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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

One of my patients, I"ll call her "Cathie", a heroic woman in her 50's whom I'd been seeing for a while, told me the following story last week. Cathie's daughter had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer when the daughter was a year and a half old. She was almost two when she began chemotherapy. One day Cathie took her daughter for a picnic at the beach and Cathie noticed that the strong off-shore wind began blowing clumps of her daughter's hair right off her head. When her daughter saw the look in her mother's eyes, she became frightened and started to cry, but she didn't want to leave 'pinnick'. So Cathie watched almost all of her daughter's hair blow off, as well as her eyebrows. As a tear came down each cheek, Cathie said to me "I was glad I could hold her and kiss away her tears- but I had no one to hold me".

Cathie's family had gone away long ago. Cathie and her brothers and sisters had been sexually molested for years by an alcoholic and mentally ill father. And Cathie's husband left her shortly after the daughter's birth. Her story touched me deeply and, as my own eyes filled, I wondered what it was that so moved me. I think it's the same thing that so profoundly touches me with so many of my patients: the basic fragility of our existence, all of us.

In Naomi Shihab Nye's great poem "Kindness", she urges us to open our hearts "to the fact that everything we cherish will pass out of our lives". The author, Roger Housden, says that when we come to know this truth "as a lived experience, we shall also know a deep love and kindness", because everyone is on the same road. Someone else's pain and suffering are also our own. And when we experience that shared pain, it joins us to humanity.

So, I think the reason my own eyes filled when I heard Cathie's story was, really, that her pain was also mine- not that I had been through the same life circumstances, but that suffering is a noble truth familiar to all of us. Despite what Cathie had been through, both growing up and, then, as a young mother, she was able to be totally present for her daughter and for herself on the beach that day. And in my office, she had enough courage to allow herself to be "held" by her therapist. And me, I have the privelege to witness every day this inspiring will to live.

"Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

One must know sorrow as the other deepest thing..." Naomi Shihab Nye


With Love and Respect,











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.