Helping Traumatized Communities Become Their Own Healers

After Decades, a 77-Year-Old Therapist and His Global Program Show No Signs of Slowing Down

Marian Sandmaier

While moving away from trouble seems like a fundamental human instinct, Jim Gordon has made it his life’s work to head in the opposite direction. In the many thousands of miles he’s traveled over the last 25 years, his usual destination has been a site of massive dislocation, the kind of place most of us prefer to read about in the comfort of our homes. Much of his year is spent in chaotic locales where people have been uprooted and stripped raw by the forces of war, sudden violence, or natural disaster. Merely getting to such places can be an arduous challenge, but once there, his work just begins.

Gordon’s mission is to educate and empower people to calm their own overloaded nervous systems, so they no longer need help from professionals like him. His ultimate goal is to make himself irrelevant. His success is measured by the degree to which he leaves behind a community that can take charge of its own healing process, via mind–body practices such as meditation, biofeedback, guided imagery, breathing exercises, and expressive dance. With a team of therapists and other health experts from his professional home, the Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), he’s worked in war zones, refugee camps, the sites of natural disasters, and communities struggling to cope with mass shootings, both in the United States and internationally. He estimates that he travels two or three weeks out of a month, and he has no plans to slow down.

Gordon is 77 years old.

Right now, he’s in the midst of a program in Broward County, Florida, to teach mind–body skills to local therapists, school counselors, parents, and students affected by the Parkland shootings. One vital element of the project is training 135 peer counselors who attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where last February, a gunman opened fire and killed 17 students and staff members, injuring 17 more. Gordon and his team are teaching mind–body skills to these young people so they can share the practices with other students. He hopes to help develop peer counseling programs in all of the schools in Broward County.

“We’ve learned that kids would much rather talk to other kids than to adults, which only makes sense,” Gordon says. He recalls that when his team first went to the school to demonstrate mind–body skills, “you could almost hear the kids thinking, What’s this craziness? But when they try out the practices themselves, they begin to open up and talk from their hearts.” Many students have told Gordon that they now sleep better and feel less anxious. “It’s beautiful to watch them change,” he says.

Parkland is far from Gordon’s only project. Over the last year, he and his team have repeatedly visited Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to work with community leaders and students at seven tribal schools, following an epidemic of teen suicides. His team has also traveled to Sonoma, California, where wildfires raged for three weeks in the fall of 2017, killing 23 people and destroying more than 5,300 homes. Last year, he set up mind–body programs in southeast Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which destroyed 135,000 dwellings and left 107 people dead.

But that’s not all. The range and reach of Gordon’s projects are staggering: he’s taught self-care practices to survivors in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Kosovars in the midst of civil war, and both Israelis and Palestinians during the last 13 years of conflict. He’s spent time in Dharamshala, India, working with Tibetan refugees, and in Mozambique teaching mind–body processes to former child soldiers. He worked in southern Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and with traumatized New York City firefighters and their families in the wake of September 11th. He traveled to Sandy Hook, Connecticut, within days of the mass shooting there, talking with families and community leaders about how he and his CMBM team might be able to support them.

Listening to Gordon, I’m impressed, and a bit mind-boggled, by the strength and staying power of his commitment to helping traumatized people heal, especially those at the margins of society. But it makes me wince a bit, too. I can’t help but make uncomfortable personal comparisons: What have I done to try to make a positive impact on my own community, especially with people at risk who could use my energies and support?

Into the Fray

In 1991, Gordon founded CMBM “with no money and no paid staff. But I continued my private practice,” he says. “This is what I always tell therapists who are interested in doing community work: keep your day job!” He still sees a few private clients. After a couple of years, Gordon decided to take his program national, creating an intensive training program and inviting health professionals—two-thirds of them psychotherapists—from all over the country. Before long, CMBM graduates were bringing mind–body approaches to their private practices, hospitals, community organizations, and schools nationwide. Thus far, he and his team have trained 6,000 people to do this work.

After completing CMBM training, some therapists have approached Gordon about their own ambitious visions, such as creating a mind–body program on a state or regional level. “I tell them, ‘Fuggeddaboudit.’” he says. “Start locally. Look around. There are plenty of problems in your own hometown. Later on, if your project gets off the ground, you can go get some funding and grow your program.”

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Gordon continues to respond to international mental health emergencies, but right now he devotes the majority of his time and energies to US projects. When I ask him to describe his most meaningful current program, he demurs, playfully asking me, “Who’s your favorite child?” I reword my question: “What’s one of your many meaningful programs?” After thinking for a moment, he names his experience at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota people and among the most economically devastated places in the country. In a recent one-year period, the unthinkable happened—20 young people died by suicide, and 200 more attempted to kill themselves. The youngest was 11 years old.

In collaboration with tribal leaders, Gordon and his team have created a program to help heal the devastating trauma suffered by survivors and to try to prevent future suicides. The mind–body practices they teach are infused with Lakota rituals, including prayer, traditional dance, and smudging ceremonies, in which elders burn dried sage to promote community purification and healing.

“The heart of the work happens in small groups,” says Gordon, “where a talking stick is passed from person to person and everyone can speak from their souls.” Gordon’s voice trembles a bit. “In my group, two teenage girls told us that they’d been raped by family members. It was the first time they’d told anyone, ever.” The girls said they’d remained silent until then “because they were scared that nobody would believe them, or that other family members would believe them and kill the perpetrators.”

As the girls spoke, tearful and shaking, the other members of the group nodded in deep recognition. “Everyone knew that rape and incest were all too common in their community,” says Gordon, and they showered the girls with compassion. Afterward, the women elders in the group sewed special ceremonial dresses for the girls, and that evening, they performed a ceremony that welcomed the girls into the community of women. Moving in a circle, they sang, danced, and then lovingly embraced the young women.

Gordon’s experience with the people of Pine Ridge—and all of the communities he works with—clearly satisfies something deep within him, something that’s beyond logic, beyond the sum of external influences. He says, “I like going to a place where there’s massive pain, and where I can try to help people find the resources to heal from it.” He adds, “I like bringing my whole self to it.” Gordon is silent for a moment. Then he says, “There’s a quote from Kafka that just blows me away.” He recites it to me word-for-word, from memory: “You can hold yourself back from the suffering of the world, that is something you are free to do.... But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

He lets Kafka’s words linger for a moment. Then he says, “I suffer less if I’m useful to people who are suffering.”

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Marian Sandmaier is features editor of the Networker. She’s published three books on behavioral issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other publications.

This blog is excerpted from "Always on Call," by Marian Sandmaier. The full version is available in the January/February 2019 issue, Can't See the Forest? Maybe It's Time to Get Out of the Office.

PHOTO © JOHN PHANEUF

Topic: Mind/Body | Professional Development | Trauma

Tags: 2019 | Center for Mind-Body Medicine | childhood trauma | childhood traumas | community | community mental health | James Gordon | James Gordon MD | Jim Gordon | Marian Sandmaier | post-traumatic stress disorder ptsd | Rape | severe trauma | Trauma | trauma recovery | trauma therapy | traumatized clients | travel | volunteer | volunteering

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