Remembering Donovan Thesenga

12/16/1935 — 2/28/2023

First Meeting

In the mid-1980’s I was recovering emotionally after a separation and divorce that had dominated my psychic space for a number of years. I was in my mid-30s and was opening myself to a sense of new possibilities. I saw an ad in the DC area New Age publication Pathways for a one-day event at a retreat center in Madison, VA. I made some inquiries and called some friends and soon found myself driving down to Madison with three other people in my old Volkswagen Beetle.

The event was billed as a “Day of Spiritual Practice” and featured meditation training as well as a sweat lodge ceremony.  I had experienced my first sweat lodge a year before and was mostly drawn to try it again. I had heard of the Sevenoaks Pathwork Center through some New Age friends and was also eager to see what it was all about.

My companions and I enjoyed the two hour drive down into rural Virginia via Rt. 29 on a beautiful Saturday morning in early summer. The Blue Ridge mountains were on the horizon as we turned off onto the long, forested driveway into the Sevenoaks parking lot.  I was immediately taken by the simplicity and physical beauty of the place. About twenty of us, mostly men and women in their 30’s and 40’s, gathered under the eponymous seven oak trees to begin our experience together. The towering oaks are hundreds of years old and created a cooling shade and a feeling of protection and peace, with a fabulous view of the Blue Ridge in the distance.

The leader for the event was Donovan Thesenga, a solidly handsome man in his early 50’s, who had founded the Center with his wife Susan a decade earlier. Donovan was very welcoming and congenial in his leadership as he oriented us to Sevenoaks and what was in store for us that day. We sat in a circle under the oaks as he described a simple program of sitting meditation that we would do indoors, followed by an afternoon sweat lodge on the other side of the 130-acre property.

Donovan proved to be an excellent meditation teacher, keeping his instructions simple, clear and direct. He seemed to remove some of the mystery of what many of us then regarded as an esoteric practice. I was happy to release my own onerous expectations and enjoy the simple pleasure of sitting and breathing in silence with others.

After a short break for lunch, we followed Donovan out from the Center Building through the gravel parking lot and down a winding path through a loblolly pine forest. He shared that the property had been a cattle farm when he and Susan purchased it in the early 1970’s, and that he and others had planted the pines soon thereafter. There was a substantial pond at the base of the hill and we could see a bonfire and sweat lodge on the opposite side.

I had experienced a sweat lodge the previous year when I had attended a weekend Medicine Wheel Gathering organized by the well-known Native American leader Sun Bear.  I’d had a very deep experience then and was looking forward to revisiting this ancient native purification ritual. Donovan proved to be a solid yet humble leader, offering his appreciation for the native roots of the ritual, and encouraging us to enter the ceremony with openness and respect.

I remember driving back home to Takoma Park, MD that evening feeling relaxed and refreshed.  We had a nice camaraderie in the car and all of us felt we had discovered an important new Center for continuing our spiritual development. Donovan had modeled a kind of stable, grounded spiritual presence for us that we all found attractive and inviting.

Deepening the Connection

My next encounter with Donovan occurred the following summer when I signed up for “A Day of Spiritual Practice” again, this time attending with a woman I had met that spring.  I’d been dating via personal ads for a couple of years at that point and was starting to despair of the process. I’d had a few months-long relationships by then, but what started with a lot of promise ended with a lot of heartache, time and again.

With Andrea, things felt somehow different. Although we had met via my personal ad in the DC City Paper, we turned out to be neighbors in Takoma Park and we both attended the Silver Spring Unitarian Church. A close friend in the church had even suggested Andrea to me as a compatible companion.

I wanted to share with Andrea the uplifting experience I’d had at Sevenoaks the previous summer. Although initially suspicious of “airy-fairy” New Age spirituality, she agreed to join me. We drove down to Sevenoaks on another beautiful summer Saturday and had a marvelous day together. The format was the same as what I’d experienced the year before, but having Andrea with me added to the enjoyment. She especially appreciated the sweat lodge. I remember the ecstatic feeling of cooling down in the pond with her afterwards.  She had a strong connection with Donovan as well after sharing with him her travails with breast cancer and being compassionately received.

