Jon Berenson, Ph.D., has recently published “Completing the Circle: 38 Stories of Mindful Connection” (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2016), a most worthy sequel to the author’s 2013 “Sitting in the Circle.” Berenson’s new book, as was his first, is based upon his extensive experience as a clinical psychologist in solo practice in Providence, and as a senior leader in the Opening the Heart workshop weekends, a position from which he will be retiring at the end of this year, after 36 years.
As Berenson wrote in “Sitting in the Circle,” “The power of having the heart break open in a group setting is one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. The circle is an enduring symbol of community, wholeness and healing.”
At the vital core of Berenson’s approach to therapy – indeed, at the core of his approach to life – is “mindfulness,” which he defines as “the ability to stay with the breath in the present moment. This ability, I know, is critically important in being able to make conscious, loving choices rather than reactive ones. The reactive choices inevitably lead to more suffering.”
Mindfulness has been described in some religious traditions as “seeing with ‘Beginner’s Eyes’ – seeing things as if for the first time.” To see things with “Beginner’s Eyes,” one must slow down, pay careful attention to one’s surroundings. In the Biblical story of the burning bush, Moses – our commentators tell us – needed to slow down, to be in the presence of the bush long enough to discover that although the bush was aflame, it was not being consumed.
“Completing the Circle” consists of “38 Stories of Mindful Connection,” 38 stories that are often profoundly sad, but are on occasion quite humorous. Stories that touch both the heart and the mind. Berenson brings to us tales of sexual abuse, of twisted relationships between husband and wife, between parent and child. Berenson writes movingly of people whose deaths have come far too early, and of others whose deaths have come too late, after too much suffering.
In addition, Berenson brings to our attention tales of everyday human foibles; he points out that often we misread what is happening in the world outside us because of what we are experiencing in the world within us. He shows the reader a middle-age man he calls “Joe,” a man who has begun treatment for issues of anger management. Joe finds himself stalled in a checkout line in a grocery store; he is becoming increasingly agitated as he watches an older woman who is holding a baby as she chats with the young woman at the register; the older woman then hands the baby to the cashier.
Although Joe is trying to calm himself with the anger management techniques he has been learning, he finds himself growing more and more upset at what he takes to be an inappropriate interruption of the check-out process. Upon reaching the cashier, the young woman explains to Joe, “My husband died six months ago in Iraq, and I had to go back to work and my mother brings the baby in every day so I can get to see her.” Because Joe is able to stay in the present moment, he is able to open his heart both to the young widow and to his own conflicted soul.
In Berenson’s second book, he is willing to expose his human frailties, to laugh at himself. In a vignette about his 50th high school reunion, “Union and Reunion,” he confronts his classmate David for allegedly replacing him at the third base position on the school baseball team. It turns out that David spent the entire season on the bench. Berenson comments, “And I couldn’t help being struck by living my life for 50 years with a myth: not ever having gotten over something that never happened.”
In “Letter from the Back Ward,” Berenson, despite his professed devotion to the practice of mindfulness, imagines himself being driven crazy by a family of woodchucks who keep eating his cherished garden. This cautionary tale suggests that seeing the chains of our obsessions does not necessarily mean that we can find a way to break those chains.
As was true of Berenson’s first book, “Completing the Circle” is beautifully illustrated: Cindy Gorriaran has supplied 21 subtly suggestive graphic designs. In addition, there are 17 evocative photographs. I am particularly taken by a picture whose focus is the empty seat of a child’s swing and the first few links of chain holding it in the air. On the ground beyond the empty seat is the shadow of a little girl on a second swing. That the shadow possesses greater vitality than the real but empty seat is the magic of this scene.
“Completing the Circle” is a wise and compassionate book, a book that teaches that authentic love is “listening to what is beneath the body armor.” A close reading of Berenson’s second book can help us to live more mindfully: to see with “Beginner’s Eyes,” to listen with more loving ears and to speak with kindness on our lips.
James B. Rosenberg is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.