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Posted By Opening the Heart

   In a New Yorker article by Michael Specter last month, he talked about Daniela Schiller and her father, Sigmund, who both had lived in Tel Aviv. Each year in Israel a siren announces 2 minutes of silence in remembrance of the Holocaust. Throughout the whole country, everything stops. Waiters stop waiting, bakers stop baking, people stop talking- except for Sigmund Schiller who is a concentration camp survivor, who goes about his day as if the siren had not sounded. His daughter, Daniela, recalls growing up asking her father: "Daddy, what happened in the war? Why do you never talk about it?" Her father never answered her, not a word, only silence. Silence is not precisely accurate. I think it was more like something darkly jagged locked away in a safety deposit box: safety because taking it out of the dark, locked place would be too overwhelming and painful.

   Many years ago in my therapy practice, I saw a woman who had survived a small plane crash where more than half the passangers were killed. Four years later when I first saw her in therapy, she was still unable to remember anything that happened either months before or months after the accident. Something traumatic and scary had been locked away because it was too big to integrate it into her consciousness.

   I currently work with a very brave woman, now in her early 50's, who was sexually abused by her father from the time she was 7 until she was 12. After 6 months of meeting with me, she shared one day about the abuse, afterward saying "I have never told this to anyone before". She told me about the abuse in a non-emotional, very matter-of-fact way. I waited patiently for her to share whatever she needed to. Then I said "Deanna, how does it feel to have shared this with me after keeping it inside for 45 years?" Even though there was silence for the next few minutes, a lot was happening. I thought of it as a "loud silence". She never looked directly at me. She bit her lip. One finger tapped on her knee. She was not breathing. She looked out the window at birds feeding at the feeder. Her finger tapped faster. She swallowed. Her eyes began to fill up. One tear fell down her cheek. I could not help but think of the ground trembling before a volcano erupts. Her body began to shake. She closed her eyes and a few more tears squeezed out down her cheek.

   Then, as if a dam broke,, she sobbed and she put her arms around herself. In the softest voice, barely audible, she said "I love my father". The tears continued for a long time and I thought of all the things we carry inside us, all the scars that hobble us- all the energy used in the most noble of efforts: to stay alive.

   I also thought of Sigmund Schiller and how alone he had lived with his nightmares for so many decades. Sometimes we get lucky and we find a safe place to land, to lay the burden down, to no longer be afraid. What it must be like to wake up one morning and, consciously, not put on the body armor.

   What I think I know is that many of us have not gone through a horror like a genocide or a childhood sexual abuse, or heartbreaking poverty or hunger. Still, I do believe that we all are human and have had our hearts break, our dreams dashed, our dear ones taken from us. Most of the time we don't get to see the scars that our brothers and sisters carry, but please assume that these wounds are most likely there, locked in a dark, secret place and that only love and kindness can help ease the pain.

   With Love and Respect, JonJon

Posted By Opening the Heart

                                      Watching the parade,

                                      better than marching in it,

                                      I think to myself.


                                      It's never too late

                                      for redemption to heal hearts,

                                      I once heard it said.


                                      Wounds we cannot see

                                      often scar the heart deeply:

                                      lovingkindness heals.


                                     Opening the heart

                                     is a brave, holy journey:

                                     a breath, a home place.


                 With Love and Peace, Jon


Posted By Opening the Heart

The Entangled Heart

The prospect of untangling the web and releasing the heart can be a scary one. The tangled threads may constrict and bind, but they can also act as a safety net. Because the tangle is self-created it provides the illusion of control. The fear is that, when it is removed, the unpredictable heart will be exposed and at risk of some threat.

The Opening the Heart Workshop continues to provide a safe place to experiment with untangling some of the threads and experience the joys of a heart realeased and taking flight.

