Several years ago a very nice lady called me on my way out of the house, “We want you to teach mindfulness for veterans.”
I said, “You know, I’m not clinical anymore.”
She said, “I know, I read your website.”
I said, “You know, it’s spiritual now.”
She said, “I know, I read your website.”
I said, “Who did you say you were with?”
She said, “The VA.”
I said, “Veterans Affairs wants me to teach mindfulness meditation for traumatized veterans!?!”
She said, “Yes.”
This is a lot of miracles. I had been personally meditating since I was fourteen. Mindfulness had crossed my professional screen in psychology, and I had thought, “This is going to be important.” So for almost thirty years I had researched and studied, practiced and taught mindfulness for schools, churches, colleges, rehabs and clinics. People would say to me, “Why are you so into that? Nobody cares about that.” And finally the US federal government realizes that mindfulness can help heal trauma, even the trauma of combat and assault.
The morning of the first class I awoke from a dream. Someone had been saying to me, asking me, “What if trauma is not only a psychiatric disorder? What if trauma is a spiritual crisis?” So that evening I presented this question and that was the beginning of our journey together—Mindfulness for Veterans, or M4V.
I told the students that I was not acting as a psychotherapist treating them for post-traumatic stress disorder, but as a meditator inviting them into my own lifetime practice, the practice of mindfulness meditation. I told them that there would be just one rule for the class: mindfulness, awareness of the group and consciousness of one’s self; and that we would be discussing spiritual principles, but that we would avoid political or religious arguments through honor and respect. I
also informed them that I had no military experience, but I did understand trauma.
I had long felt that part of my job serving wounded warriors was to help them resolve the crippling sense of guilt some carry for the part they may have played in harming others. Fires, floods and quakes can cause trauma. But the trauma of murder, rape and torture, losses caused by other people, tends to be worse. And the people who believe themselves guilty of playing a part in causing suffering for other people can themselves suffer for decades.
It is important to realize that psychopaths are not bothered by guilt. Only a moral person is troubled by such trauma. Currently twenty-two military veterans commit suicide every day. I would tell the vets taking my class, “You were trained to do that. You were ordered to do that. If you hadn’t done it, then the other person would have done it to you and you wouldn’t be here today.” But the people I was working with weren’t having it. They would not let me let them off the hook.
So I threw out a challenge. I drew a circle on the white board and made a little black mark in the center of it. The circle symbolizes the unity and wholeness of our being, our humanity. The dot represents a wrongdoing, some action, either one that we have done, or one that has been done to us. Whatever it is that has broken our sense of unity and wholeness. The challenge was this: “Is it possible to come to peace with a wrong?” I was asking the group to confront the things they all wanted to avoid.
The response was very serious. We sat with this riddle for weeks. Gradually a consensus emerged: One can never get away from, or get rid of a wrong, once done. But there is always a way to do the right thing. No matter what has happened. Whatever harm one has perpetrated or experienced, the potential to help others remains limitless. We may not have the power to right the wrongs of our history, but there is no end to the service we can bring into our future. This is a way to peace from trauma. We can find purpose and meaning in whatever it was that we did or whatever it was that was done to us. And we can then find a way to bring our own moral wounding into service to others.
The people I teach in the M4V class all have one thing in common. Some of them were officers, some of them were enlisted, some of them were in combat, and some of them were on base. Some of them have hurt other people. Some of them were hurt by other people. And some of them helplessly witnessed horrors. But all of them have found something in this world worth giving their lives for. Perhaps a cause or a friend, but something greater than themselves. These are moral people. That is why they suffer. That is also how they awaken.
The quest for recovery from trauma, whether PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma (MST), or even Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and other physical injuries, is a spiritual journey. As youth we tend to enter the world with a naïve childish faith: good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. But some of us are forced to confront the reality of war, and the old faith is broken. Bad things can happen to me. And I can do bad things too.
The hero’s journey, the warrior’s journey, leads us to an awakening and a new faith:
“Whatever wrong things have been done, I can still do the right thing.”
If we can come to terms with the actions that have wounded us, then these most painful, shameful, traumatizing moments of our lives can actually become a deep source of strength, a motivating force for service. This way the very darkness of the black dot drives the healing of the circle.
Brock Travis, PhD, serves as a meditation instructor and spiritual counselor in the Ojai/Ventura, California, area. For more information, visit www.brocktravis.com.