eating Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Macadamian Nut ice cream in large quantities (which, actually, many times, increases symptoms)......jb

So, several years ago in my clinical practice, I saw two different women for a first time visit, separated by about a month. What was striking about these two women was that they told me the same story about each having been in a car accident where neither was at fault, but another driver had run a stop light and crashed into the two women's cars. What I found so intriguing was their polar opposite responses to the same script. The first woman was still quite angry: "What a jerk! This was the last thing I needed. I hate buying a new car..." The second woman told me that after the accident, she had an awareness of how short and precious life is: "No one got really hurt. I have insurance...." I realized that at a deep level of truth, this was, perhaps, not two women but one woman at two different ends of the 'compassion continuum'.... I've been at both of those different ends.

 The past three days the T.D.'s (Technology Demons) have laid seige. On Sunday Night, we came home to find sewage backed up in our basement sink. On Monday our internet and cable t.v. had a sit-down protest. On Tuesday, my home copier/fax machine had a tantrum and died. Deteriorating Compassion Disorder was settling in for a stay.

Last night, my friend David and I went out for dinner and a bad movie.  We go on a Wednesday night when it' s half price night and we can take advantage of our new status as 'elder Americans'. My agreement with David is that we see really bad movies, ones that our wives would never see, then we critique them. Last night was "Predators": "So I thought Adrian Brody was better in his role in "The Pianist"; or "I thought the cinematography reminded me of "Umbreallas of Cherbourg"; or "This was the worst 'worst movie' we've seen- it was even an hour and a half too long!"

With a connection with my friend, DCD was lifting. We laughed and enjoyed friendship together.... And it occurred to me, again, that it was the same me- at two different ends of the Compassion Continuum.

I've seen this transformation many times during an Opening the Heart weekend. It's not unusual to see participants at the Opening Circle on Friday night experiencing some DCD symptoms. When I speak into that circle I sometimes say that when we look into another's eyes and see 'difference', we experience fear and separation. By Sunday, I see many people looking into each others eyes, seeing 'no difference' and experiencing compassion and connection. And so, for a moment the Deteriorating Compassion Disorder is gone and we see with Beginners Eyes, and the reason that 'moment' is so important is that we can remember our Greatness.

With Love and Respect, Jon

Posted By Opening the Heart

Midsummer eve the air was rich and thick with life. The sultry smell of honeysuckle infused our yard while fireflies danced like blinking polkadots on the dark blue fabric of night.  Night birds sang in the trees and  bullfrogs answered  from the pond in a subtle but discernible underlying rhythm.

midsummer night creatures
Midsummer night took me back to another time in my life when I attended college in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The air there was also heavy and sweet but the smells and sounds were those of a tropical island.Honeysuckle was replaced by the smell of ripe bananas on the tree and the constant sounds of small frogs called coqui interpenetrated rainforest nights.

In spite of transportation, the island was then culturally quite different from the Puerto Rican subcultures found in U.S. cites. Puerto Rico itself at that time was still in the process of moving away from it’s agrarian past into a more industrialized future.  However it had not lost touch with its roots. The extended family reigned supreme and despite the island’s inevitable and unique problems, the culture was full of heart.

I saw heart on the city buses when I rode across from someone with a birth defect or handicap.  No one seemed to pay it any mind unless the person needed help and then it was given. I saw heart in the delight taken in children, in the respect towards elders and the in the aged cared for at home. I saw heart when bank tellers or other professionals looked into my eyes and connected with me – not rare or special events but simply as a matter of course.

I remember “The General”. He was a fixture in Old San Juan when I was in school.  He would stand in the traffic-tangled main plaza at rush hour every day in full military regalia directing traffic. Although he likely had mental health challenges he was not arrested or put away somewhere. He was a beloved part of the community. It seems no one would think to interfere with him. He belonged, had found his niche and was giving to others in his own way.

Contrast this with my own trip to Costa Rica earlier this year as a medical advocate for a friend seeking treatment out of the country.  While in Costa Rica her handicap was met everywhere with extreme kindness and compassion. Once we got on the airplane bound for Boston the story changed.  She could not walk up the aisle on the airplane very fast because of her disability, I was slow because of the amount of medical equipment I was carrying.  Instead of kindness we were looked at with impatience, anger and even hostility. Not one person asked if we needed any help.

My midsummer night’s dream is for the courage to be kind. Courage means to take heart, and the source of the courage to be kind comes from the heart.  My midsummer night’s dream is that all who are vulnerable because of infirmity, age, perceived difference, bad circumstance or other condition are met with kindness every day and that because of misfortune no one feels isolated or ostracized or left out of the circle.

I look at the homeless on our streets and at the many people who are put in institutions because perhaps no one knows quite what to do with them and I see ample opportunities for my own kindness to grow.

My midsummer night’s dream is, (to paraphrase Kate Wolfe’s song)  "love will make a circle that holds us all inside where strangers are as family and loneliness can’t hide.”

We do this quite well in the Opening the Heart workshop.  My midsummer night’s dream is that we are able to do this every day.