Come join us this summer, August 1-3 2014 at Kripalu

Posted By Opening the Heart

   I don't really consider myself a golfer, but I do play once or twice a year. Because I'm not an accomplished player, I'm not at risk for taking it too seriously and that allows me to enjoy the beauty of the course and being outdoors and to just have some fun with friends. I've learned from more accomplished partners about an interesting phenomenon called a "mulligan'. A mulligan, as I understand it, is basically a "do-over". If I take a tee shot and top it into the pond, I can ask for a "mulligan", and I tee it up again and, instead of hitting it into the pond, this time I can whack it into the woods. This, of course, logically, leads to the understanding that there are a limited number of times you can take a do-over. If you take the game half seriously, which occasionally I do, the bad shot can lead to self judgment, embarassment, discouragement (not to mention, clearly, what it feels like to screw up two shots in a row).

   One of my all-time favorite movies is "Groundhog Day". It's basically a love story but with a very clever twist. Bill Murray, as a reporter, goes to Punxsatawney to see if the groundhog shows his shadow on February 2nd. He gets to play the same day over and over and over again. He wakes up at 6am to his wake-up alarm: Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You Babe". Over the course of each replayed day he keeps making stupid mistakes, awkward social gaffes, unkind words, one arrogance too many. But over time, as he continues his do-overs, he makes fewer errors, the rough edges get smoothed, the periods of thoughtlessness become more mindful. As he becomes more loving, he becomes more loveable and real, and Andie Macdowell falls totally in love with him. He could have packed his suitcase, left Punxsatawney and continued to bump into his self-created karma, but he chose the harder path, the true path for a man, i.e., trying to "get it right", of becoming a loving warrior.

   Just about every one of the patients I see in my practice who has struggled with some kind of addiction, has followed the same "groundhog path" of do-overs. Not one of these people decides, after a 30 year addiction, to just start over and they do it, they get it right. They all "fail" many times before they have solid footing on a recovery path. But the GPS coordinates in my office call for a different language. In my office patients don't talk about gaffes or periods of thoughtlessness. They call them relapses. They lapse and then re-lapse. And, with each relapse comes, I think, the same kind of discouragement, shame, self consciousness (but bigger and deeper) that a semi-serious golfer experiences when they hit a bad tee shot. I bow to everyone who has the courage to risk trying again to get things right. I do find myself giving a deeper bow to the men who have this kind of courage because I just believe that it's harder in our culture for men to find the support and to give themselves the permission to do this kind of inner soul retrieval work.

   I've heard it said that on a spiritual journey, being off the path is part of the path. I've also heard it put another way in regard to developing a mindfulness meditation practice: it doesn't matter how many times we go away. What matters is how many times we come back. So, may we all come back, again and again, from discouragement, loss and heartbreak until we hit a clean, straight, 200 yard drive right down the center of the fairway.

   With Love and Respect, JonJon

Posted By Opening the Heart

"Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds..."  Shakespeare

Now that I'm a grandfather ("Grumpy") and I find myself reading to my granddaughters the same great children's stories I was raised on, I have a whole new appreciation for these beautiful tales. I was recently very moved in reading Dr. Seuss'  "Hortense Hatches an Egg". This is a story about a manipulative, irresponsible bird who lays an egg but would prefer to vacation in warm weather rather than do the hard work of sitting in the nest, dry weather or wet, hot or freezing cold. The task for Maizie, then, is to find someone who will do the hard love for her. Enter Hortense the elephant.

Moved by Maizie's "story", he agrees to sit and hatch the egg. He makes Maizie a promise that he will do this: "I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful 100%!" Well, Old Hortense had no idea what he was getting himself into. First, an elephant sitting on a nest in a tree!? Really? But Hortense would not back down. Then, as winter came, the weather turned freezing cold with sleet and snow and icicles hanging from Hortense's long trunk and ears. But he made a promise.... And he kept it month after lonely, hard month. I feel like this was Big Love. He made a noble promise to help someone and he hept his word.

I know, I know. Foolish, you might say. Naive! Easily manipulated! Maybe. But I believe that the authenticity, the Bigness of the deed is not measured by the outcome, but by the faithfulness of holding the love, the promise. Several years ago I saw a man in my therapy practice. He told me a very moving story about his marriage. This was a second marriage for him and it was the third marriage for his wife. He told me that he knew when he married "Chloe" that she had a history of having affairs. Sure enough, in his 4 year marriage, Chloe was having a second affair since marrying my patient, Aaron. When he confronted her with the affair, she boldly told him that she would not end it.

