Always on Call

When Disaster Strikes, Jim Gordon Gets to Work

Magazine Issue
January/February 2019
A group of people smiling

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.

Over a recent three-month period—September to December 2018—Gordon and his team worked in nine different locales: Jordan; Israel; Broward County, Florida; St. Petersburg, Florida; back to Broward County; Ellicott City, Maryland; back a third time to Broward County; Sonoma County; Houston; San Diego; and Los Angeles. This spring, he and his team will go to Africa to work with refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Shortly afterward, he plans to travel to Puerto Rico to work with survivors of Hurricane Maria.

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? The most regular thing I do is volunteer each summer in a program for low-income Philadelphia kids who want to go to college, coaching them to write application essays that will make admissions officers sit up and take notice. It’s useful work, but the program lasts just a week each year. At the end of each day, I drive home to my suburban neighborhood, where I typically spend the evening watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, listening to NPR, or reading the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel.

The Making of an Activist

So how did Gordon come to choose this particular path, despite its enormous physical and emotional demands? A nice Jewish boy who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he went on to acquire both undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard. After that, he held a prestigious research post at the National Institute of Mental Health while establishing a thriving psychotherapy practice. What propelled him to leave his comfy, successful career in Washington, DC to become an international first responder and worldwide mental health activist?

“I was the kind of kid who, around the age of nine, would wander in Central Park and sit down on park benches next to homeless people,” he recalls. “I asked them questions. I wanted to know their stories. What did I know? Maybe they could tell me the secrets of the universe!” Even then, Gordon understood that these people were outcasts in the eyes of society. “But somehow, I felt they had something to teach me.” He chuckles. “Of course, my mother was horrified. I’d come home all excited, and say, ‘Mom, I met this really interesting man on a park bench today.’”

When Gordon was 10, his father, a surgeon, quizzed young Jim about his career plans. Imitating his dad’s gruff manner, Gordon reenacts the conversation:

“Jimmy (harrumph), what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Well . . . either a farmer or a rabbi.”

Scowling, his father demanded, “Why the hell would you want to be a rabbi?”

“Well, um, rabbis help people.”

His dad didn’t miss a beat. “Look, doctors help people more than rabbis do, and they make enough money to buy a farm.” His voice rang with authority. “If you become a doctor, Jimmy, you can do both. You can do anything.”

Young Jim nodded. He especially liked the last thing his father had said: you can do anything. Okay, he thought. Maybe I’ll be a doctor.

Gordon wasn’t sure what kind of physician he’d be until the summer he was 16, when he read Freud’s Introductory Lectures. “I thought, this is it! I’ll be a psychiatrist!” he says. As he understood it then, psychiatry was “all about listening, helping people find their own truth. And how doing that could lead to healing.”

That fall, Gordon began college at Harvard, where he came into contact with two prominent men who would deeply influence his life choices. The first was Fidel Castro, who was touring the United States in 1959 to celebrate his victory. Thousands of Harvard students, faculty, and others showed up to hear his speech—so many people that the event had to be held in the university’s stadium. Gordon was excited to hear Castro, “a guy who came down from the mountains and made a revolution.”

But what most inspired Gordon was that Castro “was a middle-class guy, like me. That was my big takeaway—that Castro was middle class, read books, loved sports, and still, he was able to connect with marginalized people and make a huge change in society.” He was further encouraged to discover that Che Guevara was also a middle-class guy—”and better yet, he was a doctor.” Gordon certainly didn’t want to foment a violent revolution, but something in him caught fire. “If they could do it, I thought, maybe I can make a positive difference in the world.”

This burgeoning desire to make some kind of meaningful change was cemented by a connection he made with the eminent psychiatrist Robert Coles, a Harvard professor, tireless social activist, and later on, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his books on children in crisis. Gordon admired Coles’s longtime efforts to help integrate schools in New Orleans, simultaneously working with enraged white protesters and vulnerable African American kids. “And I thought, That’s what a doctor should do—take a principled stand for justice, but also keep your heart open to everyone.”

