Jon’s Journey

A journey of Healing and Transformation

Since early childhood, my path has been a twofold discovery of healing and spiritual transformation.

I remember being four years old, looking up at the stars and saying, “what is going on here? Where are we? What is this?” I had a questioning mind right from the beginning. Around that same time, my mother had a friend who died of a brain tumor, and I could see that she was very sad. I thought that if I had been a brain surgeon, I could have saved him. So I decided right then that I would become a brain surgeon! I did seem to have some natural healing ability already. Family members would often have me put my hands on them, because I seemed to have a kind of healing touch. So that healing orientation was part of my journey from a very early time as well.

When I was eleven I found myself arguing with a Sunday school teacher about the existence of God. I wasn’t buying it! By then I had already taken on a very empirical, science-based point of view, and I just didn’t believe what I didn’t see. It seemed obvious to me that all of my friends, in their different religious traditions, were being brainwashed. I remember coming home and telling my mother I wasn’t going to Sunday school anymore because I was too busy practicing the violin. Her only response was, “Okay honey!”

By the time I was 16, it was the height of the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was reading a lot of existentialist literature, had become actively involved in the peace movement and the counterculture, and had also become interested in various alternative lifestyles. At the same time, I was working very hard in school, still determined to become a medical doctor. All along the way I was continuing to question all of it as well: What am I doing here? What is this life about? Why exactly am I working so hard? When I looked around at my parents’ friends, many of whom were very successful in worldly terms, I didn’t really see anyone who was happy. So what, then, was the point of it all?

The other dynamic that very much fueled this process was this: when I looked back at my life, as far as I could remember it, none of it made sense to me. I could remember many different events and experiences, of course, but it all seemed random and disjointed. There didn’t seem to be any organization to it, or any direction. I didn’t have any sense of where I had come from or where I was going. That angst of that confusion provided a lot of energy for what followed.

In the process of all that doubt and questioning, a series of very fundamental inquiries arose in me quite spontaneously. This was an internal process went on for about four months.

The first question that arose was: Is there a creative force in the universe? As I said, prior to this my thinking had been very empirical, very scientific in orientation. I don’t know why this question formed in my mind, but it did. The question burned in me, and I just kind of sat with it. At some point I had my first realization or insight, which was that of course there’s a creative force of some kind, something like gravity, or the other forces we study in physics and nature. There had to be a creative force, because there was all this stuff! There were trees, people, animals, plants — all these things. In retrospect this seems like a very simple observation, but for me at the time it was quite mind-blowing.

Once I realized there was a creative force, I had to discover what it was. This became my primary drive, almost a kind of obsession. It consumed me for months, and at some point along the way I had another breakthrough. I still didn’t know what the force was, but even so, I suddenly realized: I can discover what this force is, because I’m part of it.

Once I understood that this discovery was a real possibility, then out of nowhere I came up with a plan. I decided that I would sit down in my big, furry, beanbag chair, stare at the wall, and not move until I found what I was looking for. Looking back now, I had no idea what I was doing. At that point I didn’t know anything about meditation or spirituality, but nevertheless I somehow just knew that this was what I needed to do.

So one night when my parents went to bed, I closed to the door to my bedroom, took off all my clothes, sat down in my bean bag chair, and stared at the wall. No matter what, I wasn’t going to move a muscle. My arm started itching, but I wasn’t going to scratch it. My mind started wandering, but I just kept bringing it back. Without any real understanding of what meditation was, I was nevertheless doing a kind of intense concentration practice. I was determined to sit there until I found what I was looking for. I knew I had to, even if it was going to kill me. Don’t ask me how I knew this or why I felt this way, but I did. There was absolute certainty in it.

So I continued staring at the wall, and after a while something really interesting started happening. There was a kind of undulation, something like waves appearing in the wall, and the waves were emanating light. At the same time I could feel the light and a kind of movement welling up in me, and I got the clear message that this movement was what I needed to follow.

So I did. I somehow intuitively knew to just allow what was happening to keep happening, and to allow it to increase. And it did! The movements got bigger, the light got brighter, and the feelings got more intense. It kept growing and amplifying until it got to the point where it was starting to be really, really intense and actually quite frightening. I remember feeling like I was in a car with the gas pedal nailed to the floor, going faster and faster while heading directly toward a cliff. It was terrifying, because I knew I had to go over that cliff.

But as I sat there, absolutely terrified, a voice came to me and said, “just stay with your breathing.” I have no idea where that came from. It wasn’t my mind telling me. It wasn’t like I thought those words. It was literally like some outside voice telling me this, and I just accepted it. I kept my awareness on my breath, and the feelings got stronger, the light got brighter, the movements got bigger. It became more and more intense until there was a kind of explosion. Suddenly there was no more room, and there was no more me. It was like I had merged into the sun — like I had become the sun. It was like a kind of universal orgasm, as if every cell in my body had had its own nuclear explosion.