Posted By Opening the Heart
I spent this past Monday with the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a beloved southern Vermont community nestled in the lap of the Green Mountains.  60 well intentioned folks dragged themselves out of early bed and scraped crusty snow off  frosty windshields to contemplate what our town would be like if all its residents felt equally valued and empowered.
We sat earnestly together, young and old, black and white, privileged and working class and pondered this possibility.  We talked about power, who has it and who can't get it.  We tried not to get stuck in the predictable pitfalls which offered themselves up like  deep grooves in dirt roads, familiar to all Vermonters during mud season.  We didn't grasp at simplistic answers or quick fixes. We didn't blame our government or our neighbors at the table.  We sat with ourselves.  It was painful in places.  Mostly, it was an honest practice of working to understand the day to day reality of individuals who have been left out in the cold.  We grappled with racism, poverty and greed.  We looked each other in the eye, point blank and tried to breathe ourselves through challenging conversations without looking at our feet.  At the end of the day we were all still there.  We sang a simple song in three languages and four part harmony.  We ate spaghetti and salad and garlic bread and went back out to the sparkle of stars and brightly lit steeples.
It was at an Opening the Heart Workshop many years ago that I learned how to stay present.  I learned to look at the people in the circle, and to take them in.  I learned how to offer myself as a loving witness to another so that the innate wisdom in the person seated across from me on a cushion could find its way to the surface.  I learned to soften my face, my breath and my judgements, making room instead for what I have come to regard as the truest expression of respect.  And I learned to stay with myself emotionally during times of confusion, regret and emptiness.  I grew to understand my own inner longing to be a loving agent for change.  I understood what aspects of healing are an "inside job", and what I might share with another trusted being for support and companionship.

I cannot say that life has become simpler as a result of my experience at Opening the Heart.  What I can say is that I have grown into my own skin  That learning the basic practice of self-responsibility has made me both humble and brave.  There is very little that frightens me anymore.  When I open my eyes at the beginning of a new day I scan the immeasurable number of opportunities there are to bring love to the world.  And I am grateful to be out of my own way enough to see clearly.  I can choose how to spend the currency of love at any given time, trusting that no recession, no earthquake, no unfortunate election or unethical Supreme Court decision can impact the balance in my love account.  This I experience as a form of pure liberation.


Donna Macomber

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

At The Opening the Heart Workshop we are all profoundly saddened by the disaster in Haiti. We send heartfelt condolences to all who havebeen affected by this trajedy.

We would like to encourage all our friends to clear a little time to close your eyes, take some deep, cleansing breaths, let go of personal preoccupations and focus on sending loving kindness and compassion to all beings affected by the calamity.

We expect that many of you will have already contributed in some way to the relief effort. Some may still be overwhelmed by the enormity of the need. In either case spend some moments reflecting how you might be able to further help  and then move to action.

Here are links to some trusted relief donation sites:

American Red Cross

Doctors Without Borders

Oxfam America



Thank you


Posted By Opening the Heart

My friend, Rick, produced the “This I Believe” segment for our NPR radio station in Rhode Island, where I live. Each time I hear it, I ask myself “What is it that I believe?” And each time the answer comes back the same: “I believe in perspective.”

This summer I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s amazing book A Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln, a man of deep integrity, kindness and wisdom. He not only suffered the loss of a first love and the death of a son, but nearly lost his beloved country to a brutal civil war that went on for five years and split loving families apart. I heard a story that Lincoln, in the midst of his darkest time, asked a cabinet member to compose a thought that would, somehow, comfort all: “This, too, shall pass”. Four words that might provide perspective in good times and bad….

Forgive me, but having grown up outside of Boston and gone to Fenway Park many times with my brothers and dad, I’m what you could reasonably call a ‘home boy’, a die-hard and unrepentant, raging, avid Red Sox fan. I would grimly joke with our New York relatives about getting through the New England winters by first going to our local Providence clinic for an inoculation against resignation and hopelessness setting in before April’s Opening Day. Over 80 years of Red Sox frustration and failure to win a World Series- not since 1918, when my dad was a little boy.

Then came October 16th 2003, the night Aaron Boone of the dreaded Yankees hit a home run in the 11th inning to end any chance of the Red Sox going to the World Series. It was a new and painful low in my Red Sox fan career. I called my friend, Stan, to commiserate: “How ya doin’?” “Not too good, Jon. I’m actually thinking of ending it all.” “Stan, what if, after you die, you go to a place where they keep showing the ’86 Mets-Red Sox World series- over and over and over again?” Stan still credits me with saving his life that day.

 So why am I telling you this? Because without that Aaron Boone home run in ’03, the Red Sox four game sweep of the Yankees and eventual World Series championship in 2004 - the first in 86 years!- never would have felt so incredibly amazing! Perspective.

 For the 30 years that I have been coming back to the Opening the Heart Workshop, I realized that it was primarily because of the transformative miracle that I witness in the circle of brothers and sisters, from our first circle on Friday night to our last on Sunday. On Friday night it seems to me that many faces look anxious, self conscious, maybe hopeful. On Sunday there is a dramatically different feel to the energy in the room as I slowly scan the faces. I sometimes say that when we look into another’s eyes and see difference, we experience fear; when we look into another’s eyes and see no difference, what we experience is nothing but understanding and compassion…. Perspective.

 With Love and Respect,