At the time, Gordon was despondent over a romantic breakup and generally feeling a bit lost—he’d taken a year off from medical school and was wrestling with whether to return. So he gathered his courage and called up Coles, back in the day when prominent people actually answered their phones. “Would you take me on as a patient?” Gordon asked. To his delight and relief, Coles agreed. While still in therapy, he decided to go back to med school, but with the certainty that “somehow, my work as a doctor had to be connected to participating in larger movements for social justice.”

Gordon’s commitment to societal change was paired with an openness—even a thirst—for new experiences. For his internship, he chose Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, “both because it was a first-rate program and because I wanted to be there. It was 1967, the Summer of Love. There was a cultural revolution going on. I was ready for something new.” He moved across the country, got an apartment on Haight Street, and on nights when he wasn’t on call (or watching Janis Joplin or the Grateful Dead perform at the Fillmore West), he volunteered at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. There, he learned firsthand that there was a wrong—and a right—way to be with people in crisis.

“If you were having a bad drug trip and came to Mount Zion ER for help, first you had to go through a lengthy admissions process, after which you’d be taken to a sterile exam room, put up on a table with fluorescent lights overhead, and diagnosed with some disorder or other,” he recalls. By contrast, at the Free Clinic, “you’d be invited to sit on a pillow with somebody named Peter Rabbit or Frodo, who’d say to you in a soft voice, ‘Man, I understand what you’re going through. A lot of people go down when they’re on this stuff, but they come back up again. Don’t worry, man. You’re gonna be alright.’”

Gordon took all of this in, both the gentleness of the interaction and its impact. “In the entire year I volunteered at the clinic,” he says, “only one kid had to go on to the ER. That lesson went very deep for me. When people feel supported and comfortable, it can profoundly change the nature of their experience. Even in chaotic circumstances, they can begin to heal. I took that lesson with me for the next 50 years.”

Beyond the Talking Cure

At the same time Gordon was learning how to be with people in crisis, he was beginning to experiment with mind–body processes—long before they became a staple of Western culture. At first, he tried them out for his own sake. “I wanted to be less neurotic and feel better, but I also longed to enter a state where I was really at peace with the world,” he says. “I knew there were states of consciousness that were different from what I ordinarily felt.”

He started with yoga, which he first encountered in—of all places—a locked ward for adolescents and adults at Bronx State, an Albert Einstein teaching hospital, where Gordon was chief resident. A couple of times a week, he voluntarily spent the night in the ward.

On one of his nocturnal watches, he says, “I woke up around three in the morning and saw three patients sitting in the day room, doing yoga postures.” Gordon approached them. “‘What’s this about?’ I asked. I was genuinely curious. They told me the postures were very relaxing, that they helped them feel calmer and get back to sleep.” Impressed, Gordon joined a yoga class himself. He found that when he engaged in the practice, “my mind became more open. I had more energy.” He established a regular practice that he continues to this day.

From there, Gordon’s personal experimentation with alternative healing practices expanded exponentially: he learned tai chi, meditation, macrobiotic nutrition, and a host of other self-care practices. The more he experimented on himself, the more convinced he became of the healing powers of mind–body approaches.

A turning point occurred when Shyam Singha, an Indian physician visiting the US, taught him a practice known as “dynamic meditation,” which Gordon described as “a process of fast deep breathing, dance, and emotional catharsis for an entire hour. I did it and I felt different afterward,” Gordon said.

“My mind opened as it never had, never before; I felt connected and free and loose. And I thought, This is what I want. This is how to be—more generous and relaxed. More joyous.” At Singha’s suggestion, he practiced the extremely strenuous breathing for the next six months, 40 minutes per day, “come hell or high water.” He says, “Every fear I had, every source of emotional pain—this process pushed through all of them. I became much less afraid. It was transformative for me.”

Gordon’s own experiences were showing him that practices that engaged both body and mind were more powerful than the purely “talking cure” he’d learned as a psychiatric resident. They were also techniques that anyone could learn and practice on their own. Several years later, after leaving his research post at NIMH, he felt an increasingly insistent call to incorporate these approaches into the larger medical and mental health establishment. “I saw the integration of mind and body as the future of medicine,” he says. “I wanted to make this healing approach a central part of health care.” He laughs. “That was my modest goal.”

Gordon hoped to start this revolution in the context of an established organization. After a bit of scouting, he came across what seemed like an ideal opportunity—an opening at DC General Hospital to chair its psychiatry department. The only public hospital in the city, DC General served the poorest and unhealthiest residents. Gordon immediately applied, jumped through the requisite hoops, and felt that he was close to getting the job. Then he was asked to submit to one final interview with the higher-ups. As he recalls it, the conversation went something like this:

“Dr. Gordon, if we offer you this position, of course we’ll want you to expand our inpatient psychiatric service.”

Gordon, who didn’t lack for confidence, replied, “Actually, I’d like to downsize inpatient care, and expand the hospital’s work in the community.”

His counterproposal was met by silence, and as Gordon remembers it, “the temperature in the room got about 10 degrees colder.” The chairman of the search committee pursed his lips and asked stiffly, “Is there anything else you’d like us to know?”

“Yes,” Gordon replied. “I’d also like to create a wellness program for the staff here, because I can see how stressed out they are. If they can learn how to take care of themselves, they’ll be healthier, more productive, and better able to help patients.”

The chairman gathered his papers together. “Thank you very much, Dr. Gordon.”

Needless to say, he didn’t get the job, nor did he want it. Instead, the disastrous interview spurred the most important turning point in his career. “I said to myself, okay, it looks like I’m going to have to start an organization myself.” He began to envision an educational program that would give interested professionals the tools and support they needed to utilize mind–body processes, initially in their own lives and then in their practices. In 1991, he 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.

Gordon got things rolling by hosting a meeting at his apartment for some 25 people, a motley crew of therapists, nurses, academics, physicians, and a professional gambler. They were colleagues, friends, and a couple of his patients, all of them intrigued by the healing possibilities of mind–body medicine. Since the first order of business was to design a curriculum for a training program, “everyone volunteered to investigate whatever healing modality most interested them,” recalls Gordon.

“One psychologist and gifted musician, Mary Lee Esty, was very interested in biofeedback and the therapeutic uses of music, so she looked into that. The professional gambler was fascinated by attachment theory and bonding, so he offered to pull together information on that. Two physicians looked into the biological basis of the mind–body connection. Gordon contributed knowledge from Stephen Levine, who’d taught him soft-belly breathing, and from Ruth Carter Stapleton (Jimmy Carter’s sister), who’d taught him guided imagery, and the many practices he’d learned from Singha.

Over the next several months, the DC group created a rudimentary mind–body curriculum. Since then, Gordon and his team have refined and revised it. But, he says with considerable pride, “Today, 27 years later, it’s still the basis of our training.” The key elements of the program will be described in his forthcoming book, Transforming Trauma.

At first, Gordon and Esty led a yearlong training program for local health professionals who wanted to teach their patients mind–body practices. Once they’d learned to use the practices on themselves, they began to teach them to people with HIV, cancer, and other chronic conditions. From the start, Gordon was adamant that professionals learn on themselves before trying to teach others. From his own experience, he knew that “you’ve got to do your own work first—and continue it. You can’t teach other people to take care of themselves until you’ve struggled with the difficulties and reaped the benefits yourself.”

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.

Into the Fray

After completing the 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.”

He certainly has practiced what he preaches, starting in DC, then going national, and finally, expanding into the international arena, where he knew that untold millions of people were being traumatized by war, dislocation, and terrible personal losses. Gordon’s first opportunity came in 1996, when a friend suggested that he bring his program to Bosnia at the end of a bloody, four-year civil war that had left 200,000 people dead. Despite Gordon’s generally intrepid spirit and desire to be of service, he quailed at the prospect. “I thought to myself, I’ll never be able to speak the language, the weather is horrible, and this is a place with 700 years of ethnic strife.” So he didn’t go.

But a year later, after doing workshops with former child soldiers in Mozambique and then with South Africans who’d lost family members during apartheid, Gordon felt ready to go to Bosnia. He traveled to Sarajevo with family physician and CMBM faculty member Susan Lord, along with several volunteers. Nothing prepared them for what they saw. “People were wandering among the ruins, in shock,” he recalls. “The few buildings that were still standing were riddled with shell holes, like pockmarks. There were still active landmines.” He pauses, taking a breath. “On the streets, we saw hundreds and hundreds of splotches that had been painted red, marking where people had been murdered.”