I don’t know how long awareness remained in that realm, but eventually I came back to my body. Everything was very intense now. When I breathed, it was like I was sucking everything I could see into my body like a vacuum cleaner, and when I exhaled I breathed it all back out. This happened over and over again, and I felt like I was being ripped apart. My whole body began having convulsions. I started shaking and crying intensely.

I looked over at the clock and I realized I’d been sitting there for three hours. I got a blanket and I covered myself, and I felt at that moment that if I died right then, my life had been worth it. I looked back at my life, and where before it had all seemed so disjointed, now I could see that everything made sense after all. There was a connectedness throughout the past, and a sense of trajectory into the future. And most important of all, there was this light — this presence — pervading everything.

That light never went away. That presence remains, and it guides me to this day. Over time it has deepened and become more and more profound, but it really began for me on that day.

I didn’t know then what had happened to me, but I was immediately drawn to Eastern thought. There wasn’t a lot available at the time, at least not around here, but I found Patanjali’s book on Raja Yoga, and it immediately made complete sense to me. So I began learning about meditation, and I remember telling my mother back then, “I’m going to be a monk!” “Ok honey,” she said. I began practicing on my own, as much as I could. I’d be lying behind the couch on the floor in the living room, and my parents would be calling me for dinner and I wouldn’t be responding. My mother would say, “he’s meditating!”

The summer after my junior year of high school, my parents said, “how would you like to go to Israel?” It turned out some friends of my father’s, who had met me when I was eleven, had been impressed with me and my violin playing. They were living on a kibbutz they had founded, and they had invited me to come and experience living there.

This was the time of communes and counterculture, and people living in community and exploring different lifestyles, and this was very appealing and very interesting to me. Because the spiritual thing was already happening for me, I had also been reading about karma yoga, which I understood as work for its own sake rather than for some kind of reward. I’d always done work for a grade, or for money, or for some kind of acknowledgement. It seemed important for my spiritual growth to experience work in that way — for its own sake, rather than as a way to get something else. So I said yes, I want to go.

So I went to Israel, and I worked in the banana fields. It really was amazing. The work was very intense, and I was totally loving it. One day I was out with my work crew and all of sudden I realized, oh my god, I’m having the experience I was looking for. I’m just working for work’s sake — and I’m happy! I’m not looking for a reward, or for anything at all. I’m just fulfilled in this moment, working.

Eventually I returned to the United States and went to college. After a couple of years, I took a leave of absence and hitchhiked across the country with a friend, hopping freight trains and having all kinds of wonderful experiences. When I came back from that trip, I was 20 years old and it was 1973.

Around that time, a couple of my mother’s friends who were spiritually oriented suggested I get a psychic reading from a woman in Sacramento named Anne Armstrong. Although I usually wrote that kind of thing off as somewhat questionable, I trusted the two people that recommended her, so I thought, ok, I’ll go. This turned out to be a pivotal experience.

I had a hundred dollars to my name at the time, and I called her up to make an appointment. She told me the session was $50, so I was going to spend half my net worth for the session, not to mention driving two hours to Sacramento. She initially told me she didn’t have any appointments available for six months, but then she started asking me some questions about why I wanted to see her. Something must’ve happened in that call, because all of a sudden she said, “oh wait a minute, I have an opening next week.”

I went to see her, and it was an amazing reading. She immediately felt and tuned into what happened to me when I was 16. She said, “you had an enlightenment experience.” She explained to me that I was a very old soul in a very young body, and that it was going to take a long time for this to mature and develop in my life.

That was the very first time someone actually recognized what had happened to me and acknowledged it. This was pivotal since it reassured me that I was headed in the right direction, so to speak, to eventually realize and fully embody enlightenment.

Jon Bernie ordained monk living at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

One night my father had Michael Murphy over for dinner. Mike is the founder and owner of Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. During dinner, Mike said, “so what are you doing with your life, Jon, what’s happening?” I told him I was looking for a spiritual kibbutz. He said “well, why don’t you go check out Zen Center?” I didn’t know what Zen Center was, or really even what Buddhism was, but I got a copy of Suzuki-roshi’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which I think had just come out around then. I read it and was blown away, and quickly became a guest student at Zen Center and started practicing there. Eventually I became a resident, and ultimately an ordained monk living at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

I did many years of intensive practice at the monastery, and then spent my last two years at Zen Center back in San Francisco, serving as administrative assistant to then-Abbot Zentatsu Baker-roshi. During that time I also began sitting with Jack Kornfield, who had begun teaching Vipassana in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. After leaving Zen center I continued studying closely with Jack for a number of years, attending many long retreats with his group.

Gradually, though, I began to find that organized practice centers and retreats were no longer in harmony with my inner development. I found myself moved to take solitary, personal retreats instead, and did this often for a few years, following the inner rhythm of my natural spiritual unfoldment.

