THE BLOG
11/10/2012 09:16 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2013

Meditation and War Trauma

We live in a culture of distraction. We text while walking, our heads buried in our phones, eyes fixed on a tiny screen, music beating in our ears, we plod along and into others. What's meant to improve efficiency and connect us often does neither. I especially like the guy who's trimming his beard and checking for missed spots in the rearview mirror while navigating city traffic. Ladies likewise sometimes freshen up by applying makeup and brushing out the tangles while conversing and driving around town. Loved the bicyclist I saw, plugged into his phones, burger in one hand, texting with the other, leaning on the handlebars, dashing around town. Supercool. Not.

How often we create more problems for ourselves by how we react to our problems.Take war trauma. Returning stateside from the war zone and driving the Harley around sharp curves at 100 mph after knocking down a fifth of Jack, how's that working as a coping mechanism? Or screaming at your kids? Or pushing your wife around? Or holing up and not coming out for days and weeks? "Stop, look, and listen": It's easy to say and sometimes hard to do. But it's worth a try if trauma is haunting you and the ways you're adjusting are not helping but making things worse.

Meditation is mobilizing attentiveness on purpose. What we pay attention to grows, like watering a newly-planted tree. As we use this capacity for awareness it grows stronger, a kind of meditative muscle. We can practice purposeful awareness in a variety of ways. First, in tumultuous times meditation can help us restore emotional balance and keep us from doing things we might regret later. Second, we can also meditate regularly -- say, a few mornings a week to start -- whether we feel we need it or not. Third, everyday life can become a field of meditation by engaging with even the most mundane or irritating activities. By directing our awareness fully, forgetting ourselves as we water the garden, clean the bathtub or write a report, simple activities can become gateways to quiet pools of composed energy. Finally, meditation practice can help us break through entrenched misunderstandings; cultivate benevolent useful qualities such as compassion, equanimity, and wisdom; and more deeply grasp the meaning of our coming and going, living and dying lives.

The purpose of meditation is not to stop our thinking, but to create conditions for rest and peace and understanding by cultivating our attention. Say you notice you're becoming consumed by small details, or by preoccupations with the past, or worries about the future. Think "Three R's": Recognize what's happening; remember that it need not be business as usual, that you can practice with it. Then, using selective attention, let your awareness return to being here, in this body, in this moment, breathing and alive.

Now think about a moment of great stress that blindsides you when you least expect it. Your capacity to reflect has been hijacked. But, you can learn to stop, look and listen. You can recognize, remember and return. You are not pretending that everything is hunky-dory, but rather, you become aware of what's going on, even if you don't fully understand it. You recognize. And you deliberately take "the pause that refreshes," remembering that this is a teachable moment, that there's a way to practice, even with this. You lean into the discomfort and return to your breath, your life, right here and now.

Here's how an auditory neuroscientist describes the meditation we commonly know as listening:

"You never listen" is not just the complaint of a problematic relationship, it has also become an epidemic in a world that is exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning. The richness of life doesn't lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.

In this way we come to our senses, come down to earth, come to life. We're not passively resigning ourselves or becoming inactive vegetables. We're not rolling over nor going belly up. We accrue energy with each attentive moment, a kind of meditative "equity" to use to enjoy life more and also to face and transform the trauma that plagues us.

I think fishing is the ordinary person's meditation. No dojo needed and no explanations either. You're there by yourself, maybe with a buddy, maybe sipping a beer or two, but there's a purpose to it all, catching fish. Well, maybe. It also allows us to "zone out" or, better yet, to "zone in," on the activity at hand. For some it's cleaning the house, for others, digging in the ground. Fully engaged, our burdens lift.

The old baseball legend Satchel Paige said, "Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits."

For more by Joseph Bobrow, click here.

For more on meditation, click here.

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