Later that year, Andrea was diagnosed with an ovarian abnormality and was facing another surgery in the fall. We were both disturbed by this news and decided to sign up for a weekend workshop that Donovan and Susan were co-leading called “The Man-Woman Relationship.” This seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to address some of the interpersonal issues that were arising in our romantic relationship partly owing to her health challenges.

That workshop was a life-changer for both of us. We had both previously experienced therapy and Andrea was still having classical psychotherapy sessions weekly.  I had experienced individual and group therapy in my early 20’s and credited that with helping me to emerge from a dark depression that afflicted me after graduating college.  Donovan and Susan were longtime practitioners of a form of spiritually oriented therapy called the Pathwork. The weekend workshop took us on a deep dive into our individual issues that we both needed in order to navigate the medical challenges ahead.

The group process work that weekend was much deeper than I had experienced previously. With Donovan, I felt safe to explore some of my deep-seated father issues.  Rather than feel guilty for harboring negative feelings for my father’s drinking problem, Donovan encouraged me to let those feelings fully emerge. I was able to feel and express some rageful anger in a safe container, which left me feeling much more energized and less constrained.

The Pathwork had merged with a form of body-centered therapy called “Core Energetics” which placed a premium on experiencing deep emotions within the body. That work helped Andrea to move through some deeply held feelings of her own. We both felt liberated by this work, even though we both knew there was a lot more to do. We both received a lot of positive attention and support from both Susan and Donovan in our work that weekend. We both knew that this was a connection we wanted to continue.

Continuing Pathwork and Getting Married

Andrea’s ovarian issue turned out to be a pre-cancerous cyst, but required a major follow up surgery to determine if it had spread into her abdomen.  Her parents came down to Washington from western PA to be there for the surgery and to help care for her at home afterwards. It was an opportunity for me to bond more deeply with Andrew and Lucille, my soon-to-be in-laws.

Andrea had shared her breast cancer history with me when we were walking home from our first date at a Takoma Park café in 1986. She was healthy and vivacious at that time and I didn’t think about it much.  But the major abdominal “staging” surgery she underwent the following year was a deeper awakening for me to what she was facing. I’d had a minor altercation with her rambunctious Italian American father in the hospital that left me a bit shaken as well, and I was beginning to wonder if I was up to continuing our relationship. I came out of some deep soul searching with a firm resolution to not only continue with our relationship but to propose marriage. Andrea was open to the idea but wanted to fully recover from her surgery before fully embracing it.

My impetus to propose marriage arose in me spontaneously one morning  when I was reading a book by the great American Christian mystic, Thomas Merton. The book was a collection of essays called “Love and Living” and its emphasis on love as a choice is what inched me towards my decision. I felt a lot of relief and happy affirmation after making the decision and sharing it with Andrea.

Because we wanted to continue pursuing the deep work we had done together at Sevenoaks, Andrea and I decided to begin participating in a weekly Pathwork group that was meeting in our area. We met some wonderful people there, including the group’s co-leader, Alan Hill, who has continued as a friend and spiritual teacher to us to this day. Alan had lived at Sevenaoks for the past few years and was moving to Takoma Park soon with his new wife, Lani, another member of the Sevenoaks Pathwork community.

Just before Andrea and I married on May 7, 1988, I attended a weekend men’s workshop at Sevenoaks that Donovan and Alan were leading. At that time, I was having some last-minute jitters about the upcoming marriage. My first marriage in 1977 had begun with a lot of promise but fell apart after about five years after it became clear we were heading in different directions. I spoke some of my reservations at the workshop. Afterwards, Donovan approached me to say that though he could understand my hesitancy, he wanted to strongly encourage me to move forward with Andrea. He said that he had witnessed the two of us together and felt that we were a strong, loving match for one another. I was very grateful for his words of guidance and support and was able to let go of any lingering doubts. I remain grateful to Donovan for his reassurance to this day.