While I was still at Zen Center, I had the great privilege of meeting Brother David Steindl-Rast, who subsequently became a lifelong mentor and a true friend. Brother David is a Benedictine monk who also studied Zen with Zen Center founder Shunryu Suzuki-roshi and other masters, and has been instrumental in fostering interfaith dialogues worldwide. Brother David’s friendship and his radiant, loving presence over the last 44 years deeply mentored me in coming to understand the true meaning of unconditional love. The example of his life showed me that all spiritual “teaching” is ultimately the natural resonant conveyance of embodiment.

Jon Bernie with Brother David Steindl-Rast.

Another very important relationship that developed during that phase of my life was with my qigong master, Professor Peng-Si Yu. I met Professor Yu though my mother, Barbara Bernie. My mom was an early Western advocate of acupuncture, and her activism on its behalf was largely responsible for acupuncture becoming officially legal in the state of California, and subsequently many other states as well. At the time, many in China considered her the mother of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the West. She and Professor Yu knew of each other, and finally met in person when he came to California from China. He ended up teaching a private class at my mother’s home, and I studied and practiced with from 1980 until his passing in 1983. Professor Yu’s powerful and transformative training opened up a whole new world of energetic experience and understanding for me, which became an integral part of both my personal path and eventual teaching work.

It was also during this period that I took my first steps toward becoming a professional healer and bodyworker. When I left the monastery in early 1979 and moved back to San Francisco, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a living. Over the years I’d had a lot of physical issues with my back and knees from sitting cross-legged on a zafu, and I had benefited greatly from lessons I’d taken in the Alexander Technique. I knew I had natural healing ability, so joined my Alexander teacher Frank Ottiwell’s training program and eventually became an Alexander Technique teacher and practitioner myself.

I became an Alexander teacher because I wanted to be able to help people while also supporting myself as I continued my spiritual path. In the process of working with different people, I realized I needed more training, so over the years I studied a wide range of different hands-on healing modalities, including Zero Balancing, craniosacral therapy, Amanae (shamanic healing work), Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Ericksonian hypnosis and Self-Acceptance Training.

Fritz Smith, the extraordinary osteopathic healer who founded Zero Balancing, was a particularly important teacher and mentor to me throughout my many years of spiritual transformation and healing. His understanding of the relationship between energy and structure was immensely important to my own healing and understanding, and has since informed and become an integral part of my teaching and healing work.

As both my spiritual and healing practices continued, they began to integrate profoundly. People who were working with me were starting to have awakening and healing experiences of different kinds, and people began asking me to teach meditation classes and lead retreats. So I started a meditation class at a local community center, and later began leading retreats twice a year. That was how I first found myself in the role of a so-called “teacher”, and over the years that part of my work seemed to just grow and develop on its own.

In the mid-1980s I met Jean Klein, who I would consider to be my root guru. In my third meeting with him, during an interaction at a public talk in Sausalito, I experienced a profound transformation. Jean was talking about the Presence becoming permanent. While listening, I found myself in an elevated space of Presence, and I noticed my hand raising up to ask a question, without any intention or effort from me. I found myself asking, “How does it become Permanent?” At that moment Jean and I connected in a vibrant field of pure consciousness. I knew that he knew exactly what was happening to me, and it was as if he took me to a vast realm of light.

Not too long after that profound shift, I met with Jean privately at a retreat at Mt. Madonna. Being with him was like a love-fest of profound light and energy. When I walked into the room, he said to me, “You don’t need any intellectual input!” I said, “I know! I can’t read spiritual books anymore. I open one up, read one line, and fall asleep.” We cracked up laughing. Then I said, “I can’t even read your books!” And we laughed again, because he knew that I was receiving the teaching that is, and can only be, transmitted in silence.

I often describe the awakening that happened in Sausalito with Jean as the end of seeking. Prior to that experience, connecting to presence still took a kind of effort. But after I met Jean, presence was simply the foreground, and was available all the time. Being aware of presence no longer required any conscious effort, but rather was just what was happening. At this point my work, my personal life and my spiritual life became one thing. I became close to Jean, and studied with him for a number of years. I always saw him when he was in the area, and went on retreat with him when I could, and my process continued to deepen.

While I was studying with Jean, people I knew were just finding out about H.W.L. Poonja. We called him Poonjaji back then, but eventually he was known as Papaji. I had known Toni Varner, who later became Gangaji. She was a friend of my mother’s. Not long after she came back from India and began teaching, she and I hung out. I told her I really wanted to go see Poonjaji. She basically said, “your work’s done. You’ve obviously already had an awakening. So you don’t need to go see him, but I’m sure he’d love to see himself in you.” So I wrote to Poonjaji, and he wrote me back a beautiful letter inviting me to come and be with him in Lucknow.

