There are layers to every good story; nuances to be explored, discussed, and shared. I first met York Region Police officer Jon Carson through Rev Bhante Saranapala, head monk at the West End Buddhist Temple in Mississuga, Canada. Bhante and I worked together on a story after a picture that had been taken in the temple showing Peel Region Police officers sitting in lotus position, eyes closed, and meditating with him went viral.
Bhante and Jon became friends through the meditation connection. After the success and interest of that story, Bhante mentioned to me that he was friends with an officer known as ‘the mindful cop,’ who was working to change the culture within his police region, helping officers become more self-aware through mindfulness training. Bhante thought I might like to meet him. And he was right.
It was a pleasure sitting and chatting with this officer of 15 years and learning about his journey with mindfulness. Quite frankly, it’s not every day you come across a cop that meditates! His soft spoken yet confident tone made it clear he takes this seriously and has made a real lifestyle change for the better. He spoke about the great benefits that had come from his mindfulness training for not only his family and work life, but also, and most importantly, to the community he served.
But Jon wasn’t always into meditation. In fact, he says he laughed out loud when his wife (also an officer) gave him a magazine with Lieutenant Richard Goerling sitting cross-legged and meditating on the cover. At the time, he had been recovering from an accident that left him with his eighth concussion. His doctor prescribed three things to him for recovery, and, fortunately for Jon, meditation was one of them.
He talked about the synchronicity of the doctor’s prescription and the meditating cop on the cover of the magazine, and how he recognized he was “being given meditation by the universe.” Prior to this, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had been a very real part of his life. He told me about a call he responded to in 2009 involving a very young child. “I’ve been dealing with the trauma of that incident and many others since,” said Jon. And he’s been dealing from the inside out.
PTSD affected 15-18% of officers in the U.S. in 2015, but many officers suffer in silence. The media portrays police officers as tough, stoic, manly — the alpha male rather than the vulnerable human being. But they are real people, just as susceptible to trauma and affected by violence as the rest of us. We just don’t see it, according to Jon. He knew he could either deal with his PTSD with a six-pack of beer or a six-pack of cookies, but neither was conducive to real healing.
Policing is one of the most stressful occupations out there. Typically fitness is used to help officers deal with the horrific things they see, but that doesn’t really address or treat the mental health issues. Unresolved thoughts can lead to pent up emotions, and according to one study published earlier this year, excessive anger is the prevailing emotion amongst officers. This can negatively impact the well-being of the officer, which in turn can negatively impacts the well-being of the public. Recognizing the anger he felt inside, Jon read Lieutenant Richard Goerling‘s story a number of times while recovering and began slowly incorporating meditation into his life.
He became a ‘closet meditator,’ putting his headphones in and closing his eyes at work or sneaking off with a pillow to go sit in the prayer room at the station. While some questioned what he was doing, others noticed big changes in his demeanor and language.
When I asked him why it was important for officers to have mindfulness based training, he responded, ” …Coming back to the breath. If we can have that pause between the reaction versus the response, we can be that much more effective when dealing with the public.” With all the violence we’ve seen recently involving police and civilians, it felt refreshing to meet someone actually presenting a solution to the violence that is accessible to all. The more we are aware of what is happening internally, the more we can respond calmly to the situation rather than reacting in the moment, without thought.
I also asked who Jon Carson was before mindfulness training, and he said, “a bit of a jack-ass.” He always expected people to follow his orders without question — he would show up and they would do as he said, and that’s it. Now, all of that has changed. He creates space for dialogue, and lots of it. We’ve lost sight of what effective communication looks like and how to actually ‘hear’ other people — listening deeply to the needs behind the emotionally charged statements some people make in heated situations.
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Jon believes strongly in implementing mindful based training to officers and knows it can be an invaluable tool on their belt. He felt compelled to approach his bosses and present this mindful training course to all new recruits, which has since been approved. Now, York Region Police is looking to quantify their results, to encourage other forces to follow suit.
Changing police culture is not easy, and Jon has received some funny looks from some of his colleagues, but he knows change sometimes comes slowly, particularly systemic change. But he also knows this has the potential to make our society a better place, to transform it, literally from the inside out. See, the thing about mindfulness is that it’s for everyone; it breaks down barriers and helps us see others as humans first, and occupation, race, or whatever else, last. Jon mentioned toward the end of our chat that if both sides remembered that we were just people, who have families, and good days and bad days — that we’re just people who make mistakes, and who learn from them — a lot of misconceptions both sides have about each other would slowly slip away.
Look out for a follow-up with @mindfulcop Jon and other officers who are boldly coming forward in the same way.
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