The Pathwork Transformation Program (TP)

Andrea and I had a memorably happy wedding in May of 1988, attended by about 100 friends and family at the pastoral setting of River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, MD. Since Andrea owned her home and I was renting, I moved in with her for the first seven years of our married life. We continued to attend our weekly Pathwork group and that summer I decided to start the 5-year Pathwork Transformation Program at Sevenoaks. This involved spending one weekend a month at the Sevenoaks Center from September through May. Andrea was interested in the program, too, but decided it best for her to wait til the following year, when she would begin with her own group.

I credit the Transformation Program with opening my life to experiences of self and others that I could never have imagined. I started in a group of 17 people and it was remarkable how quickly we got to know one another. The weekend format included study of the Pathwork lectures, intensive group therapy processes, meditation training, and frequent experiences outdoors in the marvelous foothills of the Blue Ridge.

Donovan and Susan had envisioned the program as a way for people to make a steady dive into their deepest motivations and desires. When I started, there were other groups meeting simultaneously at the Center, and all participants would share in communal meals and other activities, including a co-created Sunday worship service. Donovan and Susan both taught groups in the program but I would have to wait for later years before having each as my group leader.

Early on, I had read and really studied one of the Pathwork lectures called “Compulsion to Recreate and Overcome Childhood Hurts”. That lecture felt like it really addressed some of the chronic core issues that had plagued my life. I was humbled by what the lecture was telling me about my own unresolved issues from childhood. But it gave me the courage to face those issues frontally rather than avoid or escape them. In those early years of our marriage, the Pathwork offered me some important guidance that helped me to overcome some serious emotional limitations.

Another Turning Point with Donovan

Donovan was the principal teacher for my fifth and last year of the Transformation Program in 1993. My group  then consisted of nine of its original members and we had become a very close, intimate group. It was a gift to have Donovan’s seasoned leadership throughout that year. He was a remarkable group leader in all areas – psychodynamic individual and group work, meditation, and mystical spiritual experience. We got to know him better for the uniquely open-hearted and compassionate person that he had become.

As my own 5-year program ended, I felt called to take training to become a teacher within the Pathwork school at Sevenoaks. This involved learning the fundamentals of emotional processing with groups and individuals. One of my major self-doubts at the time was recognizing that my congenital crossed-eye sometimes made it challenging to sustain normal eye contact with people. I shared my reservation with Donovan but he didn’t seem to make much of it. Instead, he questioned me more deeply about the fears and self-doubt I was experiencing. It was humbling to acknowledge the level of self-doubt I was carrying, but it also gave me an opportunity to face my fears head on. Once again, Donovan had challenged me to come forward with a deeper level of courage and self-acceptance. I entered into the multi-year program of intensive training that included a long period of apprenticeship before becoming a full-fledged Pathwork Helper five years later.

Donovan and I maintained a close relationship throughout the 25 years of my active Helpership. I assisted him and Susan with many workshops at Sevenoaks. We also remained spiritual friends throughout our time together in the Santo Daime, and I learned and grew greatly from his practice and teaching of the awakening process in his last years.

Donovan’s Passing

Andrea and I have just returned from a very moving burial ceremony for Donovan at Sevenoaks. He had passed peacefully, at home, a few days earlier after a period of declining health. Our friend Alan and his wife, Lani, also a Helper, had joined with Susan and others to tend to Donovan in his final days. Alan is a skilled woodworker and had built a simple yet elegant pine casket. He and others had also dug the grave about 100 yards from the beautiful home which Donovan had built and shared with Susan and their family for the last 45 years.

Lani led our assembled group of about 50 family members and friends to the Sevenoaks Medicine Wheel for a simple ceremony on an unseasonably mild and sunny afternoon. We then walked in silence to the gravesite, accompanied by a slow, steady heartbeat cadence from a solitary drum. We stood in reverent silence around the grave while a song was sung and silent prayers made. We each placed a yellow rose on Donovan’s body before Alan nailed the casket shut and lowered it into the grave, assisted by Donovan’s grandson, Christian. We each were invited to help cover the casket by shoveling dirt from the adjacent pile. It was a simple but memorable experience, with few words but much feeling.

We all recognized that a great soul was making his transition.

John Bayerl, 2/23/2023

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