I went there in 1991 for about six weeks. It was wonderful to be with Poonjaji. His presence was loving and beautiful, and we had an amazing time together. It was very interesting to see that although in an ultimate sense being with him and being with Jean were no different — they both had the same infinite, beautiful presence — it was nevertheless also very helpful to experience their slightly different flavors, or reflections, of that truth.

During that time I also met and became friends with Byron Katie, and subsequently a mutual friend of ours suggested that I go see Robert Adams in Sedona since I was already going there on vacation. I didn’t know anything about Robert then, but as soon as I heard he was a direct disciple of Ramana Maharshi, I became interested.

Much like with my experience at age 16, there was a intuitive “knowing” that I was about to go over a precipice. I knew that it was happening, and that I was ready, and I went with it. There was a deep letting go that I realized I had been waiting for for a long, long time, and now here it was. In the past there had always been some remaining fear that kept me from fully letting go, but now it was time, and finally I just let it happen. The experience was powerful. It was very, very deep. It was like a complete annihilation. I can’t describe it, really, the words fall short. I would later refer to this experience as the end of fear.

I went up to Robert after satsang and told him I was profoundly grateful to be in his presence. One of his students came up to me after that, and invited me to have breakfast with Robert and some of his students the next morning. I stayed with him for the rest of the weekend, and when I told him I was leaving to go back to San Francisco, he just said, “come back!”

I cleared my schedule and went back as soon as I could, and spent a couple of weeks with him. When I was leaving at the end of that second trip, I told him again that I was going home to San Francisco. He said, “why?” I put my hand on my heart and said to him, “Robert, you will always be in my heart.” We stayed in touch after that, by phone and letters.

After my time with Robert, I was in a profoundly altered state — in radiant, extraordinary bliss, connected to everything 24-7 — for probably six months. I wrote to him, describing my experience in depth:

I am experiencing continuously: profound happiness, profound bliss, vast love and awe of everything. It’s not an emotional experience which I am very familiar with having in the past. The joy and the love and the bliss are not emotional — they’re not affected by circumstances — and they seem permanent. Also, there’s a very evident absence of a certain kind of emotional reactivity, which I’ve been quite familiar with in the past — it’s completely absent. Perhaps this is the “silence of the heart”. And yet another heart is being experienced: a vast open space that feels like heart energy but has no emotional content in it, has no story, has no desire or aversion in it. The radiant light of being is everywhere all of the time, and there’s this vast heart experience of it all. There is a sense of utter contentment and self containment, and yet openness to whatever is occurring. There is an ease that is continuous, and a peace that is vast.

Robert wrote me back right away, saying “you are free.” I planned another trip to see him, but he passed away before I was able to get back again. Robert was an immensely important teacher for me. Something about that time with him, the depth of our connection… It was spectacular.

I continued my work, and my teaching. In 2001, I met and became friends with Adyashanti. I initially went to him as a student, but we became friends pretty quickly, and not long after that he formally acknowledged me as a teacher. Adya was very helpful in my spiritual process also. Despite my many years of practice and inner work, I was still carrying some deep inner wounding from childhood that had never been fully processed. I can’t exactly explain it, but there was a way he helped me bring all of that more into the light, so that it could finally be released and healed.

Jon Bernie with Adyashanti.

As I said back at the beginning of this article, the relationship between healing and transformation has been a central focus of my life and teaching. As my work with people has evolved over the decades, I’ve come to really understand the ways people are programmed and conditioned by their experience, and how that very conditioning can itself serve as the vehicle for becoming free of the identified self. The conditional, as difficult and seemingly limiting as it can be, can nevertheless lead directly to the unconditional.

People who knew me when I was younger, and who saw me again over the years, were often quite startled by how much I had changed. I had major breakthroughs with my family in particular. I’d had great discord with my father for most of my life. When I was 45, though, we suddenly had a big shift. We were basically in love with each other for the last seven years of his life, and it was wonderful. As my process deepened, I became free of all the baggage of the past. I just saw my father, and my mother, and loved them completely, unconditionally, free of all the conflicts and personality issues that had been so problematic throughout our lives.

To this day my life and work are continually guided by the light, the presence, that has always guided me since that initial awakening at age 16, and I am learning all the time. This awakened consciousness, by its very nature, is the creative, intelligent force of all life itself, and of the universe itself, and we are that. When we live as that, we are always in this open-minded, flexible, available place of learning and discovery. This is how I live my life — in the realm of discovery, of creativity; the realm of the unknown.

I’m always learning, always creating, and always discovering. I’m constantly learning how to be a teacher in this field, how to be with people and assist them. People tell me more and more that the energy of presence — whether experienced at one of my public events, or when meeting with me privately, or even when listening to my podcasts — is very, very strong. So I’m just following that energy, following that light, and allowing myself to continue being guided.