The near-totality of the devastation in Sarajevo—“the sense, everywhere, that something dark and terrible had happened”—shocked and pained Gordon. But it also galvanized him. He and his team began to meet with local leaders, including the minister of public health, the monsignor of a Catholic church, the president of the Islamic university, and an activist at a holistic medical center. They told Gordon about the suffering in their communities—the terrible anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, and sleeplessness; the skyrocketing rates of addiction and domestic abuse. “This mind–body stuff—we’re not really sure what you’re talking about,” they said. “But if you can help us deal with stress, we want it.”

A year later, when war broke out in Kosovo, Gordon and Lord knew they had to go there. He says, “We wanted to work on the ground during the war, rather than afterward, so we could help forestall the severe post-traumatic devastation we’d seen in Bosnia.” So the CMBM team followed its protocol: over the next several years, they trained 600 clinicians, educators, and community leaders who went on to make mind–body medicine central to Kosovo’s community mental health system. There’s evidence that the program worked. Gordon and his colleagues conducted a randomized, controlled trial of 82 war-traumatized Kovosar adolescents who’d participated in a CMBM mind–body skills group for 12 weeks. Published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the study found that the teens suffered significantly reduced PTSD symptoms immediately after the intervention as well as at three-month follow-up.

In Kosovo, Gordon used the step-wise process that’s been at the heart of his work with severely traumatized people on four continents over the course of nearly three decades. First, you develop relationships with local leaders, and then train them to teach mind–body skills to the people in their own communities—skills that these individuals and families can then practice on their own, long after Gordon and his colleagues have left the scene. “It’s crucial to empower people to learn how to stay healthy without having to rely on experts,” he said, noting that in many poor regions, only a handful of therapists are available to treat a million or more people. At present, CMBM has an international faculty of 160 people.

Gordon and his team make an effort to adapt trainings to local cultures, using practices and terms that people are comfortable with. “For example, many societies don’t want anything to do with ‘mental health’—that’s for crazy people,” he says. “So in some locales, we don’t use that term. Instead, we talk about ‘learning skills that can help you feel calmer.’”

He got a blunt-spoken message about cultural attunement during a training session with New York City firefighters shortly after September 11th. “I was teaching them how to do meditation and yoga when a guy in the back of the room yelled out in a thick Bronx accent, ‘What’s this, some kinda chick flick?’” Gordon says, “I laughed, but in this case, I didn’t change a thing.” He believed that once the men had tried the practices, they’d experience the benefits. Six months later, Gordon was having a beer with the same guy, who’d by then become a leader in CMBM’s program. “Hey Jim,” he said. “I get it now. You’re like us. You like to help people, and you like to be where the action is!”

The man’s throwaway comment may say something significant about why Gordon does the work he does—a keen desire to help people in desperate need, coupled with a personality that comes fully alive in challenging circumstances. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been scared at times. In 2007, for example, his team was working onsite with both Israelis and Palestinians. “At one point, we crossed the border from Israel into Gaza to do a training, and the very next day, civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah. We heard gunfire. We found a body in front of our hotel.”

Gordon and his team knew they had to get out of Gaza, fast. But there was a problem: their 24-member, well-armed security force had just run away, scared for their own lives. Gordon thought: How will we get back across the border without our guards? “My team was terrified,” he says. He was anxious, too, but expressed it with impatience and irritability toward his frightened team. Their Gaza program leader, Jamil Abdel Atti, surveyed the group’s spiraling panic and gently told them, “Now is the true test of mind-body medicine.” So Gordon asked his team to sit together and do soft-belly breathing for five minutes, which sufficiently calmed their nervous systems to allow them to make a plan.Recalls Gordon, “We decided that we’d use taxis to get across the border, because the drivers knew how to skirt firefights and hostile checkpoints.” They procured the taxis and escaped with their lives, but Gordon understands that it could’ve been otherwise. He was sobered by the experience. But—perhaps not surprisingly—it didn’t deter him from future trips to troubled parts of the globe.

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.”


Learn more about CMBM here.


Marian Sandmaier

Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at