Awakin Calls » James Gordon on Dec 4, 2021

Finding Treasure in the Ruins of Trauma

Can you recall a time where you found the courage to face the pain and suffering of a personal or collective trauma? What was the context, and how did this serve to heal, transform and empower you? Share Your Reflection »


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Video Call with James Gordon

Dec 4, 2021, 09:00 AM PST


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Trauma comes to all of us, and its consequences can be terrible. That’s the truth and the bad news. The good news is that all of us can use tools of self-awareness and self-care to heal our trauma and, indeed, to become healthier and more whole than we’ve ever been. If we accept the pain that trauma inflicts, it can open our minds and bodies to healing change. -- Dr. James Gordon As a second-year psychiatric medical student at Harvard University, Dr. James Gordon hit a wall. Although both his father and grandfather had been physicians before him, he was no longer sure why he was there. He was troubled by the way he saw patients being treated, feeling the focus too cut and dried, and missing the loving approach that he had envisioned and hoped for in medicine. But he See full.

Trauma comes to all of us, and its consequences can be terrible. That’s the truth and the bad news. The good news is that all of us can use tools of self-awareness and self-care to heal our trauma and, indeed, to become healthier and more whole than we’ve ever been. If we accept the pain that trauma inflicts, it can open our minds and bodies to healing change. -- Dr. James Gordon

As a second-year psychiatric medical student at Harvard University, Dr. James Gordon hit a wall. Although both his father and grandfather had been physicians before him, he was no longer sure why he was there. He was troubled by the way he saw patients being treated, feeling the focus too cut and dried, and missing the loving approach that he had envisioned and hoped for in medicine. But he was graced at this time to meet a kind and compassionate professor and psychotherapist in Robert Coles, who offered Gordon the opportunity to discover and embrace parts of himself that he had forgotten or not even known. Further, Coles shared his work with kids stricken by poverty and racism in New Orleans, kindling the flame of Gordon’s own life-long passion for taking trauma healing to all walks of life – especially the world’s most troubled areas. “Suffering is the soil in which wisdom and compassion grow; it is the school from which we graduate, committed to healing others’ hurt.”

This pivotal time in Dr. Gordon’s life, and the healing journey that called him to serve others, set him on the road to becoming a world-renowned expert on healing population-wide psychological trauma, anxiety, and depression. His approach marries Western medical knowledge with alternative medicine methods and those of the world’s indigenous and spiritual traditions.

A proponent of “self-care as the true primary-care,” Dr. Gordon founded the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) in 1991, in Washington, D.C., with an initial mission “to make self-awareness, self-care, and group support central to all healthcare” by training health care professionals with the tools of stress- and trauma-relief. But similar to his experience hitting a wall in medical school, he soon recognized the limits of the medical establishment in embracing holistic modalities – and so he extended his work and offerings beyond the walls of traditional health care practice, going directly out to communities and creating a version of medicine for the people, by the people.

Through the CMBM, Dr. Gordon has created training programs of mind-body healing that extend far and wide – not just for health professionals, but for traumatized populations in the world’s hot spots such as the Balkans, the Middle East, Haiti, and Africa; for teachers and families in Broward County, FL after the Parkland school shootings; for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey; for U.S. vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; and even for the U.S. Capitol police. He and the CMBM faculty have traveled worldwide, embracing a model of creating healing communities by training the trainers, or “Teaching Thousands to Heal Millions.” Dr. Gordon leads an international faculty of 130 who have trained more than 6,000 clinicians, educators, and community leaders. In turn, these trainers have brought CMBM’s therapeutic and educational program to many hundreds of thousands of traumatized and stressed adults and children, as well as people confronting the challenges of anxiety, depression, and chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

An early pioneer in using mind-body medicine to heal, Dr. Gordon contends that we are all, in the end, affected by trauma. (Never more true than today, he adds.)  But he also believes that “all of us, regardless of age or educational level, have a great and largely untapped capacity to help and heal ourselves and one another…We may think we don’t have the answers, but each of us has a part inside us that knows.” His experience serving the world’s many traumatized populations has reinforced his commitment to supporting individuals’ own inherent capacities for self-healing. “Going through difficult situations myself, and coming out the other side has taught me that I could be a midwife to this process [in others]; I’m not there to fix people.”

Regular meditation on the breath, as an antidote to “flight or fight” mode, is a critical component of Gordon’s three-fold approach to trauma self-healing work – all sessions, groups, and meetings begin and end with this important component. Another key component, sourced from indigenous forms of healing, is sharing in community. “As we bring parts of ourselves online that have been suppressed or ignored, we become more complete and whole human beings – part of that is wanting to share ourselves with others. It’s built into our DNA.”

Characterizing himself as “a free spirit and a bit of a troublemaker,” Dr. Gordon volunteered, after his Harvard training, at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in the 60s, attended Woodstock as a volunteer physician, and then spent 10 years as a National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) researcher, where he developed the first national program for runaway and homeless kids.  

In 1973 he had a powerful encounter with a London-based osteopath, acupuncturist, naturopath, and meditation master of East Indian background who “opened universes” to him, most importantly the value of “expressive meditations” that Dr. Gordon incorporates as high energy “Shaking & Dancing” to fast, rhythmic music in his Mind-Body Skills trainings. “These were the tools of the shamans of Siberia and of ancient healers and traditions around the world -- archaic techniques of ecstasy.” They also have proven value for reestablishing equilibrium for stressed and trauma-frozen bodies.

Bringing his healing work to populations from the Eastern and indigenous traditions that seeded many of his initial explorations, Gordon has shared Shaking and Dancing with a group of recent Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama. He also has worked closely with tribal elders, teachers, and clinicians on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservations in South Dakota to create a program that has joined Mind-Body Medicine with traditional Lakota healing, effectively addressing youth suicide.

In addition to his work with the CMBM program, Dr. Gordon has been Director of Mind-Body Studies and clinical professor in the departments of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown Medical School and Georgetown University since 1980. He chaired the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. He publishes widely, having authored several books including his latest, The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, as well as many articles. He has recently conducted a series of interviews with a broad spectrum of individuals who are benefiting from his trauma healing work, ranging from a Black human rights lawyer and activist campaigning for reparations, to an Islamic jihadist who was jailed for his role in terrorist plots, to Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach, to a Michigan Democrat facing “Congressional trauma.”

Join us in conversation with this devoted practitioner of a medicine truly based on compassion for self and all beings.


Five Questions for James
What Makes You Come Alive?

Putting myself in the middle of chaos (in war, after a climate-related disaster, etc..) and responding to the needs that arise, and creating some ordered process of healing. Also, meeting and getting to know little children.

Pivotal turning point in your life?

When, as a confused and unhappy medical student, I reached out to Bob Coles, Harvard Health Service's psychiatrist, and he responded with kindness and grace, patience and humor.

An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?

Some of my greatest teachers -- William Alfred, Gregory Bateson, Shyam Singha -- making a meal for me.

One Thing On Your Bucket List?

Spending more time with indigenous people who have been such wonderful teachers for me and friends to me.

One-line Message for the World?

Whenever possible, act with kindness and love.

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