11/05/2012 05:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mindfulness and War Trauma

Part One

On the first evening of a Coming Home retreat, a former Marine officer told the group that someone had stolen his TV. I was worried for a moment but then everyone burst into laughter and I caught on. No TV in the rooms? Yikes!

We're taught that "silence is golden," but most of us don't feel that way. Enforced silence is painful: "Don't speak unless spoken to," or being "seen but not heard" is stultifying. But despite the negative associations to silence that many of us carry, veterans, family members and providers tell us what a release it is to arrive at a retreat, feel the beauty of the surroundings, and experience their mind and body begin to ratchet down. They can smell the tree sap, hear the crickets, and feel their tension ebb. Coming home is coming to rest, and coming back to life. We unwind, take a load off and unplug from the cascading stream of stress hormones.

A psychotherapist friend came home from seeing patients one day and said to his wife, "You know dear, I really love understanding." She responded, "Me too, but sometimes I like 'standing' even more." When waves of strong emotion rush through us, it's good to be able to withstand them rather than just react in our usual ways. It's tough to understand and change what we "can't stand" (in both senses, bearing, even welcoming it, and observing without undue aversion).

We're all given the gift of awareness. Mindfulness is cultivating this potential of ours. Practicing engaged attentiveness. It develops our ability and our willingness to experience directly what's going on within and around us: the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. It's a key component of a supple heart and mind. Mindfulness practice helps us develop acceptance, not resignation -- a wide welcoming awareness, short on judgment and long on compassion. Although it takes practice, it is accessible right now to all of us. It can alleviate our suffering by changing how we relate to it.

When consumed with anguish many of us automatically react by closing off or ramping up, our foot stuck either on the brake or on the accelerator. Instead of just reacting, practicing mindfulness allows us come to a full, purposeful stop. I was once living in a small refugee community that welcomed displaced and traumatized families. The teacher made a calligraphy for the meditation hall that said "Breathe. You are alive." Stopping. Breathing. Returning to life. The path to rest and refreshment begins simply. When haunted by war-related or other trauma, the buoyancy of a community can support us.

It's remarkable to be with veterans as they learn to safely let down their guard, to slow down long enough to hear themselves think, to smell the earth, listen to the birds, enjoy their children's laughter, and see loved ones as if for the first time. Service members learn to deploy into war zones and to deploy lethal force. Family members on the homefront get used to "white-knuckling it," just hanging on and hanging in. But deploying attention and learning to put it at the service of reconnecting and healing is something else again. Quiet can't be forced but it can be cultivated. We can experience an attentive stillness that energizes us rather than a vegetative quiet that shuts the mind down. When it arrives naturally, when our stuck speeding up or shutting down recedes, it is a relief and a pleasure. It feels good to just be.


For more by Joseph Bobrow, click here.

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