Aaron told me that he deeply loved Chloe and, in spite of how hurt and upset he was, he would not leave her. And so, the affair continued for months while he waited. He did not run. He told me that he and Chloe, several weeks prior to our therapy session, went to see the movie "Philomena". After the movie, he noticed that she was unusually quiet and withdrawn. As they sat in a private, quiet restaurant, she looked at him and her eyes filled up. Then she sobbed into her cloth napkin. He had no idea what this was all about until she was able to catch her breath and she explained that the movie had connected her to a deep truth about herself, of which she had never been aware. She told Aaron that she now understood why she'd had so many affairs and, unconsciously, tried to push every man in her life into leaving her. When she was 6, her father left the family and she never saw him again. She realized that she had put men in the same position  of forcing them to abandon her the way her father had. She now knew that what she had always really wanted was a man who wouldn't run. She acknowledged how she had hurt Aaron and she asked for his forgiveness.

It actually doesn't matter whether this ended up having a happy ever after ending. I think what matters is that his Big Love allowed her to let go of something that had weighed her down for over half a century. Again, you might say, what kind of fool would "put up" with ongoing disrespect from his wife. I don't know how to answer that except to say the kind of fool capable of holding a very rare and healing love.

With Love and Respect, Jon


Posted By Opening the Heart

Since I'm a big Red Sox fan, it's not surprising that I was recently watching them play a night game against the Orioles. When they fell behind 5-0, I'd seen enough and went to bed. In the morning, I read about the Sox' thrilling come from behind win in the last 3 innings and I said to myself, once again, "It's never too late".

Actually, it's that phrase and the belief behind it, that determines what movies I watch and how I do my lifelong work as a psychologist in my therapy practice. The films that are most deeply moving for me are the ones about redemption, where the characters have been roughed up by life's hard times and, as a result, they've become hard or mean, but some small event or a meeting or a divine descension of grace, transforms the heart and leads to a life of deeper wisdom or kindness. This transformation is what I witness every time I lead an Opening the Heart weekend workshop. And it's the same transformation I see so often in my therapy practice. It's never too late. No one knows our name until out last breath goes out.

But, honestly, I've come to admit that, maybe, sometimes, it is too late. It's early spring and I'm always excited about putting new plantings in the earth in the serenity garden on the deck outside my office window. I feel like a wiser planter than I was when I first started the garden 3 years ago. By that I mean that I know what plants will bloom all summer, which will survive the heat, which will be back next spring. But if I don't choose well now, then come August and September, It really will be too late to alter the outcome of the garden.

I've mentioned in a previous essay a man in my practice in his mid 60's who was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer and I wrote how much I admired his efforts to try to "get some things right" before his life was over. I see another woman who is 81 who also has inoperable cancer. She speaks bitterly about her family with whom she has had little contact over many years. She decided to write letters to her children and grandchildren to try to bring closure for herself. She has not seen any of her grandchildren in over 3 years. She asked for my help regarding what to say in the letters.

   If I'm honest, which I was not with her, there was a part of me that shook my inner head and said silently "It really is too late to make a difference in how this woman's life would play out". Who knows, who am I to say, maybe she could write how sorry she was that she had chosen to harden her heart for so long. Maybe she could wish that her children and grandchildren never make the same mistake she made- that it was not too late for them. Maybe she could tell them that she forgave them for any ways, intentionally or not, that they hurt her. And maybe she could ask  them for forgiveness and tell them that she loved them. So, maybe, it was not too late for her to get some things "right" before her life came to an end.

   And what about Big Mistakes that we may have made that cost people their dignity, their homes, even their lives? I don't know the answers to these questions. I really don't know if sometimes, maybe, it is too late. I just think that all we imperfect beings can ever do is to aim high, do our best, take responsibility when we fail and then show up again the next day. Maybe this does come back, once again, to practicing self kindness and doing the hardest forgiving of all- of ourselves.

With Love and Respect, Jon