Meet a Toronto-area police officer fighting back against violence and trauma — with zen

As the 10th Global Conference on Buddhism gathers in Toronto to talk mental health and meditation, one Toronto-area cop is forging ahead with a new way to handle on-the-job stress.

York Region Const. Jon Carson says mindfulness can lead to better policing

Carson says he's gotten some pushback around the force, but for the most part, fellow officers have been receptive to mindfulness training. (Supplied by Jon Carson)

Booze and junk food. That was Const. Jon Carson's way of dealing with a particularly disturbing murder he investigated in 2009. 

"It was a six pack of beer or a six pack of cookies," he said. "Sugar and alcohol were a great diversion."

Carson suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of the things he's seen in nearly two decades as an officer with the York Regional Police. But in recent years, he's found a new crutch, and he's even sharing it with York Region's recruits.

Carson practices mindfulness, a technique that focuses one's awareness on the present moment by acknowledging bodily sensations, thoughts, and breathing patterns. 

Jon Carson has been teaching the art of mindfulness to new recruits, and says being in the moment can help police deal with trauma and avoid violence on the job. (York Regional Police)

This weekend in Toronto, the 10th Global Conference on Buddhism zeroed in on the technique's benefits for first responders like Carson. Research seems to support the use of meditation to mitigate stress and anxiety. 

Back in 2013, it wasn't research, but a concussion—and advice from his neurologist—that prompted Carson to start meditating.

He kept his practice a secret for months before going public, but the temptation of sharing the benefits of mindfulness in dealing with crisis intervention and trauma was too great of a pull.

"It really came down to verbage," he said about introducing the idea to other officers. "We try not to scare people away."

Carson says he's gotten some pushback but that overall his training has been well-received. The quarterly meditation boot camps he offers to York Region staff always have a wait list, he says.

Current approach to mental health 'bit of a fallacy'

Carson now trains all new recruits in the York Region force, hoping they'll apply mindfulness techniques to critical situations.

He developed the training, called the "C.A.L.M." method, with psychotherapist Dale Curd, host of CBC's Hello Goodbye. It guides officers to de-escalate agitated people by maintaining composure and listening to the person in crisis.

Currently, "our whole approach to mental health is a bit of a fallacy," Carson said of conventional police training. "I think we need to give people the skills up front, before the trauma actually takes place. 

"We only treat things once they become a pathology. In my mind, that's a bit too late."

Harvard University neuroscientist Sara Lazar has extensively studied the effect of meditation on the brain.

Brain scans from her 2015 study showed that subjects who meditated a half hour each day for eight weeks gained grey matter in key areas related to stress regulation. 

Although she cautions there's no data on police and meditation, Lazar says she thinks it's possible that meditation could make officers less reactive. Officers who employ mindfulness, she added, may be more able to "quickly and calmly" respond to threats and deal with the trauma afterward.

Growing research seems to indicate that meditation can help first responders stay cool on the job, like these Peel Region police officers, pictured here in 2016. (Bhante Saranapala)

But despite recent empirical support, "people have this conception that mindfulness is sitting under the bodhi tree," said Carson. For that reason, he's wary of making mindfulness a mandatory part of police training.

"We don't try to force it on people. It's hard to tell police officers they have to do something," especially when it comes to sharing emotions, he said.

Instead, Carson leads by example, hoping to build confidence in his method person by person.

"We can create culture change," he said. 

Can 'kindfulness' prevent brutality?

Bhante Saranapala, who dubs himself Toronto's "urban Buddhist monk" teaches police officers to settle their minds before pulling the trigger.

In life or death situations, the art of "kindfulness" may help officers gain perspective and make the choice to use force with more self-awareness, says Saranapala.

Bhante Saranapala, who dubs himself Toronto's "urban Buddhist monk" teaches police officers to settle their minds before pulling the trigger. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Saranapala, who's been teaching meditation and Buddhist practice in Mississauga for 20 years, spoke Sunday at the Buddhism conference in Toronto on the positive feedback he says he's received from officers in the Peel and Toronto forces.

Kindfulness integrates two techniques, says Saranapala: being present and being gentle to one's self. 

"Police are human beings. They might get upset. They might get angry, or feel fear. All these emotions could blind them," Saranapala explained. 

"Before taking an action, if you could take deep breaths and let yourself settle down, then you realize whether you're doing the right thing or the wrong thing." 

That moment of self-reflection can help police "avoid unnecessary violence and killings," he adds. 

"It's about internal awareness," agreed Carson. "If we're better at that, we don't make those mistakes."


Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's. She previously worked at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver.